As the coronavirus continues to ravage the country, it’s important to be grateful for the good things. High school football has been a respite for many in Arizona, a reason to be thankful.
In the grand scheme of things, football and sports pale in comparison to a daunting public health crisis like none of us have ever seen. But oftentimes it’s the “little things” — little being a relative term — that bring us joy and help us through tough times.
Initially, I was skeptical if a fall high school sports season could be done safely, and for good reason. Anyone who took the pandemic seriously knew it would be a monumental challenge to make it work.
Certain sports were easier than others to accommodate, notably golf and cross country. But the Arizona Interscholastic Association knew football was the biggest concern because of physical contact and because football is king.
That’s true at the high school, college and professional level.
The AIA did a terrific job, in partnership with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, to ascertain the safest way to play a season. It modified many rules and put forth a set of recommended guidelines of how to play a football season responsibly during a pandemic.
There have been significant bumps on the road along the way — gaping potholes, even — but it has been a success overall.
Some school districts have failed miserably at putting forth policies to make sure there isn’t overcrowding at games; mask usage and social distancing was not always adhered to, and those districts are to blame. The AIA was also silent, and by extension, complicit in allowing this to happen at multiple schools across the state.
However, plenty of school districts did the right thing to ensure health and safety was a priority.
Casa Grande coach Jake Barro, who led his team to the No. 1 seed in the 4A playoffs, was in a thankful mood for the Casa Grande Union High School District when he replied to one of my tweets Friday.
“We have a great site [administration] and superintendent [Steve Bebee] that has went above and beyond to keep our players and staff safe! #thankful,” he wrote.
Many games were postponed or canceled during the season. That made scheduling, power points and a host of other issues chaotic. Teams went into a mandatory two-week quarantine when necessary.
I feel bad for teams that ultimately had to forfeit play-in round or state playoff games due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Several teams have been struck by this, including Pinal County teams Apache Junction and Sequoia Pathway.
It’s tough for those players and coaches who worked so hard, and put forth extra effort to follow proper COVID guidelines every day, to be denied the chance of playing in the postseason.
But on the bright side, those teams still got to play a season, even if it ended abruptly in disappointment.
There’s plenty of reasons for Apache Junction and Sequoia Pathway to feel good, despite having to forfeit their play-in round games.
Apache Junction lost several key seniors from the previous season and had a first-year head coach in Bruce Binkley. The Prospectors overcame those obstacles to post a 3-2 record and qualify for the 4A play-in round as the No. 8 seed, which meant they would have hosted that game against No. 9 Peoria.
Sequoia Pathway was in its first season in the AIA after moving up from the Canyon Athletic Association. That’s no small challenge, and many teams struggle with the transition. The Pumas went 4-2 and qualified for the 2A play-in round as the No. 12 seed.
Binkley and Sequoia Pathway coach Donnie Margerum deserve much credit for those successes.
Even teams that got the opportunity to compete in the playoffs but had difficult losses, can be thankful. Superior, a perennial 1A contender, was beaten by Williams for the second straight year. Its season ended last week in the 1A semifinals, one year after it lost to Williams in the 1A title game.
But Superior’s versatile and dynamic star Adam Navarrette, a senior, was immediately thankful after the game, even as he fought back tears. He spoke for many who put on a football uniform this season in his response to my first postgame question — which wasn’t even about playing during the pandemic.
“Well, first off, I’m grateful to have a season with all the unfortunate events with COVID,” he said. “Grateful for the AIA letting us play.”