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The Maricopa girls soccer team celebrates its victory over Marana in the 5A state championship play-in game Feb. 13 in Marana.

MARICOPA — High school sports in the time of COVID-19 has been a challenge for all coaches. At Maricopa, Cortney Kellenaers has had double the experience as he continues to be in charge of both boys and girls soccer.

That means navigating a week like the past one where the players’ season was ripped right out from under them, only to be reinstated four days later but with the requirement from the Arizona Interscholastic Association that all players wear masks. And that’s only what has been added to the challenges that were already present.

This will be the Rams’ debut in 6A, though how much tougher the competition will be than 5A remains to be seen. Maricopa was in a very tough 5A region last year, so Kellenaers isn’t sure how much tougher it can get, especially for the girls. He said on the boys side, it appears there is a larger step in quality of opponents compared to the 2019-20 campaign.

Adding to the stress of beginning the season is implementing mandatory mask-wearing by the players on the field. The players have had a hard time maintaining their usual pace and stamina during the week of practices following the AIA’s decision, and Kellenaers is worried about what effect it might have on them.

“It’s frustrating because it’s harder to breathe,” Kellenaers said. “The masks are cutting off oxygen, and over the course of an 80-minute soccer game, that’s going to cause some issues. It’s going to take a lot of getting used to, and one week isn’t enough time to get the body used to it.”

Because of this, conditioning becomes a premium, which is an advantage for the girls team, which is made up almost entirely of club players who have been able to maintain some on-field training while others have been locked down at home. The boys team has fewer club players and thus will need more work on conditioning.

The program is also facing the lowest turnout in Kellenaers’ time at Maricopa. He said 27 girls came out to play this year, and 38 boys. It’s enough to maintain junior varsity teams, just barely when it comes to the girls. But he wanted to make sure everybody who turned out had a chance to play, especially this year.

Despite all that, Kellenaers believes the girls’ program has maintained the momentum it created last season when it made a run in the playoffs. There are only three seniors on the team, led by captain Madison Tyler, so there still might be a couple years before the team’s potential is realized. But he still expects great things out of the team this year, including from dynamic goal scorer Mckinley Hacker.

There is also yet another infusion of young talent as the local club scene continues to pay off, with freshman Emma-Leigh Hunt expected to play a big role this year.

“(Tyler) is leading the charge for us. We’re going to try putting her in a couple different positions to best take advantage of what she brings,” Kellenaers said. “Mckinley can really just score. We just have to get her the ball, and that’s where we struggled in the tougher games.”

The boys’ team remains a more lengthy work in progress, trying to build off a 3-12 season while potentially facing a tougher schedule. The team has so far struggled in scrimmages against opponents like Phoenix Mountain Pointe, which last year was close to the bottom in 6A rankings, so it’s going to be a tall mountain to climb.

“There just aren’t going to be many bad teams we’ll be playing,” Kellenaers said. “There aren’t too many local club players on that side, but we’re hoping to get more coming up in the future. But for now, it’s all about who shows up for us at tryouts.”

Both teams will start their season at Mountain Pointe on Tuesday, with the girls playing at 4 p.m. and the boys at 6 p.m.

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