Santa Cruz vs. Sequoia Pathway 10/30/20

Sequoia Pathway quarterback Alex Montanto is chased out of bound by Santa Cruz Valley defenders by Diego Castillo-Lopez, left and Tanzor Gil during an Oct. 30 game.

MARICOPA — Some great football stories have abruptly concluded in true 2020 fashion.

Sequoia Pathway football coach Donnie Margerum announced over social media Thursday night that his team will not be playing its first ever Arizona Interscholastic Association playoff game due to issues with COVID-19. The Pumas were supposed to travel to Morenci on Friday night for the play-in round, but instead had to forfeit.

"I’m saddened to say we have to forfeit our play in game due to covid tomorrow!!" Margerum tweeted. "Worse news ever. Even harder seeing my boys hurt like this!"

Morenci will now automatically advance to the state quarterfinal, where it will meet an opponent to be decided Saturday following the conclusion of the other playoff games.

This marks the end of the Pumas' inaugural season in the AIA, after making the move up from the charter-filled Canyon Athletic Association. They made a big first impression, winning their first three games of the season. They finished with a 4-2 record, good enough to be ranked 12th in the 3A conference.

They weren't the only team to have its season come to an end this way, though.

Apache Junction (3-2), led by first-year coach Bruce Binkley, qualified as the No. 8 seed in the play-in round of the 4A playoffs and was set to host No. 9 Peoria (4-3) on Friday.

That game has been forfeited by Apache Junction. The school district decided the rise in COVID-19 cases in Pinal County made playing the game too much of a safety risk.

A press release from the Apache Junction Unified School District cited new COVID-19 metrics in Pinal County trending in the wrong direction as the reason for pulling out of the game.

The number of positive cases per 100,000 people jumped from 119 to 168 in the last week. In Maricopa County, the number rose dramatically from 133 to 212.

“We do not feel it is safe to put the student athletes and coaches out together to play with such rapidly increasing numbers,” said Heather Wallace, executive director of educational services for the school district.

Binkley will not get the chance to take his team onto the field and play for a spot in the eight-team state playoff bracket. However, he agreed with the district’s decision.

“I think the safety of the kids comes first,” he said in a statement, adding 90% of the parents he talked to Thursday also agreed it was the right call.

Peoria will automatically advance to the state playoffs with a forfeit victory.

“Peoria is considered the winner of that game,” AIA spokesman Seth Polansky told PinalCentral in a phone interview. “They would qualify for the state tournament.”

Another 4A team is also unable to compete in the state playoffs. Glendale, which won the 4A Skyline region and finished No. 9 in the 4A power rankings, has been in quarantine and won’t come out of it until 10 p.m. Friday.

At that point, Polansky said, with no practice or preparation for two weeks, the game can’t be played right away due to safety reasons. Some parents argued the game should be played at 10:01 p.m., one minute after the quarantine expires.

It’s an unfortunate scenario for both teams.

It would be understandable for Apache Junction’s players to be devastated by the news after everything they’ve been through in the offseason and earning the right to host a play-in round game.

Binkley said the players took the news better than one would expect. He also expressed confidence about the direction of the program.

“I thought we had a great year and started to build on something,” he said. “People ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.

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