Play ball: AIA Executive Board reverses decision, high school winter sports season back on – The Arizona Republic

Four days after voting to cancel the winter high school sports season, the Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board reversed itself Tuesday and restored the seasons for boys and girls basketball, soccer and wrestling.
The board voted 5-4 to start winter sports competition on Jan. 18 as previously intended, but this time with masks mandatory for participants. Last Friday, the board voted to cancel the season by the same vote count.
Board member Jim Love changed his vote to reverse the decision
The AIA decision also includes a provision that no general fans will be allowed, but that can be reconsidered at some point, AIA Executive Director David Hines said. However, the board did agree to allow two parents or guardians per athlete into contests. Media will have to receive permission from the school athletic director to be able to cover an event at that school.
Last week, the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee recommended canceling winter sports, based on the surging coronavirus infection numbers that made Arizona the top hotspot in the country. But there was significant backlash from parents, coaches and athletes since the board’s vote.
In addition to mandatory masks, student athletes will have to submit a COVID monitoring form showing they met all of the requirements for participation. Hines also said any school that violates any mandatory protocols, including updates to those rules, will lose access to AIA officials.
Hines also said that teams that don’t want to adhere to the mandates and play in a club league instead will lose their AIA membership.
“Masks will be required to play,” Hines said. “No exceptions. If you cannot, we apologize. There will be masks worn.”
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, conducted via Zoom, Hines said it was distrubing to see board members being “harassed and threatened” over Friday’s vote to not allow for winter sports.  Outside the AIA building, before Tuesday’s meeting, student-athletes gathered with signs, chanting, “AIA, let us play, AIA, let us play!”
Board members Ricky Greer, William Duarte, Zack Munoz and Tim Carter remained firm on their no vote from Friday, citing medical data and the SMAC’s recommendation to not start winter sports until the coronavirus metrics got back to where they were in early October, when the SMAC gave the OK to start fall contact sports.
Chandler Unified School District Athletic Director Marcus Williams made the original motion Friday to move forward with winter sports with masks required for all participants, but it intially was rejected. He supported that move agin Tuesday, along with members Camille Casteel, Jim Dean, Jeannine Brandel, joined this time by Love.
“I want to give the schools the choice to play or not,” Love said, in explaining his reversal.
Competing with masks could stir controversy, but it was the key to restoring the sports season.
Phoenix St. Mary’s boys basketball coach Damin Lopez referenced information from  Heathsite.com, on wearing masks during high aerobic activity, such as basketball,  noting the risks to the lungs and heart.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re playing, but in masks for people on court?” Lopez said. “These kids will pass out doing that.”
Longtime Phoenix Moon Valley head wrestling coach Bryan Smith, who is 70, said he stepped down from coaching over the possibility of having a season. He did the same in the fall during the football season as an assistant coach. Smith said that three of his assistant wrestling coaches followed him, but one is remaining to lead the program.
Smith, who said the school wrestling program has had COVID-19 cases, said he doesn’t feel it makes sense during the worst time in the virus to lead a team.
He also believes, “You can’t wrestle in a mask.”
“This is ridiculous. We’re in a point now if sports medicine says it’s not healthy, we should abide by that this year,” he said.
Most tribal community schools that never got fall sports going canceled the winter season well before the AIA board’s votes.
“It is going to be a very high risk on the part of the AIA to proceed with the winter sports season,” said Chinle boys basketball coach Raul Mendoza, whose school canceled both fall and winter sports due to the high number of infections in the Navajo Nation and whose daughter died from COVID-19 complications.
“I don’t know if everyone is aware of the tremendous risk involved with what the consequences of the COVID 19, as of now we have their  highest of number cases in the country. I hope we don’t live to regret this decision.”
High school coaches in the three winter sports were already preparing to have a season even if the AIA stuck with its original decision. Club teams and some prep academies that play national competition don’t fall under AIA jursdiction.
It took only a day after the Friday vote, for Phoenix Sunnyslope’s basketball team to lose 6-foot-10 center Carson Basham to a national prep academy, AZ Compass Prep in Chandler, which already has played nearly 20 games with fans allowed and no masks worn by players in competition.
Hines said that if any athletes left their high school team after Friday’s vote and joined a club team they would be able to return to their high schools teams now without any penalties.
PHHoenix Prep girls basketball coach Milee Karre said that after Friday’s vote to cancel winter sports, he had eight to 10 calls from AIA student-athletes asking if they could join his team.
“We want the kids to play with the high schools because they chose to stay with them,” Karre said. “We want them to play where they want to play, not where they’re forced to play.”
Mesa boys soccer coach T.J. Hagen said he listened to Tuesday’s board meeting and understands how difficult the decision was.
“I even found myself flipping back and forth with the decision to play or not to play while they were discussing the motion,” Hagen said. “Our program is more than happy to have the results reversed and to be given the opportunity to play this season.  Any safety mitigations that are expected, which allow us to play, is better than not having a season altogether.
Peoria boys basketball coach Patrick Battillo, whose team reached the 4A final last year, said he is grateful that the AIA met again and came up with a way to provide for winter sports.
“We as coaches have an obligation to continue to keep safety at the forefront of each interaction with our student-athletes,” Battillo said, in an email. “We will remain diligent in following all AIA protocols, as well as our district and school safety measures.
“While I respect and understand the reason for this decision, I do have concerns with the impact this could have on the breathing, as well as the risk of injury should another student-athletes hand/finger, etc. get caught in a mask while competing.”
More than a few coaches don’t agree with the AIA decision to proceed with the winter season.
“With 636,100 confirmed cases and 10,482 deaths in Arizona, and not to mention, leading the country in COVID19 cases, it’s amazing how people claim to work for the benefit of kids but put them in harm’s way,” former Camelback boys basketball coach Marlon Rhymes said. “I’m disappointed that leadership will stoop to the level of being pressured, when they know that sports are not the priority but saving and keeping healthy lives of our student athletes is the priority.”
Arizona Basketball Coaches Association immediately began working on alternative plans to offer its own winter season to schools before the AIA overturned its decision. 
But there are parents who felt relief from the AIA’s decision Tuesday, including the mother of Chander Hamilton girls basketball senior guard Amyah Reaves. 
She even started her own petition which garnered about 350 signatures. Another petition had nearly 44,000 urgin the AIA to reconsider.
“Personally, it was hard to see the tears in my daughters face on Friday after the initial vote,” Leslie said. “I knew I wasn’t the only parent heartbroken at that point and is why I started the petition.  Yes, felt AIA should have taken into consideration the opinions of the coaches on the front lines, the student athletes, as well as the parents. I’m glad to see coaches and AD were working together to put something in place. Mental health is just as important and education for our children.”
Some supporters of a season cited benefits beyond athletic competition as a reason to move forward.
“Our student-athletes are very pleased that winter sports will continue,” Phoenix Xavier Prep Athletic Director Sister Lynn Winsor said in an email. “They love their teams, the friends they make, the skills they learn and eagerly await the start of competition next week. Our parents are also thrilled.”
She said ”winter sports will be successful” as long as schools are diligent in adhering to the protocols outlined by the AIA.
“I thank the AIA board for reconsidering and changing their vote. I am overjoyed for all seniors,” added Gilbert Christian girls soccer head coach Jay Feely. “The memories and life lessons the seniors will take from this season will stay with them the rest of their lives.”
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