Scottsdale high school athletes face new reality with COVID-19 closures


Update: Gov. Doug Ducey announced March 30 that all public and charter schools will close through the end of the school year. Shortly thereafter, the AIA announced the cancellation of its spring sports season, including championships. Furthermore, the NCAA's Division I Council voted to allow schools to offer another year of eligibility to spring athletes and to allow schools to carry more scholarship athletes to account for incoming freshmen during a March 30 vote.

On a typical spring day, a group of teenage boys make their way onto the Desert Mountain High School baseball diamond for practice or a game, sharing in the camaraderie of the sport many have played since their youth.

But the 2020 season is anything but typical.

A typical spring day this year sees an empty baseball field. The crack of the baseball bat silenced and the thud of baseballs hitting a mitt is non existent. Replacing roaring fans are a sea of empty bleachers, echoing silence across not only Desert Mountain, but across the nation.

The culprit for this juxtaposition? COVID-19.

COVID-19 has decimated every day life through closures, cancellations and quarantines aimed at preventing the virus’s spread. These actions have stretched into the sporting world, forcing the suspension of all Arizona high school spring sports, leaving many at DMHS in a holding pattern.

“Everybody doesn’t know what to feel,” first-year Desert Mountain baseball coach Ryan Dyer said.

“I know the guys have been biting at the bit to find a field or find a practice facility or get together and we’ve been told were not able to do that. So that’s a big challenge for everybody, both mentally and physically, to come to grips with it.”

A novel coronavirus causes COVID-19, which the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has said is spreading quickly without a vaccine available. To combat its spread, the CDC has recommended Americans following social distancing guidelines and proper hygiene.

Desert Mountain isn’t the only one concerned. Professional and collegiate sports began closing games to fans until Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11, prompting the NBA to suspend a game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder minutes before tipoff, eventually suspending its season.

The rest of the sports world followed with many other leagues suspending their seasons or canceling large events such as the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. In Arizona, reactions were initially not as drastic.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association met in a March 16 meeting, ultimately deciding not to postpone or cancel spring championships. It did decide to suspend official competitions until at least March 28, deferring to individual schools on practices or use of facility.

Scottsdale Unified School District announced March 13 a two-week closure through March 27 following its spring break. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced the same two-week closure on March 15, adding a two-week extension to April 10 with a March 20 announcement. The AIA announced later that day the indefinite suspension of spring sports.

Many SUSD spring athletes left for spring break (March 9-13) with the mindset of returning a few days later for practices as the season was already underway. This left student-athletes across the district to face uncertain futures.

“They feel like there was no closing,” Arcadia beach volleyball coach Jackie Bunker said. “Yes, technically, the AIA hasn’t foregone the entire spring season but with everything going on, it’s very unlikely to be able to pick back up. I think that’s probably a little bit harder than just what’s going on. Instead, there was no closing point. There was no ending, it was just done.”

But it’s not just this year of competition the novel coronavirus is affecting. Futures are also seeing the impact as student-athletes won’t have a chance to impress scouts to secure scholarships and there are no set plans in place for the future.

Furthermore, the effects may stretch further than just the playing field.

Mentally healthy

As the coronavirus situation continued to unfold, Desert Mountain senior baseball player Connor Elwell said he and other players went on an emotional roller coaster as hope of playing continued to slip away. With the pushback to April 10, Elwell says the realization of not returning is getting stronger.

“I think a lot of seniors are struggling,” he said. “The underclassmen are doing a good job of staying supportive of all of us across the program, definitely there were a lot of negative thoughts at first but we’re starting to come around as a program.”

Elwell’s thought process is not unique as many athletes across the district and state feel similarly. This is one of the reasons Ms. Bunker said she is more concerned about her athlete’s mental wellbeing rather than physical.

She said her athletes are facing many challenges from a shift in traditional learning to the potential end of their sport to not having major high school moments in life.

To help the student-athletes, Ms. Bunker has tried to reach out to each player individually and check in on them that way rather than through a generic group message.

“A lot of the kids, you get a read on what’s going on by seeing them and talking to them, and we don’t really have that ability right now so I just think we have to be overly available for them so that if somebody is struggling, they’ll be able to say something easily,” she said.

So far, Ms. Bunker says she feels like her efforts are reaching her beach volleyball players because of the relationships she’s built with them. Having relationships, Ms. Bunker said, has made all the difference, especially when it comes to her upperclassmen.

“Those relationships create a basis for them being vulnerable, being able to learn and so if you have a relationship with them, they’ve probably been vulnerable with you at some point before something like this is going on and so in a crisis, they’re probably more willing to open up if something is going on,” she said.

“If you didn’t have that relationship, they’re not going to all of a sudden open up just because some stressful time is happening. That doesn’t normally happen with teenagers.”

But relationships with coaches hasn’t been the only benefit. Elwell says he’s drawn strength from his fellow baseball players during this time.

“You get a really good bond with the team and especially at a time like this, it’s a good place to fall back on,” he said.

A lost season

If spring sports were to resume April 10, there would be a few weeks to prepare for originally scheduled tournaments. As of March 26, the AIA has only said it won’t cancel its spring championships, but “discussion for the administration of any postseason tournaments will not take place until after schools are back in session.”

Furthermore, the AIA says it will continue monitoring Mr. Ducey’s updates, making decisions accordingly.

While the schools are closed and games suspended, the coaches are still trying to find ways for their players to prepare for a potential restart of the season.

Ms. Bunker says she has an online conditioning program where she’ll give assignments but that’s about it since practicing volleyball alone can be difficult. Elwell said a group of players will sometimes meet up at a park to practice hitting and catching.

At Desert Mountain, Mr. Dyer still has hope, though that hope continues to be fleeting as closures endure. In particular, Mr. Dyer sees the seniors suffering the brunt of the impact.

“For a few of them, this was their opportunity to be seen for the last time by colleges they’ve been hoping to have an opportunity to play at, at the next level and those opportunities have been taken from them,” he said.

“Kids that were fully on their way to playing at a higher level and probably have some of that education paid for, it’s slowly being taken away from them through this process.”

On the flip side, the NCAA has awarded an extra year of eligibility to spring athletes in Division II and III with plans to vote on the same measure in Division I on March 30.

“Even as an incoming freshmen next year playing, there still are going to be issues because there’s going to be more guys on the roster,” Elwell said. “So it’s across the board, not just in high school but even heading into college, it’s going to create some issues for the guys considering to play.”

Furthermore, Ms. Bunker said she’s talked to college coaches and learned many schools are putting recruiting on hold for the time being. Her theory is colleges won’t make offers for beach volleyball players until they get to see them play, most likely in the fall.

Back at Desert Mountain, one aspect of coaching Mr. Dyer loves is providing a memorable senior season for his players. With the coronavirus shutdowns, his seniors won’t get that, especially since he thinks his team had the chance to make a deep run in the 5A playoffs.

That memorable season isn’t only predicated on winning, Mr. Dyer said, but also on developing camaraderie and a work ethic that sticks with them forever.

“Hopefully, things still work out that we can still get back out on the field,” he said. “Nonetheless, we’re going to lose four to five weeks even in the best-case scenario and that’s four to five weeks without being around your buddies and your teammates and your coaches. It’s definitely hard to make up for.”

While Mr. Dyer still has hope, and a plan, for returning to play, he still has a contingency in the back of his mind. Some plans he has are team-building activities such as playing golf, team workouts and maybe having the seniors play with the children during summer league.

Regardless of what the future holds, Mr. Dyer said he feels bad for the kids, especially because the situation is out of their control.

“It’s definitely a tough situation,” he said. “Especially for the seniors and the parents too that have spent their entire lives being there for their kids and looking forward to their senior campaign and missing out on that.”

At Arcadia, Ms. Bunker said while the situation is tough for her players, their response has stood out to her.

“I’ve been very impressed to see the athletes embrace what’s going on in such a mature way and understanding that this is hard but we’re not going to complain about it,” she said.

“It’s what needs to be done.”