While little is certain and all starting dates — including those for high school football — should be considered written in pencil instead of pen, some recent developments provided hope for at least somewhat of a traditional fall of 2020 on the gridiron.
On May 18, an injunction by Benjamin Franklin, Northwest Christian and Round Valley regarding the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s football reclassifications was denied in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The lawsuit delayed the schedule-making process for some schools and the schedule-release process for all schools. Later May 18 the floodgates opened and football teams across the state posted schedules they hope will come to fruition.
“Our schedule has yet to be made public by us. But I know it is out there. I’m glad the AIA case is finished. Yes, it does provide hope that there will be a season. Goldwater was a big one. It is such a natural rivalry,” stated Deer Valley football coach Dan Friedman in an email interview.
Goldwater is the closest thing to a rival for the Skyhawks, who moved down to 4A two years ago. While the schedule remained under wraps as of May 20, Friedman did saw Deer Valley will play another 5A school in Washington, as well as two Southern Arizona teams.
“I think it’s a good and maybe false sense of hope anyway,” Willow Canyon coach Justin Stangler said. “We’re at the mercy of the decision makers.”
One decision gave Stangler and other coaches in the Dysart Unified School District a very real sense of hope. On June 1, the district’s athletic teams can return to campus for weight room and outdoor conditioning workouts — though those will be very different than pre COVID-19 offseason workouts.
On May 21, the Deer Valley Unified School District stated in an email update to parents that most sports can begin weight training and conditioning, which will last at least two weeks. These work outs must observe social distancing, enhanced cleaning and smaller groups.
DVUSD high school athletic directors will share more information May 27, and the district will let its constituents know if workouts need to be delayed.
Stangler said Willow Canyon’s hope is to make the early summer as normal as possible while factoring in all the safety and distancing precautions. In the past, weight room sessions involved all, or most of the football team and a majority of the coaches.
In separate interviews May 21, both Friedman and Mountain Ridge football coach Doug Madoski said they were hopeful that district football teams will be able to start summer workouts on June 1.
The Mountain Lions and Skyhawks lost out on spring football, like every other team in the state. For longtime Scottsdale Community College coach Madoski, a late start is business as usual.
He did take part in spring football last year at Mountain Ridge, though it was limited by his hiring only three days before spring ball.
“I’m not used to starting before Aug. 1 from junior college,” Madoski said. “You get to play a game three weeks later.”
Without spring ball, conditioning will be a welcome back moment. The number of people in Dysart weight rooms at any one time will be limited to two coaches and no more than two players per each power rack, with weights and benches being cleaned between sets.
So teams will have to rotate these small groups — which can be no more than 30 percent of the weight room’s capacity — in and out of the weight room and at outdoor conditioning stations.
Outdoors, social distancing requirements will apply. That means huddles, team blocking drills, handoffs and the like are no-gos but cone drills and passing drills could work, provided all receivers and backs involved in the passing drills wear full-fingered gloves.
No more than 10 athletes can be grouped with a coach at a station, and even then those athletes must follow proper social distancing. Both Stangler and Valley Vista coach Josh SeKoch emphasized that each athlete is responsible for bringing their own water and can only refill at school fountains.
“The guidelines they gave us are pretty strict. And they’ll shut teams down if they’re not followed,” SeKoch said. “I think it’s a great idea to get the kids back to some sense of normalcy.”
The normalcy may be short-lived and what follows summer conditioning may not be practice as usual for football teams. The calendar date for starting practice is July 27 with many schools scheduled to play their first game Aug. 21.
Multiple contingency plans have been formally and informally discussed, though none officially advanced by the AIA or national governing bodies. One that gained speculative interest is switching seasons for some fall and spring sports, for example football and baseball, because of the lower amount of physical contact and smaller, more easily dispersed crowd for baseball — and softball for that matter.
Stangler said it is difficult to see that idea working, given the amount of high school and club calendars that would face upheval, not to mention the college recruiting periods tied to those calendars.
“I think that’s logistically impossible. In my opinion the only way it could be done is if it’s nationwide,” Stangler said.
Friedman said he has heard many different proposals for the getting through the football season while COVID-19 continues to be a factor.
For now, the third-year coach just hopes players have the chance to have some normalcy.
“Honestly, my biggest concern at the moment is our summer program. I am hearing we can start working out and practicing on June 1,” Friedman stated. “However, we are still waiting to hear what the guidelines will be.”
Madoski said when workouts resume they are likely to include masks, gloves and a small group of players and coaches allowed in the weight room at one time.
And he already knows on rite of passage in high school football is already off. The Mountain Lions went to camp in Prescott this year.
This year there will not be a trip.
“I think there’s ways to create bonding without going to camp,” Madoski said.
With not much certainty moving forward, teams and coaches figure to be flexible. Normal crowds may not be possible.
Dates of games could be pushed back and the schedule might lose some weeks. In general, the goal is to have some semblance of a football season.
“We have played very young for the past two years and now we feel we have a veteran squad. It would be a shame if we didn’t have an opportunity to play this year. Any other type of proposal for a season, I think we would be able to adapt to,” Friedman stated.
So for now teams are planning, or at least hoping, to play a normal fall schedule. Shadow Ridge and Willow Canyon released their schedule on Twitter May 19, while Valley Vista followed on May 21.
Shadow Ridge starts with former league rival Westview Aug. 21 and a trip to new neighboring Waddell-area school Canyon View the next week. Chandler Basha visits on Sept. 11 as the non-league highlight, and the Stallions travel to Valley Vista Oct. 30 to end the season.
Willow Canyon and Shadow Ridge are not continuing their local rivalry, partly because the Wildcats — a smaller 5A school — lack the sheer numbers of 6A schools Shadow Ridge and Valley Vista.
Stangler said he is happy the original Surprise rivalry will continue. Willow Canyon visits Valley Vista Sept. 4.
The Monsoon and Wilcdats may bump into each other a couple weeks earlier though. Both are scheduled to play their first-ever games against teams from another state on Aug. 22 as part of a two-day high school football festival at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff.
Valley Vista will play another Shadow Ridge High, this one from metro Las Vegas, Nevada. Willow Canyon faces Rio Rancho, one of the regular contenders from New Mexico.
“What really prompted it was the opportunity to play at NAU. NAU has done a good job upgrading the dome,” Stangler said. “Rio Rancho is a very good, high character program. It’s good to see where you stand early.”
Originally, the Wildcats planned to stay at a Flagstaff hotel. That is off now, Stangler said. And both games are also contingent on athletic associations in Nevada and New Mexico allowing for out of state travel.
SeKoch said he hopes these games and unique travel experiences can happen.
The Flagstaff trip is a highlight for Valley Vista, along with Willow Canyon, a trip to Laveen Cesar Chavez Sept. 11 and the continuation of its former league rivalry with Westview Sept. 25.
“I’ve talked to Shadow Ridge, Nevada and they’re very similar to us. Our kids getting to go out of our area and experience that traveling situation is always very fun — like when we went to Safford or Yuma,” SeKoch said. “Chavez and Westview should be very competitive games. They’re in the same boat as us.”
Mountain Ridge is are hoping for a big year to continue momentum from lifting a 0-10 team in 2018 to 5-6 last season.
Mountain Ridge will begin by continuing its rivalry with Liberty, which is no longer a region rival. Then, on Sept. 4, the Mountain Lions play Centennial for the first time.
Madoski said Centennial and Liberty are the standard bearers in the Northwest Valley and it only makes sense to measure the Mountain Ridge program against these two teams — and hopefully begin convince players in the Glendale school’s boundaries to stay at home.
“We needed to schedule teams in the West. We’re still in an infant stage of building our program. I want to keep schools that are in our back yard on our schedule,” Madoski said.