Big storm sends surviving high school football teams scrambling ahead of semifinals

Rain storms have hit the Valley and are affecting the Arizona high school football playoffs. (Photo by Alex Simon/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — After a lifetime as an Arizona resident and working in high school sports, including a dozen years at the Arizona Interscholastic Association, David Hines knows how people in the state react to inclement weather.

“We’re a little spoiled here in Arizona,” quipped Hines, who has been the executive director for the AIA since the summer of 2017. “Any time it’s not kind of perfect, people panic.”

With storms drenching the Phoenix metropolitan area, there’s been an added layer of complication for the high school football playoffs as six of the seven divisions reach semifinal weekend.

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The National Weather Service’s Phoenix office reported more than half an inch of rain sitting on the ground at some of their measuring stations. But the rainfall and thunderstorms have adjusted practice schedules throughout the state. And although the current forecast shows the thunderstorms clearing out in time for kickoffs across the region on Friday night, Hines and the AIA are keeping an eye on what will happen.

“Rain is not a determinant in canceling any games or anything, but what we will pay attention to is lightning, and we have protocols for that,” Hines said. “During football, we’re fortunate that usually it’s between 65-80 when we’re playing state football and a lot of people in the country are playing in snow. When we have a little weather(like this), it’s just part of what we’ll do.”

Although nine of the 12 games are being played on Friday night, both games in the brand-new Open Division are on Saturday, allowing those teams one extra day to prepare after winning in the quarterfinals last Friday. At Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School, one of the four Open Division schools, coach Jason Mohns said his program was able to adapt their practice schedule to line up with the forecast and allow them to float their normal day to watch film and install that week’s game plan to the worst weather day.

“Because we were looking at the forecast, we knew Monday was probably the only day that we were guaranteed to not have rain, we got on the field and had a regular practice,” Mohns said. “Then, our plan was to see what the weather did, knowing we had a built-in day Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday as a film day.”

Mohns and the Sabercats were able to get on the field Tuesday night, with most of the heavy rain and thunderstorms passing over Scottsdale during the school day. The light rain that persisted throughout practice was something he felt actually livened up his team’s practice.

“The biggest thing we were concerned with is lightning. At one point, it was at a mile, but by the time practice started, it was like 20 miles away,” Mohns said. “Our kids had great energy today. It was our first rain practice of the year, so it was fun and our kids were excited.

“I thought we had a really productive day. We cut out a few practice periods that we would normally would have, so we trimmed about 20 minutes off of our practice, but we got all the meat and potatoes done.”

Mohns expressed appreciation for the extra day that the Open Division teams have to get ready this week, giving him the chance to adjust their schedule to what the forecast dictates. For teams playing on Friday night, they don’t have the option that Saguaro did.

“You have to go Monday, you have to go Tuesday, you have to go Wednesday, so you’re really kind of stuck because Thursday’s your walkthrough and you don’t want to take a day off in the middle of the week. Most teams aren’t going in pads the day before the game, so those teams, that hurt them.”

Then there’s also the playing surfaces some teams have, both for their practices throughout the week and ahead of the games on Friday. While Hines made note that the AIA is “fortunate” that 9 of 12 games this weekend are on turf fields, the heavy rain impacting the grass fields is something they’re monitoring.

“It is a little different in Arizona. When we do get some heavy rain, it doesn’t always soak in because we have a lot of caliche in our ground and it kind of sits at the top,” Hines said. “But the fields that we are at are pretty good fields. I think we’ll be OK as long as we don’t have rain all the way up through Friday night.”

Some teams have found ways to get indoors and keep practicing. In Tucson, Salpointe Catholic High School tweeted that it was able to use the University of Arizona’s Cole and Jeannie Davis Sport Center for practice on Tuesday, and a tweet indicated that Chandler’s Hamilton High School had used an indoor facility on Wednesday, which the Arizona Republic reported was the Cardinals’ facility in Tempe.

Arizona State declined to comment on who was using the Verde Dickey Dome, its indoor football facility, but a tweet from Casteel High School in Gilbert showed it went to “the bubble” on Wednesday, and Mohns said that Saguaro has rented the facility for an indoor practice on Thursday, if the Sabercats need it.

“That’s our plan, and that allows us to schedule our off day,” Mohns said. “If the weather’s great Thursday, we’ll just stay here (at Saguaro), but I appreciate them working with us and making that available for us to rent.”

Hines added, “The bottom line is they have multiple options at this time. Sitting is not the primary objective. Breaking down film, knowing your assignments, any particular plays that you may add or something for a particular opponent, those things that need to be worked on, schools will adapt to that. … Those aren’t ideal, but they are options that they have.”

Although Mohns joked that “anybody who’s lived in Arizona long enough knows that usually the forecast is completely wrong,” all involved in the state playoffs are hopeful that the current forecast of the storms clearing out by Thursday night holds and leaves the weekend dry.

But even if it doesn’t, Hines thinks that it may make for a memorable weekend of games, anyway.

“It’s football. We play football rain or shine,” Hines said. “As long as we don’t have lightning being an issue, then a little water isn’t going to hurt anybody. It gets a little sloppy sometimes, but as a player, sometimes it’s fun to play in those types of games.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alex Simon is a graduate student at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who received a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from Elon University in North Carolina. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s a sports journalist with a primary focus on digital reporting and editing.