‘We’re living in a global pandemic’: High schools adapt to fluid football schedules

Saguaro High School was hoping to play against Chaparral last weekend but a Chaparral player tested positive for COVID-19 and the game had to be canceled. (File photo by Jamie Nish/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – Most Arizona high schools opened their 2020 football season last Friday, but one highly anticipated match-up of two Scottsdale powers – Chaparral and Saguaro – was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak at Chaparral.

After several players tested positive for the virus, the Firebirds also canceled their Week 2 game, scheduled for tonight, versus Sandra Day O’Connor.

The cancellations leave the Firebirds with only six games remaining on their schedule, but the season goes on for the Saguaro Sabercats, the 2019 state runners-up, who are looking to make another push for a state title and continue their dominance in the regime of coach Jason Mohns.

“Obviously, we were disappointed,” Mohns said. “Not only was it our first game, but it was a rivalry game. Our kids were excited about it. I think just to get to this point, there’s been a lot of highs and lows and a lot of letdowns. I think for the kids, it just kind of felt like another disappointment.”

Mohns’ team went back to its typical practice schedule with conditioning, lifting and film study practice on Saturday as if they had played Chaparral on Friday. The Sabercats continue to focus on tonight’s matchup with the Brophy Broncos.

“Just like any other game, you put the previous game to rest, and you start working on your next opponent, so we haven’t really talked much about it,” Mohns said. “After Saturday, it was over and all of our attention has been on Brophy.”

Mohns believes outbreaks such as the one at Chaparral are difficult to avoid and that teams must continue to follow protocols put in place and hope for the best.

“A lot of people are like, ‘How can you learn from their mistake or what went wrong?'” Mohns said. “The fact of the matter is, right now we’re living in a global pandemic. I don’t know that anything went wrong, I just think that they had players or personnel or whoever that tested positive, and through talking with the health department and following the guidelines, they had to quarantine their team to try to minimize the spread of the virus that’s still very present.”

The Scottsdale Union School District did not find any protocol violations by Chaparral and Mohns accepts their conclusion and firmly believes that the same situation could happen to any team.

“I think that’s the risk that you take with trying to play football in the fall during the middle of a pandemic that’s still going on,” Mohns said. “(There’s) a possibility that stuff happens, it’s just the time right now. And you just have to try to do everything you can to not put yourself in a position where you’re in a compromised health situation.

“I think as we’ve seen over the last six months or so dealing with this virus, that even the people that are taking every possible precaution, washing their hands, wearing masks, staying (out of) large groups, and not going out, they’ve still contracted it. It’s a very contagious airborne virus, and so you’ve got to do the best you can to avoid it.”

Not only was the game against Chaparral a big Scottsdale rivalry game, but it was also an elite opponent for a Saguaro program that is in the state title race nearly every year. Mohns believes his team will work around the game cancellation.

“We’ve still got seven other games,” Mohns said. “We still have big-time opponents on our schedule. Obviously, you hate to lose a rivalry game, but I don’t think that it will affect our path as far as what we’re trying to achieve this year. I think we still have plenty of time to schedule games.”

For the match-up at Brophy tonight, the Sabercats were given 100 tickets for players to distribute to family members, but none were given for coaches and staff, according to Mohns. The other protocols Brophy laid out for them were standard for the entire state.

When the Sabercats begin their home schedule on Oct. 23 they will have a slightly different protocol regarding fans. The team is limited to two tickets per player, two tickets per coach, two per cheerleader and two per band member, Mohns said. Any JV player that suits up for the game will be allowed on the sidelines. The rest of the protocols Mohns finds to be standard.

“It’ll be a little bit different this year, where you can spread players out from the 10-yard-line to the (opposite) 10-yard-line,” Mohns said. “In the past, you had to stay inside the 25. When players aren’t in the game, they have masks on, and coaches will have masks on at all times. I think the only thing that really changes is district by district as far as their fan attendance policy.”

Mohns has high hopes for his team, which lost to Chandler 42-35 in the 2019 Open Division State Championship.

“We’re going to get better every week,” Mohns said. “We never start off as a finished product. We’ll have an influx of some pretty talented transfers that will get eligible after the fourth game (against) Hamilton. I think you’re going to see a team that gets better as the season goes on. … Our goal is to get back into the open division playoffs like we were last year and this year, our goal is to not fall a touchdown short.”

While Saguaro continues on with its season and Chaparral recovers from the team outbreak, the 5A and 6A conferences are missing a big chunk of their schools. The majority of these teams come from the Phoenix Union and Tolleson Union school districts, most of which will not begin their seasons until Oct. 23 or later.

Of the 16 traditional high schools in the Phoenix Union district, which covers much of the Phoenix metropolitan area, 13 are located in zip codes falling in the highest measuring group of confirmed cases by the Arizona Department of Health Services, with 1,000-plus. Carl Hayden High School falls in the 85009 zip code, which had the highest number of cases in the state with 5,017.

“We were not in a place where we felt safe to compete,” said Phoenix Union Athletic Director Dr. Zachary Munoz. “I felt it was the right thing to do at that time to postpone until we were at a place where we felt it was safe to resume.”

Phoenix Union and Tolleson Union school districts came up with an alternative season so that their student-athletes would still get an opportunity to play.

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“We will start competing, for the most part, in all fall sports by the end of the month,” Munoz said. “We will not be part of the state playoffs or championship tournament. We will run our own inter-district playoffs. We’re partnering with Tolleson Union (School District) with some games too, because they were kind of in the same boat. We’ve created our own league, and we’re going to compete within the schools in our district and then also do a little bit of competition with the Tolleson School District as well.”

Muñoz recognized that their solution was not ideal since they will not be able to compete with the other AIA schools for a state title, but he reiterated that playing this alternative season was a much better scenario than not playing at all.

“We really didn’t want to have to do something separate,” Muñoz said. “But we did what was best and safe for our communities, and we have no regrets. Our hope was to stay with the fall season if we could, with the regular AIA season, but that just was not going to happen. We did the next best thing, and we created our own league to compete (within) our communities and our schools are happy that we’re able to bring sports back into a modified season.”

As Week 1 play went on without Chaparral, Saguaro, or Phoenix and Tolleson schools, the Chandler Wolves, Arizona’s top-ranked team by Max Preps, bolted past Liberty, 44-10, in their season opener. Coach Rick Garretson was quick to notice how different the atmosphere was in Liberty’s stadium.

“No question (it was different) when you don’t have a locker room. Well, our kids (were still able to) get dressed,” Garretson said. “What I mean by that is you come out (to the field) kind of like youth football. Before the game, you’re in the end zone. At halftime, you’re in the end zone. One hundred fifty fans were allowed from Chandler, (and we’ve had a) very good following both home and away. And it was just a little surreal. But it was nice being out there with the kids and (having) them playing the game they love to play.”

The protocols for each district are different, but for Chandler Unified School District the maximum capacity allowed is 25%. While Chandler’s athletic director and the school district work through adjusting protocols based on case numbers, Garretson is focused on his team and just going out and playing football.

“I don’t worry about all that stuff,” Garretson said. “My job is to get kids out there and play football. All the other stuff, it is what it is. But the bottom line is we get to play. That’s the most important factor.”

As Chandler prepares to host its first home game Friday night against Pinnacle, Garretson believes everyone’s expectations for the Wolves should remain simple.

“Our guys play hard, just like they did on Friday night against Liberty,” Garretson said. “They’ll go out and do their things.”

Pinnacle High School’s football team warms up before its season opener against Horizon High School. Because of attendance restrictions due to COVID-19, the game was played in front of a much smaller crowd. (Photo by Kevin Hurley/Cronkite News)

The Notre Dame Prep Saints, a 5A power, were also in action this past Friday, defeating Brophy Prep, a 6A school, at home, 28-10. Saints coach George Prelock enjoyed the new atmosphere in the season opener.

“The atmosphere was fun,” Prelock said. “Obviously, it’s a little different than what we’re used to. The stands were half full. There were only parents that were allowed for both Brophy and Notre Dame, but it felt good to be back out on the field. And it still felt like a Friday night, especially when the game started, and everyone was back playing. It was nice to be back, even though it’s a little different look.”

Notre Dame Prep, a private Catholic school, follows the protocols of the Phoenix Diocese instead of a school district like most other schools. The protocols allowed for parents and family of players, coaches, and volunteers, and just a few other fans in the stadium.

“The diocese basically communicated that they only wanted parents in the stands, and then it went to a lottery in terms of other people being in the stands,” Prelock said. “So essentially, we’re able to have football parents in the stands, we’re able to have (football) volunteer parents in the stands. And then Brophy’s parents were in the stands and any other adults that could attend that were able to get a ticket from the pool.”

Like Chandler, the Saints will just keep marching forward with the season and follow the protocols to keep the season going to try to prevent any issues.

“With the protocol adjustments already set up by the AIA, we’re just going to take it one game at a time and do our due diligence to make sure everyone’s staying safe as possible, because it can be a tricky situation,” Prelock said.

“As you’ve seen this past week, more schools have had outbreaks of COVID-19 and those programs are now shut down. We’re just going to do everything to the best of our ability to make sure that we’re keeping ourselves safe, as well as our opponents.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brandon Jones, a Detroit native who grew up in Seattle, expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a certificate in sales and marketing essentials.