PHOENIX – Desert Vista was pumped and prepared on Jan. 29, ready to travel to rival Mountain Pointe High School for a highly anticipated rematch of last season’s 6A state final.
But as it often has in the last year, COVID-19 had other plans. In just another example of the havoc a pandemic has wreaked on all levels of sports, that game had to be postponed when a Desert Vista player tested positive for the coronavirus.
“It happened on Friday,” said Desert Vista’s first-year coach Jordan Ballard. “(A Thunder player) wasn’t feeling well, and so he told his mom. So his mom took him to one of those rapid testing sites, and he tested positive the same day.”
After conducting contact tracing, Desert Vista determined it would have to shut down its basketball program for 14 days in accordance with AIA guidelines. And, of course, the game against the Pride had to be rescheduled. The rivals will square off Feb. 22 instead.
The infected Desert Vista player was unsure how he contracted the disease, and Ballard thought it would be hard to tell how or where it happened. But he was more concerned for the player’s health.
“It’s unfortunate because we don’t want to see anybody get sick,” Ballard said. “I talked to him (Feb. 1), and he still can’t taste anything, but he’s doing better, he’s feeling better. So we’re just hoping he recovers fully and gets back out there.”
Ballard said the player underwent a 10-day quarantine and had to test negative for COVID-19 and pass physical tests before he could return to the court. The Thunder finally returned to the floor last week and notched a 66-57 win over Boulder Creek.
Desert Vista guard Andrew King said the Thunder were excited to play that game against Mountain Pointe in what would have been a Hoophall Classic game, affiliated with the National Basketball Hall of Fame and streamed live on Twitch.
And the news of his teammate’s positive test about 10 a.m. hit like a punch in the gut.
“We were fired up, because this is our rival, so we really wanted to play,” King said. “And then he just told us he had a positive test, so we tried to see if we could still play. But then they just shut us down. So we had to quarantine for two weeks.”
Mountain Pointe coach Kaimarr Price said it was a new experience for him to have a game canceled, but he said seen other cancellations around the state. He was just happy that the positive test came before the game was played, not after, which would have created complications for his team, too.
“I’m glad it got canceled before we would have played,” he said. “Then (if) a positive test came out, then we’re both out.”
Pride guard Mark Brown said the positive test served as a reminder to him and his Mountain Pointe teammates about the importance of following the AIA’s protocols to prolong the season and prevent other games from being canceled or postponed.
“It did,” Brown said. “Just always keep our mask on.”
Although the cancellation didn’t affect Mountain Pointe’s rhythm or routine much, Desert Vista was another story. Thunder players immediately had to go into quarantine to ensure COVID-19 would not spread from player to player.
King said he worked out at local parks to try and stay in basketball shape during the layoff.
“I try to get at least two workouts in a day,” King said. “I try to go during when we have lunch for a fast 30-minute-to-45-minute workout.”
He returned to the park after school, and often circled back for a third session at night.
And while the Thunder have returned to action, the schedule jockeying left them with a brutal upcoming stretch. The Thunder plays four games the week of Feb. 22, beginning with Mountain Pointe and including three games in three nights Feb. 24-26. Then the Thunder play another four games in a five day stretch March 1-5.
It’s a grueling slate that will test the Thunder’s resolve and the team’s ability to avoid the dangers of COVID-19.
“We’ll be excited to play the games, but as a coach, you always like to get those days of preparation and work on things that you need to work on,” Ballard said. “But with this year, you got to show up and play regardless.”
Ballard said Desert Vista maintained contact with players via Zoom meetings and provided conditioning plans for King and others to keep in shape while they couldn’t practice as a team.
They are the kinds of challenges a lot of high school athletes have faced during the pandemic.
King returned to Desert Vista after a stint playing for PHH Prep, a club team based out of the Powerhouse Hoops Facility in Phoenix. He said the protocols his team followed there were significantly different from those of the AIA.
PHH Prep participated in multiple “mini-bubbles” with other prep teams, in which COVID-19 testing and hotel accommodations were provided by the event’s organizers. Players who tested negative were permitted to compete without wearing a mask, but players were confined to their hotel rooms and the court.
“We couldn’t really go anywhere, couldn’t leave the hotel,” King said. “You could only go to the gym, and then they had like a dining room where they fed us.”
Still, King said he believes the AIA’s COVID-19 protocols are stricter, overall. Despite no mandatory testing for players, the AIA requires that players wear masks even while competing.
For Desert Vista, the experiences of a postponement, quarantining and a shuffled schedule have been difficult, but Ballard believes the Thunder come out of it better prepared.
It’s just another challenge as Ballard adjusts to his new job during a global pandemic.
“I guess if you are going to go through this, go through it now, so you know what it’s like,” he said. “So that if it does happen in the future, you’re kind of more prepared for it, but also in the hopes that you’ve gone through it now … we don’t have to go through it again, and we’re kind of battle tested. So it’s definitely an odd scenario.
“You never know what you’re going to get from one day to the next.”