Few masks, much excitement: High school football returns with look of pre-COVID era

Like at many high school football games Friday night, most fans at the St. Mary’s-Brophy Prep game weren’t wearing masks. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Unlike the start of the 2020 season, when masks, hand sanitizers and social distancing were the norm, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be an afterthought for many at Friday’s high school football games.

At Central High School, fans of Brophy College Preparatory and St. Mary’s Catholic High filled the stands in a sea of red and green shirts reflecting their schools’ colors as their teams renewed an historic rivalry.

The stadium was filled to capacity, with latecomers resorting to leaning on fences just to sneak a peek at the game.

“It was night and day from last year,” said Josh Hill, a high school sports fan. “I’m just glad to be back in the stands to watch an important game in Arizona. It may not be the safest environment, but it was great to be back to where we once were.”

A full house watched as Brophy’s Taj Hughes and his teammates faced St. Mary’s. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

Despite a recent uptick in COVID-19 infections, few attendees wore masks, other than the athletic trainers for both teams and a select number of fans.

Although the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which governs high school sports in the state, recommends vaccinations and encourages wearing masks, it does not require them. An Arizona law that bans school districts from establishing mask mandates is set to take effect Sept. 29.

“The AIA was happy to see fans being able to get back out to the stadiums to attend games,” Seth Polansky, sports information coordinator for the AIA, said in a statement. “It has brought a renewed energy to the fan bases these first few weeks and the teams have really appreciated it. But everyone must remain cognizant that the importance of staying safe is key as we all continue to deal with coronavirus.”

The games, however, suggested concerns were minimal. Last year, signs were posted at most high school sporting events warning about the ongoing pandemic and advising people to wear masks.

Those signs were as scarce as the masks.

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The scene at Central was similar to those at games across the Valley, including in Gilbert where Highland hosted Boulder Creek. Last year, Highland was so cautious that even musicians in the school’s band had their instruments covered to ensure safety all around.

The band, and most everyone in the stadium, resembled attendance in pre-COVID-19 days. Only a rare few, including the Highland cheer captain, chose to wear a mask.

Some games saw exceptions. Many students at Central’s game at North wore masks. And ticketing and access to the stadium were slow. It took until halftime for everybody to enter the stadium.

It became clear that there will be little consistency among school districts in how they handle sporting events during the ongoing pandemic.

But whether it was at Brophy’s 49-0 blowout of rival St.Mary’s or at Mountain Pointe’s tight 34-33 victory over Corona Del Sol, excitement prevailed among players and fans about returning to a typical football Friday night.

Edwin Perez Ed-WIN Per-ez (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Edwin Perez expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Perez, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and AIA, graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in Spanish. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

Harrison Zhang heh-rih-sun z-hang
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Harrison Zhang expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Zhang, who is a digital media intern with Sun Devil Athletics, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.