The Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted to cancel the winter high school sports season Friday in response to rising COVID-19 cases in the state.
The vote came after an almost two-hour hearing between the board and the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee that was not open to the public or media. The SMAC recommended against moving forward with winter sports as Arizona has become the No. 1 hot spot for positive COVID-19 cases in the United States.
The decision for winter sports has no bearing on the spring season, which was cut short last year not long after starting. The spring season will be evaluated when the start date, which is scheduled for March 1, draws closer.
The main point from the SMAC, according to a news release from the AIA, was the continued concern of hospital capacity and the how athletes getting injured could add further strain on healthcare workers.
"This week, 93% of all Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds and 92% of all inpatient beds are in use, leaving concern that injured students may be unable to receive needed care due to a lack of beds or available medical professionals," the news release read.
In the release, the SMAC provided more reasoning for its stance against winter sports: "Unfortunately, it is expected that the state will see a continued rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations for some time. As medical professionals, we cannot in good conscience recommend that students engage in a winter season under the current conditions,” said SMAC Committee Chair Dr. Kristina Wilson.
The board initially voted 5-4 to reject a motion to start the season Jan. 18 -- which was agreed upon in mid-December as the season was delayed twice before -- with the addition of a mask requirement for everyone, including athletes actively playing. Arguments were then heard from the nine board members, including Flagstaff High School Athletics Director Jeannine Brandel, each giving reasons for or against starting winter sports.
Brandel was one of the four members in favor of starting winter sports, saying that "Students are safest with us," referring to athletes potentially finding playing chances with club teams.
"I'm saddened," Brandel said Friday night during a phone interview. "It was tough; I mean, it was five to four. There's good arguments on both sides and part of what precipitated this was a recommendation from the SMAC, who really feel it's wrong for us to be playing right now. ... I think all of us have had a hard time sleeping, it's not the decision I think any of us wanted. ... It was hard. It really was. ... I have great respect for people that voted it down. They were doing what they felt was the right thing. It's hard."
Brandel added she is worried about the athletes who choose to participate in club sports, saying she felt the precautions in place within the AIA are likely safer than those at the club level.
AIA Executive Director David Hines also expressed his views in the news release.
“While we understand the board’s position, we are saddened by this decision, especially considering that club sports are continuing," Hines said. "To the best of our knowledge, never in our 100-plus-year history has the AIA canceled an entire season. ... It is my sincerest hope that all Arizonans will follow the CDC and Arizona Health guidelines by wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and practicing social distance to decrease cases and hospitalizations. If for no other reason, I hope we can do it for the kids.”
Following the arguments from each member who spoke, the board moved forward with the cancellation -- which affects basketball, soccer and wrestling. Spirit line competitions will be postponed as well.
A few board members, including member William Duarte, were adamant about following the guidelines and recommendations from the SMAC.
"One last comment I'd like to make: not taking the advice of the SMAC committee is [negligent] on our part," Duarte said during the meeting.
The AIA had stated previously the Jan. 18 start date would hold unless Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey stepped in. He hasn't stepped in. Club sports in the state are expected to happen as scheduled barring any new guidelines from the state and local health departments.
Coconino boys basketball head coach Mike Moran spoke with Dave Zorn of KAFF News and shared his reaction to the news.
"Well, it's very disappointing and I feel so bad for the kids," Moran said. "I remember last spring when the spring sports were canceled, I've been in mourning for those teams and here we are today canceling a great basketball season. ... A lot of kids are hurting right now."
Moran said he was working in his yard when the news broke on social media, adding his phone was "blowing up" with messages and calls about the cancellation as he received disbelief from his senior-laden team.
"We had nine seniors coming back," Moran said. " ... We had so many great kids coming back, as Flag High also did and everybody else. We are devastated for our student-athletes. But on the flip side of this, this is a dangerous time for our kids. We've had three kids out with the virus. Everybody knows it can be very serious and we have to take care of our kids at this time. It's something we have to do."
Holly Jones, whose Flagstaff girls soccer team was preparing to defend its 4A Conference state title, also shared her thoughts during a Friday phone interview.
"I'm bummed, definitely bummed for our players," Jones said. "They have been working really hard up to this stage, following all the guidelines and recommendations to keep each other safe. It's definitely a bummer, and I know they are upset about it as well. I understand why the decision was made, but it's just a lot of disappointment."
Cassie Schrader was getting ready to start her first season as head coach of the Coconino girls hoops team, and said Friday that she was "devastated" to hear the news -- mostly for her players.
"I was actually devastated," Schrader said. "I just feel for the kids because nothing's really normal right now and it was kind of an optimistic situation already even though stuff kept getting pushed back. I tried to stay optimistic for them as well just because I knew it was a possibility, of course, but I felt that it was my job to be like a source of positivity a little bit. I definitely feel for them and have already been notified some are crying and upset. It's disappointing for sure especially because it is my first year.
"I'm not so concerned about me; I'm concerned for the four seniors that I have coming back this year that were working up to this point to have the amazing season they hoped for," Schrader continued. " ... I just feel terrible for them because they are the hardest workers. It sucks for sure."
Flagstaff Eagles head girls hoops coach Tyrone Johnson noted a similar sentiment as Brandel about the athletes going from high school to club, addressing the potential for less safety.
"I know on the basketball end it really is just going to convert from high school to club for a lot of the Valley teams so they can still participate," Johnson said. "Our kids may not be as fortunate. ... I do appreciate that Mrs. Brandel really fought for us to have a season and thought of the kids and their well-being. She just felt that they will be safer in the high school environment instead of just going into AAU and club sports."