Months of hope amid delay turned to despair on Friday as the Arizona Interscholastic Association announced the cancellation of all winter sports.
Student-athletes on Payson High’s boys and girls basketball and wrestling teams patiently waited and adjusted as the AIA pushed the start of winter sports competition from early December to mid-January and cut their schedules.
COVID-19 minimization efforts spurred the moves that included elimination of regular-season wrestling tournaments and a limit of one match per day for wrestlers prior to the section tournament, limiting teams to 14 dual matches in the shortened season.
With only duals allowed during the regular season rather than the common four-team formate with two matches going simultaneously, Payson would have been able to hold all home matches under one of the few spotlights in the state, which opponents love to wrestle under.
But they’d be wrestling in an empty Wilson Dome as spectators were to be banned from all competitions for all sports unless local infection rates fell well below their current rate.
Virus continues to disrupt
COVID-19 continues to disrupt school sports across Arizona after leading to the cancellation of spring sports shortly after they started in March. But Payson’s football, volleyball, boys and girls soccer, cross country teams and new swim club completed their delayed and shortened fall seasons amid restrictions.
They all managed to hold senior nights after 12th graders on the baseball, softball, track and golf teams missed out on the annual ceremony with their families traditionally held before the last home game or meet.
Those ceremonies for fall sports took place early in the season as officials wanted to assure student-athletes weren’t denied the recognition like the spring athletes were. Boys soccer waited until the final home game and fortunately those two student-athletes were able to be honored as the Longhorns completed the season.
My heart is broken for them
PHS Athletic Director Rich Ormand said he hoped it wouldn’t come to this.
“It’s an unfortunate and sad day for Arizona’s youth,” Ormand said. “I understand the AIA executive board’s decision and the why of it. That does not mean I am happy about it.
“I have been watching our coaches and athletes prepare for the winter seasons, and my heart is broken for them, especially our seniors.”
Friday’s news hit seniors especially hard as they’ll miss out on their final seasons in the three sports. Some plan to switch over to spring sports before graduating if those seasons go forward, but others don’t compete in spring sports.
“It sucks,” said Troy Daniels, who along with Soto Sellis are the two seniors on the wrestling team.
“We’ve been practicing for like two months and by this time last year we’d already have had like 30 matches. So, it was kind of expected because it kept getting pushed back and pushed back. We did not have a lot of hope.”
Not so fast
His dad, David Daniels, was to take over as the Longhorns’ head wrestling coach this season after working as an assistant coach the past few seasons.
“It’s devastating for these kids,” he said just before practice on Friday.
“They’ve been working their tails off for two months and the AIA just keeps pulling the rug out from under them. We’re supposed to have practice (today), so we’re just going to talk. This is brutal.”
Welcome back; now wait
Former PHS varsity girls basketball coach Rory Huff took over the boys basketball program. He’s expected to be long-term solution at the helm of a program that’s struggled in recent years.
But he’s just going to have to wait 11 more months to tip off his first season after weeks of preparing for action this season.
“I feel real bad for the players as they had totally committed to the program and having a winning season,” he said.
“I especially feel bad for the seniors as this is their last chance to compete at this level
“We will continue to have open gyms as the coaching staff is committed to making Payson Boys Basketball a winning program.”
Girls wait to meet
While the boys basketball and wrestling teams met to talk about the cancellation in Wilson Dome on Friday afternoon and evening, the girls basketball team couldn’t as players and coaches were observing a mandatory 14-day quarantine period after one of the girls tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 30.
So head coach Miles Huff called them on Friday with plans to get together later this week.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “They put two months into it and the seniors four years and to not get to see it through is difficult, frustrating.
“You can hear the disappointment in their voices, especially the seniors, on missing out on major things their senior year.
“As a former athlete myself, I can’t imagine losing your senior season.”
Hope springs eternal
With vaccine’s slowly getting into arms and the outdoor nature of baseball, softball, track and golf, there’s hope spring sports can rebound from last year’s early cancellation for full or close-to-full seasons.
But the AIA recently announced spring sports can’t start practicing until March 1.
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