Following Thursday night’s practice, Cienega High School football coach Pat Nugent gathered his team together and delivered the most painful speech of his life.
The Bobcats would be suspending all football activity indefinitely in the wake of the Pima County Health Department’s recommendation that contact sports be postponed until the county lowers its number of COVID-19 cases. The veteran coach called it “worse than a speech following a state playoff loss.”
“Double that,” Nugent said. “It was horrible. It was devastating. Coaches were crying, kids were crying. I didn’t shake a kid’s hand in six weeks since we’ve been on the field, and we probably shook 70 kids’ hands and gave them hugs (on Thursday).”
The Pima County Health Department recommended this week that all football games and practices be postponed until the county reaches 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. It’s a stricter benchmark than the one adopted by the Arizona Interscholastic Association in September, when it ruled that teams could practice and play if there were fewer than 75 cases per 100,000 residents. The AIA initially had a 10-per-100,000 benchmark before loosening its restrictions.
Pima County currently has 54 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the most recent data available from the Arizona Department of Health Services. County figures have hovered between 44 and 67 per 100,000 since August. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for numbers to drop to below 10 in time for a football season.
However, Pima County’s recommendations are just that. Health department director Dr. Theresa Cullen on Friday said that decisions to play sports “are appropriately and ultimately made by school boards and superintendents for each district,” but that the health department is obliged to provide consultation to public schools.
Health department officials and district superintendents met Friday afternoon to discuss whether a season should proceed.
For now, Pima County’s public schools are scheduled to open their seasons on Oct. 30. One of the two local schools already playing football, Salpointe Catholic, is in the middle of a two-week quarantine after one player tested positive for the coronavirus.
“This is the situation we are looking to avoid,” Cullen said.
The health department’s recommendation, detailed in a memo, sent football coaches, players and their families scrambling. Nugent was playing golf at Arizona National on Thursday when his phone rang. Hours later, the coach told his players and assistant coaches that all football activity would be suspended indefinitely.
Nugent was especially irritated because six-game schedules had already been released. Players and coaches had a goal in sight.
“Our kids were going out and busting their butts every day and it was hard for us to move forward. ‘What can you put in? What offense can you put in a game? When are we going to play?,’” he said. “That was the hard part, we didn’t know when we were going to play, yet the kids always believed.”
Canyon del Oro High School coach Dustin Peace supported Nugent’s decision to suspend practices.
“It’s a huge move in leadership from our coaches’ standpoint for a guy to take a stance, because that’s how we all feel. … I commend him for doing that,” Peace said. “The No. 1 goal is to give us a decision. We’re all behind Coach (Nugent) with that same mentality.
“Ten (per 100,000) is unrealistic. There’s no way that’s happening. If you’re going to do that, then just say we’re done. That’s kinda how Coach Nugent feels. Make a different plan and let people move on.”
The news of the last few days highlighted the disagreement between the health department and the AIA, with many players and their parents pushing for a season.
By Friday evening, a Change.org petition created by parents of football players — “Pima County: Let them play!” — had 3,000 signatures.
AIA executive director David Hines said Friday that he’s “extremely frustrated for the kids.” Hines said the positive COVID-19 cases among high school football players in Arizona have not been traced back to football practices. It was “family gatherings, vacation or their families,” he said.
“We have worked really, really hard to give our kids an opportunity and felt like we put the measures in place that we could do this as safely as possible and mitigated the risks of getting COVID,” Hines said.
However, contact sports like football “may not be the best idea to bring children into that environment given where we are in terms of that transmission,” said Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County’s health director.
“It may be a very, very different story for the next semester,” he said. “But at least for today … I think our community transmission is still too high to be able to say that that is a safe and terrific activity.
“To be clear, we want kids to engage in physical activity. There are plenty of other physical activities and sports that other children are engaging in. Think about swimming. Kids are doing cross country in TUSD. … Kids are engaging in these kinds of activities and we think that that is terrific; but to do something like football, I think that carries with it considerably higher risk.”
The county’s recommendations should not impact Salpointe Catholic and Pusch Ridge Christian, two private schools that have been playing since Oct. 2. Sierra Vista Buena, which plays many Southern Arizona teams, will also proceed with its season.
Public schools in Maricopa, Yuma, Pinal and Cochise counties have made it through the first month of their truncated seasons. Now, it’s up to Pima County health officials and district superintendents to decide if they’re joining the rest of the state, postponing the season until the spring or canceling it altogether.
“Hopefully our administrators try to figure out a way to get this done or Pima County changes the number — or something,” Nugent said. “There’s always hope and there’s still time, and we’re not supposed to start our season until (Oct. 30), so will those change? We always hope. But for the players to continue to work every day and have the coaches at risk every day, it just wasn’t the right time. … We had to make a stand and we hope the whole community comes together and gives these kids an opportunity.”