Louie Ramirez likes to think of himself as a planner.
The Marana High School football coach has a 10-steps-ahead — or six-months-ahead — mindset for structuring and planning a season. Most years, the Tigers’ entire offseason is circled on the calendar; their opponent, location and date is cemented.
But 2020 isn’t normal, and although the Arizona Interscholastic Association executive board voted last week to play games starting the first week of October, programs across Southern Arizona feel as if things are anything but planned.
Practices began Monday at many schools, a critical first step. Ramirez and his fellow coaches must now navigate their programs through the COVID-19 pandemic while preparing for the schedule that has yet to materialize.
Yet Marana is, by comparison, a step ahead. Following approval from their respective school districts, Marana, Mountain View, Sunnyside and Desert View have started practicing and are beyond Phase 1 of the AIA’s re-entry plan. Salpointe Catholic and Pusch Ridge, the lone private high schools with football programs in Southern Arizona, have been able to operate under their own direction.
Although these schools have started preparing for the ’20 season, opponents for the season-opening week are mysteries. The opponent scheduled first on Marana’s calendar?
“No idea,” said Ramirez, who’s entering his third season in charge. “We don’t have a schedule. I want to compete on Oct. 3, but that may or may not happen. I guess I’ll just sit around and wait to see who we’re playing.”
Sunnyside coach Glenn Posey can sympathize. When asked if he knew which team would be the Blue Devils’ first opponent, he replied, “Maybe — I don’t know.” MaxPreps.com lists Sunnyside’s first game as being at Cienega on Oct. 16, but “no, we don’t know for sure,” Posey said. “We’re still trying to add games.”
Ramirez has been pushing for the Tigers’ first game to be slated for Oct. 23, four days after Marana’s tentative start date for in-person classes.
A late-October or early-November start could be beneficial for programs that have been meeting mostly via Zoom over the last six months. Players can lift weights with teammates in an organized weight room setting and practice football like they would in a regular offseason. Strength training has been a cornerstone of Sunnyside’s program for decades.
“The reality is the boys need the structure, the discipline and the weight-room work. There are only a few that could handle doing that on their own,” Posey said. “Our recipe for success is hard work in that weight room — and when you take that away from us, it makes it difficult for us to build the program the way we’d like to.”
Salpointe Catholic and Pusch Ridge Christian were the first teams in Southern Arizona to begin in-person workouts with temperature checks and wellness exams. The Lancers’ schedule remains “a little up in the air right now,” first-year coach Eric Rogers said. “It’s our intent and goal to be ready on Oct. 2, but we don’t know who we can play yet.”
Rogers added that Salpointe could face Casa Grande on Oct. 2, but is willing to face a Tucson-area opponent “if and when they’re ready to play. Otherwise, we can play Phoenix schools, if they want to play us, or anyone who is willing to schedule us.”
The question of when Southern Arizona teams will play hasn’t overshadowed the satisfaction of returning to practice.
Just over two months ago,Canyon del Oro coach Dustin Peace circulated a petition asking for the season to start in the spring. At the time, playing football in the fall seemed unrealistic for a state with surging positive tests for coronavirus.
Now it’s a reality, and practicing has been a bright spot in a year to forget.
“It’s great, because being locked down for four months has been complete torture,” Posey said. “The kids missed it and we missed the kids. … It’s been a lot, but it’s better than sitting at home.”
Teams like Marana, Sunnyside and Salpointe haven’t worn pads in practice, but have slowly introduced elements of the game. Sunnyside will introduce sharing footballs this week, meanwhile Marana recently has been using footballs while sanitizing them after use.
Contact or no contact, ball or no ball, returning to the field “has been a true blessing,” Ramirez said.
“Going from sitting on the couch to coming back to a little bit of normalcy,” Ramirez said. “We’re in a good spot to compete and work out and give these kids something.
“I know a lot of coaches are disgruntled for the right reasons, but I’ve tried to find the positives and engage with these kids in a positive way to keep them sane. These kids need to be doing something. I think a lot of people aren’t taking the mental health aspect of the structure of in-person schooling and interacting with their peers — it’s taken a toll on them.
“Do I think we’re going to be behind the eight-ball compared to everybody else? Yeah, but my focus is on how much can we gain out of the time that we have to get these kids ready for Friday nights.”