Saguaro boys’ basketball coach Lucas Ramirez

Saguaro boys’ basketball coach Lucas Ramirez said he was thankful his team will have a season after the AIA Executive Board voted Tuesday to move forward with winter sports.

Just days after the Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted to cancel the winter sports season amid the surge in COVID-19, the board reversed its decisions Jan. 12.

The 5-4 re-vote in favor of winter sports beginning on Jan. 18 followed an identical margin to cancel them. Jim Love, who represents the Flowing Wells Unified Arizona School Boards Association, changed his vote and joined proponents of the Jan. 18 start date.

Love said his change of heart was largely due to his desire to give schools the choice whether to have sports on campus. 

“This has been a very difficult decision for the Executive Board,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said in a press release. “They have been weighing the concerns of the medical community, including the AIA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, and the requests by our member schools. We all want winter sports to happen, but it must be done safely.”

The AIA board’s initial decision to cancel winter sports was met with backlash from players, parents and coaches across the state.

A small protest of athletes formed outside AIA offices shortly after the initial Jan. 8 announcement to cancel winter sports. A group of athletes and parents returned Jan. 12.

 A petition calling for a re-vote was created by a North Canyon student and shared across several social media platforms. The petition was signed by over 30,000 people in just a few hours.

Additionally, administrators and coaches immediately began brainstorming basketball, soccer and wrestling leagues independent of the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Several schools said they would explore options to give athletes an opportunity to compete at some capacity. 

“We are grateful for the AIA’s reversal of the decision,” Saguaro boys’ basketball coach Lucas Ramirez said. “We understand the realities of the virus and have respected it from the beginning.”

In approving the winter sports season, new recommendations were also adopted. 

The board voted unanimously to allow two parents or guardians per player to attend. Each school will be required to complete the AIA COVID-19 Athlete and Coach Monitoring Form on the day of athletic events. 

Those forms must be exchanged with opposing teams and will be monitored by officials. If the forms are not exchanged, officials will be pulled from the contest. 

Additionally, masks must be worn at all times by coaches, officials and athletes, even those actively participating. Hines said any school that violates the guidelines will lose access to officials. 

Ramirez said he and his team have done their best to follow strict guidelines since they were first able to begin practices in November. On Tuesday night, hours after the vote, he and his team returned to the court and practiced in masks. 

He acknowledged how difficult a decision it was for the AIA, and how thankful he is for the opportunity to play after initially looking grim. 

“While this decision was not an easy one to make, we will honor it by doing the right thing every day by continuing to follow protocol and procedures given to us by health and medical professionals,” Ramirez said. 

The AIA Executive Board emphasized throughout Tuesday’s zoom meeting the need for schools, players, coaches and parents to abide by the new guidelines to ensure the safest possible environment for winter sports to continue. 

Overall, they acknowledged the possible risk to the already strained healthcare system across Arizona due to COVID-19 and emphasized it will take action from all of those involved to make the season a success. 

“This has been a very challenging situation. While we all desire to have our high school students in school and participate in interscholastic sports and activities, we feel it is imperative to consider the recommendations of medical professionals based on their expertise,” the board said in a joint statement.

“Reinstating the winter season poses a risk to the healthcare system, which could impact students who may be injured. We believe that these additional modifications will serve to mitigate this risk as much as possible. Our member schools and families must understand how critical it is to adhere completely to all modifications.”