LAS CRUCES, NM (KTSM) — After spending more than 70 days at the Arizona Grand in Phoenix, both of New Mexico State’s basketball teams can finally return home to Las Cruces and practice in their beloved Pan American Center.
In an announcement made by the Office of New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday, the state will now allow intercollegiate athletics to practice in the state by amending their COVID-safe practices for college sports. Up until this point, a school’s ability to practice was based on virus cases and positivity rates of the counties in which those schools resided in. Dona Ana County, has been in the red since the start of basketball season, which is why the Aggies have not been permitted to practice in Las Cruces — until now.
The Aggies men’s basketball team relocated to Phoenix in November and have played just three games this season. The New Mexico State’s women’s basketball team has since joined the men in Arizona, but both teams have paused team activity in due to positive cases of COVID-19. That makes their return to campus a little more complicated, but make no mistake about it, the Aggies are coming home.
“It’s my desire to bring the student-athletes back as soon as we are able to,” said New Mexico State director of athletics Mario Moccia. “They [coaches] are all very excited that we’ll be able to practice and while I haven’t spoken to any student-athletes, I’m sure they are very excited as well.”
The ruling is contingent on the continuation of strict testing procedures. New Mexico State is currently testing their student-athletes three times per week and will go even further than what the NCAA or WAC requires in order to stay in good standing with the governor.
“One of the requirements that’s in there [governor’s ruling] is PCR testing three times per week,” said New Mexico State deputy athletic director and chief operating officer, Braun Cartwright. “We’ve been doing that with our men’s and women’s basketball teams as well as our volleyball team for the past couple weeks.”
While the Aggies are set to begin practicing in Las Cruces, they still cannot play games in the state. Officials in the athletic department will begin making calls to find a viable option to host Division I athletics in all sports. The option being looked at most: El Paso.
“Now that we’re not worried about the practice part of it, we’ll ramp up finding what locations in El Paso that might be able to have Division I athletic contests,” said Moccia. “It has to be able to handle a collegiate game — whether it’s baseball, basketball, whatever. The secondary consideration would be televising the games. With our existing contracts and things like that, we really need these games on TV.”
As KTSM reported in November, El Paso is the most logical destination to play games because of the proximity between Las Cruces and the Sun City. Just 42 miles south — a short 45-minute bus ride there and back — all while being able to practice in Las Cruces and sleep in their own beds. It is unclear at this time what New Mexico State’s preference would be, but all options in El Paso are on the table including local high school gyms and fields.
Another aspect of this ruling is how New Mexico State will proceed with their football program. With restrictions in place long before the start of the college football season, the Aggies were just one of just three FBS teams not playing this past fall. New Mexico State is the only program scheduled to play in the spring and while the team is set to begin practice of Friday in Las Cruces, it is still too early to tell where those games will be taking place beginning on Feb. 20.
“We really don’t know if and when games will be allowed to take place in the state, so it behooves us to make plans outside the state,” said Moccia. “We have talked — semi-officially — with a couple different locations in the state of Texas to potentially have those football games. Also, those games could turn into road games.”
While Tuesday was a step in the right direction for the return of athletics in the state of New Mexico, the ruling does not pertain to high school athletics in the state. As it stands, high school sports are not permitted to practice and cannot begin their respective seasons under the current restrictions set forth by the governor.