LAS CRUCES, NEW MEXICO (KTSM) – When the Las Cruces High School boys basketball team won the Class 5A state championship on March 14, 2020, no one could have foreseen that over 10 months later, it would be the last sporting event to be played in New Mexico.
“Sometimes, I don’t even think it happened,” Bulldawgs head coach William Benjamin said. “I haven’t really coached my kids since March in that tournament. No practices, no instruction.”
Since last March, when the New Mexico Activities Association canceled spring sports due to COVID-19, there have been no sporting events at the high school, collegiate, or professional level in the Land of Enchantment.
New Mexico United was permitted by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to practice in-state and travel out-of-state for its USL Championship soccer matches last summer. However, the state’s COVID-19 regulations did not allow New Mexico’s collegiate or high school teams to practice or play games in-state. That forced both the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University to relocate football (at UNM), men’s and women’s basketball out of state to live, take classes, practice and play games.
Earlier this week, state regulations were relaxed by the governor’s office, allowing the Aggies and Lobos to return to practice in New Mexico. While the universities still can’t play games in-state, prep coaches hope it’s a positive sign to come for high school athletics.
“If the Aggies and Lobos aren’t back in town doing something, the chance of high schools doing anything is slim to none,” Las Cruces football coach Mark Lopez said. “When it was announced they could come back into the state, I thought that was a big step (for high school sports).”
In December, the NMAA targeted February 1 as a start date for all prep athletics. However, the governor still hasn’t given the green light to practice or play games. Since March, 2020, nearly 167,000 New Mexicans have contracted COVID-19, and over 3,000 people have died from the virus in New Mexico.
Currently, the only thing programs in New Mexico can do is work out in four-person pods, with coaches overseeing activities. Masks are required at all times.
“Right now, the focus is getting the ok to start, and once we do, what does that mean?” said NMAA executive director Sally Marquez in her weekly online interview. “The goal is still to play all sports and I’m not going to change that goal until we’re told we have to change it.”
The governor’s office said the ability to test frequently and efficiently played a large role in allowing collegiate programs to return to practice in-state. While school districts in New Mexico are looking at potential testing programs, right now nothing is in place on a large-scale level.
“We all want to get more New Mexico K-12 children back in the classroom, first and foremost,” governor Press Secretary Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in a statement first provided to the Las Cruces Sun News on Tuesday. “We are always evaluating the facts of New Mexico’s COVID-19 situation, and the risks it presents to people all across our state, in order to make sure schools and school communities are in a position to keep children, families and staff safe. An environment where the risk of COVID spread can be limited can be created by an intercollegiate program with the resources to frequently and regularly test its members and affiliated staff, while that may not be as feasible at the scholastic level, but those conversations are ongoing.”
There have been multiple proposals issued by a variety of different coaches and administrators around the state in hopes of playing sports this year. One of them, championed by Lopez and Rio Rancho Cleveland football coach Heath Ridenour, would see sports from the fall, winter and spring played simultaneously.
Another idea would only apply to varsity sports; nothing below the varsity level would be played this spring.
“When we have the season, it will be bizarre,” Lopez said. “It will be something we’ve never seen before; the structure will be different, it will have to be. It would be in a short time frame, but at the end of the day it’s still all about giving the kids a chance to play.”
Lopez added that the currently-scheduled Feb. 1 start date for athletics is still very much up in the air. If the schedule gets pushed back again, coaches across the state are on board with attempting to get a season played, whenever and however it can happen. As of now, there is no “drop-dead” date for athletics to either begin, or get pulled off the table.
“It’s the adults that have to put the kids in position to be successful,” Gadsden football coach Dino Facio said. “Coaches, the NMAA and state officials don’t want to pull football; they want to come up with a way to play it safely. Right now, we don’t know what that will look like, but I really think it can be done. It’ll be a challenge but if we want the kids to get the most out of what they put in front of us, we have to find a way to make it work.”
NMAA meetings are scheduled for next week to attempt to hammer out plans for athletics to begin in earnest, but no decision allowing prep sports appears imminent from the state government.
“You’re talking about structure, a lot structure that we provide at this level for high school kids. You don’t have that at the next level,” Benjamin said. “So, this is really important.”
Until the moment that a decision either way is made, coaches and athletes statewide are doing their best to remain positive that COVID-19 conditions continue to improve in New Mexico, and that athletics will be given the green light, as vaccinations continue to get distributed around the Land of Enchantment, as well as nationwide.
“All parties want to do it; it’s just a matter of when. No one wants to pull the plug, especially for our, seniors,” Facio said. “They deserve for us to fight to the very end and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Tentative start dates for NMAA 2020-21 sports
Football (Feb. 1 start date, April 3 state championships)
Cross country (Feb. 15 start date, March 19-20 championships)
Volleyball (Feb. 15 start date, March 29-April 3 state championships)
Soccer (March 1 start date, April 5-10 state championships)
Spirit (March 22 start date, May 14-15 state championships)
Basketball (March 22 start date, May 3-8 state championships)
Swimming & Diving (March 22 start date, May 6 & 8 state championships)
Wrestling (March 29 start date, May 27-29 state championships)
Tennis (April 5 start date, June 14-19 state championships)
Baseball (April 5 start date, June 21-26 state championships)
Softball (April 5 start date, June 21-26 state championships)
Golf (April 5 start date, June 21-22 state championships)
Track & Field (April 5 start date, June 17-19 & 24-26 state championships)