Is it? Can it be?
Yes, New Mexico will once again be dealing with the s-word.
Drink it in, savor it, New Mexico coaches and athletes. Sports in the state are due to return next month after nearly a year’s absence.
But, clarification is needed before anything can become official.
Tuesday, the state’s Public Education Department informed the New Mexico Activities Association that interscholastic sports can begin on Feb. 22, which came on the heels of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s announcement earlier Tuesday that students could return to classrooms as of Feb. 8 in hybrid mode, meaning only certain numbers of students could return on certain days.
And that paved the way for sports to return.
“It’s just the start, it’s the beginning,” NMAA Director Sally Marquez said Tuesday in her weekly NMAA interview. “Now, it’s like, where do we finish? We need to make sure that we do things right so that we have a finish line. We need to mask-wear, social-distance, follow the governor’s public health orders.”
In an emergency NMAA meeting Wednesday morning at which the PED’s announcement was discussed, the board had to put the brakes on anything firm about a Feb. 22 start date and the adoption of a modified sports calendar until New Mexico school superintendents can get more information from the PED.
To that end, the NMAA Board of Directors are holding a special meeting this Monday to discuss the proposed calendar, which includes seasons for all scholastic sports.
“The NMAA is still very excited that our students will be able to return to the sports and activities that they love next month,” Marquez said in a statement released Wednesday. “We understand, however, that in order to make the best decision for the kids of New Mexico, superintendents would like clarification from the Public Education Department regarding several topics still needing resolution.”
NMAA Associate Director Dusty Young told the News-Sun Wednesday night that there won’t be much more detail to offer before Monday’s meeting.
“That’s really the only information we have,” Young said. “Our superintendents need some answers from the PED, and that’s been outlined in the press release.”
There has been a tentative NMAA sports schedule since late last year, which brings the fall, winter and spring sports back in stages, with fall sports starting in February, spring sports ending in late June, and winter sports played in between.
That will be a major topic of discussion on Monday.
“That’s when they will revisit the proposed calendar,” Young said, “so we’re hopeful that we can have some answers at that point. But, that will be dependent on the information superintendents will be able to collect from the Public Education Department.”
Whatever shakes out from Monday’s meeting, sports are expected to return in February. Finally.
“Oh, we’re so excited,” Hobbs Athletic Director Brenda Wilson said. “We are just elated to be able to offer our kids a chance to play something, some sports. We assume we’re going to get them all in.”
“I’m excited for our kids,” Lovington Athletic Director Robert Arreola said, “and the city of Lovington, and really, kids across the state. This is something good for our state and for our kids, so I’m very excited.”
A lot, though, still has to happen in the next few weeks.
“Now the planning and the procedures and all that kind of stuff are really going to come into play,” Wilson said, “because now we have to figure out how to stack 10 months of sports into four months.”
Wilson says that, possibly – and she stressed the word possibly – volleyball matches and cross country meets could be taking place the weekend of Feb. 27.
“That’s what we’re hoping,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re strict with our COVID models, so we don’t have spikes in cases. That’s if everything goes according to plan and we keep kids safe and we don’t have COVID outbreaks. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
“That is the plan,” Arreola said. “The NMAA is waiting to finalize all the schedules … and we’ll move forward.”
Anyone expecting the kickoff of football season at Watson Stadium, or anywhere else locally or statewide, will likely have to wait a little longer.
“You can’t just throw football kids out there with a week of preparation and expect them to hit and tackle and play,” Wilson said. “Safety for the kids is our top priority.”
“You require more kids to run an offense, defense, special teams, and everything else,” Arreola said. “It does require more time. However, the sooner we get them into shoulder pads and acclimated, it’s going to make it easier when we do return.”
The COVID requirements had coaches dealing with pods when they were preparing last summer for a fall season – 1 coach to 4 players.
“They haven’t changed the pod sizes yet; hopefully soon,” Wilson said. “And we can’t have any contact yet; hopefully that will change soon. We’re still under the same guidelines we were on in the summer.”
Wilson said that all levels – including junior high, freshman and junior varsity sports, as well as varsity – are slated to return. That’s a good thing for obvious reasons, but that also means more prep work, more games and playing fields and arenas, more pieces of equipment and balls that need to be sanitized.
“How we’re going to get kids in and out of practice safely,” Wilson said. “We’ve been working on this for months, actually, but now it’s real. We worked on it with the hope that it was going to be real, but now it is.”
If the rollout of sports has to proceed slowly, if the seasons have to be abbreviated, so be it. Sports are coming back, and the coaches, athletes and administrators will take any form of it they can get.
“They need to understand it’s a privilege to do what we do,” Arreola said. “I think those kids and coaches and all of us will understand that and appreciate it.”
“We’re taking baby steps,” Wilson said, “but we’re ready to walk.”