By Colleen Sparks
Coaches and players are excited to get back into the swing of youth baseball, basketball, track and other sports in North Central after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many teams to stay on the sidelines or postpone games.
In order to protect the health of young athletes, coaches and parents, many local sports organizations and school teams have had to postpone and/or cancel games and practices since last spring. As children and teens return to play, there are new safety measures in place, including requiring everyone except the athletes to wear masks during games.
Coaches say while practices and games look different they are happy kids have a chance to exercise, learn athletic skills and socialize. They also say sports provide a sense of normalcy during this chaotic time.
Recreation Association of Madison Meadows & Simis (RAMMS) suspended fall sports because of the pandemic. Basketball season for RAMMS teams started a little later than usual and several games had to be canceled when some players tested positive for COVID, said Jon Simon, RAMMS director of the boys basketball program. Also RAMMS basketball teams practiced and played outdoors as experts say the virus spreads more easily indoors.
Players were required to wear masks walking to and from basketball courts but not while playing. Coaches, parents and referees were required to wear masks all the time at games.
Despite the challenges, the RAMMS basketball season went well, said Simon, who has two sons and a daughter who play RAMMS sports.
“Our goal was just get the kids out and moving, get exercise,” he said. “The games have gone surprisingly well. The kids have adapted. Parents have adapted.”
Opening day for RAMMS baseball teams is tentatively planned for Saturday, March 13, a few weeks later than normal, said Corey Loyd, RAMMS director of baseball. Loyd already has been helping his son Maddox, 9, practice.
Loyd and the other coaches are looking for fields where the baseball teams can practice as city of Phoenix parks are closed to organized sports practices. They may need to hold practices in other cities.
“For games we’re not going to have a field shortage and we’ll be just fine,” Loyd said. “I think it will be a little challenging for practices.”
AIMHIGH Elite Athletes Basketball Club had to temporarily shut down the program for a month at one time, then about three weeks another time, due to the pandemic, said Reggie Fox, director, owner and coach for the organization. Fox and his wife and five-year-old son had COVID-19 but have recovered from it.
AIMHIGH Elite is a basketball organization for boys and girls ages 5 to 18 that focuses on development and helping youths learn valuable life skills. The main location for practices is the Family Life Center at North Phoenix Baptist Church while it also holds sessions at the Arizona Recreation Center for the Handicapped (ARCH) Gym on west Colter Street. Fox spent more than 10 years coaching and developing college and professional players and played basketball at the University of Wyoming and professionally.
“Sports is a microcosm for life,” he said. “It’s a vehicle for principles off the court and it’s impacted us.”
AIMHIGH Elite reduced practices from three times a week to once a week and now is holding them twice a week as the number of COVID-19 cases has decreased in the community. Coaches and parents must wear masks at all times and the players wear masks going into and out of the gym but not while playing.
So Swift Athletics, a youth track and field club in North Central, had to shut down in March of last year because it is a USA Track & Field (USATF)-affiliated organization. Then it resumed practices in November, said Tawnie Martin, coach and founder and CEO of the organization. Youths ages 5 to 18 practice at Sunnyslope High School and run in meets all over the Valley. The group has given children and teens an outlet when other sports had to be canceled and running outside easily allows for social distancing, Martin said.
There were about 23 youths in the club before the pandemic started, then that number jumped to about 80 kids in November.
“You could tell the kids were happy to be able to see their friends,” Martin said. “It brings good energy to them, just being outside in general.”
To learn more about So Swift Athletics, visit facebook.com/SoSwiftAthletics.
The pandemic also caused delays and cancellations for games and practices in high schools around Arizona, said Seth Polansky, sports information coordinator for the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA). Winter sports started around late January, later than the usual start time of November.
Student-athletes on volleyball and other fall sports teams were required to wear masks when walking to and from games, but not while playing. Schools could decide how many spectators would be allowed in gyms, but the AIA requires fans to wear masks at all times, Polansky said.
While students have been cooperative, he said some parents have criticized the new safety requirements and cancellation of games.
“We just hope that everybody just bears with us,” Polansky said. “We’re doing the best we can to get our championships going.”