Rebuilding America: Restoring normalcy starts with playing, even if it means no fans

Matt Hollinshead, mhollinshead@daily-times.com

FARMINGTON — New Mexico’s sports scene is taking small, gradual steps toward resuming some form of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic, but those involved are cautious because of the unknowns.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on May 13 that contact-less sports would be permitted as part of the state’s reopening plans, but contact sports are not allowed to resume just yet.

The New Mexico Activities Association voted on May 15 to oversee summer programs and give all returning student-athletes clean academic slates for the Fall 2020 semester, but offseason team workouts and practices are on hold until at least June 15.

It’s also unknown whether sports events will start back up in the fall.

With Arizona and Colorado allowing professional sports to resume without fans, and San Jose State University athletics planning to play fall sports without fans, The Daily Times spoke with athletic personnel in San Juan County about whether that scenario would be plausible here in the Land of Enchantment.

The general consensus was that playing games without fans present, as intolerable as it may be, is better than playing no games altogether.

Farmington's Jordan Vickers throws a pitch against Miyamura on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, at Ricketts Park in Farmington. The 2020 spring sports campaigns came to a halt in mid-March and were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s been done before

The New Mexico State Basketball Championships draws hundreds of fans to the intimate, breathtaking aura of DreamStyle Arena, located at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The 2020 tournament was no different on March 10. Then on March 11, the virus made its way to New Mexico.

To help limit the spread, the NMAA took the drastic measure of completing the rest of tournament, but with no fans being allowed to attend the final three days of action on March 12-14. 

Players took the floor in front of empty rows of chairs. Friends and family members were not allowed inside and were forced to wait outside the arena. Fans had to watch games through the National Federation of High Schools network for a fee.

Putting contingency plans in place

In the event that sports can resume starting in the fall minus fans, Navajo Prep football coach Rod Denetso said fans will have to get creative on how to view games, whether it’s through YouTube, Facebook Live or another such avenue to livestream games.

“I think it’s going to be an adjustment for a lot of people,” Denetso said. “It’ll be interesting, man. It is different.”

And schools like Aztec are already set up to do just that because they broadcast games and updates through the NFHS network and social media.

“We’ve been live streaming our games for years. We’re set up to broadcast our games. We’ll figure something out,” Aztec Athletic Director Bryan Sanders said.

Kirtland Central's Cameron Crawford makes a fadeaway jumper against Aztec during a District 1-4A basketball game on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Lillywhite Gym in Aztec. It's unknown when the 2020-2021 New Mexico sports campaign will start due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact of offseason training

Denetso, who’s been contacting coaches in Arizona and Texas to get a feel for how those states’ outlooks are shaping up, said it takes teams four to six weeks to have players be conditioned for football, particularly linemen that play on both sides of the trenches.

“Our training is critical. Even the football terminology, we (normally) start that in March,” Denetso said.

And the fall campaign is no guarantee, prompting some to get a head start on training for winter and spring sports, too.

Navajo Prep football and basketball player Dontrell Denetso said he throws around a football and does agility drills to be ready for the fall. He also said he has a basketball hoop set up at home so he can fine-tune his shooting form and be ready to jump right into basketball season.

Either way, the sprinting and agility drills he does in the offseason help him build and maintain his quickness for both football and basketball.

“I think I’ll be ready, just working out,” he said. “I’ve got to train like the season’s still going to happen. I’ve just got to train mentally.”

Season-by-season approach?

Because of the unknown timeline of when sports will resume, whether fall sports can proceed or if winter sports may be the soonest group to begin, Bloomfield girls basketball coach Tom Adair said he’d support a season-by-season blueprint so winter and spring teams won’t have to wait on the status of fall sports to put a plan in place.

“That’s a huge part of it, just to be prepared for it. You can’t just give up. Eventually, we’re going to come up with a vaccine. I’ve been in touch with (my team). You’ve got to plan for it,” Adair said. “I’m hoping we can get back to some type of normalcy. We’re all in the same boat because we’re not able to practice. We’ve just got to be careful. I’m hoping toward June, we’ll know a little bit more.”

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‘We need to play’

Adair said athletics are extensions of the classroom, adding one learns to how to get along with others and overcome challenges through sports.

The first two steps athletic programs seek are to work their way back toward practicing again and then suiting up for live games, whether the stands are full or empty.

“I think we’ll be alright without (fans). It’d help our team come together. No outside distractions, just focusing on the game,” Dontrell Denetso said. “I just want to play, be out there.”

Added Sanders: “It’s better than nothing. It’d be something for our kids.”

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 and on Twitter at @MattH_717.

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