Devon Grubbs

Desert Vista junior running back Devon Grubbs said wearing a mask under helmets has been difficult, but worth it if it means getting to a point where the regular season can begin on Oct. 2.

The first week of football practice for high school programs in Ahwatukee and across the East Valley offered a slight sense of normalcy for both players and coaches. 

But even as players snapped their chin straps and adjusted helmets, several signs pointed to a world still in the middle of a pandemic. 

“Spread out,” “6-feet apart,” “masks on” and “keep your distance” are phrases that were repeated constantly by Desert Vista’s athletic training staff. There is little to no pushback from players as coaches often echo those demands. 

The Thunder are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of players and coaches leading up to the season. Coaches are expected to wear masks and players must wear them under their helmets. 

“If you would have told me we would be wearing helmets with masks underneath them, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Desert Vista junior running back Devon Grubbs said. “It’s kind of hard because it keeps in the heat. But at the same time, it’s what we have to do.”

Desert Vista had one confirmed positive case of COVID-19 when workouts first began in June. Since then, no other players or coaches have reported an illness. 

Addressing his players – who were observing social distancing – at the end of the first day of practice, Desert Vista Head Coach Dan Hinds praised them for their efforts to follow the district’s guidelines.

“I don’t think enough adults are telling these kids how proud we are of them,” Hinds said. “It’s just great to see this group of guys living through a pandemic and doing everything they have to do to get to this point. I’m so happy for them we are at this point right now with helmets on our heads the first day. We just hope to keep moving forward and things work out.”

The Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted to adopt the recommendations from its medical advisory committee for a return to fall activities. 

Football, being the most at-risk sport for virus transmission, had stricter guidelines put in place for games to begin as scheduled on Oct. 2. Two of the three metrics can be or already have been achieved by several counties. But achieving 10 cases per 100,000, which is recommended by SMAC, is the challenge. 

Even so, AIA Executive Director David Hines has said the guidelines can be updated. If and when that happens remains to be seen.

Districts are still able to conduct practices however they see fit, based on the latest COVID-19 data. Tempe Union announced on Sept. 10 that its teams could begin contact between players while in shoulder pads and helmets. 

That announcement brought a new energy to the Mountain Pointe football program. 

“It feels nice to be back, it feels great to be in helmets and everything,” Pride junior quarterback Amier Boyd said. “It almost feels like things are kind of going back to normal.”

Eric Lauer, in his first year as the head coach at Mountain Pointe, said putting on pads has helped his coaching staff to truly begin evaluating players. But he recognizes the importance of continuing to follow guidelines from the district in order to progress to Oct. 2. 

“We’re thankful,” Lauer said. “Earlier, it was like putting food on the table but not letting you eat it. Now we get to speed things up but do it in the safest way possible. Putting on the helmets, it made us feel like, ‘man, this season might actually happen.’”

At other schools across the East Valley, water bottles, backpacks, shoes and other parcels of clothing lay nearby instead of tucked away inside a locker like in years past. 

“It’s definitely different,” Williams Field senior wide receiver Myles Taylor said. “Everybody is going to do what we have to do in order to play. But it feels amazing to just be out here with my team. It’s almost a relief.”

Higley joined its district counterpart in helmets and shoulder pads last week. Senior quarterback Kai Millner, a California-Berkeley commit, said he had been looking forward to things returning to some resemblance of normal. 

“It’s amazing,” Millner said. “I mean, we’ve been out here a little bit but to officially start the season, to come out here and put on the helmets and see everybody working, it’s super exciting.”

Nearly 10 miles north of Higley in east Mesa, Desert Ridge kept things light on the first official day of practice in helmets. Head coach Jeremy Hathcock limited his team to conditioning drills for the Labor Day holiday. 

On Tuesday, however, the intensity was turned up a notch. 

Running backs worked with one another in a forced-fumble drill. Skill players, including senior quarterback Austin Kolb, worked the run-pass-option. Linemen hit the five-man sled with Angelo Paffumi, who was previously the head coach at nearby Skyline. 

Hathcock said it was “special” to see his team in helmets for the first time. 

“Man, when you realize you’re one of 20, 25 states to do that, it’s a special treat,” Hathcock said. “It’s one of those things where you feel like an 8-year-old in pop warner getting ready to play your first game again.”

Kolb, who is poised for a breakout senior year, said he was grateful to be at this point. Just three months ago, when Arizona was at the peak of the pandemic with nearly 4,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, the possibility of having a fall sports season looked grim. 

Now, however, Kolb hopes to progress through the necessary practices to get to kickoff in early October. He believes his entire team is ready to take on the season. 

“It feels great to just be with my teammates practicing again,” Kolb said. “We had a lot of uncertainty during this pandemic. To just be back out here, it feels great. 

“We know there was a lot of time wasted. We are just using all the time we have every day to get better as a team.”

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