The countdown is officially on.
The New Mexico Activities Association's board of directors formally adopted a sports calendar for what remains of the 2020-21 academic year, using Monday morning's special meeting to unanimously approve a start date of Feb. 22 for football, volleyball and cross-country, and March 1 for boys and girls soccer.
The board also approved game limitations for all sports, cutting football down to five games, soccer to 10 and basketball to 12. State tournaments would be drastically altered, calling for on-campus quarterfinal and semifinal games with championship events at neutral sites.
It remained unclear if the NMAA would allow playoffs for football. After polling the state's coaches and gathering input from athletic directors, the board discussed the matter at length in meetings last week and Monday without reaching a conclusion.
"Nothing is the same as it has been in the past," said NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez. "I need to get that out there because everybody has that idea in their head that for volleyball we're going to go to Santa Ana [Star Center], we're all going to be there and play on four courts. That's not how playoffs are going to be."
Cross-country, for instance, would be spread over two days with heavily staggered starts and all sporting events, from preseason practices to regular season games and state championship events, would require athletes and coaches to wear masks at all times.
Marquez said she pitched a proposal to state leaders to allow 25 percent capacity for fans. As of Monday, she said she hadn't gotten any feedback from the Public Education Department or the Governor's Office regarding spectators.
"I have not received anything and I do not believe that they would go, that they're going in that direction," Marquez said.
The Public Education Department told schools last week they could begin hybrid in-person classes as soon as Feb. 8, informing the NMAA that schools are required to be in session for two weeks before sports could return Feb. 22. The NMAA responded by tabling a decision to adopt the same calendar it approved Monday.
The board also approved a measure that allows football teams to immediately begin distributing helmets and pads to players, although COVID-19 sanitation guidelines prohibit schools from storing the gear in locker rooms. Traditional team-gathering spots, including dugouts for baseball and softball, are prohibited until further notice.
"There is no locker room use with the COVID guidelines, so storage of the equipment would have to be up to the school district," Marquez told the board. "And I caution that this equipment does not go home because of those issues. You never know what kids are going to do in their back yard and at the park when they have that equipment."
The NMAA set a Feb. 15 deadline for schools to declare whether they would field teams for traditional sports, adding that there would be no penalty for anyone opting out. She also said schools could join seasons late so long as they made the declaration to participate.
Marquez cited logistics for setting schedules, organizing officials and aligning districts for setting a deadline.
"We're going to have to accommodate schools coming in on Feb. 8, Feb. 15, you know we're going to have to accommodate all the way through," she said. "Our goal is let kids play, even if it's a few games we'd like for that to happen."
The issue some school districts face is simply the act of getting students back into the classroom just one week from now. Some board members suggested there are too many hurdles to overcome before classroom doors swing open.
"There's no way under those conditions for any school district of a significant size, Feb. 8 is entirely unrealistic," said board member Karen Trujillo, the Las Cruces Public Schools superintendent.
It also remains unclear if the state will actually ease the restrictions on social distancing, allowing pods to double or even triple in size by time practices officially begin. Under the current plan, football games would start the first weekend in March with the season ending less than a month later.
There was some discussion about possibly inverting the traditional winter sports with the fall schedule, a move that would have had basketball and swimming start this month and football getting pushed back further. It was quickly turned aside with board members citing overlap between the sports, a move that would force a number of smaller schools to opt out due to a lack of available athletes.
Board member Matt Moyer from Fort Sumner said it was time for the NMAA to pick a plan and stick to it. Last week's announcement that prep sports was returning created a buzz and excitement among student-athletes.
"These kids are starving for something," he said.
As good as Monday's news was for student-athletes, coaches and parents, the board cautioned that nothing is set in stone during a pandemic. Similarly, the ultimate decision to put kids back on the court and on the playing fields is up to the state, not the NMAA or its individual school districts.
Board President and Hobbs Superintendent T.J. Parks said the plan may be in place, but it's certainly not set in stone. He urged the board to brace for a future that may come with COVID-19-related outbreaks and potential shutdowns.
He also cautioned against looking at other states and comparing their situation to what New Mexicans have faced since the state's elected officials shut sports down last March.
"The realization for those of us that love the great state of New Mexico and been born and raised here; our policies are different than other states," he told the board. "We have to understand that. We have to live with that. We can't live on somebody else's policies and practices. I think we all have to understand that we can't look at this year as anything of normalcy."