Courtesy photo

NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez

About the only thing you'll hear more often than "happy holidays" these days at the New Mexico Activities Association is a phrase about not being ready to throw in the towel - as in not quite yet.

In repeated statements since the most recent board of directors meeting in early December, NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez has said the state's governing body for interscholastic events is remaining optimistic about the return of high school sports just six weeks from now.

The association has scheduled Feb. 1 as the start for football, a date that would start an avalanche of sports seasons condensed into a five-month window ending in late June. Preseason basketball, for instance, would start in late March and all spring sports April 5.

"We're not ready to throw in the towel right now," Marquez said in her final public address last week on the NMAA's YouTube page. "Right now what we need to do is stay positive. You know, the holiday season is coming up and I think all of us need to reflect back on family, on the health of our family and the support system that we have."

Ultimately the decision to return has nothing to do with the NMAA. The association needs the approval of state leaders, namely Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, to get sports up and running. If history during the pandemic is any indication, the chances of sports falling by the wayside are much better than of them actually returning.

Six weeks to go. Keep that towel handy.

The New Mexico Highlands men's basketball team was supposed to play at Chadron State on Saturday night, its fifth scheduled game of the season and last before a holiday break that would have taken the Cowboys into the first week of January.

All that has been canceled, obviously. NMHU is the only school in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference to call off its men's and women's basketball seasons, as well as all other fall and winter sports. The rest of the RMAC is up and running with basketball, with every team having played at least two games as of Sunday.

The loss of the season deprives Cowboys fans the chance of seeing two of the best men's teams in NCAA Division II this season. League rivals Colorado School of Mines and Colorado Mesa are currently ranked in the Top 25, with undefeated Mines No. 5. By all accounts, the Orediggers are a legitimate national title contender this season.

NMHU was scheduled to visit Mesa on Jan. 5 and host Mines at the Wilson Complex four days later. The Cowboys lost two of three meetings with Mines last season, losing to the Orediggers in the RMAC Tournament on March 3 - the last game Highlands played before this season was canceled, and the last until November of 2021.

The University of New Mexico football team may have lost five games in what was otherwise a sub-.500 season, but the Lobos managed to go undefeated in the one category that mattered most. Not one of the 3,926 COVID-19 tests conducted over the eight-week span of the 2020 season was positive.

Athletic director Eddie Nuñez made the announcement Friday, saying the final round of tests came the day after the team's last game Dec. 12.

It's a remarkable testimony to UNM's coronavirus bubble, one that came to life after the team was forced to relocate to the Las Vegas, Nev., area to avoid New Mexico's public health order in response to the pandemic.

The Lobos played seven games while taking up residence at a hotel in Henderson, Nev. They practiced and played home games at UNLV's Sam Boyd Stadium.

The lockdown has also forced the men's and women's basketball games out of the state. Both have moved to Texas; the men will remain in Lubbock for the time being, while the women are in Canyon.

Neither team reported a positive test last week; the men had 87 tests and the women 93. The two teams have combined for 295 tests since moving to Texas with no positives.

The Lobos men will open the Mountain West Conference schedule Monday night at Boise State. The Broncos were picked to finish second in the preseason poll, giving UNM (3-0) its stiffest test of the season to date.

This column first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of the Taos News.

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