Coach Derek Wahlstrom

Coach Derek Wahlstrom leads Estrella Foothills football practice.

West Valley high school football teams are tentatively ready to kick off on Friday nights. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic halted spring sports throughout Arizona in March, numbers of positive tests have declined to a level the Arizona Interscholastic Association and its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee found suitable to begin regular season varsity games on Oct. 2, with some scrimmages scheduled this week.

“We have been given the opportunity to compete in football. However, it will take all of us—coaches, players, parents, fans and administrators—to implement all of the modifications,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said.

“This is critical for us to stay on the current track. It is equally as critical that all involved understand the importance of adhering to the guidance of athletic trainers and medical personnel.”

Decisions for each district’s schools were left to individual leadership. Most West Valley area districts opted to begin football, barring a dramatic increase in COVID-19 numbers, on Oct. 2. 

The first day back at practice for many, after months of online meetings and individual home workouts, was cause for elation.

“It’s so much the best part of my day,” Estrella Foothills coach Derek Wahlstrom said. “Being out here and actually seeing everyone, without them just being names and emojis on the screen, it’s fantastic.”

Even with games tentatively scheduled to come back and practices in full swing, some districts are not allowing all drills or game simulations by limiting contact.

Players for Verrado High School of the Agua Fria Union High School District, for example, were still unable to hit and block in practice sessions.

Coach Shawn Copeland said he cannot fully grasp the talent and physical ability of his Verrado roster or solidify the playbook without being allowed limited contact and more game-like experiences on the practice field. Other schools in the district are in the same situation.

“We’re still not able to tackle each other or make contact, so we can’t have the kids compete against each other,” Copeland said. “So once the restrictions loosen up, the excitement will be back up.”

Even so, Verrado senior linebacker Austin Bilski said he is happy just to put pads and a helmet on with a schedule set for play.

“It’s been great seeing everyone again. After like six months we just wanted to get out here,” he said.

While many surrounding schools prepare for scrimmages and opening days in early October, those in the Tolleson Union High School District are still yet to take the practice field. Five of the district’s six high schools tentatively begin their seasons on Oct. 16 or 23 for shortened 5-6 game campaigns. Tolleson Union High will not play the first of its mere four games until Oct. 30. Sierra Linda High had just two games scheduled as of reporting. The AIA had not yet released an official stance on playoff qualifications and seeding for teams playing shortened seasons.

Member school Westview High was one of the district teams that, after losing out on months of training early in the pandemic, held several practices without a football in June before a second shutdown.

“They were anxious and wanted to start coming out to lift and get better right away. We did a lot of Zoom calls and meetings with virtual spring football. We just had to do what we could,” Westview coach Nick Gehrts said.

As of the latest reporting, TUHSD schools are still not allowed to do team weight training or conditioning, much less formal practice, even with the first game of the season less than a month away for some. Westview will play a five-game season beginning on Oct. 16. 

“You just try to control what you can control,” Gehrts said.