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Marquez stresses academics key to ‘play again’

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On Monday, Sally Marquez, New Mexico Activities Association executive director, sat down with J.P. Murrieta and gave an update on where we stand before the New Mexico high school athletic seasons begin. The one key difference with this interview is that the first semester grading period is coming to the end. Classes are either six weeks or nine weeks. If athletes have an F and do not have a 2.0 GPA, they will be ineligible for the next grading semester.

J.P. Murrieta: The governor recently updated the guidance on the public health order. How has that affected athletics at this point? What’s changed?

New Mexico Activities Association executive director Sally Marquez. (File Photo)

Sally Marquez: “There is one main change and that change is that all sports can workout in 9:1 pod size instead of 5:1. That’s 9 athletes per coach. Since this summer, we’ve been in pods of 5:1 and now the governor has opened it up for youth sports, so we are 9:1. When I say all sports, that means our contact sports are able to do that and that’s basketball, football, soccer, and wrestling. They are able to work out as well in the 9:1 pods.”

Murrieta: Are the athletes still required to wear masks?

Marquez: “That is still a requirement, mask-wearing. It has been OK in most sports, but the sport that’s really difficult right now is cross country; however, at this point cross country runners also have to wear masks.”

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Murrieta: Some school districts will continue remote/online learning throughout the first semester. I know we’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating because the question keeps coming up. Can they participate in athletics and activities?

Marquez: “They can, that is a school district and school administration decision. Right now, we are considered out of season coaching guidelines, but on October 5th we will start cross country, volleyball, and fall golf. It is up to the school district and their administration whether they want to participate in athletics or not, even though they are remote learning.”

Murrieta: With remote learning, have you seen, or do you foresee, any issues when it comes to scholastic eligibility for these student-athletes?

Marquez: “That is one thing I’ve talked to our administrators and our coaches about. We had a Zoom meeting last week with our cross country and volleyball coaches and we talked about how the season is about to start, and the one thing they need to focus in on right now is scholastic eligibility. Students are having a difficult time with remote learning. We took a poll last week to see how many kids were actually passing without any Fs and it was a minimal number of students that were passing and doing well. Our coaches are making sure that their athletes are doing well with remote learning. The six-week grading period is coming up, I think it might be this week, the nine-week grading period is in mid-October, and these athletes need to have a 2.0 GPA and no Fs in order to be eligible for sports.”

The NMAA Board of Directors voted on several COVID-19 bylaw amendments last week. Let’s go through some of them.

Murrieta: What happens to schools or athletic programs that cannot start or complete a season for health-related reasons?

Marquez: “There are so many health-related reasons. Maybe they missed a game because they’ve been shut down. Are they not able to participate in sports at all? There’s a lot of scenarios out there. The big message is that no school, no program, no team will be penalized for having to shut down for COVID-19 reasons.”

Murrieta: What do students need to know about physicals for the upcoming season?

Marquez: “Right now, as we get closer to starting, we need to make sure our student-athletes have physicals. Those returning athletes, they can use 2019-2020 physical instead of going to the doctor and getting a new physical for the 2020-2021 school year. Our board of directors voted in June that 2019-2020 is good for 2020-2021. However, there is a form that needs to be filled out by the parents, it’s a pre-participation form. It asks a lot of questions in regard to the health of the student-athlete. Did they have COVID-19? Have they had an injury since the last time they received a physical? If those answers are yes, then they are going to need to get a brand new physical for 2020-2021. The other athletes that need physicals are the ones that have not played sports ever and they did not play in the 2019-2020 school year.”

Murrieta: With the changes to athletic seasons, is there a minimum number of games or contests that are required for post-season eligibility?

Marquez: “We had a rule that said you needed to compete in 25% of the regular seasons’ games in order to be eligible for the postseason. However, the board of directors voted and decided we do not need to have that requirement this year. We have so many sports that are on top of each other and overlap and we want to make sure that all of our student-athletes are able to play the sports they love and be able to go to the postseason. For example, wrestling has been moved back and starts in April and ends in June, which usually does not overlap with track and field. Our wrestlers who are track runners and wrestlers who are softball players will be able to wrestle and then be able to qualify for the postseason without having to participate in 25% of the regular season.”

Murrieta: Can a team compete against another team from out-of-state this season?

Marquez: “We have many schools that border states Arizona, Colorado and Texas, and some of them schedule teams in those three states. Yes, they can compete against teams in those three states; however, they need to follow the governor’s quarantine rules. Right now, Colorado is not part of the quarantine rule so a New Mexico team would be able to play a team in Colorado and come back. But right now, Texas and Arizona are requiring a 14-day quarantine period so it would be very difficult for our teams to be able to play schools in Arizona and Texas right now. However, things change, and maybe by next semester when we have most of our sports that won’t be a requirement and they might be able to play teams from out of state.”

Murrieta: With the fewer number of teams and individuals qualifying for state in most sports, how will seeding and selection be affected?

Marquez: “That’s one thing we really need to get out. The board of directors voted, along with our commission, which is the athletic directors, they voted that district champions would qualify for state no matter what. We have reduced the number of teams that are going to state and that number is eight. In basketball, we used to have 16 and now we have eight. Volleyball had 12 and now we’re having eight. Football had 12 and now it’s down to eight. There are some classifications that have six districts and so that is six automatic qualifiers. Now we will only have two teams that we can take at-large. We will use our six criteria points, which we always have. The athletes, coaches, and parents need to understand that we might not have the best eight teams in the playoffs, but every single district is going to be represented because the district champ will get an automatic bid.”

Murrieta: Lastly, students, coaches, and parents have expressed their concerns leading to the return of sports. What is “your” main priority as we are one step closer to fall athletics?

Marquez: “I think the main priority right now is scholastic eligibility. We need to remember that we are education-based athletics. All those kids want to play and they’re excited about getting to play, right now we need to make sure they are looking at the classroom even if it is remote learning. That’s difficult and it’s different, but they have grades they need to focus on. They are going to have a six-week grading period, and the nine-week grading period is coming up, so that’s first and foremost. Secondly, we need to remember the emotional well-being of our student-athletes. I just touched upon making the playoffs, but this season is not about making the playoffs. It is about getting kids back active, teaching them life-long skills through athletics, getting them back with their coaches, getting them back with their teammates, that is what’s most important. Lastly, we’re still on track, October 5th is still our date and we are going to play again New Mexico.”