San Diego-area prep sports begin climb back from COVID-19 shutdown

Joe Heinz, pictured in May, is the CIF San Diego Section commissioner.
(File / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A year ago, Joe Heinz was one of several candidates to become the California Interscholastic Federation San Diego Section commissioner, following Jerry Schniepp, who would officially retire in July.

When Heinz’s selection was announced Feb. 11, 2020, the then-coordinator of athletics in the Sweetwater Union High School District figured he had the section winter championships plus the entire spring to acclimate to the job.

The smiles soon disappeared, and there has been nothing even resembling “normal” for Heinz since.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit faster than anyone could have imagined. Although the section winter playoffs managed to squeak in, several state championships were canceled heading into the title matches.

Spring sports, along with classroom education, were shut down. Campuses, including fields and gymnasiums across the county, were eerily empty and it seemed that almost every month, hoped-for restarts were dashed.

Now, Heinz is finally seeing a return to athletics, albeit on a limited basis for sports including cross country and swimming/diving.

“It has been monumental, a year like no other,” said Heinz, who has had to explain to parents, teachers and students that while high school sports are important physically and mentally, he must follow guidelines and wait to take action until the health risks are greatly diminished.

He’s aware that students in the under-20 age group as a whole have not been nearly as affected as senior citizens, but there is concern that those students could take the coronavirus home and infect other age groups.

But the shutdown in the San Diego area — which has been in the purple, or most restrictive, tier of the state’s reopening framework — ended last week when more than a dozen cross country dual meets were held.

“I couldn’t be happier that we’re finally getting athletics up and running again,” Heinz said. “We’re looking forward to some semblance of a season, even if it’s modified.”

Season 2 sports golf, tennis and track and field also get started this month.

The next less-restrictive tier — red — has baseball, field hockey, girls lacrosse and softball. Orange-tier sports are football, gymnastics, boys lacrosse, soccer, volleyball and water polo. The yellow tier would allow basketball, wrestling and cheer.

The hope is that the numbers of coronavirus cases drop dramatically, but clearly some sports are still in jeopardy.

Even the always upbeat Heinz realizes that despite multiple vaccines in circulation, it will be weeks, maybe months, before the numbers get low enough to have those other sports.

On the plus side, the Season 2 sports that are set to start — track and field, golf and tennis — have a better than average chance of getting in a full season. Some of the others might have to consolidate their seasons.

State championships in the Season 1 category have been eliminated, and the CIF office is still holding out hope for section championships. All of the Season 2 sports’ section and state championships are still scheduled.

The sports able to start this month have the advantage of being outdoor activities where social distancing is possible.

“There will be limitations, even on those sports now starting,” said Heinz, referring to the state blueprint that requires masks to be worn when not competing and social distancing with a 6-foot radius.

“The goal is seeing games with kids playing again, even on a modified level,” he said. “There might be restrictions on the number of spectators and how we run events. Health and safety come first, but we have seen it work in other states and we’ve studied what they’ve done.”

For example, Arizona had a full fall schedule, including football, but the stands were virtually empty, snack bars were shut down and every possible precaution was taken.

“The key right now for the sports we can have is to be flexible and make it work,” Heinz said. “We’ll have some difficult challenges and decisions in every area, and to say we’re anxious to get going is an understatement.

“Some districts and some schools might have specific problems. Schools do not have to have on-campus learning for athletic teams to participate, but the hope, of course, is a gradual return to the classroom, too.”

“It’s a start, there is some movement — finally,” he said. ◆