Game On

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Sports is an activity and industry that was hit particularly hard due to COVID-19 restrictions and the complexities surrounding the contagious virus.

The higher the league, the more funds and resources to implement safety measures — like the playoff bubbles the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League put into place in fall 2020.

At the university interscholastic and high school levels, it becomes much tougher to put streamlined rules in place. But schools in the Rio Grande Valley have risen to the occasion and resumed or even completed seasons under unique COVID-19 conditions and mitigation strategies.

UTRGV Director of Athletics Chasse Conque explained the decision-making process and the “village” of support and oversight available on campus that supports the sports programs and community at large.

“It goes back to March and April of 2020 as we started to realize that COVID was not a flash in the pan and this was something that we were going to have to cope with for a long time,” Conque said. “It really starts with our campus — with UTHealth RGV, our school of medicine. The services, the council, the medical opinion and advice that we’ve been able to honor through that relationship and partnership has been a huge piece of our puzzle.”

Vaqueros athletics competes in a conference with teams across the western and midwestern U.S.

“There’s a lot of governing bodies involved — the CDC of course and the NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline has put out quite a few papers and guidelines to conferences,” Conque said. “Decisions are made really at the conference level.”

Changes include less time in shared locker rooms, increased testing — especially when traveling — and what Conque and staff call a “soft bubble” to limit exposure to non-team personnel as well as a limited capacity for UTRGV games.

In high school sports, the task is completely different. These coaches rely on encouraging players to do the right thing for their teammates.

McAllen High School girls soccer coach Patrick Arney says that explaining the importance of personal responsibility goes a long way for student-athletes who saw the 2020 season get canceled due to the pandemic. In 2021, the season is taking place under different circumstances.

“I’m telling their girls to stay within their ‘soccer bubble’ — their families and soccer players on the team,” Arney said. “Try to limit contact with others. I talk about the importance of staying safe so we don’t have to postpone or cancel any games. It’s their season and they remember that it got canceled last year. This year we can do something about it, but we got to be smart and stay safe.”

UIL soccer along with other winter and spring sports like track & field, baseball, and wrestling were postponed and then canceled for high schoolers in 2020.

Mario Ribera is the head coach for the girls soccer team at Sharyland High School. “They need to have love for what they do and dream big,” he said of keeping the players safe this season. “That will keep them away from parties and gatherings.”