Santa Fe athletes, coaches endure pandemic sports season of high times, hard knocks

Is playing high school sports worth it this year?

The easy answer Luke Padilla could have given was an unequivocal yes.

But Padilla, a talented senior running back for the Capital High School football team, saw the downside as well in a pandemic-stained year that has pushed athletes, coaches and fans to the limit.

The shortened football season in New Mexico — six weeks — was a chance for Padilla to prepare for his jump to collegiate competition in the fall. He kept himself in shape throughout the pandemic as he waited for his chance to play, either at Capital or at Fort Lewis College, the Durango, Colo., school that offered him a scholarship.

But some of his teammates were not ready for the season, spending several months waiting to learn whether they’d even have a chance to play.

When they finally got on the field, some got hurt. In retrospect, Padilla wonders whether playing was worthwhile for them.

“As far as preparing for my next year, it was a good thing to play,” Padilla said. “For the other players, especially the younger kids, there were plenty of injuries, and they’ve got to come back and play in four months [this fall]. So, they’re already at a disadvantage.”

Such trade-offs have been everywhere in New Mexico prep sports.

The challenges, athletes and coaches agree, are unlike anything they’d ever imagined, let alone faced.

First was the six-month wait to see if there would be a season in any sport. That finally ended in January when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered the reopening of all schools, which allowed athletes to return to action.

Then came the plan by the New Mexico Activities Association, which oversees high school athletics, to play all 13 sanctioned sports in a five-month period starting in February.

Some sports, like football and cross-country, had just five-week seasons. The condensed schedules led to a time in April when 10 sports were either competing or conducting preseason practices at the same time.

Athletes, like everyone else, ran the risk of contracting COVID-19. A positive case, which would prompt a 10-day pause in a team’s season under the state Public Education Department’s guidelines, could be a season-ender, as was the case for Santa Fe High’s football program, which canceled its final two games after one player tested positive for the virus in March.