DONNA — In the wake of multiple county and state-level public health orders that postponed fall high school sports, schools and athletic districts across the Rio Grande Valley have been quickly trying to reconfigure their schedules and protocols on the fly in time for a delayed start to the season.
The University Interscholastic League, the governing body which oversees most public high school athletics in Texas, pushed back the return of on-campus athletic practices and extracurricular activities for Class 5A and 6A schools statewide to Sept. 28.
Class 1A-4A schools were allowed to resume practices by the UIL on Aug. 3, but county-level public health orders in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties have prevented local teams from returning to the practice field.
One of the Valley districts facing the most obstacles in returning to competition is District 32-6A, home to Donna North, Weslaco High and Cameron County’s six 6A schools.
“We’ve met and put together some schedules, but with the UIL changing our start dates and making adjustments, we’re having to come back and make revisions. As far as football, all the football coaches have met and we’ve come up with a few plans. It’s just going to depend on when we can get started,” Donna North athletic coordinator and head football coach Juan Cuevas said.
“Although nothing is concrete, we do have a few options that we believe can work, and if we’re able to move forward and have a football season, which we all would like. But, of course, we want to keep the safety of our football players, student-athletes in general and coaches in mind first when we develop plans to move forward with.”
Athletic coordinators, athletic directors and head coaches from all eight District 32-6A schools — Brownsville Hanna, Brownsville Rivera, Donna North, Harlingen High, Harlingen South, Los Fresnos, San Benito and Weslaco High — met after both counties and the UIL made their respective announcements regarding postponements to discuss the best path forward for their fall sports programs.
With 32-6A being one of many Valley districts divided by county lines, the primary area of concern for coaches was choosing a unified start time for practices to resume for football and other fall sports at all schools to prevent any from gaining a competitive advantage due to permitted county start times.
Cuevas and the 32-6A football coaches have tentatively agreed to set a collective return-to-practice date for early October followed by a quick preseason, noting that the fluidity of the region’s COVID-19 crisis makes everything subject to change.
“Originally when we first met, Cameron County school districts would be able to begin Sept. 8, and Hidalgo County (schools) would not be able to start until Sept. 28 and that would affect Weslaco High and Donna North in Hidalgo County and 32-6A. It was definitely a major discussion and if we left it the way it was, those Cameron County schools would be able to get a very big head start on Donna North and Weslaco High. I think the plans that we have now better aligns us and gives everybody involved a better situation across the board,” he said.
“We’re shooting to be able to start Oct. 5, and if that works out, we’ll be able to move forward with our season, have an acclimatization period, have a scrimmage and move forward.”
The novel coronavirus pandemic will also have some unique impacts on the schedule for this season, particularly with football.
The 32-6A football coaches have agreed to subdivide into two zones: a Northwest Zone and a Southwest Zone, a similar structural setup to some of the RGV’s other football districts.
The District 32-6A Northwest Zone will be composed of Donna North, Harlingen High, Harlingen South and Weslaco High, while the Southeast Zone will be made up of Brownsville Hanna, Brownsville Rivera, Los Fresnos and San Benito.
“We’re going to start playing our zones at the beginning of the season to be able to take care of our zone and our zone games first,” Cuevas said. “If we can continue, we’ll move forward with playing the teams in the other zone and be able to finish up our seven-game season.”
For Donna North and Weslaco, that means kicking off the season against different opponents.
The Panthers will square off against the Harlingen High Cardinals in their season opener on Oct. 23 in Weslaco before clashing with Cuevas’ Chiefs in a Week 2 battle on Oct. 30 at Bobby Lackey Stadium.
Donna North is slated to open up against Harlingen South in its regular season opener.
District 32-6A’s plan also currently calls for a two-week preseason with one scrimmage per team in Week 2 of the regular season. The plan will eliminate regular season non-district competition too, which will bring an end, at least temporarily, to many of the Valley’s top gridiron rivalries.
“We probably will not be able to play Donna High, other than maybe scrimmage them,” Cuevas said. “I’m not sure if Weslaco East and Weslaco High are trying to or will scrimmage each other, but we are looking to scrimmage Donna High, if it works out, the week of Oct. 16. Unfortunately, with how we’ve looked at everything and the way it’s going to work out, we probably won’t have a preseason or any pre-district games.”
“We’ll move forward right into our zones, if it works out, and get our zone play in. In case something happens where we have to stop play, at least we will have taken care of our zones and we’ll have representation,” he added. “It’s safety first and if we can move forward with a football season and other fall sports, then we will and we’ve got plans in place that we feel will put us in a good position.”