DON KETCHUM is a native of Phoenix. He was a sportswriter for The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette for nearly four decades. He covered high school sports on several occasions as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State sports. From 2008-14, he was a staff writer for, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Athletes are becoming accustomed to wearing masks

 OK, let’s see . . .

There is The Masked Singer. There is the Masked Dancer.

And among the newest kids on the block are The Masked Gators.

Xavier Prep soccer players Jaden Campbell, left, and Emmie Paulson are all masked up and ready to go (photo by Don Ketchum).

Xavier Prep’s two primary winter sports teams, soccer and basketball, have been wearing masks in actual competition, not just in practices, as part of the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s attempt to resurrect the seasons after first canceling them due to Covid virus concerns.

The wearing of masks by all school teams in games began when the condensed schedule began in January.

By most accounts, the adjustments were a bit difficult at first but now appear to be part of life in masks as we know it.

Everyone is required to wear them. Athletes, coaches, referees, athletic trainers, athletic support staff, parents and yes, even bloggers.

Xavier Prep's Mia Davis (No. 11 in white) battles Valley Vista player for the season-opening tip (basketball photos by Sr. Lynn Winsor).

The XCP Files talked to two players each from soccer and basketball as well as their coaches to get a read on how things have gone.

The soccer players are senior goalkeeper Jaden Campbell and senior defender Emmie Paulson, both captains. The basketball players are sophomore Mia Davis and senior Tori Saucedo.

Both teams will be in action on Tuesday (Feb. 23), soccer at home against Glendale Mountain Ridge and basketball on the road at Anthem Boulder Creek.

Senior guard Tori Saucedo drives toward the basket against Chandler.

Campbell tugged on her mask and said the adjustment has not been easy. The most difficult thing has been communicating with her teammates who play in front of her.

“At first, spit would be coming out of my mouth (and into the mask),’’ she said. “When I talked to my teammates during the game, my voice would still project, but it also was muffled.’’

She added that at least one Gator teammate uses an asthma inhaler, and Campbell was concerned about the player being able to breathe properly.

Paulson said that getting used to the mask was “part of a learning curve. For her, the biggest adjustment was with her vision because she could not see the ball very well near the lower part of her face as she would approach the ball.

“You really couldn’t see much of anything,’’ she said.

Both players said that some opponents do not wear their masks properly and the enforcement of that isn’t always there.

“Some players don’t have the mask over their nose like they’re supposed to,’’ Campbell said, adding that the masks barely hang near the players’ chins.

From day one of the practices, soccer Coach Barb Chura emphasized wearing the masks and wearing them correctly.

“We always want to do things the right way,’’ she said. “We’ve always made a point of doing that here.’’

Paulson said that even though there was uncertainty regarding the masks at the beginning, “it means that we were going to have and still are having a season. We are happy to wear them.’’

Sophomore Mia Davis moves the ball against Chandler.

In basketball, Davis now is back in action after missing a handful of games with a leg injury. The adjustment to that comeback has been easy compared to wearing the mask at all times. She played club ball during the summer, and said they rarely wore the masks.

While there might be a sentiment of wearing a mask that might be a bit more stylish, Davis is going the practical route – wearing straight blue or black masks that make it easier to breathe.

“We wore them in a basketball class here (in the afternoon). It was tough at first,’’ Davis said. “It seemed like your heart would skip a beat or something. On the court, you do a lot of communicating and you have to make sure your teammates can hear you.’’

She added that she also had to make sure she ate properly since wearing the mask would sometimes put more stress on the body.

“That could make it scary,’’ she said.

Saucedo says that basketball “is a high intensity sport and you have to make sure you’re prepared in all areas. When we started to wear the masks, it was definitely an adjustment.’’

Like Paulson on the soccer field, Saucedo agreed that there have been a few blind spots associated with the masks.

“But Coach (Jennifer) Gillom has studied up on most of it and is good about taking precautions,’’ Saucedo said.

The breathing issue is most noticeable when the Gators apply their stifling defensive pressure.

“When you’re running hard, going back and forth, that can take its toll,’’ said Saucedo, who after graduating from Xavier hopes to go on and play in college, perhaps at a Division III school. “But we go in and play all-out. You can afford to do that when your bench is deep like ours.’’

Gillom said her players have adapted very well.

So the regular season will wind to a close over the next two weeks, and then the state tournaments will begin for both sports.

What will that mean for The Masked Gators?

Well, there has been some talk out there that teams in the tournament might not have to wear masks in the games. An AIA spokesman said the organization is monitoring the situation (if Covid numbers decline) and could decide on possible changes when the Executive Board meets the first week of March.

If winter sports players are given the thumbs-up, spring-sports participants could ride along, perhaps in a package deal.

So stay tuned. There never seems to be a dull moment around here.

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