Tim Stephens, a compatriot at the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington and all-around good guy, contacted me recently and said two of their area's season-opening high school football games in Kentucky on Friday were called off because of COVID-19. Two days later, two more were called off.
"Sounds like a 'here we go again' situation,'' Stephens wrote.
Lord, I hope not. Last football season was a grind for everybody -- players, coaches, school officials, game officials, media -- you name it. Week to week, you couldn't be sure you were actually going to have a game until kickoff.
But has it really improved so far this year? Well, considering that three Kanawha Valley schools dealt with various COVID issues for their opening scrimmages last weekend, I'd offer up a firm "no."
And I'm not the only one starting to worry.
"I'm nervous, too, to be honest,'' said Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission. "At least early on, until we start getting games in.
"It hasn't been fairly steady [across the state], but there are some pockets we're having some difficulty with, and we'll have to keep watching those. This is what we said was going to come out of this if people didn't go get vaccinated. We said we'd be battling this all year, and it's proven to be true, and we're just starting.
"I don't know if you can convince people who haven't had vaccinations yet, but there's still time. Even if you went today, it takes six weeks to be fully vaccinated, but at least you'd have the feeling that, 'If we made the playoffs, at least we're not going to be knocked out because of COVID.'''
If you've forgotten, more than half of the state's playoff games last year (23 of 45) were ruled no-contests because of COVID situations at one, or both, schools. None of the three scheduled Super Six title games were played, and state championships were decided by the only teams left standing in each class.
Few teams got in their full complement of 10 regular-season games (just 12 of the state's 113 schools), but very few forfeits were ruled, as any game derailed by one team's county COVID numbers was usually listed as a no-contest, with no win or loss applied to a team's record. That might change this season, though.
Dolan said he expects some forfeits to be declared this year if one team is eligible to compete, but the other is on the wrong side of COVID protocol. He stressed, though, that those forfeits might come as a last resort.
"Obviously, we have to wait and see how this thing plays out,'' Dolan said. "Certainly, in the regular season, you have the opportunity to play 10 games in 11 weeks, so if you have a problem, rather than forfeit, you could try to reschedule, move it somewhere else on the schedule. So we're going to give them that flexibility during the regular season -- but we won't have that same level of flexibility come tournament time.
"I think there will be some forfeits from people who just can't make up a game on that day and really have no capability for both teams to get together on another day.''
Football games usually have written contracts between the teams guaranteeing participation, but with hundreds of games in flux last year, those contracts were largely overlooked. That might not be the case this year, and the SSAC may have to step in and mediate some situations if a forfeit is a possibility.
"If they have a written contract between the schools,'' Dolan said, "then we'd get involved if need be. If they don't have a written contract, it makes it a little fuzzier what can be done. Our rules allow us to enforce the contract, but if there is no contract, most of the time we don't get involved.
"If the two teams agree that they'll try to pick someone else up, we can still make it a no-contest. There are complications in the rating system for forfeits, so you might be better off to make it a no-contest if you get the chance to play somebody else.''
Another change from last season will be no more weekly color-coded maps to determine which counties can have in-person classes, after-school activities and athletics. That decision now falls on local health and education officials.
"They'll work with schools to see who gets quarantined, who gets contact tracing,'' Dolan said. "Even within different counties, quarantine has been different -- some are 14 days, some are 10, some are five. With a negative test and no symptoms two days later, you can get to play. We've left it up to them to make the medical decisions on who's quarantined and for how long.''