There were plenty of hard feelings and mixed emotions last Nov. 28 when the high school football season ended well short of the finish line.
Due to COVID-19 protocol, the Super Six state finals were wiped out — marking the first time since 1948 that no championship games were held in West Virginia. Oh, champions were crowned — or rather, assigned.
With coronavirus rates soaring in counties all over the state, South Charleston (Class AAA), Fairmont Senior (AA) and St. Marys (A) were the only eligible playoff teams left standing in their respective divisions at that point, so they were awarded the titles.
You can make the case that Fairmont Senior and St. Marys deserved their good fortune. They each won semifinal games — and, as it turned out, those were the only two of the six scheduled semifinal contests to be played in the state’s three classifications. The Polar Bears won three postseason games, including a victory at No. 2 seed Bluefield in the semis. The Blue Devils won twice, beating the No. 4 and 8 seeds, after getting a walkover victory in the first round because of COVID.
In all, 18 of the 30 playoff games in AA or A were decided on the field. Not so in Class AAA, however, where just four of 15 postseason games came off, and only one after the first round — SC’s 57-18 home victory against No. 10 Princeton in the quarterfinals. The Tigers had advanced to the second round when Wheeling Park couldn’t play due to Ohio County’s status on the state’s weekly color-coded COVID map, which determined the fate of in-person classes and athletic events in each county.
Cabell Midland (5-0), along with SC the state’s only unbeaten AAA teams, got COVID walkovers in the first two rounds, but wasn’t eligible to play in the semifinals against Bridgeport. The Indians were also in the wrong color, as was Musselman, which was supposed to play SC in the semifinals. That meant the Black Eagles, at 6-0, were the lone team left in AAA, so they got the trophy by process of elimination after playing just four quarters in the playoffs.
Of course, that decision was met with scrutiny across much of state, including South Charleston.
“This is definitely not the way anybody wants to be crowned champion,’’ SC coach Donnie Mays said in November. “It’s been the weirdest season, and all because of the rules put in place.
“I’ve felt for the longest time that West Virginia has too many rules applied to too many things, and you back yourself into a corner and you can’t get out.’’
Spring Valley’s Brad Dingess was another coach left scratching his head. His Timberwolves went on the road in the regular season and beat Martinsburg, ending the Bulldogs’ state-record 57-game win streak, and also won at No. 5 seed Bridgeport before the playoffs began.
“There’s been more teams who have lost to a map than have lost on the field in the Class AAA playoffs,’’ Dingess said. “It would’ve been a fun playoffs to watch. We had a really good team, as did several teams.’’
Perhaps the most star-crossed team was Midland, which held the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs and was averaging better than 54 points per game. The Knights roared out to a 4-0 start by Oct. 9, then played just one game after that. SC, by comparison, didn’t even kick off its season until Oct. 7 since Kanawha was the last of the state’s 55 counties to get its COVID numbers in line.
Cabell Midland coach Luke Salmons admitted having mixed feelings about last season’s journey. He was pleased at how his players answered the call when they got the chance to take the field, and how they kept their spirits up during long stretches of practicing with no games after Oct. 9.
“You try to forget some of it,’’ Salmons said this week, “but at the same time, you always feel bad for the seniors because they didn’t get the same opportunities as other kids that played before them. So I think that’s the hardest part. Personally, I wanted them to play every week, but that was a challenge in itself ... telling the kids, ‘We ain’t got a game, we got a game.’ So overall, it was a huge challenge. I felt bad for our seniors, like every senior in West Virginia from every team that didn’t get a chance to play in the playoffs, who didn’t get a chance to win. That was the worst part.
“But I was proud of my kids. They never had a bad day. They were always focused, and it gave them hope that they could play because a lot of times, they weren’t even going to school. To think of all the unknowns, I was proud of our team and how they handled it.’’
Yes, half of the 16 teams in the AAA playoff field never got in a game, but Midland was the only one of the top-five-seeded teams to not compete in the postseason. And being the No. 1 seed to boot had to feel unfair. Or did it?
“A little bit, but not really,’’ Salmons said. “We just tried to [handle] whatever’s dealt in front of us. That’s what we told the kids. Of course it’s hard, but if you’ve got a chance every year and you get in [the playoffs] ...
“We thought it would be a little bit different last year once we got in. OK, we’re in the playoffs. Everything’s going to be easier. We’re going to be able to play every week ... The hardest part wasn’t so much about being the No. 1 seed, but just the opportunity the kids didn’t get to win or lose on the field. Just to tell them we can’t play and nothing more — that was the hardest part.’’
Bernie Dolan, executive director of the Secondary School Activities Commission, said he didn’t hear much of a backlash on the way Class AAA, or any division, played out.
“I did not get many complaints,’’ Dolan said. “I think people were excited early on because we were playing [in the regular season], but the closer we got to the playoffs, people got a little more agitated because of the situation. But I think, all in all, we had a better plan than some of the other surrounding states — because we all had different rules. I always thought if we had done our rulings for individual schools [instead of counties], it would have been a lot easier for people to understand because then it was what was going on at their schools.
“I think there were certainly not enough games played to satisfy anybody. But really, once we started with our procedure of advancing you [in the playoffs] because we couldn’t wait, we pretty much held through with that. You do it in the first round, you’ve got to follow through. Things were falling through at such a rapid pace at the end, and then the governor ended up shutting down the whole state shortly after football was over anyway.’’
Eight months after his school accepted the AAA trophy, Mays was asked what kind of reaction he’s gotten from other teams and coaches across the state.
“I’ve never asked for a reaction,’’ Mays said. “I’ve never talked to a lot of coaches about it. The ones who have reached out to us have told us we had a great team, and things like that.
“So the whole celebration thing for us last year for us was based on what we did and our accomplishments. We can’t help what happened with the way the season ended. But everybody played by the same set of rules, and we were just the fortunate ones with the way the triple-A thing ended up. But we had a really good football team and we felt like we could have competed with anybody.’’
Mays was quick to recall a time when his team perhaps deserved better than it got in the playoffs. SC had five players ejected due to an infamous fight with Hurricane in the 2010 Class AAA quarterfinals, and wound up having to forfeit a semifinal victory against Brooke in which four of those athletes played. SC parents, unhappy with the SSAC’s one-game suspensions handed to those players, secured a circuit court order to allow them to compete against Brooke, but the State Supreme Court later rescinded that order.
“We should have been in the championship game,’’ said Mays, an SC assistant coach in 2010. “Martinsburg ends up beating a team we beat in the semifinals ... and the good thing for Martinsburg is they got to do it on the field. ... A lot of question marks could have been raised then, but no one asked about it.
“Last year we dealt with something that none of us have ever seen in our lifetime with a pandemic, and we did the best things that we could do to fight for our kids to provide them the opportunity to play football, and we were blessed to have that part of the season the way it ended. Like I said, that’s out of our control whatever other coaches think. I don’t care. All I care about is what my kids think, and we think we had a great team.’’
Trey Dunn, South Charleston’s All-State junior quarterback, has heard grumbling about the way last season ended, and said it gives the Black Eagles more motivation.
“There’s definitely been a lot of criticism, a lot of people mad about it,’’ Dunn said. “But we want to win one this year for real, and make sure we prove that it was real last year, too.’’