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GW vs SA 2

St. Albans’ Jaimelle Claytor puts up a jumper against the defense of George Washington’s Ben Nicol last season. The start of winter sports in West Virginia, originally set for mid-November, has been pushed back to March 1 due to COVID-19.

They can’t wait to get the season started at St. Albans and Nitro.

The only problem is, they’re going to have to wait. A long while, in fact.

The Kanawha County and neighboring rivals each welcome back a good deal of individual talent from last season and both have also seen an added influx of firepower, but all of that is going to have to cool its heels following Gov. Jim Justice’s decision to delay the start of winter sports in West Virginia until March 1 because of rising COVID-19 numbers.

The Department of Education’s weekly risk-factor map, which since September had weighed the level of the virus in West Virginia’s 55 counties and determined in-person classes and school activities, was removed from its website following Justice’s decision last week to resume in-person learning at all but the highest-risk (red) counties following the current holiday break. However, the Department of Health and Human Services’ daily map on Saturday showed just two counties would presently be able to play sports — Tucker (gold) and Calhoun (yellow) — if schools were open. All other counties were orange or red.

“I think basketball coaches are in reality about what’s happening,’’ said St. Albans coach Bryan England. “Most of us knew what the [COVID] numbers were going to be coming off the holidays. I don’t want to say it’s unnerving to me, but it is disappointing that we’re still in this position thanks to the surge.’’

Austin Lowe, Nitro’s coach, took the latest news in stride. It’s the second long delay governing winter sports, as Justice first pushed back those seasons from mid-November to Jan. 11 before his latest decree of a March 1 start.

“We’re just keeping our fingers crossed,’’ Lowe said, “and trying to do our part that we can have a season — especially for these kids, especially for these seniors. We can only do what they say we can do.’’

St. Albans was hoping for another banner season. The Red Dragons were 17-8 last winter and actually qualified for the Class AAA state tournament in March before COVID shut everything down. It was supposed to be SA’s first state tourney trip since 2004, but it never happened as the rest of the season was canceled.

Returning from that squad are 6-foot-4 senior wing Jaimelle Claytor, who averaged 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds, along with Drew Reed (7.6 points, 42 3-point goals), Bones Johnson (5.4 points, 24 3s), Michael Hindman and Cooper Lane-Sturgill.

“We have five guys with good experience,’’ England said, “and a good young crew of sophomores and freshmen coming up. It’s the biggest freshman class since I’ve been at St. Albans.’’

Two of the most promising freshmen are Peyton Brown, who started at quarterback and was named the Gazette-Mail Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year in football, and 6-6, 210-pound Tyrique Wilkins, another SA football player.

Nitro languished a bit last season, going 5-18, but returns its top two players in Kolton Painter (22.4 points, 62 3s) and Trevor Lowe (14.3 points, 39 3s), son of Austin Lowe. Adding to that are a pair of transfers from Sissonville — 6-8 Joseph Udoh (15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks) and Bryce Myers (9.0 points, 28 3s).

“Joseph has improved tremendously,’’ Austin Lowe said. “He’s really worked on his game, hit the weight room and added some weight. He’s not the same player he was last year.

“We were really excited to get started because we had three good weeks of practice in the summer and we got four flex days in just before practice was supposed to start [in mid-November, when the season was first shut down]. It was a really good four days. It was upbeat, the ball was moving well and the kids were having fun. They know we have a chance to have a good season.’’

England said the most disheartening thing about the delays is that they mean revamping the schedule.

“We made our schedule,’’ he said, “and then our season got pushed back to Jan. 11 and every coach started making another schedule and now every coach in the state looks at it ... and realizes they might have to make another. It’s incredibly difficult to schedule games. We’d already had three or four games a week the entire season and now ... it’s going to be a mess.’’

Like all coaches, England has had very little contact with his players during the current lull.

“I send a weekly video to our players,’’ England said, “talking about the things we need to do because I don’t have much control — no open gym, can’t practice, can’t meet. The only thing I can communicate on the daily videos is my expectation of our standards — and this year, handling the adversity we’re going to have with COVID.

“I tell them this will be the most difficult, erratic and adverse years of your high school career. The only thing we can do is take it day by day and control what we can control. As a coach, it’s extremely difficult because you like to control, and I’m a control freak in a certain sense. But as coaches right now, we have zero control over what’s going on, and that makes it difficult.’’

Austin Lowe just hopes his players remain active.

“We stay in contact,’’ he said, “and group text message. Almost all of the kids got rims at their house and some are members at the YMCA, so they’re getting some shots up. And that’s all we can expect since physically, we can’t be together.’’

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickRyanWV.

Preps Sports Reporter