The high school football season in West Virginia is officially a moving target.
The Secondary School Activities Commission on Friday pushed back the start of preseason practice for several sports, including football, from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17 due to COVID-19 concerns, and canceled all games during what would have been the opening weekend of football season (Aug. 27-29). The first day games will be permitted is Thursday, Sept. 3.
The SSAC decision came two days after Gov. Jim Justice announced that statewide schools won’t reopen until Sept. 8.
The cancellation of all opening-week games placed some of the state’s top rivalry matchups in doubt — such as Bluefield at Graham, Virginia; Spring Valley at Cabell Midland; Man at Logan; Hurricane at Winfield; Nitro at Poca; Wyoming East at Westside; Mingo Central at Belfry, Kentucky; Oak Glen at Weir; Liberty Raleigh at Independence, Wayne at Tolsia and Grafton at Philip Barbour.
Nitro and Poca were fortunate in that they both had the same off week on their original schedule (Oct. 16), and agreed to move their game to that date. Other schools weren’t as lucky.
Winfield Athletic Director Will Isaacs said he will have discussions with Hurricane officials about somehow rescheduling their Putnam County showdown, but noted the Generals’ nine other games are required Cardinal Conference games. Winfield’s off week is Oct. 2 and Hurricane’s is Oct. 16.
Bernie Dolan, executive director of the SSAC, said that some schools will need to employ “creative scheduling’’ to resolve issues brought on by the cancellation of Week 1 games.
Some of those strategies could include rearranging game days so as to allow multiple games in one week — for instance, Monday and Friday — or filling their current off-week dates with schools that might lose games if neighboring states don’t allow their teams to cross state lines. Another fix would be to schedule the same opponent twice in one season, which is permissible.
Dolan acknowledged that some schools might resort to “buying out’’ a game elsewhere on their schedule to open up a spot to play a rivalry game lost in the Week 1 cancellations. That could include financial compensation or other considerations.
“There were so many big rivalry games,’’ Dolan said of Week 1, “and if a school isn’t holding you to the forfeiture clause — if those schools agree to it — then there is no forfeit. Those are some strange things, but it’s been a strange year.’’
At least, to this point, it’s just the opening week of games that have been canceled in West Virginia. The forecast is more dire in other states — Texas is giving serious consideration to calling off the entire season, Ohio is weighing progress against its COVID-19 numbers over the next 30 days to decide, and New Mexico just moved its football season to the spring.
At his daily COVID-19 briefing, Justice mentioned “about 60 or 70 kids’’ on the Capitol grounds Friday letting it be known that they “want to be able to play.’’
“They want sports in the schools,’’ Justice said. “Well, nobody wants sports to be going on more than [Dolan] and myself.’’
Dolan, who was also present at the briefing, echoed that thought.
“We’re going to do everything we can — safely — to allow athletics to continue,’’ Dolan said, “because it’s such an important part in the growth of our students, both physically, socially and emotionally.’’
Dolan said that the Aug. 17 practice start date covers not just football but also soccer, volleyball, cheerleading and golf. Three of those four sports can hold their first competitions Sept. 2, but golf can start on Aug. 24 since it has the least amount of required practice days.
Since there will be a gap of two-to-three weeks between the end of the standard three-week practice period (now going on in several counties) and the new start date for preseason practice, Dolan expects another conditioning, strength and agility period “probably closer to Phase 2’’ to be implemented before Aug. 17.
Dolan said fans will have to adhere to guidelines and policies when games resume, which will likely include limits on attendance, wearing masks and social distancing. He made an impassioned plea to the general public during Friday’s televised COVID-19 briefing.
“It’s up to the public to decide whether we’re going to have athletics come this fall,’’ Dolan said, “because you’re the one who will wear the mask and take the social distancing and wash your hands. It sounds like an easy thing to do, for everybody to get on board. So if you’re the one who’s not socially distancing, who’s not wearing a mask, you could very well be the one. You’re setting an example for somebody not to follow, and then that hurts all of our chances of participating.
“We’ll probably have limitations on attendance, but we haven’t set what those are, and I’m sure they’ll vary from community to community and from sport to sport. But we ask you as the community — if you want this — you have easy things to do. You could be a good role model and do it and follow. Put a mask on when you’re in public. I know it’s annoying, I know it’s uncomfortable, but everybody felt what happened in the spring. Nobody likes [having] no athletics. Everybody was frustrated. So to me, it’s a small task to say ‘Be a good role model and wear your mask when you’re in public and social distance.’’’