March 12 is a day sports fans in West Virginia won’t soon forget.
In the span of a few hours that Thursday, everything seemed to shut down due to COVID-19 — the Big 12 and Conference USA basketball tournaments, the NCAA Tournament, even the girls state high school tournament at the Charleston Coliseum.
Bernie Dolan, the executive director of the Secondary School Activities Commission and a Wheeling native, had been in constant contact that week with Gov. Jim Justice’s office and officials at the Department of Health and Human Resources to discuss the spread of the coronavirus and whether it was safe for them to continue. Each morning starting on Monday, Dolan and other SSAC officials received updates telling them it was OK to proceed with all their tournament games, since boys basketball was in the middle of regional competition.
It was that way Thursday, too, until the clock basically struck noon. That’s when Dolan received a phone call he’d been fearing.
“We were pretty far into the 11 o’clock game,’’ Dolan said of the University-Cabell Midland Class AAA quarterfinal, “and I got a call from Clayton Burch saying I need to come over to the governor’s office right away.’’
When Dolan arrived at the Capitol, Burch, the state schools superintendent, was huddling with other state officials in preparation for an announcement from Justice.
“I got to the governor’s office,’’ Dolan said, “and all the health people and education people were already there. There was a big discussion about school in general, and also for athletics. Knowing we were in the tournament, they asked me my opinion. Obviously, they were shutting everything down and they wanted to go ahead and shut down the basketball tournaments also. We all had a say in that.
“At that time, people really didn’t know much about the virus yet other than it was really contagious. So at that point, we shut down the tournaments.’’
That was Day 1 of the pandemic impacting sports in West Virginia, and it really hasn’t relented yet.
The SSAC and its member schools tried to wait out the uncertainty, but the girls and boys basketball tournaments ultimately were never finished, and all spring sports never got off the ground. After the summer break, they somehow navigated their way through five fall sports championships, though constant obstacles severely reduced those competitions as different counties around the state experienced COVID flareups. Currently, winter sports are in a holding pattern as schools remain closed until at least Jan. 4 and practices are prohibited until Jan. 11.
Since 2000, the Gazette-Mail has handed out a Sportsperson of the Year award that recognizes a West Virginian who has made significant contributions in the world of athletics. Unfortunately this year, the overriding story across the state and the entire world has been the sweeping effects of COVID-19. So as the state sports scene begins its 10th month of facing coronavirus issues, we focus on the SSAC in general, and Dolan in particular, for their part in directing a path through the unpredictability and keeping some semblance of athletic competition going for West Virginia high schools.
“It consumes the job in some fashion, almost completely,’’ Dolan said of COVID’s ramifications. “It consumes countless hours.’’
Dolan, who took over as executive director in 2015, pointed to last spring when the SSAC maintained hope of resuming basketball and starting spring sports if Justice’s plan to reopen schools on April 20 came to fruition. It didn’t, schools remained closed the rest of the academic year and the SSAC’s revised timeline for sports had to be scrapped.
“A lot of our effort was in trying to create a season out of what [time] was left,’’ Dolan said, “and every time there was a time change, we adjusted and made a new schedule. You tear up what you did and start over. We knew things weren’t in our control.’’
Dolan admitted that, at the onset of the pandemic last March, he wasn’t thinking about long-term problems.
“I don’t think we knew how bad it was going to get,’’ he said. “We were always hopeful that West Virginia was a small, rural state and that would play to our benefit. I think it has somewhat, because it could be a lot worse here in West Virginia. But I did not see it having this effect and knocking out [sports] clear to the end of the school year for us. This is something we had never dealt with, something of this magnitude and the way it continues to travel, allowing the spread to go faster and farther.
“I think the governor took appropriate steps and shut it down so that things didn’t get out of hand in the spring, and I think that gave us the opportunity educationally to prepare for what’s coming in the fall. He was making calls based on the health and welfare of the state of West Virginia and I think he’s done a pretty doggone good job. We had to learn about this virus on the fly; nobody had the complete book on this here and what’s going to happen, so you make the best decisions you can at that time. And as we learn more, we make changes.’’
Once the summer began, events kept getting pushed back or canceled outright. The North-South football and basketball games, which aren’t under the SSAC’s umbrella, were called off. Then the SSAC’s three-week summer practice period was delayed by a month, from June to July, and the start of preseason football practice was later bumped from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17, effectively wiping all regular-season Week 1 games off the books. But even through those dark clouds, a ray of light came peeking through.
In an unprecedented move, the SSAC allowed schools an additional four weeks of summer conditioning drills leading up to the three-week period. There were plenty of stipulations — meetings had to be held outdoors in small groups for no longer than an hour and drills couldn’t be sport-specific. Wearing masks and sanitizing were part of the deal. Still, it got coaches and athletes back together after nearly three months apart.
“We knew the effects of kids being cooped up for months and not playing anything was not good,’’ Dolan said. “Fortunately, the governor allowed us to begin conditioning in June, but it wasn’t the conditioning they needed. It was the structure and physical activity they needed.
“Sometimes the safest place for kids to be is with their friends and coaches. Coaches have the structure and discipline that protects the kids and their well-being. At that point in June, we knew we needed a place for kids to get back together, and [health officials] allowed us to work through the summer.’’
Fall sports finally kicked off in September, but every week brought new challenges for the SSAC and its coaches and athletes. Golf and cross country seasons went relatively smoothly, owing to their ability to keep competitors socially distanced. The others, however, came in fits and starts, often as dictated by the Department of Education’s weekly color-coded map, which determined the counties that were safe to hold in-person classes and school activities.
Kanawha County was the last of the state’s 55 counties to begin football season, that coming on Oct. 7. The state volleyball tournament in Charleston Nov. 12-14 went on without seven of the 24 teams that qualified, and the state soccer tournament was nearly delayed because of a temporary restraining order issued by a judge in Berkeley County because teams from those schools weren’t permitted to participate in their sectionals.
As for football, only 11 of 113 teams were able to play a full 10-game regular season due to COVID and 23 of a possible 45 playoff games were also wiped out. The Super Six was canceled for the first time since its inception in 1979, with state champions determined by which schools remained eligible to compete following the semifinals. In fact, the Super Six was set to move out of Wheeling for the first time since 1994 because of Ohio County’s COVID status, but just one day after announcing the title games were moving to Charleston for 2020, the SSAC pulled the plug on the state finals.
“Early on, we knew there was a chance we wouldn’t play one of the championships because of the map,’’ Dolan said, “but we never thought all three of them would be gone. It was a frustrating end to what started out very promising. In August, we thought if we got to five games [per team], it would be a decent season. When we got to the 10th week, we thought, ‘Let’s keep it rolling.’
“I really think one of the things this office was able to do was be flexible. You couldn’t be rigid on Aug. 1 and expect to get anywhere or things would fall apart. But every week it was getting worse and just spreading, and we were holding our breath. The virus just exploded all over the state and the thing started unraveling. We got as far as we could, but unfortunately in the end, we couldn’t get football finished.’’
There was support in some circles for delaying the Super Six to see if the COVID status improved in the counties involved, and legal precedent even existed in delaying championship events.
In 1994, the state track meet was pushed back three weeks and the baseball and softball tournaments two weeks due to a measles outbreak in Marshall County. In 2010, the Class AAA football title game was delayed one week by eligibility issues surrounding South Charleston football players. And three years ago, three weight classes at the state wresting tournament were postponed 21/2 weeks and moved to another site because of herpes.
“We looked at that,’’ Dolan said. “However, in our mind, the virus was different than herpes and measles, because those had a lifespan. We knew that in 14 days, you could be back out participating. We didn’t think we had that same opportunity we had with those [other situations].’’
The decision to cancel the Super Six and award titles to South Charleston (AAA), Fairmont Senior (AA) and St. Marys (A) was thought by some to be the most controversial move by the SSAC since it enforced a forfeit against South Charleston in the 2010 playoff semifinals. Dolan felt the criticism was unfair.
“More so in this case than any other case,’’ Dolan said, “because this is a health issue and the decision wasn’t really ours to play or not to play ... I’m not a doctor, so we don’t make any of those decisions. When the medical staff of the governor says yes or no, we work with those departments.
“There were a lot of people [complaining] with letters and voicemails and emails and phone calls. People think I have a lot more power than I truly have. A lot of people don’t understand the workings of our office. They think that I have all the power, but the power is with the schools. They make the rules, not us. We interpret and enforce the rules they make. I can’t make rule changes myself. We still have to answer to somebody, and it’s not always our decision to move forward.’’
Dolan’s immediate predecessor, Gary Ray, who held the position of executive director from 2007-2016, remains in touch with SSAC officials and lauds Dolan for the job he’s doing during the pandemic.
“No. 1, he has a very difficult task ahead,’’ Ray said. “Having to deal with a moving target for them is the problem. It’s always going to be a fluid-type situation, but I think Bernie as a leader, and his staff are doing a phenomenal job in handling this.
“I know a lot of people are criticial at times but Bernie, in my opinion, has kept a very positive outlook and tried to provide opportunities for our student-athletes. Some doors got closed and he had to deal with that, and I told him I worry about him because it’s a difficult task he’s got right now. I was really impressed by the number of fall activities they were able to get in. They didn’t have finals in the championship games, but for what was involved, I thought they did the best anyone could do.’’
Mike Hayden, who led the SSAC from 1999-2007, said he “felt for’’ Dolan as issue after issue arose due to rising COVID counts.
“He was in a no-win situation, period,’’ Hayden said. “You’re stuck in the middle with targets on your back, and that’s what’s so sad. People [complaining] throughout this thing haven’t used common sense, and common sense should dictate what you do.
“Once you amass information from the professionals ... I know when I was the head of the SSAC, I never made a decision without consulting my staff. They were so valauble, it wasn’t even funny. I don’t believe in sticking your neck out there by yourself just because of your position. You’ve got to be smart and diligent in what you do, and he’s really thought things through.
“I never criticize him because the job’s tough enough without what he’s been going through. There are maybe a couple of things I’d have done a little different, but I didn’t have all the information available. I know one thing: Bernie’s a very, very diligent person and he’s going to do what’s right for the kids.’’
The start of the winter sports calendar has been delayed until Jan. 11 as state health officials hope to get past any COVID flareups that might occur during family holiday gatherings. Dolan has his fingers crossed when he peers into the future, perhaps having looked at the latest color-coded maps, in which just eight of the state’s 55 counties are currently eligible to hold in-person class and play sports.
“We have guidelines out for swimming, basketball and wrestling now,’’ Dolan said recently. “They’re tight, and they’re going to have to be tight moving forward, at least until we get a significant number of people vaccinated. Until we begin this downslide, when less people are being hospitalized.’’
Dolan acknowledged that the past 10 months have been taxing, but he and his office intend to remain optimistic about keeping athletics going in West Virginia.
“I still feel a little worn over the last 10 months in my personal life, as everybody does,’’ he said, “but it hasn’t worn on me that much. We were able to have some championships in the fall and create some highs for our student-athletes. There were some early lows, but the highs always win out. We’ll just keep plugging forward.’’