Many fear that Gov. Jim Justice’s choice to move the start of high school winter athletics in West Virginia back from Jan. 11 to March 1 will force some difficult choices for student-athletes this spring.
A March start would almost certainly create unprecedented and significant overlap with spring sports as well as AAU seasons, leaving two-sport athletes and basketball players with college aspirations in a bit of a bind.
Those decisions could leave coaches in a bind as well, especially at smaller schools with lower numbers and typically more multi-sport athletes. But it certainly reaches the larger schools, too.
For instance, locally, George Washington’s Kalissa Lacy, who has signed to play basketball at Morehead State next season, is a four-sport athlete. If the seasons overlap, she might have to choose one over the other, or find a way to divide her time between three sports — basketball, softball and swimming.
Lacy’s conundrum is far from an isolated case.
“My JV coach [Jason Roberts] is also our softball coach and his daughter [Kisten] plays for me but she’s a really good softball player,” Parkersburg girls basketball coach Scott Cozzens said. “It’s just been a mess all year long.”
“As a coach, I want my kids to have an opportunity to run track or play softball, and now we’re going to make them have to make choices,” Morgantown girls basketball coach Jason White added.
Depending on roster sizes, the overlap could cause schools to shut down certain programs if participation isn’t high enough. But for basketball players, the lure of AAU seasons adds yet another layer of uncertainty to a possible spring basketball season.
That’s especially true for underclassmen with Division I aspirations. The first evaluation period for D-I coaches is slated for April 23. After having all of them canceled a year ago, it would offer those coaches their first chance to see players live since the summer of 2019.
If faced with the choice between a high school season and an AAU season, the possibility of playing in front of high-level college coaches may outweigh school loyalty. In fact, some don’t think it’s a question of if players forego the school season for an AAU season, but how many.
“I don’t think it’s a tough decision, it sucks for them, but they’re going to play AAU, especially the high-level ones,” said Scott Johnson, director of the West Virginia Thunder AAU girls team in Huntington. “On April 22-23, if college coaches are still allowed out, there’s going to be 100 college coaches sitting on the baseline where we’re playing. Do we expect a West Virginia kid who would be playing in the state tournament or sectionals or wherever they’re playing at to play in front of maybe two coaches?”
For seniors like Lacy who have already signed to play in college, that extra exposure may not be a huge deal. But for underclassmen who have already had a shortened travel season last year and limited or no opportunities to perform in front of college coaches, that exposure could be the difference between a college scholarship and paying for school.
“Everyone will say heck with high school season and move on,” Johnson said when asked the ramifications of the start to the season remaining in March. “All these kids in West Virginia battling for scholarships against other kids, it’s not the kids on the court you’re battling, it’s kids in other states. Those kids are going to practice every day and they’re going to play 20 to 30 games while West Virginia kids are sitting at home not allowed to do anything. Not only are they not being seen, they’re not getting any court time, either, so how can they get any better?
“It’s like if you don’t go to school. If we took school completely off and didn’t do online school and then in six months we’re supposed to take a standardized test with kids in Kentucky that have been in school the whole time, who do you think is going to score better on the test?”
Johnson also pointed to the new NCAA rule that allows transfers to be immediately eligible at the Division I level. That could lead college coaches to simply look in the transfer portal for additions.
In reality, the choice between AAU and prep sports may already be getting made.
The West Virginia Thunder boys team was scheduled to practice on Tuesday and had a trip planned to an event in Georgia this weekend. That could be coming on the girls side as well where players and parents are just as aware that the lack of play could be putting in-state players behind in terms of national recruiting.
“If I put something together for them right now, they’d play, and it’s getting close to that,” Johnson said.
West Virginia State University men’s basketball coach Bryan Poore pointed to yet another issue that faces recruits this upcoming season.
“This whole [recruiting] cycle is going to be messed up through this pandemic,” Poore said. “All of the athletes in Division I and Division II were given a free year of eligibility by the NCAA, so our seniors have already communicated with me that they are going to come back next year. So I’m not really going to have any scholarships open. Now the NCAA is saying those seniors who return, those scholarships will not count against the NCAA maximum limit; however, does your institution have enough money to give you the extra scholarships? So a lot of smaller schools, ourselves included, are not going to be able to afford to do that.”
As a Division II coach, Poore isn’t limited by live evaluation periods like Division I coaches are, meaning he’s freer to go out and watch possible recruits play. For players who may be Division II prospects, Poore doesn’t see the AAU dilemma being quite as big a deal.
“Personally, I would recommend a kid play with his high school team first and finish high school season and then join up with AAU, because you have the rest of the summer to play AAU,” he said.
Poore’s Yellow Jackets are slated to start their season on Thursday as the Mountain East Conference gets its delayed season underway, representing even more basketball being played while West Virginia prep athletes find themselves on the shelf until March. And though his team is about to start, Poore offered his opinion on prep sports as well.
“I don’t know what Gov. Justice is seeing and his reasoning behind pushing to March. A lot of the talk even at our level is that health and safety is ultra-important,” Poore said. “But also, the mental health of these athletes is important, and not playing hurts their mental health. They’re depressed and down because they’re not getting to play. I think that has got to be factored in there, too.”
Johnson went a bit further, echoing the frustration expressed by prep coaches all over the state stemming from the perceived hypocrisy of a viral video depicting a New Year’s Eve party at The Greenbrier Resort, which is owned by Justice, who is also the coach of the Greenbrier East girls basketball program.
“I think the guy is overwhelmed with all his responsibilities and coaching girls basketball right now isn’t one of his priorities, so he is just canceling the season,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the kids at Greenbrier East to have a basketball coach that’s not dedicated to coaching basketball and who is trying to run a state. There’s no way in the world I could coach a high school basketball team and have that type of job. I couldn’t focus enough on the kids and their development. It’s a conflict of interest, and then take all of this stuff going on with it and it’s just not a good look at all.”