On Dec. 30, prep athletes across the Mountain State participating in winter sports found out they would have to wait until March 1 to potentially begin their seasons.
Just five days later on Monday, high school sports started in the bordering states of Kentucky and Pennsylvania, while Maryland was set to start games on Tuesday. Ohio never delayed its start, beginning as planned on Nov. 25, and Virginia sports were a go on Dec. 21.
Along the entirety of West Virginia’s border, high school athletes either have or are about to start while those within the border sit, wait and deal with the disappointment of another scheduled starting date — Jan. 11 — having come and gone.
“It’s hard to see newspapers from across the border talking about high school sports,” Morgantown girls basketball coach Jason White said. “What is so different there that we can’t play here? Especially with us being part of the [Ohio Valley Athletic Conference]. It’s not been a perfect season for [Ohio]. They’ve had to pause and take breaks and things. But to see their scores reported and see highlights of games, that’s tough. That’s tough that a few miles away they can play.”
Making matters worse for coaches and athletes is a now-viral video depicting a large crowd in a ballroom drinking, dancing and not following social-distancing guidelines at The Greenbrier Resort on New Year’s Eve, just one day after Gov. Jim Justice’s announcement of a further delay. Justice is also the owner of The Greenbrier.
“It makes no sense,” Nitro girls coach Pat Jones said. “Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, they’re all playing, yet we’re sitting at home watching. Then you see all these reports in the news and you turn around in West Virginia and our governor is allowed to have all these parties at The Greenbrier.
“That video was the last thing I needed. It was the last thing my kids needed.”
What the kids do need, according to coaches, is the opportunity to at least be able to practice and condition as a team both from a physical and mental standpoint.
Jason Mays, the coach of the boys basketball team at Paul Blazer High School in Ashland, Kentucky, was set to lead his team into its first game on Monday night and said the Tomcats are taking on “an attitude of gratitude” for the opportunity to play this season.
As part of the return to play, Kentucky schools will operate at a 15% attendance capacity rate for fans at games. With that in mind, Mays chose to play the majority of his team’s schedule on the road with a home-heavy slate set for next season. That schedule originally included games against George Washington and Spring Valley.
But even with all the protocols, masks, smaller crowds and expected postponements and cancellations, Mays said the season will be immeasurably important for his players and their development.
“If West Virginia is going to — and hopefully this is the last time they kick the can down the road, so to speak — but they need to provide coaches and schools with resources and materials for the mental health of student athletes,” Mays said. “They don’t have enough life experience outside of family and their hometown and their school to understand all this adversity. It’s like, we lay down this executive order and we expect everyone to accommodate the order, but there’s a big cliff right after and how are we supposed to do this?
“Coaches have to be empathetic with players and players’ families, because when school is over with they’re going to work at the mill or the mine or the local steel mill or go to college and not play basketball, so this is it for them.”
Mays added that he would also worry about the possible physical consequences of such a long layoff in which team workouts, weight-training sessions and conditioning drills are also prohibited.
“It’s also a physical issue,” Mays said. “Teams without solid strength and conditioning programs at the high school level, you’re going to see a huge uptick in injuries. I’m talking ACLs, hamstrings, groins, lower backs, all the stabilizing parts of the body, the core — they’re not ready for this year. So, it’s, ‘No you can’t play, you can’t practice, you can’t lift weights, you can’t condition,’ then it’s, ‘OK, here, green light.’ You’re going to see a rash of injuries because physically, their bodies can’t take that.”
Boyd County High School was also set to begin its season in Kentucky with the girls set to travel to Paul Blazer on Monday. That Boyd County roster will consist of two players — Hannah Roberts and Laney Whitmore — who transferred from St. Joseph in Huntington before the school year.
Both players made that decision long before the postponements by Justice, but one concern among state coaches is that transfers across the border could become commonplace.
“I haven’t heard anybody moving over for that reason, I know there’s a certain set of guidelines they’d have to follow and it wouldn’t be easy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened,” Boyd County coach Pete Fraley said. “I really wouldn’t. Especially with these seniors in their last go-around wanting to make sure they get a chance to play.”
While Kentucky is just starting, Ohio has been at it for weeks, following protocols and guidelines along the way. With the season has come plenty of fluidity on the schedule, with teams going in and out of two-week quarantine periods and games being postponed, added and rescheduled.
“It’s well worth it,” Fairland boys coach Nathan Speed said. “The first game you could see the kids look around and it was an adjustment for them, but especially for our seniors, they’re happy to get out and play. it’s made practices better, everybody is more upbeat just getting the chance to play.”
At Ironton, those protocols included allowing four individuals per player and coach into the gym for games. Bleachers are pushed back with no one but players, coaches and managers allowed to sit in the lower bowl. Coaches wear masks, as do fans, and if a ball goes outside the playing area and is touched by a fan or school worker, a new ball is put into play while the other is sanitized. Also, players do not share balls in warmups and the postgame handshake has been eliminated.
But even with all the guidelines, Ironton girls basketball coach Doug Graham, who is also a teacher at the school, said there is no replacement for in-person interaction, no matter how high the hurdles standing in the way.
“Before this happened, if you’d asked me in 2019 about virtual learning, I thought probably my kids or grandkids would be nothing but virtual,” Graham said. “Now going through it, nothing replaces face-to-face interaction with other humans. You don’t get that through a computer.”
And while all are happy their own teams are now competing, all have also kept up with what’s gone on across the border and all are in agreement that something can and needs to be done in West Virginia.
“It’s complete hogwash,” Graham said. “You can allow no spectators or each child gets two people. If they wanted to make it happen, they could make happen.
“Just some resemblance of a senior season for these kids and this winter sports season. They’ve been through a ton. I’m not saying everything has opened up and it’s the Wild West over here, but we do sanitize and social distance. Coaches mask up. I practice in sessions and when we are done we get a drink and sanitize our hands and we take steps to make sure we’re trying to limit the spread as best we can. I think certainly those things can work in West Virginia.”
“This is some of the most memorable moments of their lives — basketball, wrestling, swimming, spring sports — and you’re stripping those kids of those memories,” Mays added. “No one is going to be surprised about a two-week quarantine, so let them deal with it. Just let them play.”