With the start of winter sports competition exactly one week away, excitement is building up for the return of high school athletics across the state.
Since semifinal weekend of high school football season, there’s been a three-month pause on competition.
“Athletes and coaches are excited to get back in the swing and try to get some normalcy back in our lives,” said James Beckman, athletic director and girls basketball coach at East Fairmont High. “We’re trying to get through this together at East and I know it’s frustrating dealing with maps and social distancing. But we’re trying our best and doing a good job with the guidelines. If we can get through a complete season, I think it’s a successful season.”
Winter sports teams were permitted to begin practice February 15. Girls basketball teams are allowed to begin competition on March 3, with boys basketball starting two days later. For all basketball teams, as well as swimming and wrestling, a minimum of 14 preseason practices is a requirement prior to beginning play.
With such a condensed schedule, athletic directors and coaches are navigating through the challenges over the last several weeks.
“I’m very blessed that I have coaches that are very active in preparing their schedules and helping with officials,” said Jared Robertson, athletic director and boys basketball coach at Greenbrier West High. “We don’t have as many sports as some schools, which probably helps.
“But the biggest thing is everybody being on the same page so we know they have a place to practice. We’re lucky to have two gyms, which not everybody has.”
Morgantown athletic director John Bowers echoed Robertson’s thoughts on how beneficial it is to have coaches who take the initiative in making their team’s schedule.
“I tell my coaches, ‘go make your schedule and if you have any questions about timing of games or we need a game on this date, I’ll find you a game,’” Bowers said. “But I give our coaches a lot of autonomy to schedule and they do a great job with it.”
Still, with spring sports permitted to begin practicing March 15 and competition allowed to begin April 12, a quick and tough turnaround awaits. The state swim meet is scheduled for April 20-21, while state wrestling is to be held April 21-24. Basketball state tournaments for girls and boys, respectively, will take place April 27-May 1 and May 4-8.
“The hardest will be on the kids in winter and spring sports,” Robertson said. “We’ve tried to do everything possible for kids to be able to do both and make it as painless as possible. That challenge hasn’t gotten here yet, but we’re at least trying.”
“For multi-sport athletes, it’s very tough and the well-being of our athletes is the first concern,” Beckman added.
While high school athletes often want to play as many games as possible, those in charge of scheduling are also tasked with trying to find the right balance between playing enough, but perhaps not too much.
Basketball teams are allowed to play up to 18 games.
“As a basketball coach, I’m very against playing four games in a week, but that’s happening in Charmco this year,” Robertson said. “Part of me wanted to scale back a bit on games, but when you look at the possibility of having four games in a week and maybe two are postponed because of covid situations or whatever it is, I just want our kids to be able to play. If a kid can go play a basketball game every night, then he or she wants to go play a basketball game.”
There is also the challenge of dealing with and enforcing attendance policies, which presently are being handled on a county-by-county basis.
In Monongalia County, high school athletes are being alloted eight tickets per contest for people living in the same household or grandparents.
In Greenbrier County, they are sticking by the WVSSAC’s recommendation of allowing only athletes’ parents, grandparents and members of the same household to attend, before reevaluating in mid March.
“Hopefully cases continue to trend downward and we hope to be able to open it back up and get it back to normal as much as we can during this,” Robertson said.
But attendance restrictions, along with limited or in some instances no concessions, bring about a financial hit for high schools — and many are already trying to overcome one from their losses during football season.
“It’s going to mean less revenue for our athletics and our sports boosters who run the concession stands,” said Matt DeMotto, a former athletic director and current principal at Bridgeport High. “We’ll be getting some money through the state to support our athletic programs and that’s critical.”
Bowers thought back to football season when the Mohigans had half of their six scheduled home games wiped out.
“Six home football games in a year can power a budget for a year-and-a-half or two years,” Bowers said. “We only end up playing three and those games were on limited attendance with restrictions, so it kind of cripples you. We’re hurting and I’m sure most people are. I salute those that have allocated funds to the schools, but now I just hope they hit the process button fast, because we need it.”
Beckman believes it’s pivotal for athletic departments to scale back where they’re able to during this unprecedented time.
“We’ve had to open up the books to see what ways we can save money, from not taking as many bus trips and not scheduling as many workers as in the past,” Beckman said. “We’re trying to cut back on expenses because the revenue isn’t what it’s been in the past. You’re still having to spend on officials, equipment and things of that nature. But we’re still making some revenue and some is better than nothing.”