Virus pandemic is top news story of 2020 in West Virginia

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2020, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivers his annual State of the State address in the House Chambers at the state capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Justice said he would get a coronavirus shot on Monday, Dec. 14. He will be vaccinated on the same day the first doses shipped nationwide for health workers and people in long-term care centers.

In a move widely expected, Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday that the resumption of high school sports in West Virginia has been put on hold again, moving the start date from Jan. 11 to March 1.

The move comes as no surprise with the Covid-19 infection rate in the state showing little sign of slowing down and the color map, which determines which counties and schools can play, getting darker each week.

The move put the Secondary School Activities Commission, the body that governs high school sports, in the challenging position of fitting in swimming, boys and girls basketball, wrestling, softball, baseball and track and field into a condensed three-month period.

"We'll be meeting with coaches committees early in the week to kind of listen to their opinions before we generate a schedule at this point," SSAC executive director Bernie Dolan said. "We haven't had a chance to meet and put a plan together yet."

Justice's announcement was unclear as to whether March 1 is the target date for practice or games to begin, but he also announced students will return to schools on Jan. 19 with high schools in red on the color map being the exception. That opens up a sliver of hope that practices and tryouts could commence beforehand, though it's doubtful.

"My hope is we can start the games the beginning of March," Dolan said. "I'm hopeful, and I'll try to bring that up, but realistically I think they're saying that's probably the first day of practice."

If the target date of March 1 sticks and is indeed the start of practice and conditioning, as opposed to the start of games, it forces the SSAC to maneuver and fit two seasons that normally don't overlap for long into one, which has brought up the question as to whether or not winter sports would be on the chopping block as a whole. Dolan remains optimistic that they'll be able to get everything in, pointing to neighboring states that have committed to and mapped out a similar process.

"I think both of them will have an abbreviated season and there will be overlap," Dolan said. "We usually have some overlap because March 1 is usually the start date for spring sports and we're usually into the basketball tournament until the 20th. So we usually have about a three-week overlap and it might be a five- or six-week overlap this year.

"It looks like we have about 18 weeks to get two seasons in. In Virginia, it's similar where they're trying to get three seasons in two. I think we'll try to have a modified season. We want to keep in mind that basketball didn't really have a tournament but spring didn't get anything last year so we'll keep that in mind as we're making this schedule."

Another issue that comes into question, provided that time comes, is where will championships be held. The SSAC was fluid with football, moving it from Wheeling to Charleston before the Super Six was canceled as a whole. A similar situation could occur with no guarantees the SSAC will be able to book the Civic Center in April or May, or that the venue's capacity will be needed. Dolan notes that they will explore all options, but wants the experience to retain its luster.

"One thing we're looking at is even if we're at the Civic Center, we're going to have limited attendance," Dolan said. "We might be able to go to other venues we might not normally be able to use because we could've had 8,000 or 9,000 people in a session. We're probably not going to have that this year because of all the limitations, so it brings us back a facility that we might be able to use that's not that. But we're going to work closely with the Civic Center to make sure dates are available.

"I don't want to diminish the tournament, but if we move beyond March, Marshall, the Civic Center, WVU they might all come in play now. But you also have the Beckley Armory and the Wheeling Civic Center which could hold limited attendance. I think what we'll have to to do is work with our coaches and athletic directors to figure out a schedule and with that start looking at what facilities would be available."

Venues for the championships could become a logistical issue, but area schools and administrations are already discussing the in-season hurdles they'll have to clear from transportation, officials, administration and even participation.

"The officials are going to be a problem," Greenbrier West athletic director and boys basketball coach Jared Robertson said. "I know a lot of officials do multiple sports so they'll have to pick and choose where they go when they'll probably be needed in multiple places. Sometimes, with us being a Class A school, we struggle with numbers already and guys that do one sport do numerous sports down here. I hate the thought of a kid having to choose one sport or the other. That's definitely a concern. On the administrative side the principal has come to me concerned with getting administrators for events. I don't think they would look forward to covering all the home events.

"On the transportation side, in Greenbrier County we're lucky that we have the option of private transportation. It's a headache with insurance and paperwork, but a lot of counties don't have that option so they're restricted to what transportation the school can provide. Another issue is figuring out where everyone would be able to practice, especially if there's a rainy day and you can't practice outside.

"There's going to be a lot we're going to have to figure out when we know more."

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