An official green light was given to athletics by Gov. Jim Justice on Friday as he announced prep and youth athletics may resume on June 8.
That put the ball squarely in the court of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, and the organization moved quickly, announcing a three-phase plan to get prep athletes back in shape and up to speed ahead of and during the three-week practice period in July.
Justice praised the SSAC during his press conference on Friday.
“They’ve done great work,” Justice said. “Their executive director Bernie Dolan should be really commended as well as our superintendent of schools Clayton Burch. They’ve worked hand in hand with one another. Ohio has already restarted its youth sports training programs. We’re a little behind Ohio, maybe a little ahead of some others, trying to split the middle as best as we possibly can.”
The SSAC’s plan is an attempt at gradual progress starting with phase one, which will run from June 8-19. During that time, athletes will be broken up into pods of 10 or fewer and will be permitted to meet with coaches for one hour per day. Those meetings must be outdoors.
Phase two will begin immediately after, running from June 22 to July 3 and loosening restrictions. Up to 25 student athletes at a time will be allowed to participate. Indoor and outdoor practices will be allowed, though Dolan said the SSAC will recommend meeting outdoors when possible. Practices for groups may last up to two hours in this phase.
During phases one and two, no sport-specific activities are permitted. Meetings instead must focus on conditioning, strength training and agility.
Face masks are recommended for athletes and adults except during high-intensity training, disinfectants and hand sanitizers must be available on site and any person, player or coach, showing symptoms of COVID-19 must quarantine for 14 days.
“Besides physical needs, student-athletes also have social and emotional needs and hopefully this helps with that,” Dolan said. “We don’t want to throw them right into competition.”
Phase three of the plan will encompass the three-week practice period, which is designated by individual counties. Several area counties — including Kanawha, Putnam, Lincoln, Logan, Jackson, Nicholas, Wayne, Fayette and Clay — are all scheduled for July 6-25. Cabell, Mingo and Monongalia are slated for July 13-31.
The biggest change for the period is that no inter-school activities will be permitted. That includes 7-on-7 football tournaments, basketball shootouts or scrimmages of any kind. Student restrictions go from 25 to 50 during phase three with practice times expanding to three hours.
The release also identifies three sports as high risk — football, wrestling and cheerleading — and places sport-specific restrictions on each. Football players will not be permitted to wear any equipment or make body-to-body contact and must keep groups at 25 players or fewer with emphasis on positional drills. Cheerleading squads are not permitted to practice builds or partner stunts. Wrestlers may perform individual drills only.
Dolan said the plan was put together with guidance from the National Federation of High Schools as well as help and feedback from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, the Department of Education and the governor’s office.
“We’re asking coaches to limit students into pods because if anyone gets infected, we only have to quarantine a pod instead of a whole team,” Dolan said. “During the three-week period, we’re trying to keep it all contained to one school, so there will be no scrimmaging.”
As of Friday, there was no further information regarding the start of fall sports, specifically football. On May 22, Dolan told the Herald-Dispatch he was optimistic that there will be a football season of some kind, although the involvement of fans and the length of the season were two of several questions to be answered in the coming weeks and months.
Dolan doubled down on that stance on Friday.
“We’re rooting for Little League,” Dolan said. “They’re going to have fans in three weeks or so, so we’re rooting for them and hopefully it will give us a better idea of what to expect in the fall.
“But really, we’re just hoping people are smart. If it was something where we’d say, ‘You can come to watch the football game, but it has to be every other seat and every other row and you have to wear a mask,’ then you get a ton of people trying to jam onto the 50-yard-line, then obviously that’s not it,” Dolan added. “We want this to go all season, not come in game one and have a spike.
“If people are smart and take personal responsibility, that’s going to go a long way and I’m going to put a lot of it on the coaches too. The coach is the most influential person for the team and the community; if they’re wearing a mask when they’re supposed to wear a mask, then it becomes more likely that the fans will do the same.”