In the spring of 2019, high school sports in Central Virginia were riding high as local teams combined to win eight state championships.
As the spring of 2020 dawned, those teams were gearing up for another run at championships when the COVID-19 pandemic left high school sports on the sidelines for months.
In early March last year, Western Albemarle High School Athletic Director Steve Heon was in Richmond for a Virginia High School League membership meeting, just hours after the Warriors boys basketball team took on Lakeland in the VHSL Class 3 state semifinals in Suffolk. A day later, Gov. Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 53, putting temporary restrictions on recreational activities and closing schools because of the novel coronavirus.
“It was very strange,” Heon said. “We’d heard about the virus and were somewhat aware of it and knew of its impact in other parts of the world and I guess anticipated it for a certain degree, but the dominoes fell so quickly, it was kind of surreal. We were there one day and then we woke up, talked to our head office building folks and they said ‘come home’ and we turned around and came home. The rest of the basketball tournament that day was canceled and it was just weird to come home and to know that everything was shut down.”
The VHSL pushed back spring sports for its 317 member schools for two months, holding out hope for a shortened or condensed season, but a surge in positive COVID-19 cases forced the VHSL to cancel the spring sports season on May 12, marking the first time since 1918 that the organization canceled a sports season.
“Obviously, we were very concerned and felt terrible for our student-athletes, coaches and communities,” VHSL executive director John W. “Billy” Haun said. “The VHSL and member schools understand the role of high school athletic and academic activities play in the lives of our students. VHSL activities play an important part in the education of our students. These activities are also essential to the social, emotional and mental health of our students. Losing an entire season was devastating to everyone involved from many perspectives.”
Joey Burch, a three-sport athlete at Western Albemarle, said the sudden shutdown and subsequent uncertainty have been difficult to process.
“The last 12 months have been super up and down for me,” Burch said. “When schools first started to shut down, it was right at the beginning of baseball season. I didn’t really know how to take the news at first and continued to throw with some of my friends, thinking that we would be back in school in two weeks, but it became evident quickly that we were not going back to school.”
Thinking outside the box
July is usually a quiet month at the VHSL offices in Charlottesville. But in 2020, it was a hub of activity as Haun and VHSL associate director Tom Dolan burned the midnight oil trying to come up with a way to safely bring back high school sports for the 2020-21 athletic year.
They had countless meetings with VHSL Executive Committee members, government leaders, school administrators and coaches to try and devise a plan to make high school sports playable during a global pandemic.
Coaches advisory committees were formed to allow them a seat at the table to discuss their thoughts on proposed ideas. Haun and his staff also met countless times with the VHSL Sports Medicine Advisory Committee during the summer and early fall to help devise a list of options moving forward. Those meetings led to three proposed models for a safe return to play based on state and local guidelines.
The first model allowed only low-risk sports such as cross country and golf to participate in the fall, meaning the cancellation of contact sports such as football, field hockey and volleyball. The second model flipped the spring and fall seasons.
The third option pushed back the start of winter sports to December, moved fall sports to the spring and condensed all three sports seasons in an effort to allow each sport an equal opportunity to have a season. In August, the VHSL adopted the third option, which became known as the “Championship plus-1” model.
“Part of the process was developing a plan that had flexibility,” Haun said. “[VHSL] staff and the Executive Committee created a plan that allowed for flexibility for local school input. Throughout the pandemic, each of our school divisions have experienced situations with COVID at different times and under different circumstances. Each locality needed the flexibility to decide what was right for them and when they felt comfortable allowing their student-athletes to practice or play. Local superintendents and school boards, in consultation with their health departments, have made some very difficult decisions. I applaud the work and decisions each of them have made.”
The decisions and the work have continued throughout the fall and winter as the VHSL has had to constantly adapt to changing circumstances.
“The most challenging part of this entire process has been the constant changes,” Haun said. “As we went through the summer and fall, information changed often. As the doctors and scientists learned more about COVID and how to manage a worldwide pandemic, guidelines and recommendations changed on a pretty regular basis. We had to be flexible in our work to ensure our mitigation strategies and plans were in line with new information and data. An important part of making these changes was communicating these changes to our member schools and school communities.”
Adjusting to changing conditions is nothing new to local athletic directors. In some aspects, it’s part of their job description, which includes rescheduling games because of weather or hiring coaches to lead a program.
But the COVID-19 pandemic created unique and unexpected challenges.
“Once we realized where we were headed and what the impacts could be, our focus turned directly to how do we give ourselves the best chance to get every athlete an opportunity to play sometime this year,” he said. “That was the focus from the get-go and just having to be patient and wait for those evaluating the situation to determine when it was time for us to get back and just work out to start and then to play games and how that would look, to do it safely. I don’t know if we knew we were looking at that right away last year at this time, but as we got into the summer, we realized it took a fair amount of coordination and thought to pull it off. I don’t know if any of us expected it to be quite as long as it’s been, but we knew it would be a while. It was very surreal.”
Bumps in the road
As December approached, excitement returned as athletes and coaches prepared to find a return to normalcy with sports. But things got off to a rocky start as a surge in positive cases in late December forced some school divisions to delay the start of their winter sports seasons, while others continued to operate as usual.
William Monroe and Fluvanna County started their basketball seasons on time on Dec. 21 and played with no pauses through most of the regular season, while Orange County and Louisa County pushed back their seasons until early January. Albemarle County and Charlottesville City schools weren’t allowed to return to action until late January, which meant a lot of three- to four-game weeks to complete their schedules.
Then in February, contact tracing forced several teams to end their seasons early. The William Monroe boys and girls basketball teams, Western Albemarle and Charlottesville boys basketball teams, and Albemarle girls basketball team all had qualified for postseason play but saw their seasons conclude prematurely.
“I think, in general, we’ve been fortunate,” Heon said. “The reality is, and we communicated this with our coaches right from the get-go and to really just everybody, that we’re going to do everything we can to give us the best chance to play, but the reality of the situation is that at some point, we’re going to be impacted someway, to what extent, we don’t know. What happened to the boys basketball program was unfortunate to say the least, but it’s just the reality of the world that we live in right now. We weren’t the only one; unfortunately it impacted others as well.”
At the private school level, there were also challenges. Covenant canceled its boys and girls basketball season in November, while Woodberry Forest played just two games before a COVID outbreak on campus prompted the school to send students home.
St. Anne’s-Belfield’s boys and girls basketball programs hoped to have a season, but neither team took the court for a single game. Miller School’s girls and boys played a handful of games, but the Mavericks girls basketball team had to call off its season prior to playing in the state tournament.
Even Blue Ridge School, which claimed its third straight VISAA Division II state title, faced adversity. The Barons played a handful of games in December before having to sit out most of January due to COVID protocols at the school.
Despite some of the challenges, Haun was happy with how the winter sports season turned out.
“I think the winter season went well,” he said. “It was heartbreaking when teams were not able to finish out the season due to COVID situations. I am so proud of all the work our athletes, coaches, parents and administration put into the winter season. It was great to see our student-athletes back out on the floor, courts, mats and tracks participating and being with their teammates and coaches after several months of not being able to do that.”
New roles for coaches
COVID-19 just didn’t take a physical and emotional toll on players, it also affected coaches.
“The last 12 months have been a lot of day-by-day and you can only plan ahead about week at a time,” Albemarle girls lacrosse and field hockey coach Brittany McElheny said. “I think it also has been a humbling realization that we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves and our daily lives. It is important to do what we can to help others. It can literally save lives.”
McElheny said her field hockey team started conditioning back in November and likened the first session to a family vacation.
“It was kind of like coming home from a really, really long trip and you know what to expect, yet everything seems a little different,” she said. “You wanted to have a big group hug, but you couldn’t. But just to hear their chatter and see their excitement was great.”
McElheny said athletes look to coaches for guidance when something goes wrong and wait for instructions on how to fix it or just reassurance that things would be OK.
With COVID-19, she was at a loss for words.
“This was so beyond everyone’s control that we just had to encourage everyone to stay positive and that whenever we get to the other side, we will come out stronger,” McElheny said. “It was hard to not have a fix, but to keep telling everyone to remain optimistic when we really weren’t sure how long it could be until we played or even practice together again.”
Preparation was key and McElheny credits her players for buying into the system.
“Honestly, it becomes even more of a team effort than before. Just remember we are all in the same boat and to just keep reminding each other ‘You don’t take any moment for granted. You know you are not guaranteed the next,’” she said. “I know the girls needed me and needed this outlet. I know that if the VHSL and the county are letting us participate, it is safe. I already knew this, but I believe it now more than ever.”
Western Albemarle girls basketball coach Kris Wright said the pandemic created some additional stressors for coaches and administrators, including a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations and meetings to make sure proper protocols and expectations were met.
“I think there have been some challenges, but mostly we’ve all adapted and adjusted,” he said. “Helping young players develop is more difficult when you are unable to work with them in person and when they don’t have teammates there in person to help propel their development, so that part is difficult. We did a lot of virtual workouts to try to bridge this gap, but that’s not ideal or possible for every player all the time.”
To their credit, Wright said his players adapted quickly.
“I would call this season rewarding,” he said. “The relief that you could see in the student-athletes after they got comfortable with the new routine and were able to play was awesome. I know that a lot of our parents and our players talked about how much of a difference it made in their day-to-day lives once they were allowed to return to activities. I think we saw that our program and our culture are strong, even in adverse circumstances.”
The ‘waiting game’
Last spring was a roller coaster of emotions for many high school athletes across the state.
After winning her first state championship with the Albemarle girls soccer team as sophomore, Liz Yow was gearing up for another opportunity to defend that title before the VHSL canceled the 2020 spring season because of COVID-19.
“The last 12 months have been all over the place for me,” she said. “When soccer got cancelled, I was devastated. Going from winning a state championship to not being able to play at all was really hard on me and our team.”
That emotional struggle was commonplace among local athletes.
Western Albemarle swimmer Sam Johnson, who won a state title with the Warriors, missed the YMCA Nationals with his club team, Cavalier Aquatics, in April.
“The last 12 months for me have probably been the toughest 12 months I’ve endured when it came to swimming — mentally, physically and emotionally,” Johnson said. “Being cut off from training, my team and the fun of the sport, hit me and others like a truck. All we could do was hope that we would get back in the water ASAP, but it was slower than expected.”
Charlottesville High School soccer and track standout Maddie Packer, who placed in multiple events earlier this month at the VHSL Class 3 state indoor meet, said competing during the pandemic included an adjustment period for all involved.
“The policies in place, such as frequent health checks, physical distancing, wearing masks, limiting numbers and banning spectators were difficult at first,” she said. “However, the rules led to a safer environment that we could compete in and the meets ran more efficiently. I missed not having my parents in the stands, but as a team, we cheered for and supported each other more.”
Louisa County wrestler Owen Greslick classified this year as a “waiting game.” Instead of losing hope, he continued to train and stay in shape for the possibility of a season and was ultimately rewarded last month when he won a state title at the VHSL Class 4 state wrestling tournament.
“The toughest part of it all was preparing for the postseason with a condensed schedule,” he said. “Normally, getting more matches is what helps someone get ready for postseason, we only had about five matches the whole season. Other than that, one thing that had changed was tournaments were shortened drastically. Normally, they take forever to finish, but due to COVID, they sped it up to get it done, which was great.”
Logan Barbour, a football and basketball player at William Monroe, said he struggled with the early isolation period, but quickly found solace when he was reunited with his team.
“The toughest part for me was around the beginning of summer, hearing that there was a chance there wouldn’t be any sports seasons at all was super heartbreaking,” Barbour said. “I never contemplated not playing because it was my senior year. My favorite memories were just being able to be with my teammates. Being in isolation due to the virus wasn’t the best, so just being around them made my days better. During all of this, I learned that me and my team are mentally strong and able to battle through adversity. One of the things I’ve liked that has been implemented is Saturday games. Here at William Monroe, we don’t have a lot of those type of games, which is why I enjoy it.”
Some teams and programs have taken safety to another level, including wearing masks not only during warmups but during competition as well.
“Most of our team wears a mask when we play, which is different, but during the game, I barely notice it’s on me, so I think it’s good that we take that extra precaution,” Yow said. “When I first heard we were going to be playing again, I was so excited, but I did have some concerns about why we couldn’t go back to school, but we could play together on a field. However, I decided that if we were going to take it seriously and follow all the necessary protocols, I couldn’t wait to get back out there. During the pandemic, my team has communicated a lot more online when we can’t be together, which I would love to see continue because it brings us closer together as a team.”
In this year of transition, there have been some positives to come from the pandemic.
With limitations on fans and spectators, many schools have embraced live-streaming games for their programs. Most schools in Central Virginia have opted in to one of several options to give parents, family members and fans an opportunity to watch games while fan restrictions remain in place.
“What I wish was different was being able to accommodate everyone at every venue and make things as normal as possible,” Louisa athletic director George Stanley said. “I have heard from parents desperately trying to pack the gym for a basketball game, knowing that I simply could not allow something like that to happen. Yes, there have been tough times, but I can also say that the satisfaction of seeing our department experience success through all of these unknowns has been more than humbling to witness.”
Another recent addition has been the ability to sell tickets online. The Jefferson District announced a partnership with Ticket Spicket, which offers hands-free ticket sales at events. They district worked out arrangements to allow home and away fans to attend games in person to watch their son or daughter play.
While other options could carry over moving forward, Heon believes those are the two items that are expected to continue.
“I think we will all have live streams up and for the foreseeable future online ticketing is here,” Heon said. “To what extent we require it may change, but it’s been a great addition. I think one of the biggest takeaways is not taking anything for granted. I think there’s a different perspective now having been through what we’ve been through and I would suspect a great appreciation for just being able to play the game, be a part of it as an athlete and then for parents to be able to watch their kids play, I think there’s a new appreciation for that.”
Lessons learned from winter sports
Despite a few issues with contact tracing at the end of the season, high school sports went off largely without a hitch over the last several months, with safety being a top priority.
Considering all the unknowns surrounding the season, Haun was pleased with all the work of the coaches, players and administrators for making this happen.
“I think reflection and evolution are important for any process,” Haun said. “Looking back, I think the VHSL Executive Committee and membership made good decisions throughout the process based on the information and data that was available at the time each decision was made. I think the winter season went well.”
Heon said seeing how professional leagues such as Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL operated established a strong foundation on how sports can be run safely during a pandemic.
“I think it’s what we hoped, I guess, it would look like,” he said. “We thought we could have sports safely, but how much it would look like sports of the past it would probably would be different, but our biggest focus again was just getting kids the ability to play again, practice again, be active again, getting out of the house and being around other people safely. I guess I would say yes, in late to early winter, this is what we envisioned and hopefully we can continue.”
Stanley is proud of how seamless things have gone for fall sports, especially with the Lions’ program.
“I am most proud of our players and coaches doing all they could to keep their seasons going forward,” he said. “There were plenty of success stories to celebrate, but we have new state championship wrestler, individual region champions in track, region forensics champs and a state championship girls basketball team. There’s so much to be proud of.”
Heon had similar praise for successfully working through the winter and current fall sports seasons.
“We are fortunate to be where we are right now,” he said. “We got our first two seasons that have been able to play, so we hope that we can get through this winter season in its entirety and then get to spring. We hope that spring gets that opportunity after missing out last year, but we didn’t have a whole lot of control over that. I just hope that the numbers continue to decline.”
Haun said the top priority over the next few months is to make sure all fall and spring athletes have an opportunity to compete. That will include working with the Governor’s office to increase number of spectators allowed at events.
“It’s important for parents and community members to be able to see their son or daughter play,” he said. “We are not advocating for stadiums to be at full capacity, because we need to do this safely. With the size of our high school stadiums, it would be good to see a few more spectators and school support groups, like bands and cheerleaders, be able to participate in these outdoor events. Long term, I want everyone to be safe and take care of and love each other. Let’s work together to overcome this terrible pandemic.”
Heon is optimistic about the future.
“I think we’re all hoping to get back to that point,” he said. “I think we all understand that it may be a new normal. We may get closer to what we were used to, but it might be quite some time before its totally back to normal, so I think we’ll just appreciate the opportunities that we have to provide the ability for these student athletes to come out and play the sports that they love and just take it one step at a time.”