Practice shutdown has coaches, athletes questioning how far county officials will be willing to go

Fairmont Senior quarterback Gage Michael (13) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in a game last season at East-West Stadium.

FAIRMONT — In the 24-hour aftermath of the Marion County health department’s and board of education’s joint decision on Tuesday to shut down all county sports indefinitely effective immediately, Fairmont Senior boys’ soccer coach Darrin Paul said he was posed one question in particular by Polar Bear players, parents and fans.

“The No. 1 question was: Are we going to have a season?” Paul said.

He didn’t have much of an answer.

“We were under the impression that if we followed (the guidelines and precautions) asked of us,” Paul said, “we would continue to be allowed to be on the field.”

The question of whether or not a high school fall sports season — and perhaps even winter and spring seasons — will happen has loomed across the entire state of West Virginia and really the entire country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday’s shut down in Marion County accentuated those concerns.

“For a lot of us, we’ve been working our butts off for a while now, and for us seniors we may not get to go out on our own terms, which really sucks,” said Fairmont Senior rising senior quarterback Gage Michael. “It’s been frustrating and extremely disappointing.”

There may be a hint of clarity one way or another on the status of West Virginia fall sports on the horizon. Gov. Jim Justice said in his press briefing on Wednesday in which he set a target start date for the state’s public schools of Sept. 8 that he’d have a formal announcement on the outlook of fall sports on Friday.

The announcement will be in conjunction with the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission, he said, and is likely to at least include a projected delay in the fall sports calendar if they’re permitted to move forward at all.

“That’s great,” Paul said on Wednesday of the governor’s impending formal announcement on Friday, “but I’m just hoping that Marion County is able to participate in that.”

Paul’s thoughts hint at the skepticism of the county’s decision-making that some county coaches, players and parents have become predisposed to in the wake of Tuesday’s shutdown.

Coaches and players have been quick to clarify that they are not medical experts and don’t understand the science of epidemiology surrounding the virus. They understand the county’s health department and board of education officials are acting in what those officials believe is in the best interest of the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches and fans. Coaches and players don’t want to judge those who are making what they admit are very tough decisions.

Yet, county coaches, players and fans have assessed the scope of the situation with the information they have following Tuesday’s shutdown and have essentially asked, what gives?

Marion County’s shutdown on Tuesday came just a day-and-a-half into the county’s designated three-week live practice period for high school sports, which, for the first time since high school sports were initially cancelled in mid-March, permitted teams to partake in sport-specific drills and activities using balls and other equipment. The three-week live practice period was also designated as the third and final phase of the WVSSAC’s return plan for high school sports across the state, with many of the state’s 55 counties also beginning the three-week period either this past Monday or this upcoming Monday.

But on Tuesday, while other counties either continued on with the three-week period or were given the go-ahead to plan on beginning practices on Monday, July 13, Marion County halted practices.

Marion County Health Department administrator Lloyd White cited a rise in the county’s COVID-19 cases, in particular among high-school-aged people, as the reason for the shutdown.

As of the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources daily COVID-19 report on Thursday evening, Marion County’s total number of cases was at 93, the 12th-most of the state’s 55 counties. There had also been zero confirmed cases among any Marion County high school student-athletes or coaches. Neighboring counties Monongalia and Harrison were at 405 and 104 cases, respectively, as of Thursday evening’s report, but were cleared to continue with practices as scheduled on Wednesday.

“I’d be lying to you right now if I didn’t say that, after talking to my players, my coaches and the parents, we are extremely disappointed and, honestly, a little nervous right now,” Paul said on Wednesday, “because if Marion County is going to take stances like this, what stops them from taking stances like this in the regular season while everybody else plays?

“When they see all of the counties around us and even around the state and we’re not even in the Top 5 (of cases) or considered a hot spot, but we’re still shutting down...is that going to continue in the regular season? That’s a big concern.”

It would seem far fetched for Marion County officials to withhold county teams from competing in actual games once — or if — the fall season is cleared for take off by the governor’s office, the WVSSAC, and practically all of the state’s other counties. But Marion County officials displayed as recently as last month that they’re willing to take an alternative stance to the majority of the state if they feel it’s in the best health interest of student-athletes, coaches and parents. During the first week of June as the WVSSAC rolled out its three-phase return plan proposal for sports this summer, the majority of counties voted to adopt the plan fully. Others made slight changes. Marion County officials, however, initially rejected both Phase I and Phase II of the three-phase plan, instead limiting teams to virtual workouts only. Less than 24 hours later, Marion County officials went back on their initial rejection of the plan and adopted it in full.

Any decisions or restrictions on regular season play, however, are still a long way off, and that’s if a regular season even begins to materialize at all in the first place. But even as it stands right now in the aftermath of the three-week period shutdown, Marion County coaches and athletes are clamoring about competitive disadvantages in regards to other teams across the state.

“The one thing that stinks for us here in Marion County at least for right now,” said East Fairmont girls’ soccer Eric Wright, “is, while I understand why they’re doing and I’m not going to judge or say we should or shouldn’t, but by us being shut down for at least this week, other schools and other counties are getting to continue. It’s not just conditioning (phases) now it’s ball work, so they’re getting actual practice time that we’re not getting.

“It puts you at a little bit of an unfair disadvantage.”

“We probably played like 40-plus games last year (during the three-week period),” said rising North Marion sophomore girls’ basketball player Olivia Toland, “and not having any of that is a real disadvantage for our younger girls and our bond as a team playing together.”

The majority of county coaches and student-athletes aren’t trying to rock the boat or even contest the reasoning behind the shutdown. They’ll adjust and follow the county officials’ decisions, they say, but the effects of the shutdown are legitimately dealing them a bad hand that they’re wondering whether or not is necessary.

“There are other counties with cases that are way higher than us, but we’re just going to follow along with what’s going on,” Michael said of his Polar Bear teammates. “As a team we’ve been bonding over this just keeping everybody’s spirits up about being able to have a season and still putting in the time and effort to be prepared to have a season.”

“I just hope everybody does their part and keeps faith so that we can get the ball rolling again.”

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.

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