KINGWOOD, W.Va. – It seems like high school sports in West Virginia can’t get ahead. While the majority of counties have resumed voluntary practices before the three-week slate in July, one high school has stopped in its tracks.
On Tuesday, the Preston County High Board of Education made the call that, in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the county stemming from vacations to Myrtle Beach, S.C., the voluntary workouts would be canceled. This came after multiple coaches decided to end them for their respective programs.
The cancellation was for both Phase 1 and 2 but does not include Phase 3 or the three-week practices which are set to begin July 6.
“We will hopefully be able to regroup for the three-week window that begins July 6,” Preston County Superintendent Steve Wotring said on Monday. “We will be working closely with the Preston County Health Department as we enter the three-week window to ensure we are making the safest decisions for our kids, their families and our community.”
While everyone involved wants to get back to action for those three-week practices, it’s within reason to be worried they, too, will be canceled.
“I think there were kids impacted or at least indirectly impacted [by trips Myrtle Beach],” Preston cross country coach Paul Martin said. “We thought we had some [kids] that potentially could be, but at this juncture, there are not any indirect connections. Nonetheless, with it being a lot of people from a community standpoint, we thought it would be in our best interest. Our biggest concern was how it could impact our three weeks.
“Really, in cross country, there’s always a big debate with running being the main focus of our sport if we can legally be running during the conditioning practices. We were focusing more on strength and circuit training with a little bit of running here and there. But if it impacted our three weeks, we’ll have three weeks, a week off, then the season starts, that to me is a bigger issue. So I cut my losses and hope we’ll have access to the three weeks.”
While some may think that cross country is one of the best sports for social distancing during training, it truly is not. With runners training in groups, spreading COVID could be easy due to heavy breathing and other factors. To counter that, Martin has a plan for how he’ll group his kids. First and foremost, he’ll keep pods small, no more than three or four kids, and will stagger the groups based on ability.
“If you do your groups based on ability and your top group starts, they’re going to develop a bigger gap because they’re quicker than the next group,” Martin said.
It’s no surprise that Martin’s teams are consistently pushing the limits of their opponents and threatening to win regionals and states, so the thought of things getting worse and not even having a season is a concern for the state title holding coach. Still, there’s some hope left to hold on to.
“There was a group of nearly 30 high school cross country coaches from around the state, [organized by] Mike Ryan of Morgantown High,” Martin said. “What we kicked around was possible scenarios that even in a worst-case scenario, how can we modify our particular sport and still have a season. Some of those, not to list in any particular order: Limit out of state travel, limit the size of meets down to having dual meets only. That wouldn’t be perfect but at least you get the opportunity to compete.”
Out of that coaches’ meeting, Martin was named the group’s spokesman to work with the WVSSAC if a green light is given for fall sports. He noted that the Commission is “excellent” to work with.
“I have a good working relationship with them,” he said. “I’m on the cross country coaches rules committee and Greg Reed, the assistant executive director who oversees cross country, knows that if they have any questions regarding cross country that there’s a network of people that can help them.”
Among all this, and especially the idea that there could be a month off from sanctioned activities before the season starting for his team, another concern is not being able to host the annual training camp the first week of August. The camp, held at Alpine Lake, dates back to 1999 when Martin was the coach at Grafton. That year, the Bearcats won their first state title, and when he transitioned to Preston in 2003, he led the Knights to a state title. Whether or not that camp holds some magic, one thing is for certain: It’s a tradition no one wants to miss.
“I do have some concerns what that looks like,” Martin said. “It’s a little different story spacing people apart, but when you have to live in the same space and eat, sleep and train together pretty much 24 hours a day for four days and three nights, that’s a little more difficult. We’ll be in contact with school and county officials and even the health department as to whether that’s something we can do. As of right now, we have it scheduled. We’re keeping our fingers crossed – that’s such a great experience for our kids and one in which they look forward to every year.”