MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Nov. 11 was one of the best days of her life. Two days later, not so much.
“I felt like my heart dropped into my stomach,” Morgantown High senior center/forward Kaitlyn Ammons said. “I was texting with one of my teammates because we were working on a school project and said, ‘Season just got postponed until January,’ and she thought I was joking. I was the first person to text it into the group chat and I started crying when my teammates were texting me back because they were asking me questions and I don’t have answers to give.”
Now, rather than continuing to build off what she noted was the best opening week of practice since she’s been part of the program, the DePaul Women’s Basketball commit and her peers instead will play the waiting game following Gov. Jim Justice’s Friday mandate.
“We talked a lot about last season on Friday and told the younger girls it’s worth the wait,” Ammons said. “This is my favorite time of the year and it’s been taken away from us. It’s just not fair. We’re being punished and we’re not even the ones spreading it.”
And while Ammons checked herself almost immediately, noting that it would be easy for someone older than her to say that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about or that she’s too young to understand what’s fair, it is hard to argue that high school athletes are not being singled out. Restaurants, stores and public gyms are still open, and class is still in session until the Thanksgiving moratorium. Plus, prep football playoffs and WVU games and training are all still active.
“I understand both sides. It’s easy for me to be a kid and say, ‘This is unfair and I don’t like Jim Justice,’ but I understand where he’s coming from,” Ammons said. “He’s searching for a solution, but you can’t search for a solution and throw one out to please people and I feel that’s what this decision was. I feel as though the boys’ teams should have been able to get their week of practice in and figure out who’s going to be on the team before he just up and canceled. If football is [still playing] our boys could have easily gone another week of practice and so could we. But we’re kids, no one’s going to listen to our opinion. Anytime I put something out on Twitter, some adult says I’m some privileged little girl and my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s a difficult situation and is very unfair, but I know as a team we’re going to do as much as we can and make sure we’re ready.
“I’m not the one who made the decision and it’s really hard to deal with that right now. It’s heartbreaking. There could have been better solutions. In the summer, them [leadership] postponing the start of the school year I was like, ‘OK, good. This gives them more time to figure out a solid plan that we can go by for the first semester.’ But they still didn’t even do that. I don’t think anyone has the answers.”
While not being taken seriously bothers Ammons, one of the bigger things that upsets her is knowing she or others don’t have all the answers – something MHS girls’ basketball coach Jason White echoed.
“The timing of it is unfortunate,” White said. “I think it’s easier for teenage kids to understand a postponement over letting these kids start and then have it kind of taken away from them. Mentally, that’s kind of damaging and that’s troubling to me. I’d rather see the governor do this a week earlier. But I understand, this is about health. This is, the way I put it with the team, our best opportunity to have a season. If we can step away and shut things down for a couple of months. What I have a hard time doing as an adult is explaining to kids why they’re the only ones that are shut down. It’s difficult to explain that people in the community can go out to a restaurant for a bite to eat, that they still have to come into a classroom that’s maybe 1/5 the size of the gymnasium with 10-15 classmates, but we can’t be in an entire gym with 20 kids. That is hard to explain. From my perspective, that’s where I’ve struggled with the shutdown.”
Still, he and his coaching staff tried to answer as many questions as possible. They pulled the team together for a meeting on Friday and then ended what would have been the first full week of practice by handing out uniforms. While it can be upsetting to players to see their jerseys on a hanger without knowing when they’ll be able to suit up for a game, White believes seeing it every day is a promise that there will be a season.
“When times get tough over the next two months and you feel like you don’t want to work hang that uniform somewhere you’ll see it and it’ll remind you we are going to have a season,” he said.
Further, he told his team to think back to last season. After an up and down year, the Mohigans punched their way into the Class AAA playoffs with an upset of No. 1 Wheeling Park. While a subsequent loss to No. 2 Woodrow Wilson knocked them out of the playoffs, not long after the quarterfinals, the first round of cancellations hit the Mountain State and took out the state basketball tournaments. To both Ammons and White, that game proved the 2020-21 season was going to be one for the books. With no seniors on the team last year and now with four – Ammons, Cat Wassick, Berit Johnson and Reese Moore – the Mohigans looked prime to build upon that success.
“I’ve been so excited about this group of kids,” White said. “This is something we’ve looked forward to for a long time as a coaching staff. Our kids really put in a ton of work in the offseason, and I know for a lot of people that’s hard to believe in a COVID-stricken world. They found ways to get better. And those first four days of practice were as good a four days as we’ve had in our program maybe ever. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm, the level of play was high, so as a coaching staff we were ecstatic about where we were.”
According to both Ammons and White, the center/forward worked hard in the offseason to build up skills that were lacking and polish the skills that she had locked down to prepare for her transition into Division I basketball.
“Her work ethic speaks for itself,” White said. “You don’t get to a top-20 women’s program in the country by just showing up and working when you feel like it. She’s been coming to work every day and she’s trained for this her whole life. Her biggest credit is that she’s worked on those weaknesses. I push her daily. Defensively, she’s got to be a better rebounder for us if we’re going to be successful. But one of the great things about Kaitlyn is that she accepts coaching and she doesn’t think she knows more than her coaches.”
“I stayed in shape and made sure I was thinking about what coach White is going to want me to do within his system and make my workouts conducive to that so I’m not being unproductive,” Ammons said. “I’ve [also] kept [my teammates] motivated, but I can’t do it alone. I’ve got to give a lot of props to Cat, Berit and Reese because they’re the most motivated teammates I’ve ever had. Not only do they hold themselves accountable but they keep me and the rest of the team accountable. Having such a good system between us four seniors and some of the younger girls who have played on varsity for two or three years, it’s nice that those younger girls have someone to guide them.”
For now, there is still a season, albeit shortened. Moving forward, though, Ammons noted that the team needs to stick together. If they can do that, they’ll come out on the other end of the postponement ahead.
“I told them over the last few days that, I need them as much as they need me,” she said. “Us staying ready isn’t going to happen individually, this is a team effort. This isn’t the offseason, this is our season. I’m just as emotional as [they] are. I don’t want to look at my jersey hanging up in my room every day knowing I’m not going to be able to wear it for another two months.
“I told them, ‘I love you guys, just stay positive and it will work out one way or another. Whatever happens is supposed to happen, and we can’t do anything about that.’”