A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

COVID meant a year of upheaval for Kentucky’s high school sports — and it isn’t behind us yet

By Chad Hensley
KyForward sports reporter

The one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has come and gone. While we suffered a year in upheaval — rules unclear and changing rapidly, no fans in the stands, players infected and more — it’s clear the pandemic isn’t yet behind us.

For example, the 2020 KHSAA Girls Sweet 16 started on March 11 with all four games being completed. Day 2 saw tournament favorite Sacred Heart get outperformed by South Laurel’s fantastic shooting performance. After South Laurel pulled off the 58-57 upset and with Marshall County and Henderson County waiting in the wings of Rupp Arena, KHSAA decided to heed the “guidance from both the Kentucky Department of Education and the Governor’s office” in suspending the rest of the girl’s tournament as well as the entire boy’s tournament which was to follow the next week.

Referee speaks with coaches during the Northern Kentucky District Basketball Tournament (Photo by Bob Jackson)

Then spring football practice was canceled followed by the cancellation of the entire spring sports season for middle and high schools.

Baseball, softball, tennis and track and field seasons followed.

“That was definitely the worst phone call/live Zoom I’ve ever had to make to kids,” stated Rockcastle County head softball coach Aaron Rupard, about his having to tell his players their season was over before it started. “I hated it for our girls, but especially those six seniors. I had been with that group since they first came up from middle school.”

One of Rupard’s six seniors on the 2020 team was Jaylon Ponder, one of the Lady Rockets top pitchers alongside then-junior Madison McIntosh.

“What I missed most about not being able to play my last season was the memories I never got to make with my teammates,” Ponder said. “We had worked so hard and we had our minds set on bringing home some hardware. The hope of what could have been will always haunt me.”

The news resounded throughout the state.

“We were thankful that we had been able to complete our regional tourney,” said Ryan Perry, boys basketball head coach at Lyon County, “but were sad for the teams that did not get to compete in the state event.”

Despite doubts about a fall or winter sports season, athletes were able to train and compete safely through summer travel teams or taking part in a skills camp.

One such organization was the Legends Skills Academy out of the Wayland School gymnasium in Wayland.

Led by former Mr. Basketball winners in J.R. VanHoose, Elisha Justice and Camron Justice, the academy gave many student-athletes in Eastern Kentucky some feeling of normalcy during trying times.

“We were able to get this started safely in the middle of the pandemic,” stated VanHoose. “Of course, we followed all of the safety protocol and numbers-wise were able to do some very good things with the kids.”

Being a former Mr. Basketball winner and leading Paintsville High School to a Sweet 16 title in his senior season of 1998, VanHoose is someone who has been there and done that in the minds of youngsters in the mountains.

“This is my 18th year as part of a coaching staff and in that time, I’ve been a part of five district titles and three region championships. When you add that to my playing accomplishments, I think that speaks for itself.”

With mandates for staying home also in place, everyone hoped for the normalcy of a fall sports season. The KHSAA would eventually allow fall sports to begin practice and playing games, but with many restrictions in place.

Until that decision came, training was difficult but some schools were able to adapt better than others and saw success throughout the season in football.

Two such schools were Lexington Christian Academy and Franklin County.

“We’d been lifting for only one month at that time,” LCA head coach Doug Charles said. “Our staff put together an off-season/off-site lifting and conditioning program. Our kids were resilient and did a great job of holding each other accountable and ended up transforming their bodies to prepare for the season.

“When regular practice began, our kids were in excellent condition and dialed into the various playbooks. We really never missed a beat.”

The Eagles were expected to make a deep run in the playoffs, which they did before losing to Beechwood in the Class 2A state finals.

A Franklin County football player wears a mask during practice. (Photo by Hannah Wynn)

Franklin County head coach Eddie James had a bevy of talent returning from a team that went 11-1 in 2019 and knew he had a team that could make a deep playoff run in a talented Class 4A if only the season could start.

“We initially took two weeks off and during that time our staff formulated a plan,” said James. “We began to do virtual workouts on zoom and use the time to clinic our players and teach the basics of our offense and defense. As the shutdown continued, we expanded our plan to include the grades and mental health of our kids in our program.

“We explained to the kids how important the protocols were to successfully have a season,” he said. “We worked closely with our athletic trainer and health department to create a plan that met the guidelines and gave us a chance to be successful.”

The Flyers did what they needed to in the classroom, on the field and at home to stay healthy, in shape and ready to go once the season started.

The success James saw his players attain was unprecedented for the program. A 20-12 win on the road against defending champion Johnson Central in the semifinals meant the Flyers would be playing for their first state title in school history.

They lost in overtime to mighty Boyle County 31-28.

“Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes and 2020 was a great example of that,” said James. “Our kids worked hard and overcame a lot. That is a testament to them and their ability to think critically and overcome obstacles put in front of them.

Unprecedented Success During Uncertain Times

Once the fall sports season got underway, there were cancellations and quarantines causing limited schedules or no games at all during weeks at a time.

One team that found themselves in an even more peculiar situation was the Notre Dame Academy volleyball team leading up to the district tournament.

With the varsity team being placed into quarantine, the junior varsity players stepped in and played in the 35th District tournament, winning both matches to keep the season alive. If the JV team had not stepped up, head coach Molly McDermott said the varsity season would have ended.

“The situation they were placed in was unprecedented and they displayed grace and grit under pressure, eventually becoming 35th District Champions,” she said.

The Notre Dame Academy varsity volleyball team with the state title trophy (Photo by Moll0y McDermott)

High school volleyball has been dominated by three Louisville schools for more than two decades, but time in quarantine gave the Pandas more time to focus on taking the state title back to Northern Kentucky.

“The varsity team came out of quarantine with a desire and hunger to finish what they started,” added McDermott. “Ultimately bringing the state championship trophy back to NDA was 26 years in the making and I couldn’t be prouder of this team for seeing that goal through to fruition.”

With COVID numbers causing questions about Kentucky’s King of Sports, basketball, hung in the balance.

The KHSAA would be scheduled to vote on when to start the winter sports season, which was rescheduled twice, causing coaches to scramble to put together a schedule. The basketball season was finally okaygiven the go-ahead to start January 4. A normal season would have begun in mid-October. Coaches had to be creative to keep players ready to go.

“The girls were very creative with workouts on their own,” said Shelby Valley girls basketball coach Lonnie Rowe. “They videoed their workouts and they were doing anything they thought would help in order to stay in shape.

“I texted my players a long message about the importance of following the COVID guidelines if they wanted to have a season. Our team had no problem following the guidelines, but we still had a shutdown due to players testing positive.”

Being cooped up at home with most schools closed for in-person learning has been trying on the mental health of students, coaches, teachers and school administration.

Lyon County’s Ryan Perry thinks that getting back to practicing and playing games was just what his team needed.

“It has certainly been a trying season for players and coaches, all the cancellations and uncertainty weighed pretty heavy on these young guys and the coaches,” Perry said, “Our coaches and players never complained. Each game was treated as if it could be our last game the entire season”

Losses turned into gains for schools

The lack of fans able to come to games triggered a severe cut in athletics budgets for many schools.

Companies like PrepSpin stepped in to give schools an alternate form of revenue by streaming games. Started in 2007 by William Warfield when he wanted to help bring more attention and coverage to the schools in Jessamine County, PrepSpin has since blossomed into a company that is growing more and more each year as technology advances.

Other streaming sites such as EZStream and iHigh have since been replaced by YouTube’s streaming option, the NFHS Network and PrepSpin.

“There are several options that have evolved out of nowhere because of the pandemic,” said Warfield. “It has forced everyone to think outside the box. I have never been a big pay-per-view fan, but we developed a paywall to help schools sell virtual tickets.

“The NFHS Network option gives you a free camera currently where small companies like ours give you a bigger profit share; 10 percent from the NFHS Network and up to 70 percent from us. Both of us offer software and easy ways to stream games and events behind a paywall. Some schools prefer to stream games for free and that is ok too. We have helped several schools in Kentucky earn hundreds of dollars this school year.”

“I believe the ability for fans to watch the live stream of the games they aren’t able to attend has been a lifeline for the fans and the teams,” Perry said. “With these small communities like Lyon County programs aren’t just about the players, coaches and parents, it’s about the entire community.

“It’s about the 2-hour trips to the hardware store and grocery stores because every person you see watched the game last night and they all want to talk about it and they care. If those people would have been shut out and could only live the basketball season through the newspaper it would have been devastation. Instead, our school administration made available the live stream of our games on YouTube and even had our radio voice synced up with it and it was awesome, all season long.”

WYMT sports anchor Camille Gear might be from Tennessee, but she has been accepted by everyone in the Kentucky mountains. Her bubbly personality has been put to the test numerous times throughout the pandemic.

“I think the biggest difference this season has been the lack of atmosphere and the constant cancelations,” stated Gear. “I know there has been many Fridays where we have a plan and about 20 minutes before we leave, we find out the game is canceled.”

One thing Gear has noticed throughout the fall season is just how important high school sports are to so many especially in the smaller communities throughout the Commonwealth.

“There have been a couple times this year I have gotten emotional on the sidelines because at some point in time I thought we may never get back to this,” she said. We never knew how long this was going to last. Nobody knew if and when they would ever come back so to say it’s a great feeling, to be able to go to games regardless of having to wear a mask or social distance or whatever the protocols may be.”

“Being able to stay involved in the sport that I love the most means everything to me,” Rockcastle’s coach Ponder added. “I cannot express how grateful I am to have been given the opportunity to coach some of the girls of Rockcastle County. These young athletes are very talented, and I can’t wait to see what the future of Rockcastle County softball holds.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for high school sports in Kentucky. The pandemic is continuing to teach all of us that life is short, but we can make the best of it by coming together and helping each other through such difficult situations.

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