By Chapin Jewell
Starting Monday, June 15, the hills of Mineral County in Keyser and Short Gap once again rang with the sound of laughter from student athletes assembled, the pitter patter of feet racing on a track, of jump ropes rhythmically hitting the ground, and the sound of weights hitting the ground.
At Keyser and Frankfort high schools, following the Mineral County Board of Education giving the green light to do so, athletes from near every sport sprang into action with smiles on their faces and the exuberance of caged birds finally set free. With the start of summer conditioning, things had returned to normal.
Well, almost normal. Though activities had resumed, things most certainly looked different than they normally would. As an example, the athletes weren’t assembled as full teams but rather in small groups no larger than ten. Coaches not actively engaged in the aerobic activity of the drills were wearing masks. In every activity, everyone remained socially distance as required. Finally, after every group session, take weightlifting for example, all the equipment including the weights were being sanitized.
Despite the restrictions and differentness associated with group sports in the COVID-19 era, to a person, athletic director, coach or player, all were in agreement it was so nice, and so important, to see the kids together again, back to doing what they love to do, with safety still the primary concern.
Superintendent of schools Troy Ravenscroft, in a post on social media, summed up his thoughts on the situation, "It’s definitely different than anything we’ve ever done before. I’m confident in all our coaches/athletes to conduct summer conditioning while following all the health and safety regulations set by the WVSSAC. Honestly, it’s nice to have kids on campus again, even if it’s outdoors/small groups with regulations."
At Keyser High School on Monday morning, first-year head football coach Derek Stephen, with the help of assistant coaches, was happily presiding over what is essentially his first activities as the captain of the ship. No stranger to the program as long-term assistant, Stephen was asked if there was a point he didn’t see this day coming.
"We were stressing that we wouldn’t get a chance to do anything. Then they said July 6 was the first day and we thought, well, that’s better than nothing. Then we heard, well maybe it can be June. So we’re happy with what we get, and it’s like I told the players, it’s not ideal, but we’ve got to do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do," Stephen stated.
At Frankfort High School, veteran head football coach Kevin Whiteman presided over first-day conditioning activities at Falcon Stadium. For Whiteman, while things were definitely different due to COVID-19 than they’ve been in years past, there was great satisfaction in having his Falcon team assembled again. Whiteman too was asked if there was a point he didn’t see this day coming.
"Yes, I was really worried that this day wouldn’t come. I’m very happy that this day is here. I’m not going to lie, I was excited like a little kid last night. I didn’t sleep like I typically do. I was up about 4:30 in the morning, I usually get up about 5:30, and started thinking about how this day was going to go. It feels really good, because the last few months have been horrible," Whiteman stated.
Also at Frankfort, veteran boys’ soccer coach Patrick Brett was presiding over what is not his first rodeo when it comes to pre-season conditioning. From the Frankfort Soccer Complex, an excited Brett was also asked if there was a point he didn’t see this day coming.
"I always hoped the season would be on. I didn’t know whether or not we’d get it done in pre-season. I hoped that we were going to be out, but I thought we might be later. But I’m really happy that it’s happening in June and July," Brett stated.
One big question entering the day was the level of fitness the kids would come into conditioning with. Expectations were realistic among all three coaches interviewed, with nobody expecting the kids to be in anything that closely resembled peak, or even normal-June condition. Of course, some of the ultra-motivated kids have been working out religiously, but realistically, that’s not the norm.
According to Stephen, "I don’t know how hard they’ve been working out or doing what they should be doing. They’ve been telling me that they’ve been lifting and running, but again, it’s on their own and it’s hard to do that stuff. I’ve been working out in my garage and it’s not the same as working out in the weight room. But doing something is better than nothing."
For Whiteman, "I know some of them have been working out, and that some of them haven’t done anything at all."
Brett had the same observation with his soccer players, "My eyeball told me that there were several kids that have been doing something. Probably 50 percent of them you could tell were almost ready to go, other kids were like obviously they’ve done nothing and have got to get themselves up to speed, which I think they’ll do. But that’s kind of the nature of the beast for pre-season every year."
The first day of conditioning most certainly did not have the feel of an old-school, boot camp style summer practice, and of course, that wasn’t the purpose of this pre-season conditioning. In fact, especially considering the unique circumstances 2020 has brought, the goal was to ease everyone back into physical activity safely, and that attitude was definitely on display at both Keyser and Frankfort. The coaches were asked about their goals for the conditioning period.
According to Stephen, "This week, the goal is just to get the kids back into lifting. We’re not worried about strength or how they’re running, we’re working on form, and just being here and being active. Some of the kids haven’t been doing anything and they’re probably not going to be able to walk tomorrow because they haven’t done anything in three months. We’re trying to get lightweight, high reps, just trying to get the kids acclimated."
At Frankfort, Whiteman stated his objectives, "The goal is just to get them acclimated to the heat, get them use to working out again. So it’s just a gradual breaking in so we don’t have anyone dropping over. They’ve done a really good job today, I’m proud of them. We had it planned out nicely with our rotations."
On the soccer pitch, Brett explained his goals, "Number one was just getting the boys back out on the field after a long break. They had indoor cancelled, they had spring league cancelled, so they’ve basically done nothing since the cancelling of the indoor season. I really needed to get these boys out on the field, that was the number one objective. Number two was to get them together as a group again. There’s nothing like a group dynamic for a team. Then of course, the goal is to get them fit again."
Derek Stephen is in the unique position with Keyser football that despite being a veteran coach in the program, he has only recently become the head coach; all this at a time when what normally would be done and the traditional timetable has been turned upside down. While a challenge, it’s a challenge he’s met head on and with a positive, upbeat attitude.
As Stephen explains, "This has been a game changer right now. I was anticipating just stepping in and doing things very similar to what we’ve done before. Of course now, we have to make changes like this. While I’m not brand new to the program, in terms of being in charge, I’ve never done these things before. That also in some ways has been a blessing though, because I didn’t have anything I thought I had to go off of, it’s brand new."
According to Stephen, "I’ve been talking to other coaches throughout the state, to see what they’re doing and how they’re handling things, and I think we’re all pretty much on the same wavelength."
One aspect of the situation is that with all the changes being made and precautions being taken, everybody is in the same boat, with no single team really being advantaged or disadvantaged.
"Everybody is behind and I think we’ve figured it out, we’re only about two weeks removed from what we would normally have in our summer lifting sessions," Stephen stated. "Granted, we had the time period during the school year that we didn’t get to do anything, but for our summer stuff, we’re only about two weeks behind. So it’s not like we’re really behind the eight ball right off the bat."
Monday, the first day Mineral County’s student athletes could assemble in small groups and begin conditioning, was a long time coming. But it had to be. With safety of paramount importance, and also issues of liability always looming, precautions needed to be taken and a well thought out plan needed to be in place.
Thanks to the hard work and careful planning of athletic directors Jay Hesse (Frankfort) and Shawn White (Keyser), the cooperation of coaches and ultimate approval of the Mineral County Board of Education, that plan is in place and we once again have student athletes on campus engaged in sporting activities. It may be baby steps, but those baby steps are being taken in the right direction.
Most importantly, the smiles of our student athletes and coaches have returned.