COLUMN: It was a rough, wonderful ride

Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Chapin Jewell

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

On Friday, March 6, I sat in a crowded gym with seemingly the rest of Mineral County, and watched the Keyser boys edge the Frankfort boys 71-70 in double overtime in Short Gap.  

As I have written about that game, it absolutely without a doubt was the most nail-biting, epic adventure of a game most of us in attendance had ever seen.  

Regardless of whether you were wearing Black and Gold or Columbia Blue and Silver that night, you walked out of the gymnasium knowing not only that you had witnessed greatness in the form of sports entertainment, but also pretty amped up about what was to come, a regional final for both teams that could potentially propel them both, or at least certainly one of them we thought, into the state basketball tournament in Charleston.

With the win, Keyser had earned the right to host North Marion at KHS in the one regional final. The loss meant that Frankfort was to travel to Fairmont Senior to play the Polar Bears in the other regional final.

Then the day of those regional finals came, Frankfort was literally about to board the bus to make the trip to Fairmont, no doubt in Marion County, North Marion was about to do the same to come to Keyser, when the word game down that both games, all games in fact under the purview of the WVSSAC, were cancelled.

The girls’ state basketball tournament was already in session, games had been played already and they allowed a few more games that day to finish. But, on the boys’ side, any and all remaining regional finals left to be played were cancelled pending further notice.

As we now know, nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing at all related to WVSSAC-sanctioned high school sports contests would be played again until golf jumped out of the starting gate first in August, some five months later.

This meant we will never know whether Keyser or Frankfort or both for that matter might have made it to the state basketball tournament after stellar seasons for both squads. That one hurts, and though people say “it’s just a sport,” the question of “what if” will resound in the minds of the members and coaches of both squads probably forever.

But that was just the start. If you want to talk about hammers falling, no bigger hammer fell than the hammer that totally wiped out the entirety of high school spring sports in West Virginia. Sometimes when we complain about our Mineral County schools not getting a crack at the state basketball tournament or those football playoff games they earned, both huge disappointments, we forget or lose track of the fact that not a single spring sport was played.

There was zero baseball, zero softball, zero track and field and zero tennis played by Keyser or Frankfort or any high school in the Mountain State in the year 2020…zero.  Can you imagine? A senior class totally missed out on playing their senior and most memorable year and underclassmen missed out on the chance to get better at their craft in preparation for their own eventual senior seasons.  

What do you think that did to recruitment for college, you’re talking about an entire body of work, an entire season many were no doubt banking on to get noticed washed away because of a global pandemic.

From a personal perspective for me as a sportswriter, things got interesting pretty quick. I would have been busy travelling from pillar to post covering Frankfort and Keyser in their spring sport endeavors, but all of the sudden, there was literally nothing in the way of high school sports to cover with the exception of some college signing which was exciting when they happened.

Thus began a journey for me of reflection, not personal reflection but rather a reflection on the long, storied history of Mineral County sports, in some cases dating all the way back to the beginning of the 1900s.  

I began to fill the Mineral News-Tribune with Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday articles about a wide array of topics.

It may have been a particular game, it may have been a state championship season, even if from 100 years ago, it may have been a coach, it may have been a player. In any event, it afforded me the writer and you the reader the chance to learn a lot about our storied past. I learned so, so much, an incredible amount in fact, and I hope you the reader did too.  

It was one part necessity, admittedly, and one part entertainment. In any event, I hear from many of you when we meet about many of those throwback stories and how much you enjoyed them and for that I am very grateful and happy. Some of them are memories re-lived no doubt, some of them were new stories for many.

Luckily for me, but most especially for the young athletes of Mineral County, in the lower age groups and then also in the older age brackets, there would eventually be baseball played through Mineral County League and through travel ball organizations. So, as the weather turned warmer, there were some live sporting events to cover and write about, mostly Little League, and I really enjoyed that.

I made my rounds as best I could hitting spots in Wiley Ford, Short Gap, Fort Ashby, Burlington and Keyser and took hundreds of pictures of the young ones playing and enjoying the sport they loved. There was a lot of joy to go around, to actually see kids outdoors and playing alongside their friends did wonders for the spirits of the kids, their parents, and yes, this sportswriter.

I even had a chance to travel to beautiful Lewisburg in Greenbrier County to see the Mineral County Little League All-Stars defeat Ceredo-Kenova to win the West Virginia Little League State Championship. So, there were a few bright spots over the summer but what lingered all summer long was the waiting and wondering as to the ultimate fate of high school fall sports.

If you remember, those were odd times. The WVSSAC allowed for conditioning but there were rules, important and varied, designed to allow for participation but still to keep everyone safe.  The same with what would eventually be practice, it happened, but with rules and uncertainties.

As you recall, there were shutdowns due to COVID. Just when you thought things were rolling there would be a positive or positives and things would get shut down. Ironically, for me, all of the rule changes and ebbs and flows that saw sports get shut down for periods at that time and then eventually later actually gave me as much to write about as if sports were going on.

Then came fall sports, finally, and it all began with golf, they were the guinea pigs. To their credit, the Keyser and Frankfort golfers, once clear of some drama at their literal first outing, performed wonderfully and really helped set the tone for the rest of everybody for how to do it and do it well in the midst of a world full of pandemic rules. As you know, golf went so well that Keyser ultimately won the regional championship and advanced to Wheeling to the state tournament, finishing fourth overall.  I was there.

There was cross country where Frankfort and Keyser both performed admirably. So admirably in fact that the Frankfort girls and Keyser boys sent a representative to the state cross country championships in Ona. So admirably in fact that the Frankfort boys would ultimately advance to and win the class AA state cross country championship over Fairmont Senior, without their number one runner Garrett Ferguson.

Do you remember that story? I’ll never forget it for as long I live.  Frankfort advances to the state championship and after defeating Fairmont Senior twice or maybe three times already as the odds-on favorite, projected to win it all. Then literally days before the state championships, word comes down that Garrett Ferguson would not be able to make the trip as the result of being in COVID-quarantine.  They needed to run the race of their lives if they were to win, and by golly, they ran the race of their lives and more and won the dang thing as they say. I was there.

There was volleyball, where the Keyser and Frankfort girls battled it out all season playing competitively and then ultimately saw their seasons end come playoff time as the result of COVID issues, what a heartbreak for them.  The same happened with cheerleading, with cheerleading playoffs so to speak being COVID cancelled.

And as we know, that very same thing happened with football. Both Frankfort and Keyser killed it, performing so well that they had both earned high rankings after a spectacular and almost complete regular season and were both slated to host home playoff games when COVID cancelled their participation in the playoffs.

We were robbed of a Mineral Bowl thanks to the pandemic and we were robbed of football playoffs. All things being considered, however, when you sit back and think about it, both teams at least had a season and a reasonably complete one at that. For that, whether you agree with me or not, we should actually be forever grateful for the football season we did get, it’s more than those in surrounding states got.

So, it has been quite a journey trying to navigate being a sportswriter during a global pandemic. My hat goes off to the readers for bearing with us. My hat goes off to Troy Ravenscroft and A. Jay Root for leading us through tough waters. My hat goes off to Jay Hesse and Shawn White, athletic directors at Frankfort and Keyser respectively for all their hard work through a sea of daily changes. My hat goes off to the coaches, and my hat goes off to the players and their families and fans.

It’s been a rough ride, and simultaneously a wonderful ride.  At a time when so much has been taken away, I have to say, for the most part, we’ve done well in Mineral County, and winter sports commence in literally a few days, soon to be followed by spring sports, so really we should be grateful.   

One thing’s for certain, I’ll be seeing you around.