Uncertain days ahead

High school coaches trying to navigate uncharted waters during pandemic

By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com

L.W. Barnes knew things were getting real as he was getting ready for his team’s first outing of the baseball season. 

“The day I found out the girls’ state tournament was postponed, I was out on the field replacing the pitching rubber,” the Hall of Fame coach at Anderson County High School says. “We were scheduled to play (a scrimmage) the next day. Once that happened, I knew we were in trouble.”

Anderson County High School baseball coach L.W. Barnes watches his team in an undated photo that appeared in The Anderson News.

Barnes is talking about the coronavirus pandemic that postponed and subsequently canceled spring sports at high schools across Kentucky and the nation. It’s a scenario that could not have been imagined just days earlier.

The night before, Barnes had been in Rupp Arena watching his step-daughter, Anna Foley, and her Anderson County teammates play in the Mingua Beef Jerky/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16. The Lady Bearcats had slipped past old rival Franklin County in the first round and were awaiting Friday’s game with Casey County when the tournament was suspended. That announcement came after South Laurel had upset Sacred Heart in Thursday afternoon’s opener. 

That South Laurel-Sacred Heart game turned out to be Kentucky’s final high school athletic event of the 2019-2020 school year. 

“By that next afternoon (March 13), we were told to be out through spring break,” Barnes remembers. “That’s when I felt there would be no baseball. As the numbers kept rising, I knew it was hopeless.”

Seventy-five miles south, one of Kentucky’s most successful high school football programs over the last decade was gearing up for what is expected to be another outstanding season. “We were all set to begin spring football practice on Monday, March 16,” Pulaski County coach Johnny Hines said in an email. “That was the first day that school was closed and we went to the ‘iLearn Day’ system. We had just finished our March ‘testing’ and were excited to be out on the field that Monday for Day One.”

The stories at Anderson County and Pulaski County could be repeated across 120 counties in the Commonwealth. They are common from Maine to Hawaii and all points between. Such is the uncertainty a novel virus has caused worldwide. The NBA canceled its season after the games of March 11. The next day, the NCAA Tournament was called off and Major League Baseball delayed the start of the season.

And in the next few days, life as we knew it shut down. 

Pulaski County High School football coach Johnny Hines, right, watches the action during his team’s win over South Laurel in the 2019 season. (Photo by John Herndon)

On the surface, sports might not seem that important. But they are ingrained in our collective psyche, providing entertainment and some escape from reality for the masses. In addition, those games offer young athletes opportunities to continue their education through college scholarships. 

They ARE just games, but they ARE important. 

“I feel really bad for the spring sport athletes,” Hines says. “For their season to just be dropped is really a sad ending for them.

With schools closing on March 16 and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association enacting a dead period through the crisis, there were few opportunities for making plans. “When all this occurred, there was so much uncertainty, that we never really had a chance to meet as a team,” Barnes remembers. “Last we were together, everyone assumed we would be back to work in a few weeks, so that last day together was a whirlwind. Kids cleaned lockers and got out fast.”

Hines says he met with his team on March 13 but under the assumption the Maroons would be together in a month. “We were all set to come back to workouts the day school reconvened,” he says. 

That getting back together never happened and Gov. Andy Beshear recently announced Kentucky Schools would not reopen this year, extending the coronavirus dead period indefinitely. Unlike the normal 15-day summer dead period, coaches are allowed to stay in touch with their teams in order to help players stay physically ready to return to action. However, there can be no organized team meetings.

“We have been able to stay in touch since the break started by text messages, emails and Twitter (direct messages),” Hines says. “I have also called each player on the phone and spoken to each one at least once, most more than once, just trying to keep them in the loop and motivated.”

Fall sports are the ones with the most uncertainty at this point. While there is little talk of basketball being shut down this winter, there is talk of moving the college football season to next spring. Nothing has been decided at the Kentucky high school level, but Hines says, “I expect to be playing football on schedule this summer. I’m a positive thinker!”

But fall scenarios can vary greatly by sport. Football is obviously played with much physical contact. Golf, on the other hand, is one in which social distancing can be easily practiced and one in which players can actually practice individually during the extended dead period. While high school coaches are not allowed to work with the players, many courses are open, giving players opportunities to work on their games.

“Wild Turkey Trace (a course near Lawrenceburg) has been open during the pandemic period and our players could, can and have played and practiced this spring,” says Anderson County girls’ golf coach Robert Hanks. “Hopefully, our players will take advantage of this extra availability to play and practice as much as possible.”

Anderson County High School girls’ golf coach Robert Hanks, rear, poses with his team after the Lady Bearcats won the regional championship last fall. Team members are, fron left: Lindsay Martin, Spencer Jessee, Allaka Lewis, Haley Case, Lauren Holmes and Kennedy Gilchrist. Absent were Makenna Nicholson and Sophie Smith. (Photo courtesy Robert Hanks.)

But there are limits to what playing practice rounds can accomplish. “Several players have, in past years, participated in Junior PGA or other junior tournaments,” Hanks says. “I believe most have canceled their original tournament schedule through at least May, causing a few of our players to miss out on those tournament-level opportunities which are hard to recreate by just playing a round of golf by yourself.”

Hanks, whose team won the first regional championship in program history last fall, still looks forward to having his team on the links in some form this fall. “I am proceeding and preparing for a full fall sports season,” he says. “I have scheduled six or seven tournaments and several matches and am close to having a full field for our annual Joy of Golf tournament (in late August). I am a little concerned that there may be flare-ups of new virus cases this fall which may affect our season. I’m hoping for the ability to play because we have six seniors this season and I’d like for them to enjoy that, plus we, as a team, have a great opportunity for a return trip to the state tournament.”

Pulaski County coach John Hines (Photo by John Herndon)

It’s uncharted territory for everyone. About all anyone can do is pray of God’s blessing and wait. 

“I have never dealt with anything like this in my coaching career,” says Hines, a veteran of over 30 years on the sidelines. “It’s uncharted waters. Once, when I coached in Florida, we had a scare with encephalitis. It was caused by mosquito bites that came out at dark. Therefore we had to play all our games in daylight on Saturdays or after school on Friday. That was a pretty easy adjustment.

“This is completely different.”

(NEXT: A look at small colleges and how the coronavirus has affected them and recruiting.)

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