Pandemic’s effect devastating now, could be for future

Asbury coach Will Shouse talks with Desmond Duke during the Eagles’ game with IU-Southeast.

Lost season, future uncertainties frustrate athletic landscape for players, coaches and fans

By John Herndon,

When the athletic world came screeching to a halt in mid-March, many players, coaches and fans assumed the stoppage was just a short-term bump in the road. Most figured there’d be a few missed games, some missed practices, but everything would be back to normal soon.

Few could have seen that a practically invisible virus would change lives for the long-term, perhaps even permanently. 

“The last (time) we were together, everyone assumed we would be back to work in a few weeks,” remembers L.W. Barnes, the longtime baseball coach at Anderson County High School. The Bearcats had planned on playing a scrimmage game on March 13, but instead had a quick meeting and then hastily cleaned out their lockers to wait out the shutdown.

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

They are still waiting.

“We knew that we were gonna be out until April 16 at the earliest,” Pulaski County High School football coach Johnny Hines remembers. He’d met with his team on March 13 to make sure contact information was correct and to encourage his team to be ready to get back to work as a team.

It was the last time the Maroons gathered. There was no spring practice but Hines, like most high school and college football coaches, hopes his team will be able to kick off the season as scheduled in late August. 

The high school state basketball tournaments were eventually canceled weeks after the NCAA called off its three-week national holiday. The NAIA did the same. All the cancellations were financially devastating to the respective organizations but took an immeasurable toll on athletes who had championship opportunities and entire seasons taken away.

And for some, the coronavirus has seriously altered the college decision-making process. 

With spring sports being canceled, high school seniors won’t get that one last opportunity to make an impression on college recruiters. Barnes, who expected his team to be much improved after last year’s 9-23 finish, believed two of his seniors will be left with the lingering “What if?”

Barnes mentioned outfielder Zach Labhart, who had been very promising as a freshman, when Anderson advanced to the Eighth Region championship game, and sophomore. A knee injury suffered during the 2018 football season limited Labhart on the baseball field last year, but Barnes says 2020 was supposed to be his year.

“Zach has hopes for playing in college, but this was going to be his breakout year,” Barnes says. “He’s had some small college offers but he had higher expectations. Spencer Davis (a pitcher) was set to really make a jump this year on the mound. Being a lefty, I felt he could have had some (college) looks this year as well.”

Instead, Barnes says, Labhart plans to enroll at Western Kentucky University but has not decided if he will try out for the baseball team as a walk-on. Barnes says he’s not sure about Davis’ future plans. 

He is sure a canceled season meant canceled opportunities. 

But the implications for college aren’t limited to spring sports. While college basketball was shut down by the NCAA, NAIA and NCCAA, the long-term outlook is not as certain. While the big-time colleges are, for the most part, set with their rosters for the 2020-2021 school years — except, of course, for a few late decisions — lower levels and smaller colleges have not been able to capitalize as much on those student-athletes who chose to wait until after their final season of high school hoops.

Kentucky Christian University women’s basketball coach Dr. Lisa Conn instructs Kamryn Rose during the Lady Knights’ game with Milligan on Jan. 15.

“Recruiting of those last-minute signees has been very difficult,” says Lisa Conn, the women’s basketball coach at Kentucky Chrisitan University in Grayson. “There are always a few players that want to finish their high school season before beginning the recruitment process. This year, the season ended at the point of travel restrictions being implemented and no onsite visits could occur. I have had to cancel multiple players’ visits and it may possibly cost me a few recruits.”

College coaches, at all levels, have had to get creative. There are no on-campus visits going on and, like almost every aspect of society these days, recruiting has moved online.

“We have done zoom meetings with recruits,” says Asbury University men’s basketball coach Will Shouse. “We did miss out on two out-of-state recruits because they just didn’t feel comfortable not being able to physically be on campus. It paid off getting guys in the doors early for visits.”

In addition, the Class of 2021 will have to wait for those first or second visitsthat often come during the spring of a high school player’s junior year. “I’m answering a lot of incoming senior emails,” Shouse says. “I’m just trying to stay connected.”

Conn adds that KCU has been working on a virtual campus tour that was scheduled to be ready before this story was published, but it has its limitations. “It still does not replace face-to-face meetings between a future player and coach,” Conn says. “I have an Elite Camp scheduled for Aug. 1 for future recruits. I hope by planning it later in the summer, it will actually be able to occur.”

Pulaski County High School football coach Johnny Hines.

With many events, including the Little League World Series, already being canceled this summer, the uncertainty of what lies ahead in three months has fed apprehension across the sports spectrum.

Hines says all he can do for his highly regarded Pulaski County football team is get ready the best way possible. Conditioning is a concern.

“We post daily workouts on Twitter,” he says. “It’s hard for most kids that don’t have access to a weight room of any sort. We have some that have a weight set in the basement or garage, some that live in an apartment complex with a weight room, and others that just have to do a home routine with pushups, situps, pullups, etc. The one thing we all can do is run. We push them to work on speed and conditioning each day.”

But there’s still much uncertainty about this fall and how it will affect kids looking to continue their playing careers beyond high school. It is certain, however, that some are concerned about where things are headed.

Robert Hanks

“Hopefully the fall season of sports won’t be overly affected by the pandemic,” says Robert Hanks, the girls’ golf coach at Anderson County High School, “but if the sport season is affected, I believe it puts the student athlete at a disadvantage. Things could go a couple of ways. First the smaller colleges and universities may have a little better chance of getting a better quality of student/athlete since some larger schools may stay clear. But on the other hand, some smaller colleges and universities may unfortunately have to shut down some of their smaller sport programs, which would be a big and hurtful thing for the high school athlete.”

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