Continuing A Cherished Tradition While Fighting a Dreaded New Virus

Henry County junior Sam Royalty leads the post-game prayer following the Wildcats’ season-opening win over Anderson County on Jan. 5.

Bible study friends, coaching rivals devise ways to allow teams to continue post-game prayers

By John Herndon,

NEW CASTLE, Ky. — All they wanted was a chance to grab a basketball, run up and down the court and compete. 

Really compete.

And pray. Pray like many high school basketball teams have been doing after games for many years. It was a question of how teams would be able to bow their heads together in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was considered a major blessing when the Kentucky High School Athletic Association gave the go ahead for schools to play basketball starting on Jan. 4. Schools were instructed to take precautions and limit attendance in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Fans must stop for a temperature check before being admitted and they are to wear masks.

Such is the reality of high school sports existing while the world fights a novel coronavirus.

Adaptation from a long-held norm is just as much a reality. Schools have adapted to scheduling that is, in reality, almost a play-as-you-go plan. Players have adapted to playing games in nearly empty gyms before family members and possibly a few friends and media members, depending on the school. And in Kentucky, the jump ball was eliminated with a coin flip now determining who gets the ball first.

Henry County coach Enoch Welch discusses a call with an official during the Wildcats’ game with South Oldham on Jan. 23. (All photos by John Herndon)

“If they are going to eliminate the jump ball, they probably don’t want us holding hands after the game,” Henry County boys’ coach Enoch Welch said of the Wildcats’ tradition of asking the opponent to join in a brief prayer following every game. “We figured we’d better head that one off before it arises.”

The “we” Welch refers to is a coaches’ Zoom Bible study organized by Steve Wigginton of the Fellowship if Christian Athletes. Some of the coaches taking part include Henry girls’ coach Jim Hook and South Oldham boys’ coach Steve Simpson, whose team would go against Henry in Saturday’s Henry County Classic. Several other Louisville-area and Eighth Region coaches take part in the study, according to Welch. 

(We interviewed Simpson about the Bible study during the summer. You can read that story here.)

“I had mentioned that my guys were concerned about their prayer after the game, which they have ownership of,” Welch said.

South Oldham coach Steve Simpson had some trouble with a mask coming loose during the Dragons’ game at Henry County. But Simpson and Henry coach Enoch Welch (rear) wanted to make sure their teams would be able to pray after games and came up with a new format to use during the COVID pandemic.

Junior forward Sam Royalty says the post-game prayer circle at Henry is “a big thing.” According to Welch, it’s been a big thing for about 20 years. 

Despite taking an 81-55 beating from South Oldham, about a minute after the final horn sounded, Royalty took a microphone to lead both teams in a short prayer thanking God for the ability to play basketball, for keeping each player safe and giving Him glory. 

It was only the second loss of the season for Henry, now 6-2 and  off to its best start since 2013-14. 

Royalty could only smile when asked if it was difficult to lead in prayer after suffering a loss. “It’s frustrating when you first come off (the floor), but when you take a second, and when you think about it, you are playing in a pandemic, which we didn’t think we were going to be able to do.”

And that, in itself, is reason for prayers of praise. But instead of the teams joining hands at midcourt, Welch and Simpson suggested to their Bible study colleagues that teams line up at the separate free throw lines.

“I had mentioned that my guys were concerned about their prayer after the game, which they have ownership of,” Welch said. “From there, Coach Simpson and I started brainstorming and came up with the idea from the way volleyball teams line up for the National Anthem.”

Simpson added, “It was just the easiest way to do it during COVID.”  Simpson said that junior Ben Michel is in charge when the Dragons lead the post-game prayer.

South Oldham’s Ben Michel (left) shoots over Henry County’s Sam Royalty. Both players lead their teams in prayer following each game.

Royalty and his teammates have been more than happy to carry on a tradition they consider a witness for Christ. They were concerned the prayer might be scrapped, but “when we heard that we could do it, we were really excited. It was like that was the one thing we like to do after games, which is good, I think.

“We can play a hard game and then we can come together and talk to God about it, which I think is a very cool thing to do.”

As for Welch, who has seen his team weather two COVID-related cancellations already, it’s a matter of honoring God and being a witness of His blessings even during a difficult time. “The pandemic has made outreach different but it is still definitely possible,” he says. “I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit can be quenched by a virus. If just means the way we do things will have to look differently but if that keeps people safe, it is definitely something we are interested in doing.

“Our guys are thankful to be given the opportunity to (continue praying together) publicly.”

Members of the Henry County and South Oldham basketball teams participate in a post-game prayer on Jan. 23. With the COVID-19 pandemic making a prayer circle impossible, the teams are lining up at opposite ends of the floor while one player gives thanks.

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