VHSL sports are back in Hampton Roads with the first games since March 12

Marty O'Brien, The Virginian-Pilot

Let the games begin.

Virginia High School League athletics in Hampton Roads, sidelined since March 12 by COVID-19, will restart on Wednesday with boys basketball games in two Bay Rivers District gyms.

Grafton plays at York and New Kent is at Tabb, with junior varsity games beginning at 5:30 p.m. followed by the varsities at 7 p.m. Bay Rivers District girls play begins Thursday at the same times, but with York at Grafton and Tabb at New Kent.

“We’re very excited for the students to have this opportunity and get a little bit of normal back,” York High principal Shannon Butler said. “School is about learning, it’s about socializing, it’s about learning life skills as well as academic skills.

“When any part of that is missing, it’s really, really difficult. It’s almost liked you’re missing the heartbeat of your school.”

Butler has dealt with heartache from the absence of sports as both principal and parent. Her son, Kase, was denied football in the fall (VHSL plans are for that sport to begin in February), so she’ll be happy to see him on the court Wednesday.

“It’s been hard, especially for someone who’s a senior,” Butler said. “They feel like they’re missing out on so much and so many things have been taken away.

“Just to have some normalcy back is important for these kids’ well-being. But not just for them, I think that for parents and teachers also.

“We’ve been bringing students back in the building for remediation since November. The difference that’s made with our teachers, just to have kids back to work with them and see their faces, it’s (lifted) their psyches, giving them hope that we’re going to get on the other side of this.”

Butler credits the VHSL for providing a detailed mitigation plan for every game and praised York County for the procedures it put in place to make sure the games proceed safely. She spent two hours on the phone Tuesday detailing the procedures with her staff.

Implementing those plans are athletic directors like Tabb’s Clark Ward and Bruton’s Richard Onesty (Bruton’s girls and boys basketball teams begin play in a varsity doubleheader on Friday at Tabb). Onesty said the Bruton girls varsity, which cut its 2019-20 season short because of a lack of players, is back and 12 players strong under new coach Quaneshia Harris.

Ward’s list of details for conducting Wednesday’s game includes questioning each of the fans as they enter the school to ensure as best as possible they are not COVID risks. Only 20 fans are allowed into the gym at a time in York County — along with the five cheerleaders who count as spectators — so each player is allowed one ticket for a parent.

Those spectators sit on the opposite side of the gym from the players and coaches, each socially distancing in a numbered spot – Ward has marked in the bleachers. When the junior varsity game is over, those spectators will be replaced by 20 varsity-game spectators, but only after the bleachers are disinfected.

The benches and bleachers where the players and coaches socially distance will also be disinfected between games. Players will each drink from an individual water bottle and won’t share it.

Ward said two basketballs will be alternated during the games and cleaned often, and that scorebook-keepers and the clock-keeper will each sit at different tables courtside. Officials and players locker rooms will be disinfected at halftime and following both the JV and varsity games.

“It’s a lot of work but everybody has to go through it,” Ward said.

It’s really just an extension of the labor Ward, Onesty, Butler and others in York County have been putting in to ensure some semblance of a 2020-21 athletics season.

“It’s all been a challenge, but we’ve risen to it,” Onesty said. “York County’s and the VHSL’s return-to-play processes have been very thorough and I have to say my staff, custodial crew and athletic training staff have all been wonderful and followed the protocols to the letter.

“The kids love being back in the building and participating. I haven’t seen any negatives — only positives.”

Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, mjobrien@dailypress.com