Throughout my career as a reporter, I’ve sat in packed high school gyms and sparsely populated ones. I’ve worked from the bleachers with knees in my back and watched gyms fill to capacity while people waited outside in the cold hoping for a glimpse of the action.
But I’ve never witnessed anything quite like what took place this week as basketball tipped off inside the Lynchburg area.
At Amherst and Rustburg and Liberty Christian, silence reigned.
The squeaks of shoes sliding across newly waxed floors amplified through gyms. Coaches barked out their orders. Sharp whistles, often drowned out by screaming and cheering fans any other year, cut through the air. Occasionally, muffled chants from socially distant cheerleaders wearing masks rose thinly from the bleachers.
It was an odd scene, one that felt more like an alternate reality than the new normal, more “Twilight Zone” than “Hoosiers.” Welcome to sports in the age of the coronavirus, where nothing is as it used to be.
Players — who sat spaced apart in chairs and bleachers when not on the floor — were glad to be back competing after a 10-month sports hiatus, but noted playing in empty spaces will take some getting used to. Rustburg boys coach Troy Harris said the game against visiting Brookville felt more like a practice than a regular-season bout. In Amherst, boys coach Segar Jordan said his players must bring their own energy to the court rather than relying on the crowd to hype them up. “We probably should’ve played some music,” he added, referring to audio rituals that usually take place before games, at halftime and during timeouts.
For Rustburg senior guard Landon Sweeney, the atmosphere was “crazy.”
“The scenery is very different, but we’re just trying to adjust, play hard and come out together and try to win,” he said.
Scenes are the same in high school gyms all across the nation. Rules for social gatherings may differ from state to state, a fact most observable at college and pro games, but it seems like every program at every level has suffered from mostly absent fan bases.
The advantage of playing at home is a thing of the past. At one point during the college football season, Division I teams attempting to defend their homes won less than 60% of the time. College basketball’s most storied programs are falling at home, too. Duke suffered two rare losses inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, one of the toughest venues on the planet for visiting teams. Six ACC teams already have two or more home losses. By the time we get to March, few Top 25 teams will boast perfect records at places they used to rely on for victories.
Expect that same trend at the high school level. When it’s rocking, E.C. Glass’ McCue Gymnasium is this area’s version of Cameron, an intimate yet daunting venue that can get so loud it’s difficult to think, let alone perform.
There’s a reason they call it The McCue Zoo. But if Duke isn’t safe at an empty Cameron, can Glass possibly count on an advantage inside a gym that will resemble a museum more than a zoo this year?
Time will tell. Lynchburg’s basketball programs, Heritage and Glass, are scheduled to begin play Monday. The Hilltoppers will try to hold off visiting Brookville. The Pioneers travel to LCA.
Very little is for sure this season. We could see cancelations, postponements, teams from some school divisions unable to play at all, coronavirus outbreaks and team-wide quarantines.
One thing is certain: when Heritage comes knocking at Glass on Saturday, as it’s scheduled to do as of now, there will be little of the usual hype.
That means no knees in my back. No fans waiting to get inside. No gyms rumbling with excitement. None of the usual trimmings that make for unique and exciting atmospheres. Just empty seats and memories of what used to be.