Two months after the Virginia High School League announced its Phase 3 regulations for athletics, Lynchburg City Schools has allowed area programs to begin operating under those guidelines as well.
Under LCS’ new plan, athletes must still complete the process of screening on arrival to school, wear masks when indoors or not actively practicing, and stay 10 feet apart on football fields and in gymnasiums. But teams can now practice with just one ball, as opposed to a ball only being shared between two individuals, and groups (known as “pods” to which athletes are assigned each day) have been increased from 5-to-10 people to 25 individuals.
The new guidelines replace an awkward step LCS implemented after the VHSL announced its Phase 3 guidelines Aug. 3, known as a modified, or enhanced, Phase 2 — which left city coaches wondering when they’d be able to move ahead.
The new regulations have not been posted to Lynchburg City Schools’ “Guidelines for Reopening Sports/Activities” document online, which details to the public measures that must be taken by athletes and coaches under division protocol to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The state’s Phase 3 guidelines allow for more fluid practices, the next step of return to some degree of normalcy, and the hope high school sports may begin by their chosen start dates.
At E.C. Glass, coach DJ Best’s boys basketball team can now practice with one basketball, rather than one ball being shared only between two individuals. Five players can get on the court for offensive drills. But Best still isn’t able to teach defensive skills to his players because social distancing measures won’t allow it.
For a program that prides itself on press defense, traps and turnovers, that’s a major hinderance. And the Hilltoppers boys basketball team lost 11 players from last year’s squad, so teaching the fundamentals to basically an entire new group is essential from a coaching standpoint.
“We can run certain different drills,” Best said, “but you think, come Nov. 7, we’ve got 30 days before the first day of tryouts. I don’t even know how my people look playing defense.”
Tryouts, followed by official basketball practices, begin Dec. 7. Across the state, the season starts Dec. 21. That’s when Seminole District games begin, marking an abbreviated 14-game regular season that will not feature any out-of-district opponents.
So yes, there are concerns that while teams focus on conditioning, weight lifting and a few socially-distanced drills, time is ticking away to pick up the basics. That’s especially true with a young team like Glass, which will showcase a squad mostly comprised of players up from the JV level.
“If we get lucky and dance,” Best said of the state tournament in the VHSL’s uber-talented Class 4, “it’s very promising for our future.
“We can shoot it. I just need them to [practice shooting] contested shots.”
Across town at Heritage High, Brad Bradley’s football players can now lift weights inside two days a week, rather than just one. Players must wear a mask when spotting others and when not lifting. On the field, the Pioneers still can’t hand off the ball to running backs, hindering a squad that always seems to have one of the best backs in the area. Rather than every receiver bringing their own ball and sharing it only with the quarterback, one ball is now used with five receivers.
Bradley describes the guidelines as “having to go from zero to 60” once games begin. That point is salient when it comes to winter sports like basketball, indoor track, swimming and diving, and wrestling.
“It’s gonna be hard to go from socially distanced workouts and then go play basketball,” Bradley noted. “I would hope the VHSL has some type of plan to ease us out of the restrictions we’re in now.”
Football cannot be played under Virginia’s Phase 3 guidelines. To stage a season, those rules would have to be modified or Virginia would have to move beyond them.
“I feel very confident if there’s a Phase 4 [Lynchburg City Schools] will be following state regulations throughout,” Bradley said.
His linemen and skill players can now get together in their respective groups. That change can go a long way in development for a program that’s played in a whopping 17 playoff games the past four years, advanced to the state championship games two of the past three seasons, and won it all in 2018.
But for high school games to return, staffs and players alike must follow the rules and always be on guard against the virus. So when he’s not screening athletes and handing his normal duties as an athletic trainer, Heritage’s Chris Hallberg is cleaning. Wiping down railings, weights, door handles, equipment — everything within the orbit of teams practicing gets disinfected every 15 minutes — and making sure all athletes stay 10 feet apart.
For a sport like wrestling, that may seem difficult. But Heritage is pulling it off by having no contact among wrestlers and instead going through drills and conditioning exercises. Hallberg said LCS has supplied him with plenty of personal protective equipment and that individuals throughout the division have worked together for a clear, consistent message about return to practice and play.
So far, HHS has conducted 5,171 screenings since beginning practices July 13.
“Anyone that’s involved in athletics has to have that done when they enter so we can do contract tracing,” in case of a positive case, Hallberg said.
Best said the division has been very cautious, “which is a good thing.” He had hoped Phase 3 would allow him to install that defense, the one that wreaks havoc on offenses across the area.
“Some of us are behind the 8 ball,” he said, “but this is better than nothing.”