Empty Avery baseball field

The Avery High School baseball field, along with softball, soccer, track and field, golf and tennis surfaces, are quiet as spring prep athletics have been suspended since Saturday, March 14, and will not return until no sooner than mid-May or later, according to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

For decades, one method by which individuals and families have taken their minds off of national crises or tragedy has been through sports. Whether it was the return of baseball after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the resumption of pro football in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the dominance of college football teams from the service academies offering a lift in the wake of World War II, sports have been a balm that has provided a momentary diversion from the stark reality of difficult times.

Locally, sports have provided a similar soothing salve. The Brad King Bowl with middle school football each fall is a platform to provide financial assistance to individuals or families who have need. Our high school sports teams in October wear pink to raise awareness at the local level for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and local teams without a second thought rise up have repeatedly to offer support to those suffering from illness, injury, or who are in need.

A popular phrase being said during the current COVID-19 pandemic has been “We’re all in this together.” With sheltering orders in place and many non-essential workers doing their jobs remotely, there are many who are alone ... together.

Schools are shuttered to students and sports have ceased to a grinding halt. Look no further than the sports channels on TV to see the effect: Re-airings of classic games and programs, while creative measures such as virtual auto racing and video game basketball tournaments are finding space on airwaves that otherwise would not nudge its way onto the public radar in such a way.

High school athletics, the predominant source of stories in media throughout the stretch that starts in February and strings through early May, were stopped by the NC High School Athletic Association as of 11:59 p.m. on Friday, March 13, a decision that fell in line with other sports entities like the Atlantic Coast Conference and other college conferences discontinuing their own basketball tournaments, as well as the NCAA, which ultimately opted to completely forgo its annual men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and also halt spring sports.

Such a time in athletics has been unprecedented since my beginnings in media and the more than 20 years since, and are waters uncharted by those decision makers who must, first and foremost, consider the health of its participants and fans.

In light of the uniqueness of the times, Avery High School Director of Athletics Jay Smith spoke about how high schools, conferences and the state association are holding up in light of such remarkable circumstances. Smith explained that the schools across the state are in a holding pattern, expressing optimism that seasons and sports could return at a later date when it is completely safe to do so.

“On a conference call last week with the NCHSAA and (NCHSAA Commissioner) Que (Tucker), they are still hopeful to start back if school starts back in May. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but plans are to have a basketball championship and some type of spring season,” Smith said. “Que wasn’t so clear as what type of season that might look like. They still haven’t closed the doors. The Toe River Conference just voted to go ahead and close its sports for the remainder of the school year. Que was clear that the board of directors are still discussing what they will do, so when May 15 comes they will have an answer, but I don’t expect anything to be communicated prior to that deadline.”

Elsewhere, Ashe County High School Athletic Director David Koontz said that so long as the season as a whole is not canceled, there is still a chance to continue.

“As of right now, the suspension is still active until May 18, per the NCHSAA. I have not heard any new updates, and of course school is still suspended until May 15,” Koontz said. “I think for them to not cancel the entire season, as of right now, that’s one positive to take out of it.”

Smith said that the athletics department, with the entire Avery County Schools system, began early the practice of adhering to the social guidelines encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and government leaders.

“We initially were having to discourage kids from being out on the fields and trying to gather. But as time passed, students and parents have been accommodating and very sensible when it comes to the situation we’re currently in,” Smith explained. “We’re all more aware of the seriousness of the matter and how it can affect Avery County, as well as the resources we may or may not have to deal with the pandemic here at home. I know kids and coaches are chomping at the bit, but they also understand the situation we’re in.”

Smith noted that there has been a tremendous team effort from the system in offering support and guidance to students.

“They’ve been super supportive in everything. As a system, athletics and everything in general have rallied together to get our kids educated the best that we can. We’re running school buses feeding families and their leadership is what is allowing those incredible jobs to happen,” Smith said. “Dr. [ACS Superintendent Dan] Brigman has been great in allowing me to be able to talk to the association when it comes to making decisions athletically about what’s going on and supported whatever we’ve needed to do. Like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back in school and resuming whatever form of athletics we can do.”

Depending on the length of the hiatus, high school leagues may have to be creative in order to completed a truncated spring sports campaign while working around potential logistical issues.

“If it did (resume play), obviously the spring season would be greatly abbreviated. I don’t even know what that might look like. I don’t know if they could do a tournament,” Koontz said.

Koontz noted the only thing that would be set after May 18 is the track and field state championships, with everything else based on a loose, flowing schedule or completed already.

“We had played two soccer games, two baseball games, a softball game, tennis match and a couple of track meets. These athletes aren’t being allowed to work out collectively or be in school or gather, but you’re looking at five to six weeks of inactivity. It wouldn’t be easy, and I’m not sure about what format it might look like. Maybe it would look like some sort of a tournament where the teams will play it out,” Smith said. “Athletic directors have individually checked in with each other and we’re holding off to see what happens, but no discussion or decision has taken place. If there were spring sports, I could see something like that happen, where you have a conference tournament to qualify to complete in the state playoffs, and that’s what you would do. That’s me speculating, but I see that as maybe the most feasible way to pull something like that off.”

Smith explained that from his vantage point, college recruiting of high school students will experience a minimal effect, with both high school and college athletics currently frozen. However, the NCAA’s announcement of an additional year of eligibility to current senior student-athletes in Division I athletics, as well as potential admissions alterations because of the schools’ interruptions, could trickle down to next year’s freshman college class.

“The NCAA and the high school clearinghouse have been in conversations about how all of this is going to work in respect to admissions. I’m not aware of information released publicly as results of those conversations, but I’m sure that conversations are taking place about student-athletes and kids going to college in general. I read this week that Davidson College announced it was waving its test requirements because all the tests are being cancelled. A kid can’t get an SAT taken, so universities are taking their own steps with or without the guidance of the NCAA,” Smith said. “With them granting an extra year of eligibility to spring college athletes, seniors can return while, with the college baseball roster limits being waived as an example, a baseball team could also still have its current roster, along with 12 new freshmen on its team. You wouldn’t be able to do that without the waiver to dismiss the roster limit. NCHSAA, the Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) and the NCAA are doing all they can to stay on the same page. The end result is recruiting is going to look different. Spring sports are the only ones that will be able to gain that year and bring in the extra kids to their programs, while in the other seasons most of the fall and winter sports kids have already signed.”

As students continue to take courses online, Smith noted that athletic eligibility requirements for students are unchanged. Student-athletes must pass three of four courses during the current semester to be eligible to participate in any sport this fall, including high school football.

“There will be grades given this semester,” Smith said. “Districts may differ, and the grade may be a number grade, a letter grade, a pass/fail grade. But in the eyes of the high school athletic association, a student must pass three of four grades to remain eligible to participate.”

Koontz noted the uncharted waters everyone, not just the sports world, is in.

“There are states around us that have cancelled the rest of the season,” Koontz said. “There are multiple conferences that have cancelled the remainder of the season, and that doesn’t look good. There’s a little bit of hope, but it’s not a good omen. I’m trying to be as positive as I can.”

In uncertain times as these, Smith passed along a simple yet powerful reminder to students, parents and the community as a whole.

“Take care of yourselves and take this seriously. In our country there are people dying, and we need to take care of one another and those around us,” Smith added. “Also, be smart. We’re not invincible, and kids are not invincible, even though they may think they are. Sometimes as adults we may even think that way. Just take care of each other.”

Ashe Post & Times reporter Ian Taylor contributed to this story.

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