MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Amid the death and sorrow brought about across America by the COVID-19 pandemic that has eaten away at our way of life since mid-March, the loss of sports has been little more than an unintended consequence.
Yet, there has been a side effect, trivial though it may be, that is now beginning to get attention on college campuses across America.
Call it an itch, an itch that needs scratching and it is being felt by athletes from Maine to Mississippi, from Washington, D.C., to the state of Washington … and yes, right here in Morgantown, which houses the West Virginia University athletic teams.
They have that itch to get going again with the games that have been so much a part of their lives.
The football team has returned for the start of volunteer workouts and other teams will soon follow, or so it seems for things have gone well with the WVU athletes.
Only two Mountaineer football players have tested positive for the coronavirus, which is nothing to downplay, but when you consider that the University of Texas football program is facing a real problem with 13 positive tests and sitting in the midst of a state that is spiking in number of cases WVU’s situation is to be considered something of a blessing. Then, though, there’s Best Virginia, the WVU alumni team that dropped out of The Basketball Tournament on Monday after a positive test, showing just how quickly things can change.
But make no doubt, the itch to play is everywhere and Bob Huggins, the veteran basketball coach who thought he’d been through just about everything, admits the events of this year are unprecedented in his experience.
He is now getting close to bringing his team back together, that slated to begin on July 6 with the practice facility opening on July 20, and he knows he has a team ready to get back at it.
“It’s a different time,” he said recently on the MetroNews Statewide Sportsline. “We’re getting calls constantly from our guys. ‘Coach, when can we come back?’ ‘When can we get started?’ They’re excited about getting started. They are excited about the season.
“This whole deal has kind of put a damper on the whole thing, although their enthusiasm hasn’t wavered, which is really a good thing.”
No one, of course, knows if there will be a season, for many predict that without a proven treatment or vaccine another wave will hit in the winter. Right now, considering the fact that numbers are still rising in nearly half our states, most of them in the sun belt, football could be in more jeopardy than we want to admit.
It’s been hard on the basketball players. That’s not to say it’s been harder on them than any others, who have had to be inventive to get in their workouts than other athletes.
Basketball, though, is a game where if you have a facility you can work on many skills alone, from shooting to ball handling, but such places have been hard to find.
“The majority of them, if not all of them, have done a good job of keeping themselves in condition,” Huggins said. “The hard thing was finding a place to get some shots up. You know, they closed the outdoor courts everywhere. Being able to find a place to get in and get some shots up has been a tough deal for virtually all the guys.”
And that has driven them crazy.
“That’s what they keep saying … ‘Coach, we got to get some shots up. We got to get some shots.’ It kind of puts you in position where you need to get shots, I understand you want to get shots, but I also understand that this is something that never happened before in modern times.”
As with all the coaches, Huggins is going to take a cautious approach in bringing his team back, time if nothing else being on his side.
“Their health and safety obviously is our first concern. I don’t think there’s anything bigger than that. I think we have to make it as safe an environment as we possibly can for them. I’m not one who thinks we have to shut the country down. That didn’t work very well for us, either, in case anyone has forgotten.
“We’ve got to contain and move forward in the safest and most positive manner that we possibly can,” Huggins concluded.
Huggins does have an experienced, though not old, club and that will help navigate the obstacle course that is in front of them and he understands that there is no rush to put things together in the mid summer.
“Last year, we would get up by eight or 10 and they would make a run and we would panic. As much as we tried to keep their heads in the game, we couldn’t. That’s a sign of youth,” he stressed. “We kind of let our guard down a little bit and they’d make a run at us and we didn’t handle the runs very well. We really didn’t execute down the stretch in some games.
“The TCU game comes to mind. We got a wide open shot and dribbled into people, We got a guy open inside, we don’t pass to him and instead take a shot and miss. Then in overtime we go to the line. We had every opportunity to get back in the game, but we just didn’t make free throws and I think that’s a sign of youth.
“When you put more experienced guys on the line in those situations we all feel better. You see a freshman go up there in a really crucial situation, I think everybody cringes. Let’s go back to Daxter Miles and Jevon Carter. When they went to the line everyone was excited.”