Basketball coaches cautiously optimistic about VHSL season

Gate City’s Eli Starnes puts up a shot in last season’s VHSL Class 2 state semifinal game against Radford. There’s plenty excitement about the 2020-21 season, despite the changes it will have.

The 2020-21 prep basketball season is not going to be what coaches and players from Southwest Virginia hoped it would be, but there is still plenty of excitement built around the upcoming season.

“It’s easy to sit and play Monday morning quarterback about what was done or what should’ve been done about the season,” Eastside boys basketball coach Patrick Damron said of the VHSL’s back-to-sports plan for the 2020-21 school year. “But our kids are excited and happy that there’s a plan in place. My guys are going to take that and play basketball.”

The plan in place for basketball and other winter season sports of wrestling, indoor track and field, swim and dive and gymnastics in Virginia calls for the season to begin Dec. 14 with the first contest date of Dec. 28. The season will run through Feb. 20.

It’s part of the model approved Monday by the VHSL Executive Committee as a one-year plan to deal with the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the winter sports season, the model calls for the fall season sports to be played March 1-May 1 and the spring season sports to be played April 26-June 26.

Several sports, including basketball, are classified as high-risk sports and may not be played if the restrictions imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam do not move past the current Phase 3 or the limitations in the phase do not change. But Damron, who directed Eastside to its second Region 1D championship in the past three years last season, is optimistic in working toward the end of the year.

“Having a season and the dates set for it gives us some ideas on what we need to be doing as far as open gyms and weightlifting,” Damron said. “We know that things can change at any minute and that nothing is going to be the same as having that full season, but we just want to get out there and play and compete.”

Even with the excitement and the enthusiasm about having a season, Damron concedes there are some negatives.

All VHSL sports will have their seasons shortened to 60% of the games that are played in a normal, full season.

That allows for 13 or 14 games during the regular season in contrast to the normal 22 contests during a full regular season.

“In our (Cumberland) district, we have 10 games and think district games are going to have to take importance,” Damron said. “That doesn’t leave us much room for nondistrict games. Most of our rivals are in the district anyway.”

Damron said with games being limited and the first play date set for Dec. 28, it would be difficult for early season and holiday tournaments to be played.

Wise Central girls basketball coach Robin Dotson agrees.

Dotson’s program hosts the annual Candace Rakes Memorial Preseason Jamboree and the PVNB Bank Invitational tournament in November and December at Virginia-Wise’s Prior Convocation Center.

With the altered season, Dotson said it would be difficult to have either one of the events this season.

“We maybe could do a one-day or two-day event to get a couple of games in,” Dotson said. “We’ll just have to wait and see, particularly with what happens with the district.”

Central is a member of the seven-team Mountain 7 District.

A full home-and-away schedule for the Mountain 7 teams would give each team 12 contests, leaving only one or two nondistrict games to complete the regular season.

Gate City boys coach Scotty Vermillion said the Blue Devils don’t have to worry about missing a scheduled tournament this season because his squad did not have a tourney on its slate. But Gate City did have schools from neighboring Tennessee including Dobyns-Bennett, Science Hill and Daniel Boone on its original schedule.

Playing all of those foes, will not be likely with a full Mountain 7 schedule, said Vermillion.

“I don’t think we’ll get in the nonconference games,” Vermillion said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Union boys coach Zack Moore is hopeful that his team can get in at least 14 games and is hoping that the VHSL will allow more contests.

Moore’s Bears have been invited to play in the prestigious Arby’s Classic tournament at Tennessee High this season.

The tournament that traditionally draws top teams from throughout the region and the nation is scheduled to begin the day after Christmas.

“They said they would work with us,” Moore said of the Arby’s schedule. “It starts on the 26th, and then the 27th is on a Sunday that will be an off day. And then games on the 28th (the first day Virginia schools can play) will be more first-round games. So it’s possible.”

Abingdon has also been invited to play in the Arby’s Classic, which has already had postponements from a team in New York and another from California.

“It’s going to be different,” Moore said.

Thomas Walker girls coach Jonathan Lovelace, like his counterparts, is excited about a season being set and hopes for the best with a chance for the Lady Pioneers to play as close to a normal season as possible.

“We’ll try to play as many as we can,” Lovelace said.

He said he is hoping that his team can play in the holiday tournament at Cherokee, as they are scheduled to do, but he realizes that may not be possible.

“We’re hoping we can play in the Christmas tournament, but we may do good to get our conference games in,” Lovelace said.