by Delaney White
Students have not yet returned to Western Albemarle High School, but its sports teams are playing under strict protocols and regulations. With a tradition of winning to uphold, the boys’ basketball team hopped right into their season.
“One of the toughest things is that we had to start playing games right away without very many practices,” varsity basketball head coach Darren Maynard said. “While we are so grateful to be playing, this wasn’t the optimal way to start our season. But again, we’re happy to be playing.”
Protocols for athletes include temperature checks, COVID-19 screening questions, as well as masks.
“We wear masks all the time except when we’re actually running on the court,” he said. “Anytime we’re just talking to them or in the film room, we are socially distanced with masks on. Our bench is socially distanced with masks on during games. It’s been an adjustment.”
With off-season practices canceled, Maynard noted how much he missed interacting with his players. “It reminded me how much I enjoy being around young people,” he said. “It was really hard when I didn’t get to do anything with my team. We had no summer workouts or anything. I really missed the team. One of the things [the pandemic] has taught me is that I really enjoy being around teenagers and I really enjoy coaching.”
For sophomore power forward Joshua Sime, the basketball in a pandemic is all about flexibility.
“[The pandemic] has taught me to be more resilient and to go with the flow more, and be ready for anything,” Sime said. “A game could get canceled, a practice could get canceled, the season could get canceled.”
The athletes noted they also missed interactions with friends and teachers. “Basketball has helped a lot,” Sime said. “We did some workouts before school started, and just that little social interaction and sense of normalcy helped.”
Covid rules put a halt to all fan presence at games, including family members, until further notice. Senior point guard Andrew Shifflett said the lack of cheering parents and a boisterous Warriors student section left him reminiscing about about the pre-Covid days.
“We have a huge fan base at Western and being able to come out and play in front of those people is one of the best feelings—definitely miss that,” he said.
The quiet stands have been nostalgic for Sime.
“In youth basketball and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) there’s not a lot of fans, so it’s not a huge difference. We just miss the fans,” Sime said. “Going into games that are just super loud is one of the best feelings.”
With fans and family supporting from home, the boys have tried to fill the enthusiasm void in their gym. “We have a really tight knit group,” junior shooting guard Isaac Sumpter said. “We create our own energy.”
With the ever-present possibility that athletics could still be cancelled due to the pandemic, the sense of hope and community have brought the team together.
“Coach [Maynard] told us at the beginning of the season that our whole season is going to be based on adapting and overcoming obstacles, because we don’t know if we’re going to get shut down,” Sumpter said.
Little did the team realize that their first obstacle would be the possibility of a forced pause on athletics. This pause would have begun January 16 and lasted until at least February 1, while regular instruction remained virtual. Maynard received news of the possible suspension after their first practice.
“The team was pretty disappointed early on that the season was going to be cut short,” Maynard said, noting that recent school board meetings and talk of halting play caused a roller coaster of emotions for his players. “My thoughts were how awful that would be for my senior [Andrew Shifflett]. I only have one, but he’s a really good player.”
After the school board voted 6-1 in favor of dissociating winter sports from the COVID-19 stages, winter sports continued practicing. Shifflett gained a new appreciation for playing on the court during any game, which might the last in his high school career.
“I try to stay optimistic,” he said. “I’m really glad we can play this season, and I think we’re all really grateful. Every time we come out on the court, we play really hard. As a senior, I cherish every moment.”
“It’s as if playing through a pandemic almost boosted us in a way,” said Sime, “because we play every game like it’s our last, no matter who we’re playing. We fight like it could be our last game,” he said.
Covid has also tightened their relationships. “We pretty much only hang out with each other right now,” Shifflett said. “Every day, you look forward to getting to practice and hanging out after practice or before.
“We’re all really, really close on the team.” Sumpter agreed. “We take advantage of the time we have together.”
“We’ve all gotten closer and we’re really just enjoying what we’re doing right now because we’re getting to do it,” Maynard said. “I think everybody’s relieved and thankful that we were getting to have some kind of season.”
With a 5-1 regular season record, the Warriors have won against many Jefferson District teams including rival Albemarle High School. On January 27, the Warriors traveled to Orange County claiming a 66-44 win over the Hornets. With starting junior center Sime at 6’6 and many returning players including senior point guard, Shifflett and junior shooting guard Sumpter, the Warriors have height and experience on their side. The Warriors’ aggressive backcourt and swift offense has led them to a successful season so far.