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Stonewall Jackson High School girls basketball coach Jeff Burner inflates basketballs during a recent workout session in the high school gymnasium. Players and coaches will have to adjust to the VHSL’s COVID guidelines when play resumes in December.

The excitement was in the air at Stonewall Jackson High School on Wednesday for a girls basketball workout.

The Generals had one of their best turnouts for workouts since they started in July, including all of this year’s returning starters. Last week, the Virginia High School League announced its mitigation guidelines for a return to high school sports in December. Gov. Ralph Northam also signed the fourth amended Executive Order 67, which includes changes to Section 12 related to recreational sports, and allows for all sports to be played in Phase III.

With basketball practices set to return on Dec. 7, the players are growing more excited about getting a chance to play for the first time since March.

“Getting to play any sport here at school is going to be just so warming to me,” Stonewall Jackson senior Kylene Franklin said. “I know it’s not exactly what we all imagined, especially as seniors. It’s not what we imagined as freshmen being our senior year, looking at how seniors got to have it. But definitely getting to have it in general whether it’s all this nitpicky stuff, I’m totally fine with it. As long as I get to play on that court for even one game for the last time I’m happy about it.”

Strasburg senior Trey Stinnette said that it makes the workouts they’re doing more exciting knowing they have a season to work hard for.

“That’s definitely exciting to think that we are going to get a season after so long of it being up for question, and doing our workouts and stuff but not really knowing is there going to be a final product of the season,” Stinnette said. “So it’s definitely relieving and exciting to finally be pretty much guaranteed the season this year. It puts a little more into our workouts thinking ‘all right now we got a goal.’ Now it’s not a goal that might be able to be accomplished because we might have a season. Now it’s a goal that we can go out and get and we’re really looking forward to being able to compete this year.”

While many of the athletes are excited for sports to return, they know some of the new guidelines from the VHSL will make things difficult. There will be many changes with each sport and some of the guidelines change the rules.

Wrestling will be one of the biggest with changes. They will be wrestling for 5 minutes instead of 6. The first period will be one minute with the second and third being the normal two minutes each.

Warren County wrestling coach Matt Wadas said that he was in a virtual meeting with Chris Robinson, assistant director for athletics/officials on Thursday, who tried to explain why the VHSL shortened the time of matches.

“(Robinson) said the rationale for it was simple,” Wadas said. “There were two rule numbers they were given. You’re trying to keep exposure under 6 minutes and under 15 for certain levels of contact, and they thought that was the best compromise when they submitted their plan to the Virginia Health Department. So some of the first reactions is what is one minute really going to do? But again, if it’s a compromise to let us get on the mat, I’m OK with it.”

Warren County junior Logan Schultz said he will adjust to having one less minute to wrestle but it won’t be easy.

“Sometimes an extra minute in wrestling goes a long way,” Schultz said. “Depending on the match and your opponent, if it’s somebody that you saw last year and you know his conditioning wasn’t good. And you try to ride him out, now you don’t have as long. Or if he’s good and you want to try to keep it close to the end it’s going to be a lot harder now. It’s going to be a big challenge even though it doesn’t seem like it, but it really will be.”

There will also only be one coach allowed seated on the mat, instead of two, during matches. Referees will not raise the hand of the winning wrestler and wrestlers will not shake hands after matches.

Another big twist for wrestling is no tournaments during the regular season. Matches will only be duals and tri’s. Quads will be allowed on a case-by-case basis depending on the size of the gym.

Warren County senior Wes Merchant said he will miss the big regular-season tournaments the Wildcats usually participate in.

“I did very well in a lot of those last year,” Merchant said. “I liked those a lot. There’s just a lot of different teams. Lots of guys around, getting to know everybody. If that’s not going to be there this year that kind of sucks. But getting out and wrestling is what I look forward to and the fact that we have the chance to do that is great.”

Wadas said not having big regular-season tournaments is much like how things were in the 1980s and ‘90s and he doesn’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

“There’s been a push the last couple years to have more dual meets because they are much more fan-friendly, they’re much more kid-friendly,” Wadas said. “Like I said, you got to try and look at the opportunities that are here, instead of just whining about the negatives. There are so many negatives with COVID. I’m not going to lie and say I haven’t whined, but it’s time to just start looking at your opportunities and I think the schedule presents some opportunities – it really does.

“I’m hoping we can jump on that and I hope maybe some of that schedule can stay on after COVID leaves, I really do.”

Another sport where changes will be difficult for athletes is baseball. The biggest changes are that they will not be allowed to have seeds, gum or to spit. Pitchers are not allowed to lick their fingers when they are pitching.

Eating sunflower seeds and spitting during games has long been a tradition for baseball players.

“No spitting and seeds it’s like – that’s what you do in baseball,” Strasburg senior Brandon Martin said. “(Strasburg baseball) coach (Joe) Bauserman, he brings bags of seeds for everybody, and that’s going to be an adjustment.”

Stinnette said he has no problem with the seeds but the spitting will be an issue.

“It will definitely take some getting used to,” Stinnette said. “I’m pretty sure I spit after every play. So I’m going to have to get used to that. It will just be having to keep a mental reminder in the back of my head that ‘hey you can’t do that this year.’”

Another sport with some big changes is soccer. The drop kick is being replaced with free kicks. However, they are making a big change with the free kicks. Teams are no longer allowed to form a wall on defense during free kicks and must stand 3 feet apart.

Stonewall Jackson senior Morgan Gibson plays defense on the girls soccer team and she said it will make things more difficult for the defense.

“I think it will be harder, but it’s not a challenge that we can’t tackle,” Gibson said. “It will be helpful for us on offense, I guess. It’s definitely something the defense has to adjust to, and I think we’ll move on from it.”

Stonewall Jackson senior Eli Dellinger, who said she’s trying to find silver linings in everything with COVID-19, takes the majority of the Generals’ free kicks.

“I do take a lot of free kicks and it’s a little intimidating if you have a wall of like six people,” Dellinger said. “So I’ll be pretty happy that that’s not going to happen anymore – like I said, silver linings.”

The big rule change for basketball is getting rid of the jump ball at the beginning of games. The visiting team will get the ball to start the game and there will be a coin flip for overtime.

Stonewall Jackson girls basketball coach Jeff Burner said that whatever changes there are they will adjust to them.

“If we get to play I’m going to be so happy that we get to play that we’ll work around whatever they say we got to do because that’s what we’ll be doing,” Burner said.

One of the biggest things for football is simply longer timeouts to sanitize balls.

Some of the biggest changes for the athletes will be ones that will affect every sport. Perhaps the biggest is only being allowed to have 250 people at games — that includes players, coaches, officials and administrators.

Strasburg senior Camren Rutz said it will be strange if there aren’t many spectators at football games this season.

“I don’t like to say that the fans affect the game, but they do,” Rutz said. “I think it will have a little bit of an effect, but it shouldn’t affect how we play.”

Strasburg head football coach Mark Roller said that he hopes the number of people allowed changes for football before the season starts in February.

“You think about the numbers with both teams and officials and coaches,” Roller said. “Some of these teams have 50-to-60 guys and that takes up a lot of that number. I think the parents are the ones, you’d like to have a student body, but ultimately the parents are the ones that you need to be able to see their kids play.”

Strasburg Athletic Director Matt Hiserman said earlier this week that the three Shenandoah County Schools are getting cameras installed to broadcast games on the National Federation of High Schools website. He said that if the cameras aren’t installed before the season starts they will find another way to stream games until the cameras are installed. Warren County and Skyline are also planning on broadcasting games.

Another thing that athletes will have to deal with is wearing masks. Athletes will have to wear masks anytime they are not physically playing, which includes timeouts. While many athletes said wearing masks are uncomfortable, they said they would adjust.

Franklin said wearing a mask will be an issue for her because she has asthma, but she said she is OK with it if it means she gets to play.

“For me, that’s going to be tough just because of my asthma,” she said. “I’m already struggling and then the gym’s always hot. So I feel like, for me personally, that’s going to be a problem for me. But at the same time, like I said I can still speak through them enough to where I will be even louder if I have to, to cheer my girls on. I’m always trying to talk when I’m on the bench. So as long as I can still speak I think I’m fine with it.”

– Contact Tommy Keeler Jr. at tkeeler@nvdaily.com