CIRCLEVILLE — Typically, the world of sports provides a safe haven for those looking to escape the usual dreary days that can make up what is called life. However, what no one expected was how a single public health event ultimately changed the way we view and participate in sports; through it all, schools in the area embraced the challenge to hold sporting events.
With the turning of the calendar year, the start of 2020 seemed just like the years prior. During that time, international whispers of a illness slowly creeped its way to North America, just as local residents and community members prepared for the start of the spring season.
At the same time, winter athletics were in their post-season phase as wrestlers, ballers and bowlers alike prepared for districts, sectionals and the ultimate chance to compete at the state level.
As well, state officials were hectic in educating themselves and providing as much information about coronavirus (COVID-19) as possible to the public. On March 11 last year, the fourth-recorded case of COVID-19 was reported, and from there, sports in Ohio would change for the foreseeable future.
Most of the cases reported in the state were located in the northern part of the state. Addressing the public, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine shared that the 53-year-old man from Stark County was subjected to the first instance of community spread — the spread of an illness for which the primary source of the infection is unknown.
At the same time, DeWine announced that there would be an order in the coming days that would eventually limit the spectator attendance at sporting events across the state. Other states, such as New York, also imposed similar orders when it came to spectator attendance.
“Every expert has told us that there is a risk in any kind of mass gathering, so you must ask yourself if going to a large event is worth the risk,” DeWine communicated in March of 2020.
It’s no secret that sports in Ohio, especially in Pickaway County, are among some of the most-attended events consistently throughout the year. With looming uncertainty, districts outside the county remained in limbo as they waited for what was inevitable — school closures.
Due to the ongoing crisis and just a day later, Gov. DeWine did what most thought would come — the closure of all Ohio schools — kindergarten through 12th grade for “a period of several weeks.”
Subsequently, with the closures of all Ohio schools, district sports teams also were told to cease operations for a period of time as public health officials attempted to conduct science in real-time. From elementary schools to colleges, most students in the state were told to go home and remain safe.
With some sports taking place over the summer, districts were still left in the dark in terms of how they should proceed with their athletics. By generating their own school-year plans, districts had to prove to the state that they could safely hold in-person instruction, as well as providing safe facilities for sports teams.
Fast forward to Aug. 18 of last year, Gov. DeWine came back to the public to address athletics of all levels in the state. For what was a relief for many athletes themselves, DeWine announced an order from the Ohio Department of Health would be issued making both contact and non-contact sports allowed to take place within the state.
The order applied to all organized sports along with the addition of spectator guidelines. Some decisions, such as fall sports taking place in the spring, were left up to the districts to decide.
For many, sports and school athletics are considered to be one of the most-valuable aspects of life. DeWine invited Dr. Jim Borchers, a sports medicine specialist, of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, to share that sports are important when it comes to physical and mental health.
Additionally, toward the end of August of last year, DeWine gave all schools in the state the green light to hold sporting events, as well as limited spectators. However, entities would have to cover a subset of guidelines such as daily symptom checks and facial coverings in order to operate all sporting events.
Aspects about athletics were unrecognizable to many who would constantly attend high school sporting events throughout the county. However, schools embraced the hectic atmosphere COVID-19 created.
In Fairfield County lies Amanda-Clearcreek High School, which is home to the Aces. For the Black and Orange, fall and winter sports went well from an administrative standpoint.
“From an athletic director standpoint, the fall and winter season went as well as could be expected,” Amanda-Clearcreek Athletic Director Steve Evans told The Circleville Herald. “There were some very trying times and everyone had to be as flexible as possible.”
When it came to scheduling sporting events and league games, guidelines sent down from the state level made it sometimes difficult for actual competition to take place. Not uncommon, high school sporting events would get canceled if and when a team or staff member tested positive for COVID-19 — forcing everyone to be flexible in scheduling and operating habits.
“Bottom line is the student athletes got the opportunity to have a season and that’s all that matters,” Evans commented.
With the spring season just on the horizon and in some cases already upon us, the Aces athletic director hopes that more good vibes echo in the warmer weather.
“As far as spring goes, I just hope that we are able to get the entire season in,” Evans noted as no spring season occurred in 2020. “These particular athletes lost their season a year ago, so we just want an opportunity to play.”
Most of the Aces’ teams are slowly rebuilding their programs after graduating a few of their respective members. Evans again emphasized how important it is to have a spring season and that the athletes take advantage of opportunities given to them.
From Evans, Ace athletes to lookout for this season include seniors Abby Stats, Cole Bryan, Quintin Lott, Logan Julian and Paige Alford who all have plans on continuing their athletic careers at the next level. Additionally, football Ace Anthony Buckley was selected to the All-Ohio Academic Football Team.
In terms of COVID-19, Evans hopes to get back to “normal” as soon as possible and to have full attendance at sporting events. With the pandemic changing all aspects of life, one side effect Evans noted was the low participation in athletics in general — something he is not sure why occurred.
“The challenges we have faced this season are more than any other season before,” Evans said. “We’ve had a really low number participating this year… not sure how much of that was because of COVID-19 or not, but our kids are not participating as much as they used to.”
To the Northwest of Amanda, the Vikings of Teays Valley saw both its ups and downs when it came to athletics. However, overall, the experience went as well as could be expected, according to Viking athletic director Joel Baker.
“The fall and winter seasons went as well as could be expected,” Baker told The Circleville Herald. “Trying to follow health department and OHSAA guidelines was challenging at times, but in the end, it is what allowed us to finish the fall and winter seasons.”
For its Viking wrestlers, qualifying wrestlers were given the short end of the stick as the state tournament would be canceled due to public health concerns. Wrestling is considered to be a highly physically-demanding sport — prompting questions from its own coaches, such as Todd Nace, on whether the sport would even be allowed to take place.
In the end, the Vikings were able to take four grapplers to the state tournament with one, 182-pounder Camden McDanel, making it to the finals.
“If I was asked in August if we would have successfully competed in fall and winter sports, I would have said no,” Baker commented.
In terms of accolades, the Viking crews of Teays Valley represented the school district well by winning a few league titles. According to Baker, the high school was able to capture Mid-State League titles in athletics such as girls’ cross country, boys’ bowling, wrestling, along with boys’ swimming.
Baker, in particular, was very pleased with the Viking wrestlers, as well as the cheerleading programs who won their fourth-consecutive state title for traditional competition and game day performances.
When it comes to individual performances, Baker detailed that students such as Karoine Pees, Ava Miller, Gunner Havens, Liam Wilson, McDanel, Joey Thurston, Russell Orris and Sydnie Frey are among some of the athletes that deserve recognition for their hard work this past year.
Most of the issues and challenges this year for the Vikings came from the pandemic, unsurprisingly. Major challenges came in the form of contact tracing and forcing players and coaches alike to go into quarantine.
“Also trying to build school spirit and the fun atmosphere that usually surrounds high school sports was really hard with limited attendance and hybrid scheduling,” Baker explained.
At the end of the day, Baker echoed the same sentiments in that he wishes for full attendance at sporting events in the future when the pandemic subsides. Additionally, he and other Vikings are patiently looking forward to the completion of a new field house set to be opened in the fall of this year.
In Tiger Country, the story very much stayed the same in terms of the district sifting its way through the pandemic. Being in the heart of Pickaway County and in close proximity to the City of Columbus, Circleville High School still was able to see success.
“Our athletes and coaches did a great job in the fall and winter following the protocols and doing what they needed to do to make sure they were able to have a season,” Circleville High School Athletic Director Chad Spradlin told The Circleville Herald. “We just finished up our winter season and look forward to our athletes getting a chance to compete, which is something they missed out on last season.”
When asked about specific program highlights and moments worth mentioning these past several months. Spradlin commented that all the district’s athletic programs represented the school and the community the best way they could these past few seasons.
Other than the universally-felt COVID-19 challenges, business ran as per usual this season with hopes to return to normal in the near future.
In Williamsport where the Mustangs roam, athletics also saw its ups and downs. According to Westfall High School Athletic Director Trevor Thomas, sports have faired well given the relatable circumstances.
“I believe sports have gone fairly well in this difficult time,” Thomas told The Circleville Herald. “We have had very few large-scale quarantines of teams… we are looking forward to our spring sports return after the missed 2020 season.”
Even with COVID-19 present in all facets of life, there were some highlights Mustangs were able to muster these past several months. Volleyball and girls’ golf programs were able to make noise this past season with Lady Mustangs returning to the regional tournament in volleyball, along with girls’ golf qualifying for the state tournament.
Separately, the Mustang wrestling program won its sixth-consecutive Scioto Valley Conference title along with sending 195-pounder Starr Kelly to the state tournament where he would finish in second place.
In terms of individual performances, Thomas pointed to several athletes intending on taking their skills to the next level in their athletic careers. Mustangs going to the next level include Kristin Phillips, Tennessee Martin, Luke Blackburn, Marcus Whaley, Mahaley Farmer, Kendra Lindsey and Kylee Henry.
When it came to challenges this season, Thomas communicated how difficult it was not letting parents see their children play the sports they love. In the future, he hopes to limit the restrictions to let more spectators enjoy Mustang athletics.
A crosstown rival of Circleville, Logan Elm also shares the county seat as its home for athletics. It was a family affair at the home of the Braves as parents, students and faculty came together to make the fall and winter seasons worthwhile.
“The coaches, players, parents and administration all worked together to help make that happen,” Logan Elm High School Athletic Director Eric Karshner told The Circleville Herald. “The biggest challenge early on was ticketing and fan capacity. I know not all fans were able to see the games in person. “
The fall season went as well as could be expected for the Braves as Karshner communicated that athletics were able to compete in a majority of scheduled events.
However, during the winter sports’ season, the high school would experience an outbreak of COVID-19, subsequently ceasing school operations for roughly three weeks. The school was still able to rebound in January of the new year.
“Challenges aside, the teams were able to compete,” Karshner said. “So, goal accomplished.”
In terms of highlights, Logan Elm’s athletic director pointed to the boys’ bowling team who qualified for the state bowling tournament in Columbus.
Further, several athletes coming out of Logan Elm intend to continue their careers at the next level, according to Karshner. Not wanting to leave anyone out, the athletic director stated that all of the players worked hard to get where they needed to be.
“This year has been a tremendous challenge and they all have done a great job of keeping their focus and continuing to move forward,” Karshner shared.
Just as other athletic directors mentioned priorly, Karshner hopes that the new normal will soon end so that packed stands can take place.