Ellis Nei action

Senior Ellis Nei (with ball) will get to have a basketball season after Clarke County Public Schools allowed Clarke County High School to proceed with its winter sports season at Monday’s school board meeting. The Eagles will open their season on Friday at Rappahannock County.

Clarke County High School will begin interscholastic winter sports competition on Friday with boys’ and girls’ basketball games after getting clearance from Clarke County Public Schools at Monday night’s school board meeting.

No one made a motion to postpone winter sports during Monday’s special meeting, so no vote on the season was held. CCPS Chair Monica Singh-Smith stated at the end of the 75-minute special session that “as it stands, there are no changes to our winter season sports schedule, and we will move forward with our games starting this week.”

“I’m extremely excited for our student-athletes, and for the coaches who have put in so much time and effort,” said Clarke County director of athletics Casey Childs in a phone interview on Monday night. “I just want our kids to compete. I want our kids to have a chance to do what they love.”

All of Clarke County’s sports teams have participated in the minimum eight official practices they need to compete in VHSL interscholastic competition. Monday’s announcement means that all eight Bull Run District schools will compete in winter sports, joining Strasburg, Stonewall Jackson, East Rockingham, Luray, Madison County, Page County and Rappahannock County.

For season openers, the girls’ basketball team will host Rappahannock County at 7:30 p.m. on Friday while the boys’ basketball team will travel to Rappahannock County for a game that starts at the same time. The swimming team will compete against Strasburg at noon on Saturday at the Signal Knob Recreation Center in Strasburg. Wrestling will host Page County at 6 p.m. on Jan. 13.

The Virginia High School League winter sports season began on Dec. 7 with basketball practice, but CCPS did not permit basketball and swimming to begin official practice until Dec. 14 and postponed wrestling until Dec. 21 due to concerns over rising COVID numbers in the Lord Fairfax Health District, and based on the recommendations of the district’s health director, Dr. Colin Greene. CCPS decided at its Dec. 14 board meeting to re-evaluate winter sports on Jan. 4.

CCPS Superintendent Chuck Bishop said Greene provided an update on sports and how it relates to COVID-19 in an email to all area superintendents on Sunday, and board members expressed that the email made them more comfortable with allowing winter sports to continue.

In the email, Greene reiterated his concerns that any activity with close contact could potentially lead to the spread of COVID-19. But according to Bishop, Greene also stated that in looking at the data in the Lord Fairfax Health District, “there is little evidence that shows that the virus has spread through sport.” Bishop went on to say there have been minor outbreaks in the district involving sports programs, but those are related to team social activities.

According to The Northern Virginia Daily, two Shenandoah County programs are in quarantine. Strasburg’s boys’ basketball team is expected to return from quarantine on Thursday and Central’s girls’ basketball team could return from quarantine on Monday.

The Lord Fairfax Health District includes Clarke County, Frederick County, Winchester, Shenandoah County, Page County and Warren County.

Of the five board members, only Zara Ryan expressed a desire to not see full interscholastic competition held at this time. Ryan felt it would be OK to go ahead with the swimming season, because that is considered a low-risk sport for COVID-19 transmission. She was against holding the basketball and wrestling seasons, which involve contact and are considered high-risk sports.

Clarke County senior Ellis Nei, a member of one of those high-risk sports teams, asked the board to give him and his teammates a chance during the audience comments segment at the start of the meeting. Nei stressed the value that sports have had on his life.

“I’ve been playing basketball since middle school,” Nei said. “I know not just me personally, but for the rest of [my teammates], even the middle schoolers, basketball is what they look forward to all day.”

Nei said he felt basketball keeps his teammates’ grades up. Nei also said basketball is intertwined with his education, because he was hoping his senior year could help him with athletic scholarship money for college. He’s been in contact with Division III schools, but he hopes he can attract the attention of schools in higher divisions with a strong winter.

Two people both made reference to Nei’s words during the meeting.

One was Clarke County assistant coach Kyle VanSice, who discussed the hard work and adjustments the wrestling team had put in to be safe since starting practice. He said he couldn’t imagine not having a senior year to compete. VanSice won a second state wrestling title as a senior in Clarke County in 2002.

Board member Chip Schutte — who was not present for the Dec. 14 meeting when winter sports, mainly wrestling, were discussed — also made reference to Nei’s comments when expressing his support to go ahead with a winter season.

The CCPS board members expressed their appreciation for athletics and the importance athletics can have in the lives of students on Dec. 14, and they reiterated those feelings on Monday.

“I remember what I felt like before my senior year,” Schutte said. “I played basketball, too.”

After the meeting, Nei was understandably pleased.

“I’ve been looking forward to this season for the better half of my life,” Nei said. “Given the opportunity to play after all the work I’ve put in ... I know a high school basketball season might seem small [in the grand scheme], but it definitely means a lot.”

Clarke County wrestling coach Jon VanSice presented a strong case at the Dec. 14 board meeting to help prevent the wrestling season from being canceled, citing the fact that wrestlers spend less time competing and come into contact with fewer people during a competition than most other sports. He spoke again Monday.

“It feels real good to get that decision made in our favor,” VanSice said. “The kids today asked if we were going to continue to practice if we don’t have a season. I didn’t have an answer for them, but now it’s a moot point. It feels good to get that monkey off our back and know we’ll have matches.”

Two parents of athletes also came forward to talk about winter sports, and both stressed how important athletics are to the mental well being of children.

A major point of emphasis at Monday’s meeting was that Clarke County athletes and coaches must make smart decisions.

The board appreciated what the Clarke County athletic department is doing in terms of following COVID-19 guidelines at practices and games, but it doesn’t want coaches and athletes to put themselves in risky situations for contracting COVID-19 by doing things like organizing team social gatherings in their free time.

“This is what I would say to everybody involved in any athletic activity — the season hinges on your behavior,” Bishop said. “If a student on the Clarke County basketball team, boys’ or girls’, contracts COVID as a positive, it is likely the team will miss four or five games with little to no chance to make those games up.”

Because of the late start, the basketball teams have 12 games scheduled in 27 days. (Clarke County does not have East Rockingham on the schedule since Rockingham County Public Schools require both teams wear masks for basketball and wrestling. Childs said Clarke County will try to schedule East Rockingham at the end of the season if that situation changes.)

Childs said social gatherings have already been addressed with coaches. “They know that wasn’t going to be an option this year,” Childs said.

Clarke County events will only feature 25 spectators at games, which will consist of player parents. Parents will not be able to attend road games.

However, those interested in following Clarke County can watch home and road events that are held inside gymnasiums on the National Federation of State High School Associations site at www.nfhsnetwork.com/schools/ea76c513f4. To view games on NFHS, fans can pay a $10.99 monthly subscription or a $69.99 yearly subscription (Clarke also has a camera at Wilbur M. Feltner Stadium for football and soccer). Everyone is using the NFHS system except Rappahannock, which is using a free Hudl streaming service. Clarke County will provide a link to Rapphannock’s events.

There’s still some uncertainty as to what a postseason will look like for winter sports (the VHSL region deadline for Feb. 6 for swimming and Feb. 13 for basketball and wrestling) but Childs said just getting to play is the main thing.

“The postseason can wait,” Childs said. “I’m just excited for our kids our community, which is so into athletics. It’s a great thing for them.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at

rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.com

Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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