For area football fans, Handley High School’s James R. Wilkins Jr. Stadium is definitely going to be the place to be in the winter and spring of 2021.
The Winchester-Frederick County schools released the schedules for most of their sports teams on Thursday, and the football slates are particularly unique. For the first five games, the city-county schools will only play each other in a series of Saturday doubleheaders that will be held at Handley, the first of which will take place on Feb. 27. The first game of each doubleheader will start at 9:30 a.m. and the second game will take place at 2 p.m.
Games are being played at Handley those five weeks in order to take advantage of the school’s artificial turf. In a joint statement, the activities coordinators at Handley, James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando expressed concern that the natural grass fields at the three FCPS schools may not be playable or safe due to potentially inclement weather in February and March. Due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, they also feel limiting travel would be the safest scenario for student-athletes, coaches, officials and spectators.
James Wood will only play Sherando once and Handley will play Millbrook once, a designation that was determined by a hat drawing. Those matchups will count toward the “pod” standings. The other matchups in the Class 4 Northwestern District “A” pod will occur twice each, with the second of the two matchups counting toward the “pod” standings. As a result, each team will play a total of three games — one against each team — to determine their pod record. If necessary, the first two games will be used as pod tiebreakers.
The Class 4 Northwestern District “B” pod features Culpeper County, Fauquier, Liberty and Kettle Run. The two pod champions will receive berths into the Region 4C semifinals.
With the four locals team playing their first game five days after the first allowable VHSL play date, there will be no bye weeks during the regular season. Each Virginia High School League school is limited to six regular-season games.
On April 2 or 3, the teams in the Class 4 Northwestern District “A” pod will play the teams in the Northwestern District “B” pod, all at locations to be determined. The game involving the two pod champions will determine who gets the district’s top seed for the Region 4C semifinals. The two pod second-place teams, third-place teams and fourth-places will also play games against each other.
On April 9 or 10, the Region 4C semifinals will commence, with the Northwestern District champion taking on the No. 2 seed from the Dulles District and the NWD No. 2 taking on the Dulles No. 1 seed. The “Plus 1” games of the Virginia High School League condensed-season plan will also take place on those dates, with each game pitting a team from Pod “A” against Pod “B”.
The Class 4 Northwestern District directors considered multiple plans before deciding on the final outcome. They couldn’t do a double round robin for each pod, because that would prevent the two pod champions from playing each other. And because the Class 4 Northwestern District has eight teams, each team couldn’t play everybody once since schools are limited to six games.
For the varsity football games at Handley, all teams and potential spectators will need to clear out immediately after the 9:30 a.m. games to allow enough time for event personnel to get the stadium ready for the 2 p.m. game.
It will require extra work to prepare for two games in one day, but the most important thing for the local activities coordinators is having a consistent playing surface to use.
“We’re all in this thing together,” said Handley director of student activities Reed Prosser during Thursday’s virtual news conference. “The most important part is we get to play. The fact that we’re able to partner with [FCPS], it was a lot of give-and-take on both ends, and we’re just excited we can get into it together.”
Sherando activities coordinator Jason Barbe said while there’s the potential for an exciting atmosphere with two games at Handley each Saturday, he pointed out that there’s a lot of unknowns.
In their statement, the activities coordinators noted that unless Virginia moves past Phase 3, under the current guidelines VHSL school sports in the high-risk category will not take place. Football is one of those high-risk sports, as is volleyball, another traditional fall sport. In the winter sports season that precedes fall sports, basketball and wrestling also fall in that category.
Barbe said they don’t know how many people will be allowed to be present at events. (The VHSL is still looking to get clearance from the governor’s office to permit more than 250 people for event attendance. VHSL executive director Billy Haun has previously said that matter will be revisited in late October or early November. The VHSL would like to at least have the opportunity for schools to be granted 1,000 people for events.)
For basketball games, for example, James Wood coordinator of student activities Craig Woshner pointed out that when you factor in six-foot distancing for spectators and you subtract players, officials and coaches, Shirley Gymnasium wouldn’t be able to have more than 150 fans. Prosser pointed out that due to transportation limitations, not as many athletes will be able to travel to away events compared to normal — Prosser mentioned taking six people to tennis matches, which is the minimum number of people required to play without forfeiting an individual match.
Given the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, no guarantees can be made that any sport will take place in the coming months. The activities coordinators are just trying to do what they can for the athletes.
“It’s not going to be a regular high school football atmosphere,” Millbrook coordinator of student activities Scott Mankins said. “But we are trying to give kids an opportunity to compete for their schools again.”
For team-based sports besides football, the four Winchester-Frederick County schools will play each other twice and teams from the “B” pod once for a total of 10 contests. Basketball (14 contests), volleyball, baseball and softball (12 each) will allow for some non-district competition due to VHSL contest guidelines. Every VHSL sport is competing in 60 percent of its normal contests in 2020-21.
Tournament sports — which also include soccer and tennis — will only feature four teams in the district tournament. The top two teams from each pod will participate in the semifinals. The four teams that don’t participate will be involved in “plus 1” competition. The two district finalists will move on to the Region 4C tournament.
Football — primarily a Friday sport under normal circumstances except for Handley home games on Saturday — is experiencing a change in terms of the day of the week that games are played, and it’s not the only sport that will experience that situation.
Local basketball teams, for example, typically play most of their games on Tuesday and Friday nights. But due in part to a shortage of officials for a variety of reasons, many basketball games will be played on Mondays and Thursdays. Winchester-Frederick County schools typically like to schedule basketball doubleheaders in which the girls play at 6 and the boys play at approximately 7:30, but those have been eliminated because of the uncertainty surrounding crowd limitations.
Notable basketball dates are as follows. Each team’s season opener is Dec. 21 and regular-season finale is Jan. 25. All games listed below start at 7:30 p.m.
Handley — season opener (boys at Kettle Run; girls host Kettle Run); season finale (boys at Sherando, girls host Sherando).
James Wood — season opener (boys host Culpeper County, girls at Culpeper); Jan. 25 (boys at Millbrook, girls host Millbrook).
Millbrook — season opener (boys at Sherando; girls host Sherando); season finale (boys host James Wood, girls at James Wood).
Sherando — season opener (boys host Millbrook; girls at Sherando); season finale (boys host Handley; girls at Handley).
Wrestling competitions, instead of Wednesday and Saturday, will instead usually take place on Tuesdays and Fridays. In terms of regular-season scheduling, Barbe said no one knows if they’ll be able to hold large-scale tournaments, so schools are focusing on triangulars and quads. The district tournament will take place Feb. 6 at Fauquier.
Local schools are still trying to finalize the schedules for indoor and outdoor track, swimming, golf, cross country and competition cheer.
The VHSL is not allowing athletes in swimming and track to qualify for the state meet based on times or marks in order to control the number of people who will be at a venue. Region 4C is doing the same thing — athletes in those sports can only qualify for the region meet based on how they place at their district meet.
In indoor and outdoor track, the top four in each event at the district meet advance to the region meet.
In golf, the top two teams and top three individuals at the district tournament will advance to the region tournament.
In addition to the top two teams, the top two in singles and doubles will advance in tennis from the district tournament to the region tournament.
Details are still being worked as to how many individuals will advance from district tournaments and meets onto region competition for wrestling, swimming and cross country. The number of cross country teams that will qualify from the district to the region meet is also being worked out.
The activities coordinators also addressed JV football. Games will be played at 4 p.m. at both Handley and, if field conditions allow, Millbrook, which has a regulation-sized practice field with goalposts. There will be five Monday games played at Handley. Mankins said Handley will be asked to help out if field conditions are poor.