CUMBERLAND — This time last year, Keyser’s Derek Stephen and Fort Hill’s Zack Alkire were preparing for their respective seasons to begin in less than a month’s time.
Stephen was entering his seventh year as defensive coordinator — he spent four years prior as an assistant at Keyser — under Sean Biser. In the Queen City, Alkire was set to begin his sixth year manning the helm of the junior varsity squad under Todd Appel, having spent the five years prior to that as the freshman team coach.
This year, things are drastically different.
Following the shocking departures of two of the longest-tenured high school football coaches in the area — Biser for 16 years and Appel for 12 — Stephen, who played on Biser’s first team at Keyser, and Alkire, who was hired as an assistant the year Appel got the Fort Hill job, are now at the top of the hill of the Keyser and Fort Hill programs.
Biser departed at the end of February to take over a Morgantown High School Class AAA program in need of some playoff appearances. Appel, following five state championships over the past seven years and a 142-16 record in 12 seasons, accepted a teaching position in Worcester County.
Stephen was promoted to head coach just under two months following Biser’s departure, while Alkire reached the highest rung on the Fort Hill ladder on Monday, just under two weeks after Appel’s exit.
In an alternate reality, Stephen and Alkire would be excited about the prospect of their first varsity football game as head coach less than a month from now.
Instead, in the COVID-19 reality, Alkire can’t meet face-to-face with his team for the foreseeable future and Stephen is just back to getting face-to-face sessions with his players after the team had to shut down activities following a small COVID outbreak within the squad.
“It’s been kind of hard with the uncertainty of everything going on that has been so difficult,” Stephen said on Wednesday, when his Golden Tornado team was able to do weight training that morning and meet again for an hour that evening.
“A lot of stuff out of my control has been a pain so far,” he added.
West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission and Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association have been tasked with making numerous difficult decisions throughout this process.
Athletes were allowed to begin coordinated conditioning in “pods” of no more than 10 players — all outdoors — starting the second week of June as part of Phase I of West Virginia’s return-to-play plan.
Just over two weeks later, MPSSAA announced that local school systems (LSS) could decide what is and isn’t safe to do as part of their preseason training, all the while taking into consideration how active the coronavirus was within a given LSS.
That same week, West Virginia moved into Phase II, allowing workouts to increase from one to two hours, groups of 25 students to gather — while still staying in their pods — and indoor workouts to get underway.
West Virginia moved into the third and final stage on July 6, while MPSSAA announced it would post updates every Tuesday, starting July 7, regarding the upcoming season — no major updates occurred before the fall and winter sports seasons were postponed during the first semester on Aug. 3.
Things were a little different at Keyser due to its outbreak.
“We didn’t quite get the whole Phase III in,” Stephen said. “We had to shut down after a few students tested positive, but we started lifting again this past Monday.”
The process in West Virginia, while seemingly fluid, wasn’t without its hiccups and has been hit with a ripple effect of neighboring states Maryland and Virginia postponing fall sports.
“They were really early and quick in getting guidelines and phases out quickly,” Stephen said of WVSSAC’s transparency throughout the summer. “They were able to get us a good idea to get everything in line.
“It’s been hard because … everybody’s dropping. It’s wreaking havoc on schedules, especially us and Frankfort … the eastern, northern panhandle. But they’ve been helpful getting us info. It may not be quick, but it is helpful when it gets here.”
As expected, the student-athletes are raring to go, as is the case at Keyser.
“Surprisingly well,” Stephen said of how his players were handling the uncertainty. “We’re asking them to do things and they’re responding well. We abruptly stopped things, started back up, stopped things, started back up, then shut down, and just got started back up.
“We could probably ask them to run through fire and they’d do it. They really just want the chance to play this year.”
Alkire has only been officially on the job for less than a week, but that doesn’t mean the postponement could work, in a way, in his favor.
“You could look at it as an advantage,” said Alkire, who has been the long-time track and field coach at Fort Hill. “Whether or not we get to see the kids and fine-tune things before the season is another thing. I know in Allegany County, there won’t be much face-to-face contact for quite a bit. But that being said, even just two to three weeks of face-to-face contact would be more than if the season were to start on Wednesday.
“But at some point or another, in one sport or another, every kid 10th grade through 12th grade, I’ve had some kind of experience with each kid. Just having more time is going to be an advantage.”
In West Virginia, it will be a little bit quicker of a turnaround, with practice set to begin Monday and games slated to start Sept. 4.
“The plan is for fall sports to go ahead,” WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan said Thursday on MetroNews Talkline. “We are waiting on the metrics for that plan to decide. It is going to be the same plan that decides if we are going to have school open in your county or not. It is also going to have a factor into whether or not you are able to have athletics.
“We know that there is a possibility that there may be some counties who don’t meet the metrics and will have to wait until their numbers improve before they get to participate. We want kids to participate but we want them to participate safely. This metric is going to measure what the density of the (COVID) infection is in your community.”
As it stands, Stephen’s Keyser Golden Tornado hits the road to open the season Sept. 4 at Berkeley Springs.
“Early on, we were gung-ho and thought we’d play, but even our coaches had our doubts,” said Stephen, “but (Gov. Jim) Justice seems to want us to play. I’m not so sure we’ll get all 10 games, but I just hope we get a season and these kids get to play football.”
Kyle Bennett is a sports reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @KyleBennettCTN.