WCHS Pioneer head basketball coach Chris Sullens locked the gym at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 11. By order of Warren County Director of Schools Grant Swallows, the Warren County public school gyms cannot reopen until Jan. 4.
No practices. No games.
Meanwhile, district opponents Cookeville, Stone Memorial, and White County are practicing and playing games. Rhea County has shut down athletics in the same fashion Warren County has.
Coach Sullens said, “This makes it tough. I am not complaining. Everybody’s opinion doesn’t matter. Grant Swallows made the right decision. It was a tough decision to make. We knew something was up when we went to play Franklin on Dec. 10. We did not have a bus driver.”
Active COVID-19 cases are surging at a shocking rate. On Dec. 11, there were 333 active cases in Warren County. There were 981 active cases Monday. That's a 194% increase in 10 days. There were 21 COVID-19 deaths on Dec. 11, and there were 29 deaths as of Monday, a 38% increase.
The future doesn’t look promising with an expected Christmas surge in COVID-19. Gov. Bill Lee signed Executive Order No. 70 on Sunday, Dec. 20. It states in part, “With respect to school-sponsored and other youth athletics, organizers, and facilities shall not permit spectators to attend practices, games or competition … Coaching and team personnel, game officials, parents, media and select others will be allowed to attend games with the imperative to social distance six feet or more.”
The uncertainty has been extremely frustrating for coach Sullens. He said, “We knew the game at Franklin may be the last game we play for a while. We had 64 official days of practice. Thirty-two days have been taken away (by COVID-19). At least seven games are gone. We are not going to readjust our goals. We are going to figure out how to achieve them.”
A major change during the pandemic for Tennessee high school basketball is a decision by the TSSAA to allow the top seeds to host district tournament games. Normally, the district tournament is at a specified location.
One goal coach Sullens has for Pioneer basketball is to be the top seed in the district and have all district tournament games at home. That goal became more challenging when other district teams have continued to practice and play games as Warren County has locked the gym and ceased all practices and games.
The first district game is scheduled to take place Jan. 12. Warren County is scheduled to host White County on that Tuesday night. What game shape Warren County will be in is to be determined. Without COVID-19 shutdowns, Warren County would have played 15-16 games before facing White County. Because of COVID-19, Warren County will have only played eight games before facing its first district opponent.
The TSSAA has decided to support the Governor’s Executive Order No. 70. There will not be a one-third capacity of 600 fans in the stands for home games. There will be no fans, only parents, game officials, media, and first-responders, at least through Jan. 19.
Colleges and professional teams have transitioned to fan-less games in many cities across the country. Coach Sullens said he is in favor of playing without fans. Like his players, coach Sullens wants to play the games.