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This time, it looks like it’s going to happen.

With the COVID-19 metrics improving with each passing day, county athletes have been gearing up for that long-awaited resumption of winter sports season practices. The wait ended on Monday when schools were given the green light to resume workouts in advance of active competition, slated to begin on March 3.

“We’re pretty excited about getting back to practice,” Jefferson boys basketball coach Richard Lewis said.

Like all winter high school sports teams across the Mountain State, the Cougars had been forced to play a long waiting game, which started back in November, when COVID-19 numbers headed in the wrong direction.

Football took the biggest hit when WVSSAC officials were forced to cancel the Super Six state football championships. Schools hoped the winter season might close at a normal time, but delays pushed the restart back to Monday.

The winter sports schedule, barring any further delays, is on track to start on March 3. Boys and girls basketball teams, as well as wrestling and swimming teams across the state, are anxious for this long wait to end.

“We’re hopeful we can get started next month,” Lewis said.  Most basketball teams will play around 16 games this season with the post-season running through mid-April. Normally, teams play around 22 games, which includes invitational tournaments around the holiday season, but that’s been nixed this season. Sixteen games, followed by the post-season playoffs.

“It’s better than not having any games at all,” Lewis said of the omission of in-season invitationals this year.

Jeffferson’s girls basketball team had a winning season last year, making it all the way to the Class AAA, Region II finals before losing to Spring Mills. Damon Smith, the Cougars’ girls basketball coach, said the team was disappointed it missed out on the chance to reach the state quarterfinals.

When the winter sports season was delayed this year, it added to the disappointment for Jefferson. Not knowing if or when the season would start was frustrating.

“Oh, man, we’re just so glad things are starting to get better,” Smith said. “We just finished our conditioning workouts and are looking to get going with regular practices.”

Smith said two-hour practice sessions are the norm. What hasn’t been lost in this extended downtime is the enthusiasm of an experienced team.

“I’m pretty excited to get started,” Smith said. “I think we’ll have a pretty good team this year.”

For those athletes who have been struggling with keeping their grades up in order to remain academically eligible to play sports, the state school board is putting into place a limited waiver, regarding the minimum grade-point average of 2.0 for eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities.

Students will now have until March 19 to bring their grades up, Clayton Burch, state superintendent of schools for West Virginia said.

Under normal conditions, if a student’s GPA falls below 2.0 during the nine-week grading period, that student is not eligible to practice or compete during that period.

One of the reasons the rule is being relaxed is because there have been some issues involving virtual remote learning with some students. Burch said he’s heard stories of 4.0 students struggling under these conditions.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Smith said of the state’s waiver until March 19.

After March 19, the regular academic eligibility policy will resume, Burch said.

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SHEPHERD ATHLETIC NOTES…Shepherd University’s softball team has been picked to finish sixth in the PSAC’s East Division this year. The league’s pre-season poll was released on Friday.

West Chester is the top pick in the PSAC east, followed by Kutztown and Bloomsburg. The Rams went 4-6 last year before the rest of the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the first year the PSAC has been split into two divisions.

The Rams return such key players as junior third baseman Nicole Purtell, senior second baseman Leann Brown, senior shortstop Ashley Burger and sophomore Katie Laing.

Purtell batted .469 last year, with one home run, 10 RBIs and six doubles.

Brown batted .375 with seven RBIs and three doubles. Burger batted .355, with a pair of homers, five RBIs and two doubles. Laing went 2-2 as a pitcher for Shepherd, with a 2.27 ERA, 12 strikeouts, 10 walks and two complete games.

Burger and Laing are local high school products. Burger played at Spring Mills. Laing played at Brunswick High School in Maryland.

The Rams are scheduled to open their season at 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 26 against Hillsdale at Glenville. Shepherd’s home opener is 2 p.m. on Friday, March 5 with Mansfield.

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