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YMCA, Highlands Sports Complex Halt Activities

WHEELING — When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday that high school winter sports competitions can begin March 3 and practices can begin Feb. 14, those who oversee youth sports programs didn’t know those guidelines would end up affecting them.

They found out the next day, when Justice issued an executive order that those youth programs also would be barred from competing or holding events until Feb. 14.

So programs at the YMCA, the Highland Sports Complex, as well as club teams throughout the area, had to put plans on hold.

Adam Shinsky, executive director at the YMCA, said the announcement caught him and the whole YMCA off guard. Shinsky is the boys basketball coach at Brooke, so he was keenly aware of Monday’s announcement. Tuesday’s was a surprise.

“We were really blindsided by it (Tuesday),” Shinsky said. “I didn’t expect the shutdown of youth sports. It just really blindsided us because we had a couple of really good programs coming up. It’s big program time for us in the middle of winter.”

One of those is the Y’s youth basketball program, which is its biggest. Nearly 700 kids play basketball all day on Saturdays at both the YMCA and on courts at various Ohio County schools.

The YMCA also sponsors an indoor flag football league at the Highlands Sports Complex, Shinsky said, for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. With a 5-on-5 format, the league was scheduled to kick off Sunday.

The Highland Sports Complex also had to cancel tournaments and events that were on the original calendar.

“We have to follow the guidelines that were set forth,” Ricky Moore, sports director at the Highlands Sports Complex, said. “No games or anything for any age group can be played until they authorize that at the beginning of March. We have a lot of clubs, travel teams that had practices and training sessions that needed to be canceled or pushed back to later dates based on the limitations that were set forth until February.”

That included tri-state basketball leagues, in-house soccer leagues, adult basketball leagues, club volleyball tournaments, youth basketball and youth wrestling tournaments. The only things that the Highland Sports Complex is renting out at the moment are batting cages for individuals and shooting machines for basketball.

With other weekend events being booked for months and teams’ seasons moving forward, it proved more difficult for the Highlands complex to reschedule some of those tournaments and events. Yet, even with the cancelations, Moore saw a silver lining when things reopen.

“It’s unfortunate that we had to cancel, but on the reverse of that, we are fortunate we have things booked here at the facility for the foreseeable future,” Moore said.

Shinksy and the YMCA could have moved their canceled events to other weekends. There were other factors, however, that entered the equation.

“There’s already several places who do kids programs, so we don’t want to interfere with little kids’ baseball once things get rolling again in March,” Shinsky said. “We don’t want to take their kids away from them. We’re just kind of rolling with the punches and seeing what’s next. We’re not a very large organization and we rely on these programs to keep our building open to fulfill the mission of the YMCA. It’s just hard right now.”

The Cardinal Aquatics swim club also operates out of the YMCA, and head coach Tony Sunseri said the pause will affect his swimmers more than just physically.

“We’re going to be three months with no practices with youth sports in the state of West Virginia. It’s frustrating and I think there is a psychological health component to be able to participate and that’s important to these kids,” Sunseri said. “It’s important for them to be around other kids and experience that growth development as well.”

Cardinal Aquatics held practice on Monday, one of their first practices in months. The kids were excited to see their teammates and were ready to get going. With Tuesday’s executive order in place, it will be the only practice they have for at least another month.

“I probably hadn’t seen 90 percent of the swimmers in my group in person since the middle of November, when the initial executive order became effective,” Sunseri said. “We just had that one practice. We had to pull back everything and all the air came out of that balloon real fast.”

AAU basketball players are another huge group that won’t be able to take the court for another month.

“We have WV Elite, where we have 200 kids in the program,” said Roberta (Robinson) Olejasz, who serves on the board of directors of the WV Elite program. “And they’ve been up at the Highland Sports Complex and there’s not a time where I can’t walk in and see one of our teams in there practicing. It’s been every day and non-stop. It’s been very sad to me that they can’t workout as a group.”

Olejasz, named the head coach of the Wheeling Central girls’ basketball team this summer, did not want to criticize Justice. She believes he has done well so far in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He (Justice) has done nothing economically to hurt the state of West Virginia and only done great things for the state of West Virginia. He’s done well in so many areas, it’s just this one spot that’s hard to take.”

FC Wheeling United, the local travel soccer club, has adhered to all COVID guidelines put in front of it, coach Thomas Olivier said, so this week’s decision stings.

“I think our point of view is, as a member of the West Virginia Soccer Association, we have followed the guidelines from the get-go all the way from last summer limiting what our players can and cannot do,” Olivier said. “We’ve emphasized the social distancing, wearing masks, checking temperatures. The other thing that is probably disappointing to us is the fact the data would show very little information available that there is transmission with outdoor youth sports. We’re an outdoor year-long sport. We’re not a winter sport, we’re not an indoor sport. So it’s disappointing to us that we’re locked into the category with other indoor sports.

“Having said that, it comes from the government,” he added, “it’s a mandate and we’re going to follow it and not try to go around it.”

Some of FC Wheeling’s programs are indoors, though, and the participation at the Highlands Sports Complex is limited until the 14th. No program can go into a high school or college gym to practice either. Training outdoors as a team as the weather has been cooperating, for the most part, is out of the question, too.

“I think what’s most disappointing for kids of all ages in our club is that there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel and then all of a sudden, there’s no exit. So we try to get to another tunnel and it’s another dead end,” Olivier said. “I coach younger kids in our clubs and some of the kids asked, ‘When can we play?’ Almost to the fact that they think they’re doing something wrong, when of course they’re not.

“I think these are extraordinary times, too. So we have to understand a little bit of extraordinary measures that come from our governing bodies. It just seems that some of the policies and guidelines coming down are maybe using a one-size fits all sort of cookie cutter approach to it, rather than understand different sports and activities are in fact different.”

Although Wheeling FC will have to wait a month to start their season, Olivier plans to do just that.

“We have a month to get a season started and we’ll just push it back a month and then have a spring season that starts in February instead of now. That’s all.”

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