Welcome back to Phil for the Game, your glimpse into the sports community of Boone County.
If you’ve followed this column or my sports work since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I have talked to many coaches around Boone County about how they have navigated “stay-at-home” orders and social distancing guidelines while trying to prepare student-athletes for upcoming seasons (see interview with Scott High boys hoops coach Shawn Ballard in this edition).
Of course, we saw WVSSAC sanctioned spring sports canceled completely and we are yet to hear what will be the fate of fall sports as football season — the king of all sports (you can’t deny the gate numbers) — is barely a month away from kicking off.
In this column, I thought I’d take the opportunity to step outside of the county and talk to a coach in Jackson County for the sake of perspective.
During my time as the sports editor of the Jackson Herald, Ripley High baseball coach Shane Casto and I developed a strong relationship. It was primarily based on a desire to cover his team well. He provided timely statistical information and interviews and the kids did the rest.
Casto is a “baseball guy” to his core. As a player for the Vikings in the 90s for the retired Coach Ray Swisher, Casto took over the program from the man for whom he laced up his spikes.
Oh yeah, he also helped bring home a Class AAA state championship in 1997 as the starting shortstop for the Vikings, and as an assistant under “Swish,” he was part of another Class AAA crown in 2004.
Casto has been the head coach at Ripley for a decade, and, including his time under Swisher, has 18 years of coaching experience.
In recent years, outside of competing for years in the MSAC, their Class AAA schedule is always tough and Casto likes it that way. The program has produced household names like Jamin Jones and Christopher Jordan, among a metric ton of other college pitchers and sluggers over the last decade.
I guess that what I’m trying to say is, Coach Casto is as good a baseball guy as I know and I thought his story may be of interest to our local coaches — if for no other reason than to help them see that they weren’t alone in scrambling for ways to deal with an unprecedented time.
Casto said that up in Jackson County, the “unknown” of it all as both an educator and coach has been the hardest part of getting through the last four months.
“One thing about it, we’re all on a level playing field and all of the baseball programs in the state are facing the challenges that I am,” he said. “As coaches, we used ‘groupme’ (group text messaging app) and we checked in with our guys at least once a week to make sure they are staying positive and getting some kind of work in on their own. We practiced on Thursday, March 12, and we had put the tarp out and it rained Thursday night. We were supposed to scrimmage that Saturday. On Friday, the messages started floating around with coaches around the state about what may happen in terms of the pandemic.”
Casto said the boys held out hope for a couple of weeks before the ball dropped and school was closed, followed by the suspension of spring sports for the season.
“It’s hard to tell a senior that has given you everything they’ve got that it ends right here,” he said. “How do you go about doing that?”
Casto said he only had two on the squad in Austin Boggess who will continue his athletic career in college as a wrestler. Brody Boyce will be playing soccer and baseball for West Virginia Tech.
“Boyce didn’t sign anywhere early and he was an example of a kid who would have had an All-State season and further improved his college stock, but didn’t get that opportunity,” Casto said. “I really hated it for those kids all over the state who needed their senior years to push them over the top.”
In turn, college seniors are getting a year of eligibility back and it pushes many potential incoming freshman out of the program or into another school where an opening might be.
“College coaches are saying that they’ve got 50 guys and they can carry 40 so they’ve got to trim the fat — whether it be kids that have been in the program or the incoming recruits — and that is a hard place to be for coaches and players. This thing (coronavirus) has really turned athletics on its head.”
In recent weeks, Kanawha County has approved “travel” ball teams to play in their facilities, but Jackson County has not. Many Jackson County sluggers are traveling and playing on teams not associated with their high school and getting in some work an hour away.
“We’re lucky in the sense that we have some of our college players in town and our guys have been able to work out with them on their own and that is a really healthy thing,” he said. “We’ve encouraged them to stay busy, but baseball activity is limited and we’re all trying to do as much as we can, but not more than we’re permitted to. It is a tightrope. Thankfully, many of our guys are showing the initiative.”
Casto said the best thing that coaches can do is communicate and support each other.
“Right now, we’re all in this together and we’re going to get through it together,” he said. “We will prepare for next season like we have in any other off-season and we’ll use our 3-week periods as best we can. We all miss the game and I know the kids do, too.”
Thanks to Coach Casto for chiming in and always being available through the years. I wish all the best to the Vikings moving forward.