0322 Freedom Zimmerman

Freedom boys basketball coach Clint Zimmerman (center) talks to his team after winning the NCHSAA 3A West Regional final game over Hunter Huss on March 7.

If things get back to normal in time, the Freedom boys basketball team knows it still has one more game left to play.

But right now, that feels like a pretty big “if.”

As North Carolina’s public schools are suspended through at least March 30 and the state’s prep athletics are barred until at least April 6 due to the coronavirus pandemic, wait-and-see is the only approach left for the Patriots (29-1, No. 3 seed in West) as they still hope to face Fayetteville Westover (30-0, No. 1 seed in East) in the NCHSAA 3A state championship game.

“We’re just kind of waiting,” said FHS coach Clint Zimmerman. “They told us by April 6, they would make a decision on what we’re going to be able to do. From a coach’s perspective, we’re in the same situation as (Westover). We’re more worried about the health of the nation and everybody getting back to normal than we are with what’s going on with us right now.

“They told us that on April 6, they will make a final decision. And we’re just going to hope for the best. If we’re getting to play, if they’re going to allow us, then that mean’s everything’s kind of settled down. That would be best case scenario not just because we get to play, but because our nation is doing better.”

The state’s bars on school and sports mean no practicing for the Patriots. And NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker’s assertion that there isn’t a last completed date rule in place means the team could be dormant for well more than a month before being thrust back onto the floor with a window of practice — maybe a couple weeks — before game-time.

“The fortunate thing is that Westover would be in the exact same boat,” Zimmerman said. “Nobody’s really allowed to do anything right now. I don’t think anybody’s getting together and doing anything that they shouldn’t be. The biggest challenge would be refocusing and getting back in it.

“We’ve got a great group of kids. Mentally, they’ll be ready to go. Physically, you would hope that they would give you two weeks (for practice). If you try to go and get ready to play in just one week, you might be setting yourself up for some injuries just because when you’re self-quarantined, you can’t stay in shape.”

Zimmerman has been reaching out to his players over the phone and by text. His main concern is their wellbeing, and that of their families. But he also knows his players still want their crack at a state title, especially a team 10 seniors on the roster, including the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference co-player of the year in point guard James Freeman and fellow senior starters Bradley Davis, the county’s leading scorer, and Qualique Garner, Nick Johnson and Jayden Birchfield.

“We’ve been able to talk and text, just making sure everybody’s alright and they’ve got what they need and everybody’s feeling good,” said Zimmerman, the NWC’s coach of the year. “Fortunately, with technology, we are able to stay in touch.”

“They’re just hopeful,” Zimmerman said. “They’re just taking it all in and hoping that we get the opportunity to play. Right now, the good news is at least from (Thursday), nobody has been directly affected health-wise. We’re just hoping that we’re all going to be able to get together and get back to normal.”

Until normal comes back around, Zimmerman knows the pandemic will affect his players and assistant coaches in ways that go well beyond basketball. He wants to keep his priorities in order until normalcy resumes.

“With our assistants, for example, coach (Rob) Noyes and his family run a business. They run a restaurant,” Zimmerman said. “They are struggling right now and dealing with state mandates. From their perspective right now, his No. 1 concern is figuring out how to keep his employees on the payroll and keep money coming in.

“I haven’t really asked them to do a whole lot. This past week has really been a blur. I haven’t watched or kept up with things like I was. You still mentally go through some of the things you were doing and you just try to prepare a little bit. But right now, the big thing is everybody being healthy and safe.”

Justin Epley can be reached at jepley@morganton.com or 828-432-8943.

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