SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As South Charleston ran pregame drills, Hurricane performed jumping jacks on a Friday night in late October. The Hurricane team stretched from the end zone to the 50 yard line. They looked like NFL players compared to the hometown team made up mostly of freshmen.
As the clock counted down to kickoff, the speakers blared radio Top 40 hits from five years ago.
Fans munched kettle corn out of a bag. A few older men showed up with small bleacher seats, one with a pair of binoculars.
Within the first three plays, that size advantage was evident. Hurricane players effortlessly marched the ball into the end zone. Only 25 seconds into the game, Hurricane was up 7-0.
Hurricane scored touchdown after touchdown. Runs down the middle looked effortless. Long bomb passes were thrown with ease. A botched kick resulted in a quick score. On one run, a Hurricane receiver plowed through a South Charleston defender, not even breaking stride on the way to the end zone.
By the end of the first quarter, Hurricane had 42 points on the board to South Charleston’s zero.
Just a few miles west, Huntington was grinding St. Albans into the dirt 42 to zip by halftime as well. Across the state in Lewisburg, Princeton put up 55 in the first half at Greenbrier East.
On Friday nights from the Eastern Panhandle to the southern coalfields, the story has been the same.
Nearly half of games this season have ended in blowouts large enough to trigger a mercy rule, according to a Mountain State Spotlight analysis of scores.
As the lopsided scores piled up, parents and coaches pointed to a law that made it easier for students to transfer from one school to another.
Under prior rules, if a high school student transferred to another school without actually moving — say they go to Musselman in the Eastern Panhandle, but transfer to Hedgesville without moving to Hedgesville – they would have to sit out for a full year.
Lawmakers eliminated that restriction earlier this year, allowing students to transfer once and take the field immediately.
A closer examination by Mountain State Spotlight found that the transfer rule change cleared the Legislature only after it was slipped into a popular piece of school choice legislation by a powerful — but little talked about — committee, then passed in the final hours of the 2023 session.
This year, 432 students have transferred for fall sports alone, more than triple the amount of transfers in the previous year and a half, according to the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, which governs high school sports in the state.
“These transfers are happening all over the state, but you’re really seeing them in areas with high concentrations of schools, like in the Eastern Panhandle or in the stretch from Spring Valley to Riverside,” said David Price, the WVSSAC’s executive director.
And the scores have reflected the change. Blowouts are at an all-time high, according to the data analysis, which used publicly available scores going back to 2009. Blowouts in general rose in 2022, but this year marks a new peak.
About 45% of all games played this season had 35-point margins, triggering a running clock mercy rule in the fourth quarter. That’s nearly double what was seen in 2009.
The number of games with 70-point margins has tripled, with 13 in the regular season. Before that, the high in the last 14 years was only five games.
After witnessing beat-down after beat-down on Friday nights, some state lawmakers have called for the law to be repealed, in order to save the sanctity of high school football. Even the governor has weighed in, calling it a “bad move.”
Balls and bills
Brooke High Coach Mac McLean said his school has always struggled in the AAA class, because it’s the runt of the state’s top division. With the new transfer rule, that’s only going to get worse as players flock to high-performing schools.
“The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer,” McLean said.
Ironically, Brooke County High School alumni Ryan Weld, a Republican state senator, is the architect of the rule change.
Weld, who is running for state Attorney General, declined to comment for this story. But in past public statements, he said he pushed for it because three kids in his district had to sit out a year when they transferred from public to Catholic school.
During the 2022 legislative session, Weld wrote up a bill that would allow for one transfer for upperclassmen without penalty. At the time, Weld said the impact would be minimal.
During a committee hearing, Weld said he had to “tell a little fib” back in 1995 when he transferred from Madonna High School, a Catholic school in Weirton, to Brooke High so he could join the swim team.
“I had to say I was going to take Japanese at Brooke,” Weld said. “Well, konnichiwa is all I can say, because I never took Japanese at Brooke.”
Weld’s bill passed through the Senate with ease, but died in a House committee in 2022.
Later that year, the state Supreme Court ruled the one-year sit-out was constitutional in a case involving a Wheeling student’s transfer. Furthermore, the justices said the court system ought to, as a rule, butt out of high school sports policies.
This year, Weld pushed the same bill.
During a Senate education committee hearing, Weld appealed to the idea of school choice – that the government, in the form of the state’s athletic commission, was muddling around in a parent’s decision for their child.
For the second year in a row, it passed the Senate in late January but was promptly parked in a House committee.
Around the same time, another bill was working its way out of the House. This one would allow Hope Scholarship and private school kids to play a sport at a local public school if their own school does not offer that sport.
The bill cleared the House and into the Senate, where it went to the Rules Committee. That committee, consisting of Senate leadership, determines what goes on the floor and what doesn’t — and sometimes, they will change a bill before it goes to a vote.
During that meeting, high ranking senators like Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, and Weld decided to add the transfer rule change to the Hope Scholarship athletics bill.
The legislative jockeying put delegates in a pickle: either go on record voting against a Hope Scholarship related bill or let the transfer rule pass.
The House faces a tough vote
In the waning hours of the final night of the 60-day legislative session, the combined bill hit the House floor.
A clear fissure cracked within the Republican supermajority.
With one hand in his pocket and the other holding a microphone, House Majority Whip Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, asked the delegates to vote it down, laying the blame at the feet of a single senator from the Northern Panhandle, without naming Weld.
“While I believe there was good intentions, ladies and gentlemen, taking a bill that has nothing to do with the first bill and jamming it into it sort of feels like I’m being bullied,” Gearheart said. “Those of us from the southern part of the state, bullying is something we’re not going to tolerate.”
Del. Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha, called the last-minute addition “a tick” attached to an otherwise palatable bill. Voices raised and tempers flared – a few lawmakers commented this is the most passion they’d seen all session.
Delegates bemoaned how this change could lead to superteams built by near open recruiting of players to win championships. They cried for the days of school loyalty when kids played for the hometown team through victories and defeats.
But others defended the bill. Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, who is often a vocal critic of conservative bills, found allies in the Republican caucus after he called for passage of the bill.
“Let the kids play – why would the government step in and tell kids when and where they can play?” Fluharty said. “That’s some woke, big government stuff right there.”
Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, called the vote and the board lit up, with 64 voting in favor and 26 voting against. Hanshaw voted against it.
Gov. Jim Justice let it become law without his signature. He said he couldn’t veto it because of the Hope Scholarship kids, but he couldn’t sign it because of the transfer rule.
“I fear we’re heading down the wrong path with our high school athletes and opening up the door to many unintended consequences,” Justice said.
A forward pass
Early in the season, sports commentators and politicians grumbled after seeing Huntington cream South Charleston 86-0, Hurricane bury Capital 93-7 and Tucker County destroy Tygarts Valley 70-0 — all in one Friday night.
Ferrell held a press conference in September announcing he’d be putting forth a bill to reverse the transfer rule change.
“I don’t fault a kid or a parent for wanting to better themselves, but collectively, this has created imbalances in the game,” Ferrell said. “Scholastic sports were never meant to be about this.”
And while the effects are evident on the field, Ferrell said what’s happening off the field is even more concerning. In his town of Sissonville, where the school currently finished the season with a 0-10 record, players who have transferred to a rival school are shunned, he said.
“There’s a lot of hard feelings there – this is dividing communities,” he said. “We had a community meeting where we talked about this and somebody said, ‘we don’t want them back.’ At first, people laughed, but that is the mentality. It’s taken something good and poisoned it.”
Ferrell said he believes he’ll have the votes in the House to repeal the change.
“The Senate is where we’ll be having some headwaters,” Ferrell said.
Senate Majority leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, supported the change and was a part of the rules committee meeting where it got tacked onto the Hope Scholarship bill.
“At the time, I heard both sides of the argument and at the time, it seemed like a reasonable change to me,” he said in an interview. “What we’ve seen, especially in the Kanawha County area, is a very unintended consequence.”
Takubo said he wants to see good competition in sports and would consider voting in favor of rolling the change back.
But that couldn’t happen soon enough for South Charleston.
As halftime rolled around, the Eagle cawed for one of the few times in the game. After another drive by Hurricane for a touchdown – bringing the score to 69-0 – South Charleston blocked the extra point.
Raindrops fell from the sky. Fans began packing up.
Two men standing on the bleachers muttered to one another, commenting about what it takes for South Charleston to hang in there.
“You gotta get up and keep going,” one man said.
The other one replied, “I hate to see these kids hanging their heads on the sidelines.”
By the half, Hurricane had 69 points on the board – despite pulling out the first string and playing the underclassmen, Hurricane kept up the pressure, scoring four more touchdowns.
With less than a minute in the game, South Charleston ran 7 yards into the endzone and kicked the extra point.
The next week across the state, the same story repeated again and again on the last night of the regular season — George Washington beat Woodrow Wilson 62-8; Spring Valley slaughtered St. Albans 54-0; Spring Mills manhandled Hedgesville 42-6; Cabell-Midland trumped Riverside 56-0.
And South Charleston’s season ended how it began — with a blowout loss.
Capital 77, South Charleston 22.
Clarification: This story was updated on Nov. 9, 2023 to clarify Sen. Weld's reason for transferring high schools.