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SERIES: On March 13, 2020, high school athletes aware of lockdown but remained hopeful of spring return
Gavin Grater
Chestatee's Gavin Grater runs during a 2020 cross country meet. Photo submitted by Cassidie Blose For The Times

Gavin Grater was in for quite a shock when school started to dismiss on March 13, 2020

It was a double dose of bad news for the accomplished distance runner at Chestatee High.

Because of the coronavirus, track and field season had been put on halt. 

Plus, he wouldn’t be coming into the school building for the foreseeable future.

Nearly one year later, the memory is still just as fresh as if it were yesterday. 

“I heard kids start talking around the end of the day that school was cancelled because of the coronavirus, which was surprising,” said Grater, who was in the midst of a strong start to the season in the 1600-meter and 3200 run for the War Eagles. “I had heard about the coronavirus, but it was still disappointing.”

That sense of being frozen in time was shared by hundreds of other high school athletes in Hall County, not knowing yet the duration of being unable to compete in their favorite activities last spring. 

It turned out to be a season-ending move as the two-week delay to spring sports was later extended for the remainder of the 2020 school year over the entire state. 

And what slowly emerged was the snowballing lockdown where young people were left without sports and were in charge of keeping track of their schoolwork from home — a combination that left many fearful of the lasting impacts on the segment of the population that is least at risk for serious symptoms from COVID-19. 

In the weeks between the initial lockdown and permanent suspension of spring sports in 2020, high school athletes were left dealing with complex emotions without being allowed to take part in sports with friends and teammates. 

Coaches and administrators with Gainesville City and Hall County schools were getting a constant flow of information from the central office. School district officials were, at the same time, being given regular updates from state medical professionals and political officials.

Compounding the difficultly of the situation was that face-to-face gatherings were also brought to a hold. Everyone was relying on modern technology, social media and news outlets for updates on the situation with regards to the nation’s pandemic and high school sports. 

“We all felt like we were all in uncharted territory,” Johnson boys tennis coach Megan Middleton said. 

Players from all spring sports were relegated to working out on their own or congregating for non-school-sanctioned activities to stay loose and ready to compete. 

However, as the shutdown dragged along, some were losing confidence in resuming their season, while others held out hope that things would crank up again by early April. 

“I think our team was split 50/50 on whether we would get to play again last spring after the lockdown,” said North Hall’s Bradford Puryear, an outfielder for its baseball program. “I thought we would be back again last spring, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Even though, in April, most Americans didn’t have a full understanding about the risk presented by the coronavirus, the Georgia High School Association made it official on April 26, 2020 that the remainder of the season would be suspended across the state. 

The decision was reached after the announcement by Gov. Brian Kemp to extend the statewide lockdown during those early days of the pandemic.

Athletes were left with many questions, but generally understood that we were dealing a public-health crisis that we were all going to have to sacrifice equally to combat.

Still, that didn’t make it any easier for high school athletes, who knew that was it competitively for their teammates who were seniors and about to graduate.

“We all felt bad for our seniors because we knew how much work they had put in for our team,” said Puryear, who is now a junior. 

Once word came down from those making the decisions that spring sports were not going to resume in 2020, many coaches took on a proactive role in reaching out to those who were done competing at the high school level. 

The decision to halt spring sports, even before the midway point of their 2020 seasons, cost some the chance to gain additional exposure for a chance to play in college. 

Baseball and soccer seasons were just getting underway with region schedules. Golf teams. just days before the lockdown, had taken part in the Hall County championship, while track and field athletes were still a couple of weeks away from taking part in the county meet. 

Nobody got a chance to make it to the playoffs as a spring sports athlete in 2020. 

The record books will forever be left blank for state championships in the spring of 2020, a permanent reminder of how the coronavirus hit high school sports in Hall County and across the entire state. 

That halt to spring sports set off the longest summer ever, as high school athletes were not able to compete for five months. 

Grater, who set new personal records in the 1600 and 3200 in each of his three meets last spring, said it became imperative for athletes to take the lead on their training and follow recommendations sent out from coaches. 

“I’d say it was hard to stay focused on running,” said Grater, who prefers running with his teammates. 

Spring athletes were left with tremendous uncertainty since many compete in the fall, such is the situation with Grater, who is a cross country runner for Chestatee.

Meanwhile, Hall County schools officials were busy putting a plan in place to make sure that fall sports (football, cross country, softball and volleyball) would go on as close to normal as possible. 

The debate raged over the summer as many states were cancelling football, while others staked a claim in making sure the season took place, as scheduled, in a safe environment.

Hall County schools athletics director Stan Lewis said the district was confident that fall sports could be conducted, even if fans were not on hand. The Gainesville City Schools were on the same page. 

“Kids need those relationships that sports provide,” Lewis said. “They need to be exposed to those life lessons that only sports and other extracurricular activities can provide.”

Lakeview Academy also went forward with fall sports, while Riverside Military Academy in the spring of 2020 announced that all fall sports activities were not going to take place. 

While other states, and pockets of Georgia have been hesitant to hold high school sports — at different times — they have taken place without any major interruption in Hall County. 

Lewis said it started with having a solid plan in place for safety and accurately communicating any positive cases for COVID-19 to his office.

However, since August, it has been a day-by-day mission to keep kids on the sports fields and required all hands on deck working toward keeping from having another halt to the action. 

Fortunately, the numbers of serious coronavirus cases are coming down rapidly, a direct result of vaccination efforts nationwide. 

The positive test rate the past two weeks for the coronavirus is 5% locally, down drastically from the high of about 24% in January.

Still, everyone is remaining proactive about making sure high school athletes follow all the protocols.

Spring sports athletes have been through too much to have it all happen again with a lockdown.

“I’m not under any crazy assumption that we’re about to be able to rip the band-aid off,” Gainesville High athletics director Adam Lindsey said.

This week, Times sports editor is looking at the past year since high school sports ended on March 13,2000 due to the coronavirus.