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SERIES: Return to playing sports gave high school athletes sense of normalcy that was missing after COVID-19 lockdown
Cherokee Bluff
Cherokee Bluff's Eric Gohman drags a North Hall defender into the end zone for a touchdown on Nov. 13, 2020 in Flowery Branch. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hunter Waldrop and Harrison Carter both describe the first Friday during the 2020 football season as memories they won’t forget. 

Both seniors, they never knew whether the season would come to fruition as we tried, as a nation, to mitigate the risks of the coronavirus pandemic. 

They trained all summer, hoping for at least one more chance to take the field together for Cherokee Bluff. 

Then, when the day came to take the field, it was a feeling of euphoria. 

“That feeling, coming down the hill to take the field against Johnson, was just the best feeling in the world,” said Waldrop, a long snapper for the Bears. 

In fact, precautions were so stringent that Carter said the entire Cherokee Bluff football team wasn’t in the same room together until the season started. 

“Those experiences going through the summer together, and not knowing if we were going to have a season, really helped us all bond,” said Carter, who played on both sides of the ball for the Region 7-3A champions.

Those sports memories made by high school athletes have taken place all over Hall County during the 2020-21 school year. The Hall County and Gainesville City school districts committed last summer to going forward to playing sports during the current school year. 

There were considerable challenges along the way, primarily the spike after Christmas break when hospitalizations for COVID-19 peaked through Northeast Georgia Medical Center with 355 patients on Jan. 8. However, extensive preventative measures put in place by local school districts have made it possible to keep high school students involved in sports, without further complicating an already difficult public health crisis. 

Athletic contests have been conducted in a tightly controlled environment. 

Athletes have been thoroughly monitored all year for the coronavirus and immediately pulled from competition for a positive test, as well as those coming in close contact of anyone else who had COVID-19. 

The same precautions to guard against spreading coronavirus were extended to fans, including required temperature checks and limited fan attendance guidelines that will last throughout the spring.

With COVID-19 cases the lowest they’ve been since April 2020 and mass vaccination efforts taking place, all signs point to it being a successful completion in sight for high school sports this spring. On March 15, hospitalizations at Northeast Georgia Medical Center due to coronavirus were down to 44 — about 85 percent less than the peak. 

That makes all the sleepless nights and endless evaluation of coronavirus cases at all the Hall schools worth it for Hall County Schools athletics and communications director Stan Lewis, who is now in his 26th year working in education. 

So far, there have been less than 20 sports contests postponed with Hall County schools taking part in them, due to the coronavirus, Lewis said. 

“We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to do as a school district, being able to have sports take place in a safe environment,” Lewis said. “We’ve certainly faced obstacles, challenges and roadblocks here and there.”

Every day has been meeting with athletic directors and coaches to go through data and address any concerns. 

Lewis said there has been an open line of communication. 

Nobody cut corners to keep athletes in the game, at the risk of possibly spreading the virus to more vulnerable groups. 

“We’ve provided kids the opportunity to be involved in sports at a time that is so vital to them,” Lewis said. 

One of the most challenging situations was conducting the Lanierland basketball tournament in December. At the time, people were concerned about the rise in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving, and the possibility of another spike after Christmas. 

Everyone wanted to crown Hall County champions for basketball but had to make sure it could be done in a safe environment. 

On Dec. 13, the decision was made to move the entire tournament to Gainesville High and have no fans in attendance. That was modified to allow for two fans for every senior playing two weeks later when the tournament kicked off on Dec. 28. 

Gainesville High athletics director Adam Lindsey said the decision to keep fans out of the bleachers was made among the athletic directors and administrators in the county to provide maximum space for social distancing. 

Even between games, Lindsey was hard at work himself spraying down chairs with disinfectant for players on the sideline. 

When it was all done, Lanierland proved to be a resounding success. 

Lanierland, the oldest high school basketball tournament in the state, didn’t skip a beat, even though it looked a lot different than in previous seasons, where it would normally be a packed house with fans squeezed in together for championship games. 

“It was extremely important for us to find a way to have Lanierland,” said Lindsey. “We were happy to have it at Gainesville.”

As vaccinations became available in the winter, Hall County schools began to add tickets for each player at basketball games for the postseason. During the regular season, each player was allowed two tickets for family, but that number went up to six during the playoffs. 

On March 3, Flowery Branch’s girls played Troup in the Class 4A girls state quarterfinals, and the gym was at about 40 percent capacity with fans. 

Flowery Branch athletics director Jimmy Lawler said it was the biggest crowd for a basketball game at its school all season, which was a good experience for their players. 

“It was great to be able to see all those fans in the stands and being vocal for the players,” Lawler said. 

With spring sports now in full swing and coronavirus cases greatly reduced, high school athletes are playing outdoors with a heightened sense of confidence that their sports seasons will take place without interruption. 

However, nobody is ready to go about business as usual, without final approval of statewide medical professionals and the school systems, that we are close to the finish line with living life in COVID-19 times. 

“I’m not convinced that we’re about to go back to normal and rip the Band-aid off,” Lindsey said.