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SERIES: Summer conditioning in high school sports gave athletes sense of normalcy after months of enduring coronavirus lockdowns
Cherokee Bluff
Football players do weight lifting on the football field at Cherokee Bluff High on June 8, 2020. It was the first day of offseason conditioning allowed since the coronavirus lockdown on March 13, 2020. Photo courtesy Tommy Jones

Good news was in short supply for high school athletes during the first few months of the coronavirus lockdown. 

Kids were cooped up indoors and forced to deal with myriad issues related to isolation and anxiety, dating back to schools closing for in-person learning and sports being stripped away for the remainder of the spring seasons on March 13, 2020

Many were dreaming about just being able to see teammates and taking part in activities that everyone took for granted before our nation was forced to start dealing with a national public-health crisis. 

Three months into dealing with trying to curb cases of COVID-19, there was finally something to get excited about June 8 when the Georgia High Schools Association allowed for fall sports teams to begin conditioning workouts. The word spread quickly the week prior to the start of conditioning and was received with great enthusiasm. 

“I was ecstatic for our kids,” Flowery Branch football coach Ben Hall said.

Gainesville High football coach Heath Webb told his players through a call on Zoom that conditioning would commence. 

All of his players, Webb said, had the same look of relief about getting back in the weight room, onto the practice field and — at least for a couple hours each day — leaving the house. 

“I could see all their faces light up when I told them,” Webb said. “That was a good moment.” 

Cherokee Bluff senior Hunter Waldrop vividly recalls that virtual meeting with his fellow seniors and their coach Tommy Jones. 

It was normal for them to gather on Monday to talk with their coach, who kept close tabs on his players since the lockdown began. 

The second week of June last summer was a little different: they would be able to start gathering on campus for in-person workouts. 

“It meant the world to me to find out we would be back together, even though we had no idea yet if there was going to be a season,” said Waldrop, a long snapper for the Bears. “I feel like seeing each other was when we were able to bond the most.”

Once players at Cherokee Bluff showed up at conditioning, they were greeted with a tented outdoor weight room. 

Every football team had a slightly different arrangement, but everyone had to follow the same strict guidelines —limited attendance for each group, social distancing and mandatory face masks, per the GHSA and CDC guidelines.

The state’s governing body for athletics was getting information from medical professionals and also had to follow any mandates from Gov. Brian Kemp.  

Waldrop recalls that first day of conditioning being rainy and muggy. 

Normally, that would be a recipe for people being less than enthusiastic for an outdoor workout session. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, high school athletes didn’t dare say a negative word at the idea of dealing with the elements of Mother Nature, just as long as it meant that there was a glimmer of hope of having a football season. 

The same preventative measures went across the board with volleyball, softball and cross country.

At first, all the new precautions with wearing face masks and mandatory social distancing would be hard to understand for high school athletes. However, being able to go with the flow and new requirements were things everyone had to get used to doing in 2020. 

West Hall football coach Krofton Montgomery said maintaining social distancing when his guys were pumping iron was one of the toughest tasks. 

“Keeping kids separated in the weight room is like herding cattle,” Montgomery said. 

While athletes and coaches were getting a taste of conditioning — hoping day and night that there would be a season in the fall — county administrators were cementing a plan to make sure games could be played and have safeguards in place to keep everyone safe from risks related to the coronavirus. 

Hall County Schools athletics and communications director Stan Lewis and staff were putting plans in place so athletes could compete, even if there were not typical crowds in the bleachers for Friday night football. 

Lewis said communication with stakeholders was key in Hall County to make for a smooth transition from conditioning to practice and the regular season. 

In the Hall school district, Lewis said that fall sports athlete participation levels were at or above the same season from the previous school year. 

He said much of that was due to kids dealing with those isolation issues since school had already been shut down for months before there was a chance to play sports in the fall. 

“It became clear to most people that if sports could be done safely, our young people needed those interactions with their teammates and coaches,” Lewis said. 

Over the summer, the state’s governing body for athletics tracked the coronavirus data and announced the following month that the fall season would start on time, even though individual cases would pop up in Hall County when games would have to be canceled, while other programs in the state decided not to play in the fall. 

However, in Hall County it was going to be a normal season for the players. Two major safeguards put in place were mandatory temperature checks for fans at the gates, along with limited capacity for spectators. 

Many fans decided it would be unwise to attend sports events with crowds of other people, especially those who were older or had pre-existing health conditions. 

Lewis said there was a constant flow of communication to monitor any coronavirus cases or any spikes at individual schools. 

As the summer progressed, Waldrop and his teammates started to grow more optimistic about a 2020 football season.

However, they never got flagrant with not following the rules, knowing that one slip-up could cost them time on the field. 

“I’m very grateful they let us have a football season,” Waldrop said. “The GHSA and Hall County worked extremely hard to make sure we were able to play. Without them, no telling what would have happened.”

This week, Times sports editor Bill Murphy is writing a series of stories about the year since the coronavirus lockdown and how it impacted sports in Hall County.