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School Sports Rise to the Challenge of COVID-19

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Number 13 Autumn Clark of Greater Atlanta Christian School Volleyball plays with fire despite the distractions surrounding playing safe during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of the GAC Volleyball parent page.

Greater Atlanta Christian, Wesleyan School and Norcross High School athletes and coaches discuss the changes in school athletics.

Spring was a confusing and chaotic time for J.D. Chipman and his varsity lacrosse team at
Wesleyan School — but some creative improvisation helped.

They had played five games when spring break hit and Coronavirus exploded, scuttling both the rest of the school year and their schedule.

“We had an old raggedy goal in my neighborhood,” said the senior, who is playing middle linebacker and running back on the football squad this fall. “We used zip ties and duct tape to fix it up. We took it over to the tennis courts after tennis was done for the night and we would do shooting drills for hours at a time.”

This fall, things are a lot more organized for athletes at three schools serving Peachtree Corners — Greater Atlanta Christian, Wesleyan School and Norcross High School.

Having had a summer to prepare, the Georgia High School Association, local school systems, athletic directors and coaches now have firm safety guidelines in hand. The earlier feeling of ‘what do we do now?’ has given way to a sense of determination.

Chipman said of the football season, “We haven’t had to cancel any games and we haven’t had any outbreaks. We’re all together and positive and encouraged and the mood is pretty high at our school.”

And it doesn’t hurt that the football squad had been on a winning streak at press time.

Changes for athletes and coaches

Schools worldwide have had to walk a fine line, both on the field and off. Here’s how Tim Hardy, athletic director and head football coach at Greater Atlanta Christian School sees it: “From the start of the pandemic, our leadership has done a great job of balancing the health and in face shields. Social distancing both there and in the stands, with some spectators masked. An ocean of hand sanitizer. Team meetings and changing in locker rooms done in shifts and at warp speed. Spreading out at practices and during game timeouts. Limitations on attendance depending on anticipated crowds and venue. Temperature checks upon arrival. Athletes sitting out up to two weeks after contact with a positive COVID tester. Thorough cleaning of athletic facilities and gear.

The picture of that universe of restrictions began to assume clarity this summer.

Autumn Clark, a junior and a varsity volleyball player at Greater Atlanta Christian, said the changes hit home for her squad with before-season practice in July. As the new world took shape, “We had occasional workouts with masks, hand sanitizer and temperature checks. (And the coaches would ask) questions like ‘have you been outside of the state’ or have you been among large groups of people?’”

Fast-forward to the fall, and while actual game play hasn’t been affected, things like the smack of a high five and hugs have gone by the wayside. They’re spreading out more during time-outs, Clark said.

She added that daily temperature-taking by her parents and screenings before school and practice have actually spun things in a positive direction for her and her squad mates.

“I see it in the weight room, I see it on the court during practices and I definitely see it in games…a stronger sense of grit and mental toughness due to COVID,” Clark said. “This season has helped me grow as a leader.”

Changes for spectators

Adding to the level of complexity for athletes and spectators: guidelines have changed as more has been learned about the virus and the level of compliance has come into better focus.

“We’re asking people to be patient with us,” said Kirk Barton, athletic director at Norcross High School. “We are flying the plane as we build it.”

For example, said Wesleyan School Athletic Director Lacy Gilbert, they started out allowing 50 seniors to come to football games, then expanded to 65 as they looked at such factors as spacing. They also started allowing more players’ siblings to attend along with parents.

In a further effort to avoid bunching up, they established a home, senior and a visitor gate instead of a one-size-fits-all entrance. As they strive for a balance, she said, “We know everyone is eager to come and support their friends when they can, but they understand this is a different year.”

Greater Atlanta Christian laid out similar guidelines for fall sports. Attendance is limited generally to 20% to 30% capacity and the restrictions are venue-dependent. With a 3,000-seat indoor arena, said Hardy, attendance has not been restricted for volleyball, for example, because the crowds aren’t big enough to be a worry.

He says having families purchase season passes has limited attendance. “You can’t just show up and attend a game at the last minute. It’s a shame but that’s where we are in 2020,” he said.

And echoing Gilbert, he said that keeping an open mind, possessing humility and having a willingness to learn and change has helped as they’ve drawn on the experience of higher authorities and other schools. “If there’s a best practice we didn’t know about yesterday, we’ll put it in and move forward.”

One of those practices involves streaming games on the internet for those barred from the Friday night lights. Wesleyan has expanded its streaming presence beyond varsity games and has added a camera for softball.

Working through it

Coaches say that although sometimes student athletes have to be reminded to mask up or keep their distance, the level of compliance has been high. The bottom line: the players, particularly seniors on their last hurrah, don’t want to see games cancelled or a season cut short. Players trying to showcase their talents for potential scholarship consideration are very much on the same page.

Intangibles and ancillary events have seen some changes as well. Apparently not wanting to take a chance on holding such an event later in the fall, senior softball player Riley Keller at Wesleyan School related how the athletic department held its senior night early in the season. Athletes walked out onto the football field to be honored along with their parents, hear laudatory speeches and have their pictures snapped.

Wesleyan Softball kicks up the dust in spite of the distractions. Photos provided by Riley Keller.

Flipping to the other side of the coin, she said, smaller crowds and less in-person support from loved ones has been disappointing but understandable.

“That’s a big part of the season because fans support you in your game. We’ve only been allowed to have our parents and grandparents and no friends…that’s been a missing piece,” she said.

Working on bonding as a team in the midst of a keep-your-distance pandemic has also posed a challenge. Deymon Fleming Jr., a senior and the quarterback of the varsity football team at Greater Atlanta, framed it thusly:

“You go to school and then you practice two to three hours a day, five days a week after school, and they become like your brothers. We’ve been told to treat team members like brothers and do other things outside the game with them. We still do stuff like that, but you have to take into account how do we do things that are safe.”

Deyman Fleming Jr. plays football for Greater Atlanta Christian school, looking like a star in his red Spartans uniform.

For example, the usual senior weekend retreat at a lake house was replaced by a one-day get-together at an aquatic center.

And Chipman at Wesleyan noted that the boisterous horseplay in the locker room has given way to hustling to change in 12 minutes flat.

Still going strong

None of that has greatly impacted participation. Among the schools, only a very small number of students and/or their parents decided not to go out for athletics this fall. And cases where students have had to sit out because of contact with a suspected case of COVID have been rare to non-existent, say officials.

“We have not had an athlete test positive for COVID since summer,” said Barton at Norcross High in late September. And at press time, his was the only school of the trio forced to cancel a football game; that was due to COVID concerns involving scheduled opponent Mill Creek.

Barton also outlined a financial consideration in his operation: football income derived from gate receipts and booster clubs has suffered due to the pandemic and its resultant impacts on attendance and businesses participation. He said in a good year, Norcross High football has brought $125,000 by itself and has served as the financial cash cow carrying other sports.

Norcross Blue Devils football has a full schedule this year.

But in 2020, frugality is the watchword. “This is not the year to go out and spend money on new uniforms,” he asserted.

Still to be finalized at press time were guidelines for winter and spring sports such as basketball, wrestling and baseball. But athletic directors, coaches and players all seem at the ready.

“Anything that throws challenges at you makes you stronger,” said Fleming.

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School Sports

Wesleyan Wolves Region Championship 24-0 win over Mt. Vernon [Photos]

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Wesleyan Wolves became the region champions last Friday night with a 24-0 win over Mt. Vernon.

The first round of football state playoffs will take place this Friday after Thanksgiving at home for Wesleyan as the #1 seed in the region.

Thanks to Brian Morgan (Brianography) for photos of the game.

Wesleyan boys and girls state Cross Country team and Coach Chad McDaniel (coach of the year) that were celebrated at halftime.

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Education

Greater Atlanta Christian School Celebrates Homecoming 2020

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Greater Atlanta Christian School celebrated Homecoming on October 16 with an inaugural Homecoming Parade, football game, and half-time festivities.  “Homecoming is an important part of school life and most traditions need re-tooling in 2020. The parade brought our full K-12 student body enthusiastically together while being safely separated outside,” said GAC President Dr. Scott Harsh.

Homecoming court 2020: Bottom Row/L-R: Kirsten Shinn (Atlanta), Belle Shirley (Duluth), Nicole Griffin (Duluth), Keilah Murphy (Dunwoody), Danielle Jones (Duluth)
Top Row/L-R: Andre Moxie (Grayson), Nathaniel (Tre) Henry (Snellville), Hudson Higgins (Norcross), Parker Hallock (Norcross), Thomas Lowman (Tucker), Deymon Fleming (Stone Mountain)

The parade curved through GAC’s 88-acre campus amidst a cheering audience of students and faculty.  Parade participants included the homecoming court, class representatives, band, flag line, football team, softball team, volleyball team, cross county team, cheerleaders, spartanettes dance team, and a homecoming float of the school’s mascot.

The evening’s football game increased the Spartan’s season to 5-0 after a conference win against the Douglass Astros. The outstanding half-time band performance and homecoming court introductions culminated in crowning the GAC Homecoming King and Queen, Mr. Parker Hallock, and Ms. Danielle Jones. Danielle is the daughter of Andre and Carol Jones of Duluth. Parker is the son of Mark and Sarah Hallock of Norcross. Alumni events were scheduled virtually, with hopes for an in-person reunion in 2021.

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Business

Sports Turf Installs Three High-Performance Fields at Wesleyan School

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Sports Turf Company, a sports facility construction and specialty surfacing company, is excited to announce that it has completed the construction of three new fields on the Wesleyan School campus in Peachtree Corners, Ga. After the full renovation of Wesleyan’s stadium field in 2019, Sports Turf was back on campus this year to construct a brand-new softball field, lacrosse stadium field and synthetic practice field. 

The multi-field project through general contractor Hodges and Hicks involved first constructing a high-level natural grass softball field. Sports Turf installed a complete under-drain system in the outfield, an eight-inch USGA sand rootzone over lateral drain lines, and irrigation. The drought-resistant turfgrass, TifTuf Bermuda was installed to withstand high traffic and hold color late into the fall during softball season. 

Along with the softball field, a high-performing natural grass lacrosse field was built to mirror the stadium field installed last year by Sports Turf. The field features an eight-inch USGA sand rootzone over a gravel blanket with lateral drain lines on 20-foot centers. TifTuf Bermuda was installed over the high-performing drainage layer, along with irrigation. 

As a multipurpose practice field, the surface needed to stand up to high traffic year-round. AstroTurf’s Rhino synthetic turf system was installed for maximum performance and durability on Wesleyan’s practice field. The synthetic surface will allow the school’s athletes to practice in unfavorable weather conditions without detriment to the surface. The field will primarily serve as a practice field for the lacrosse and football teams. 

“The Wesleyan School has demonstrated a great commitment to providing the best facilities to benefit their students and athletes,” said Sports Turf Company President Todd Wiggins. “We are excited to continue our relationship and to play our part in building high-level athletic facilities on campus.”

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