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School Sports Rise to the Challenge of COVID-19



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

GAC Announces New Head Volleyball Coach



Crystal Lee

The Greater Atlanta Christian School (GAC) Athletic Department has announced that Crystal Lee will take the helm as the new Head Volleyball Coach at GAC.

“I am excited to announce that we have selected Crystal Lee as our new Head Volleyball Coach,” said GAC Athletic Director Tim Hardy. “Crystal Lee embodies the characteristics we want in a head coach at GAC. First, she has a strong Christian faith that guides her daily life.

“Second, she has a natural ability to connect with student-athletes and foster trust through relationships. Third, she loves Volleyball and has a passion for using the game to develop her athletes as people, as well as players. Finally, she has a clear vision for the future of Spartan Volleyball.”

Crystal Lee
Crystal Lee

Coach Lee was a GAC Varsity Assistant Coach during the 2022 season and played an instrumental role for the Spartans’ state championship team. She previously coached at Johns Creek High School from 2019-2021, and she coached club Volleyball at 575 Volleyball and A5 South as well. Coach Lee also played collegiate Volleyball at Georgia State University from 2015-2018.

“I am honored and privileged to serve as the head coach of this program, and I look forward to inspiring and developing these young women not only as exceptional athletes but also as outstanding members of the community. It is my prayer that these young women will be guided into successful lives after GAC, regardless of whether or not they pursue athletics,” Coach Lee said.

“As an assistant last year, I witnessed the program’s success, but I was most inspired by the guiding principles that embody GAC’s mission. The rich tradition of academic, spiritual, and athletic excellence of GAC is a place that I am honored to be a part of, and I’m humbled to take on this role,” she added.

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School Sports

Wesleyan’s Druw Jones ’22 Drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks



Druw Jones

Wesleyan School graduate Druw Jones ’22 was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks as the second overall selection in last night’s Major League Baseball draft.

A Wesleyan evergreen who attended Wesleyan from kindergarten through twelfth grade, Jones completed his high school baseball career alongside his teammates and coaches when the team won the state championship in May of this year. This summer, Jones was named the Gatorade Georgia Baseball Player of the Year, and he is a two-time Gwinnett Daily Post high school baseball player of the year. Jones currently holds Wesleyan School records for career and single season batting average, as well as most hits.“Coaching Druw in high school has been a delight,” said Brian Krehmeyer, Wesleyan’s varsity baseball coach. “Not only is he an incredibly gifted player, but he is also a great teammate. I could not be more thrilled for Druw and his family.”

In his senior season, Jones finished the season with a .570 batting average, 13 homeruns, 72 runs, and 32 stolen bases.

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School Sports

A Look Back on the Year in Athletics at Norcross High



Instagram posts from @ norcross.soccer
Lea Smith and Cameron Chapman from Instagram posts @norcross.soccer

The Norcross High boys’ and girls’ basketball teams capped off another memorable year for Blue Devils athletics by winning state championships in March. The two programs have 10 state titles between them, all coming within the last 20 years, and this season was the third time both teams have won the title in the same season.

Boys’ coach Jesse McMillan and girls’ coach Ashley Clanton both said their teams came into the season with talent but not much experience. Both coaches watched their teams grow up quickly as they faced early tests in the first half of the season before hitting their peak in early February.

The boys’ team won 11 of their last 12 games to close out the season, finishing with a 26-6 overall record and a 10-2 mark in Region 7-7A. The Blue Devils won the title game 58-45 against division rival Berkmar, a team that had beaten Norcross three times during the regular season.

The Blue Devils were led by junior guard London Johnson, who is ranked by 247 Sports as the 27th best prospect for the 2023 recruiting class and is the third-ranked player in the state. According to 247, Johnson has offers from 18 Division I schools, including Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina, Southern California, Arizona State, Cincinnati, Auburn and Georgetown.

He averaged 18.7 points per game along with 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals. On the inside, Jerry Deng helped lead the Blue Devils with 14.7 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game. Deng is a three-star recruiting prospect, according to 247, and has offers from Georgia State, Mercer, Georgia, East Carolina and Akron.

With a menacing defense, the girls’ team finished unblemished in region play at 13-0 in Region 7-7A and 26-5 overall as they went on to defeat Harrison High of Kennesaw, Ga., 41-37 in the championship game. The Lady Blue Devils held their opponents to under 30 points nine times and gave up an average of 39.3 points per game throughout the season.

Senior forward Zaria Hurston propelled the Lady Blue Devils, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds per game. She was named the 2022 Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year by the Gwinnett Daily Post.

More sports success at NHS

The Norcross football team finished 8-4 in 2021 after going 13-1 and making the state semifinals in 2020. The Blue Devils made noise with a near upset of Lowndes, losing 35-34 in a thriller in the second round of the state playoffs. Standout junior receiver Nakai Poole averaged 58.6 receiving yards per game and hauled in 11 touchdown catches on the season. He has not earned a star ranking yet, according to 247 sports, but has early offers from 23 Division I programs, including LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and Virginia.

The girls’ volleyball team won its fourth consecutive region title in Georgia’s highest classification, earning a perfect 6-0 mark in Region 7-7A. The Lady Blue Devils came on strong in the second half of the season after an 8-15 start that included a six-game losing streak. But starting with a 2-1 win over Chamblee High on Sept. 9, the Lady Blue Devils reeled off 11 straight victories and defeated Dunwoody 3-0 in the region title game before falling to Roswell High in the first round of the state tournament.

The girls’ soccer team also had a successful season, tallying a 13-5-1 record and finishing second in Region 7-7A at 9-3. The Lady Blue Devils won seven of their last nine games and earned a first-round playoff win over Milton before losing 3-2 to North Paulding in the second round. Cameron Chapman led the way with 23 goals and eight assists on the season, while goalkeeper Leah Smith made 81 saves.

The girls’ and boys’ tennis teams both made the state tournament, with the girls falling in the first round, while the boys made a run to the state quarterfinals before losing to North Gwinnett.

Featured in our June/July issue of Peachtree Corners Magazine

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