Skylar Gordon

Apalachee's Skylar Gordon and the other senior athletes across Barrow County are dealing with their senior seasons being cut abruptly short by the coronavirus pandemic. 

For Skylar Gordon, Sarah Currey and their 11 other senior teammates on the Apalachee girls’ soccer team, this was supposed to be a special season.

The Lady Wildcats were on track to make their school-record fourth consecutive postseason and were hoping to go deeper into spring after earning the first playoff win in program history a year ago. They improved to 6-4-1 overall with a 4-0 shutout of rival Winder-Barrow on March 13, and coach Paul Thornton said he felt like the team was really beginning to hit its stride.

And then everything came to a screeching halt.

The Lady Wildcats knew they were being shut down for two weeks due to concerns with the recommendation of Gov. Brian Kemp over the coronavirus pandemic. But then, as the crisis worsened, the Barrow County School System extended the closure to April 13. And then the governor ordered the state’s public schools closed through April 24.

And then on April 1, he closed them through the remainder of the academic year.

With the writing plastered all over the wall, the Georgia High School Association announced the next day the cancellation of the remainder of the spring sports season and the indefinite suspension of all activities. There would be no reduced regular season and no abbreviated postseason over the summer. No champions would be crowned.

It was all over, and thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds across the state and their coaches were left to make sense of an unprecedented occurrence since the GHSA’s founding.

“I especially want to commend the graduating seniors who have not only missed most of the spring season, but prom, senior nights, awards ceremonies, possibly graduation, and spent the last few weeks away from their friends and classmates,” GHSA executive director Robin Hines said in a statement. “Our seniors have a great deal to be proud of and while this is not the way any of us wanted it to end, I want to thank them for a job well done.”

‘We feel robbed’

Hines’ words seemed to be of little solace to local athletes who won’t get the same kind of closure — a natural end to the season — that all the seniors classes before them were afforded.

“I feel like we were cheated,” said Gordon, a strong defender for Apalachee who has signed to play with Georgia Military College along with fellow senior teammates Caitlyn Evans and Andrella Delacruz. “Most of us have been playing together since we were 8 years old. …Some of these girls will never play soccer ever again. We didn’t know March 13 would be the last time we’d ever play together as a team. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my team and high school so fast.

“My heart is broken. This program has taught me so much and shaped me into the person I am today. I’m going to miss it so much.”

Currey, the versatile team captain who has primarily played in goal the last two seasons for Apalachee but has signed with Truett McConnell to play forward, said she was “crushed” by the abrupt ending to the year.

“We’ve been told since eighth grade that this was going to be our season,” Currey said. “We feel robbed not having the chance of knowing how far we could have gone. …COVID-19 can take away the rest of my senior year but it won’t be able to take away the family I have in the other seniors going through the same thing. And quite frankly, they’re the only ones keeping me sane.”

For Thornton, who was in his second year at the helm, it was just as unexpected of an ending, not only to the 2020 season but his time at Apalachee as well. After 14 years with the school and helping with the girls’ and boys’ teams, Thornton has been tapped to start the girls’ program at the new Barrow Arts and Sciences Academy, which is scheduled to open in August.

“More than anything, I’m disappointed at being unable to properly honor the class of 2020,” Thornton said, calling the seniors the “most storied senior class in our program’s history.”

“Despite the bizarre ending, I’m thankful for my (time with the school) and thankful for the support and positive leadership from (athletic director Ralph Neeley and principal Jennifer Martin), who make the students the priority,” Thornton said. “On a personal note, it’s not likely that I’ll have another group of players and families like this in my coaching career. I began teaching several of these players since they were in kindergarten and I’ve coached the vast majority of them off and on since they were in fifth grade or so.

“This chapter of my coaching career is coming to an end, but the friendships I’ve made with these families will, and have already, extend far beyond the soccer field. Like I always tell my players, some things are bigger than the game.”

‘This is so much bigger’

The Apalachee girls’ soccer seniors are certainly not the only ones in the county who had their last shot at a postseason run torpedoed.

Several track and field athletes at Apalachee and Winder-Barrow were entering the final stretch of outings before the Region 8-AAAAAA meet. And many seniors were looking toward having strong performances at the state meet in Carrollton in May, including Winder-Barrow’s Brianna Bailey, who was expected to contend for a second straight state title in the pole vault.

There was also the Winder-Barrow girls’ tennis team, which had already been hassled by rainy weather in February and early March but was packed with experienced seniors, giving coach Heather Lundy confidence that the Lady Bulldoggs were positioned to make a run at a region championship and go deeper in the playoffs than their Sweet 16 appearance last spring.

And there was also the Apalachee baseball team, which made the playoffs for the first time in program history last season and was off to a 9-3 start — thanks in large part to the efforts of a 10-man senior class. The signs were pointing toward another historic season for the Wildcats and fourth-year head coach Allan Bailey, who has steadily built the program up from four wins and last place in the region standings in year one to a respected playoff contender.

“I try to use baseball to teach our kids how to be successful in life. I feel as though our coaching staff has done that over these last four years,” Bailey tweeted. “Even though our time was cut short this season, I know these 10 seniors will be successful in this life. I am so proud of each of (them).”

Bailey had all 10 of his seniors tweet their future plans, favorite memories with the team and their advice to the underclassmen. The response was nearly universal: Don’t take anything for granted.

“This team will always hold a special place in me,” Wildcat senior Chris Miller tweeted. “Thank you, coach, for teaching me how to be a better man and player. Thank you, teammates, for the memories that we’ll always be able to look back on.”

Across town, Winder-Barrow’s baseball team had to grapple with another strong season being cut short. The Bulldoggs had navigated a strong non-region schedule to an 11-4 start and were set to make a run at a fourth consecutive region title. And — led by six seniors, junior phenom Brady House, some key transfers and a handful of other talented underclassmen — they were looking to make another run deep into the postseason and get over the hump of winning the program’s first state title since 1979.

“I’m very sad to lose the baseball season, but as much as I love baseball, this is so much bigger than all of that,” long-time Bulldoggs coach Brian Smith said. “I’ve communicated with our guys. They’re very mature. And I think they all realize how important it is to follow the guidelines and do things the right away.

“The same way we talk to them about how we have to overcome adversity in baseball, we all need to be a team and overcome this.”

Lingering uncertainty

Beyond the spring sports season, there is a lingering uncertainty of when things will get back to “normal” for the GHSA. That for now will rely on when the state and the country and get the virus under control.

Hines said last week he was concerned about the status of summer and even fall activities and said the GHSA does not have enough information at the moment to make decisions about when activities will be allowed to resume.

Spring football practice has also been canceled, and coaches across the state use that 10-day period as a building block for the coming season and a jumping point into summer workouts. Other fall sports and even winter sports also use the summer to fine-tune and give coaches an idea of what areas they need work in for the coming seasons.

At some point, the games will resume. But for the class of 2020, they’ve worn their school’s uniform for the final time. And they’ll be tasked with trying to make the best of it.

“As coaches, we are unable to truly share our players’ sadness in having their senior season and activities cut short,” Thornton said. “But we have to do our best to empathize with them, allow them to process it and encourage them through this time. Our next task will be to help them to see how their involvement in this event can help to positively impact the rest of their lives.

“I’ve thought for years that this generation was special, and now I know why. The class of 2020 has a unique opportunity to mature quickly, help others and change the world for the better. I believe that they will.”

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