Local high school football teams are continuing to prepare for a football season during uncertain times following last week’s announcement from the Georgia High School Association that all scrimmages have been cancelled.
The season is still scheduled to start Sept. 4 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Games were originally slated to begin Aug. 21.
The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) made the call on Aug. 6 to eliminate football scrimmages, while also moving the competitive cheerleading season to the winter and one-act play to the spring.
The GHSA’s cancellation of scrimmages comes amid debate of the fate of football at the collegiate level this fall. At least one Division-I FBS conference has called off its season, as of Monday (Aug. 10).
Jefferson football coach Gene Cathcart expressed concerns about what it could all mean for the high school regular season in Georgia.
“Sure, as colleges are shutting down and other states are too, we are very concerned about the opportunity for our guys to have a chance to play,” he said. “Balancing player safety with memories, life experiences and recruitment opportunities they will never be able to get back is a stressful and burdensome responsibility. But ultimately taking care of the young men entrusted to our care is priority one.”
Cathcart noted that after having the season delayed two weeks (from Aug. 21 to Sept. 4) and scrimmages now eliminated, the only other option left beyond that would be a region-only schedule.
“But, hopefully, we will play a 10-game regular season and more importantly everyone — players, students, fans and all citizens — will be safe,” he said.
Meanwhile, Commerce coach Michael Brown, when contacted on Friday (Aug. 7), said he spoke to his players about adapting to whatever changes might come their way.
“We talked with the kids (Friday) about the new normal and how we should respond to the changes that COVID has made in our routines,” he said. “One of the things we emphasized is being flexible, positive and responding in the right way to unexpected changes. I am optimistic that we will see a 10-game season in 2020.”
When asked about a 10-game season, East Jackson coach Cameron Pettus said on Friday that, “I am always hopeful. Football means so much to the great state.”
If the season does proceed as planned, teams will prepare for it without the benefit of dress rehearsals. Brown said he was not surprised when he heard the GHSA had cancelled scrimmages.
“I hate to lose the opportunity, but at the same time, I want to do what we need to do to ensure that the kids get a chance at a 10-game season,” he said.
Pettus said he was “disappointed” with the news, “but we will roll with the punches,” he added. His Eagles were slated to scrimmage on the road at Apalachee (Aug. 21) and Oglethorpe County (Aug. 28).
“Crazy times right now, but you have to be able to adapt,” Pettus said.
Jackson County coach Rich McWhorter said the announcement came at a time when his team was showing strides. His Panthers were set to scrimmage both Winder-Barrow (Aug. 21) and Cherokee Bluff (Aug. 28) at home.
“It’s really tough,” McWhorter said when contacted Friday. “I feel like we’ve been building up to the point where we could line up against somebody else and see what works and what doesn’t work and what we need to work on and if some position changes are working on some of our guys.
“For me, I hate it because I really enjoy the scrimmages because you get to play all your kids, you get to try things that you may not try during the regular season and at the end of the day, you just enjoy watching your kids play the game.”
Cathcart said scrimmages would have provided a valuable trial run, beyond just player evaluation, at Jefferson. The Dragons were set to face Forsyth Central (Aug. 21) and Buford (Aug. 27), both at home.
“We were not surprised (with the cancellation) — maybe a little disappointed for our players and also losing the opportunity for a dress rehearsal of what regular season games will look like in terms of social distancing, attendance and parking, concession procedures and all the details so important and different from any other year,” he said. “Now, if we are able to play, everyone's first attempt, not only at competing, but also regarding all the game management issues that each school and school system faces, will be for the first time now when we all kick-off for real, and that is concerning.”
As for preparing for a football season without the benefit of a scrimmage, Brown said his Commerce team will focus on daily improvement and “avoid settling into a survival mindset.”
“Our staff will work to be very specific each day with the kids on areas that we are in need of improving, and work to keep the kids fresh and focused,” said Brown, whose team was supposed to scrimmage at Apalachee on Aug. 28.
Cathcart said his staff will reconsider how they plan out what’s now an unprecedented preseason.
“By moving the season back two weeks and now eliminating scrimmages, we will have practiced for such a long time before we get the chance to compete against another school and team that we has coaches have to rethink the routines we have used in the past,” he said.
He added that he doesn’t want to “grind our guys or leave their energy and morale on the practice field.”
“We feel like our Dragon football players are special, unique, fully invested and as married up as anyone anywhere, but that is an extremely long time to practice against each other,” Cathcart said.
If nothing else changes, local schools will have three weeks to a month – depending on when a team’s opening date – left to get ready for the season.
Cathcart, whose team is set to open Sept. 11 at home against Central Gwinnett, said that the future of the football season is a hard discussion to have right now.
“We certainly know the GHSA, Jefferson High School and Jefferson City Schools all have a heart for kids and place taking care of them above all else,” he said. “The climate is so politicized at times it is difficult to have any discourse about the situation, but our players know we love them and that while football is so important to us, the game is nowhere near as important and the special folks who play it.
“But we have been so proud of our young men and how they have handled things and as we like to say ‘controlled the controllables.’”