A local team is already experiencing the uncertainty of a high school football season in a pandemic.
Due to a COVID-19 exposure issue, East Jackson has canceled Friday’s (Sept. 4) season opener at West Hall. East Jackson athletic director Shawn Lindsey confirmed the cancellation Monday evening. Jackson County, which was off this week, will now travel to Oakwood to play West Hall in place of the Eagles. Jackson County’s athletic department announced the game via social media.
The East Jackson football team must also cancel its Sept. 11 meeting with Jackson County, which was to serve as the Eagles’ senior night.
Lindsey said a group of East Jackson players had to quarantine after coming into close contact with a positive case. The quarantine will end Sept. 11. Players must then complete a five-day re-acclimation phase after quarantine. As it stands now, East Jackson’s first game will be Sept. 18 at Banks County.
Lindsey said having to cancel so close to the season opener, “was an emotional blow for everyone.”
“Just the rug being snatched out from under you, the teenagers and the coaches, they’re just struggling with that, I know,” said Lindsey, who has a son on the team.
East Jackson football coach Cameron Pettus said he informed the players of the news after school on Monday.
“(Monday) was a hard day, I’m not going to lie,” Pettus said. “It was tough because we were all prepped and ready to go. It’s been so long (since we’ve played), and everything has been pushed back, but to have it come crashing down like that is obviously a tough situation.”
Pettus added, "My college head coach, Carl Poelker, would always tell us that 'tough times don't last but tough people do,' so we're really embracing that today and as we move forward."
East Jackson’s remaining players will continue to practice while the others are quarantined.
“We’ve got to be smart, once again, and like I told our guys, we’re going to be really fundamentally sound with our guys that are out there on the field,” Pettus said.
The football team being sidelined comes after East Jackson’s softball team missed two weeks in August due to COVID-19 exposure.
Meanwhile, Jackson County begins its season a week earlier than scheduled against an opponent it had no intention of playing. But none of that deterred Panther coach Rich McWhorter from moving forward with the game.
“To be honest with you, we were excited about it,” he said. “I know we’ve been doing our own intrasquad scrimmages but it’s still not that same as us playing … It seems like it’s been a long month of July and August.”
Jackson County must now face an opponent of which it has very little knowledge, but McWhorter said he feels his team is “ready to play.”
“When I say we’re ready to play, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to play well, it just means that we’re ready to see somebody else,” McWhorter said.
McWhorter coached three decades in southeast Georgia at Charlton County where hurricanes, fires and other scenarios often moved games on the schedule. So, he said he’s learned to be flexible over the years.
“(Monday) when our athletic director and principal walked out to the practice field and told me that East is going to have cancel and there’s a possibility that we could play West, I said 'let’s do it,'” McWhorter said.
The alternative would have been to not play until Sept. 18, since the Sept. 11 game with East Jackson is now gone.
“I just don’t know what we would do,” McWhorter said. “That would be rough. That would really be tough on us.”
McWhorter expects the news that his team will play Friday will bring added energy to this week’s practices.
The longtime coach also said the cliché of “one week at a time” is ringing true this year.
“People say one week at a time … I think it really is — to where you don’t even know if you’re going to play,” McWhorter said.
At East Jackson, Pettus said the hope is to replace the lost games by filling the Eagles' open dates with other schools around the state that have also lost games.
“Our goal is to kind of get 10 games back on our regular-season schedule,” Pettus said.
Lindsey said the program would rally from this.
“We will bounce back from it, figure out what our next steps are and move on,” he said.