Pinecrest Academy Football Players Wear Masks
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Pinecrest Academy players walk through the socially distanced spirit line.
Credit: Pinecrest Academy Facebook page

While more than 400 member schools in the GHSA are prepping for their 2020 football seasons, not everyone will be lining up against an opponent starting this weekend. Close to 60 schools have decided to push back their season or -- in the case of Baldwin High -- eliminate their non-region games to give themselves more room to prepare for however many games their programs have in the “new normal” we have all been talking about since March.

But there are a few schools that have opted to go the other way.

Our Lady of Mercy, Salem, Rockdale County, and Heritage-Conyers were added to the likes of Twiggs County, Riverside Military Academy, Pinecrest Academy, Calhoun County, and Stewart County on a list of those schools that decided to either not play a GHSA schedule or go in a different direction this year. 

Stewart County is in the southwest corner of the state, about 40 miles south of Columbus, and plays in Class A Public Region 5. About a month ago, the decision was made by the county that all fall sports --  not just football -- would be canceled in a school of around 200.

“We went back and forth a lot during the summer and there were a lot of uncertainties,” head coach and athletic director Calvin Thomas told me. “It was a hard decision and, like I have been preaching, we’re always looking out for the student’s best interest.  We have had some good feedback because we let the community in the decision-making process. We handed out surveys and they gave us feedback. It was a whole community decision.

“We all want to be out there and enjoy the game we all love. Each day we reach a place where we made the right decision for our kids and our community. It’s a part of our life, dealing with the good and the bad.”

Twiggs scoreboard
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The Twiggs County scoreboard will stay dark this fall.

Thomas has virtual meetings and workouts with his team. He’s working on a plan to see about in-person workouts. He’s also keeping up with his student-athlete’s grades and he’s in constant contact with coaches to develop their relationship and that bond we all know is there for a football team.

Twiggs County, just east of Macon, decided in July when they went to an all-virtual teaching model for this school year. Principal Jamal Harris said the Twiggs Board of Education ruled that if there was no in-person learning, there would be no extracurricular activities.

“I think it’s going to be disappointing for people in towns like Jeffersonville, Dry Branch and Danville,” says Marvin James, the sports anchor at Macon’s WMAZ-TV. “Cheering on the Cobras is something they look forward to every Friday night in the fall. They have a really big following, a really big fan base and an enthusiastic student body. I think it’s definitely going to be different for them over there. I think they may try to venture into Macon and catch some games on Friday nights this season.”

Marvin also told me about the yearly homecoming game at Twiggs County High, where the classes compete against each other in all the pageantry on display and the crowds are there to see what’s going on outside just as much as they are to see their Cobras inside. That’s something that will definitely be missed as well.

Riverside Military Academy, near Gainesville, was the first school to say that there wouldn’t be any football this fall. That decision was made back in May.

Then there’s Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, just north of Atlanta. They went in an entirely different direction. They had conversations with their region mates and with the GHSA about their situation and opted to play a 2020 season in a different place -- the Georgia Association of Private and Parochial Schools (GAPPS) as part of an 8-man league.

Pinecrest spirit
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Pinecrest Academy students safely cheer their sports teams.
Credit: Pinecrest Facebook page

With 165 students in the high school part of a K-12 school…

“When I accepted the job at the end of May, there were basically 12 returning players,” head coach and athletic director Shawn Coury told me. “Eleven have to be on the field, so I tried to figure out what to do. When I accepted the job, with that small group of kids, I wanted to meet with everybody. We had virtual meetings. I got pretty good feedback. We went through the process, and in the first couple of weeks of June, we added a few basketball players who hadn’t played football before. That gave us 16 kids.

“We had to make a decision. If we can’t have a team, I don’t want to wait to August to tell our opponents that we have to cancel. I didn’t want to put our region and non-region teams in that position. So, I contacted our non-region opponents, and we tried to set up different ways to play. We went through all these different scenarios to rebuild the program. We eventually decided it was the only way. We have a really good group of kids that wanted to play. It didn’t feel right just trying to survive a season.”

Pinecrest couldn’t even go 11-on-11 in practice. Coury then contacted GAPPS to see if it was possible to save their football season. He contacted his opponents and the GHSA, who asked them about playing a non-region schedule. Coury didn’t think it was a safe thing for his team. If players got injured with a roster of only 16, it would create problems in future games with those student-athletes that would be injured and couldn’t play. Last Friday, by the way, Pinecrest played their first GAPPS game this season and lost on an interception on the last play of the game.

Coury tells me that the players and coaches enjoyed their season opener -- even if it felt and looked a little different. You can find a video of the game here.  Pinecrest will rejoin the GHSA in 2021 and play a non-region schedule. They’ll return to region play in 2022.

Our “new normal” will take many different forms in many different places in the 2020 season. Most will have some form of lights on Fridays. Others won’t. But, as we’re all seeing, being as healthy as your hometown can take on many different forms this year.

Play it safe, everyone… I’ll talk to you soon.