Editor's Note: Morgan County sports will be suspended until April 1, MCHS athletic director Doug Connelly announced after this story was submitted for publication.
The sports world halted last Thursday, March 12, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
The NBA, MLS and NHL announced the suspension of their seasons. The MLB announced that it would immediately stop Spring Training and delay Opening Day. College sports were stopped, too, and the scheduled NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled.
And then it trickled down to Lake Country.
The Georgia High School Association (GHSA), which governs sports at Greene County High School, Morgan County High School and Lake Oconee Academy, recommended last Thursday afternoon that its member schools cease sports activities for two weeks. Along with that recommendation, the GHSA announced a delay to the state literary competition, which is also overseen by the GHSA.
Last Thursday night, the Greene County School System and Morgan County Charter School System announced that its schools were closing beginning this week. Greene is closed this week and next week before observing its scheduled spring break the following week, meaning Greene schools will be closed a total of three weeks. Morgan closed for this week and, on Thursday, will determine whether it will remain closed.
By the end of the weekend, LOA decided to switch to online-only classes for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. LOA CEO Dr. Otho Tucker said that decision could be reversed if the virus outbreak subsides.
Greene sports are suspended for the duration of its closures and the same applies to Morgan sports. As of press time Tuesday, LOA had not decided whether to end its sports for the year; the school is currently running a two-week suspension on sports.
News of the sports suspensions slowly reached student-athletes in the area.
Seth Robertson, a senior at Morgan County, heard about it but did not believe it until a news article confirmed the rumors.
“It kind of broke my heart when I saw it,” Robertson said. “I was like, ‘Dang. I've been dreaming of my senior year and they're just kind of taking it away like that.’”
LOA senior Kelli Stevens was on a bus with the school’s girls soccer team Thursday when the GHSA announced its recommendation.
Chris Ingle, LOA’s athletic director and girls soccer coach, heard the news soon after the team arrived to Washington-Wilkes for a match. Ingle did not tell his team about the suspension until after the Lady Titans finished the game, which ended in a 7-0 win.
“We wouldn't even have suspected anything,” Stevens said. “[Ingle] acted totally normal. And then, at the end of the game, it was a good win and we were all kind of excited and then he hit us with it. It was tough.”
Stevens said the gravity of the situation – that she and her teammates may be done for the year – did not sink in until her mother, Kris Stevens, later pointed out that possibility.
Greene’s girls soccer team was practicing Thursday when head coach Michael Smith received word of the suspension from athletic director Russell Morgan.
Morgan called Smith and told him to stop the practice and send the team home. Sports were to be stopped until April 6.
“It was one of those moments where you have a lump in your throat because you know when you get off the phone you are about to ruin a great practice,” Smith said.
In addition to telling his own players, Smith also had to break the news to the boys soccer team.
Greene’s boys head coach, Antonio Durán, also coaches the Carson Middle School soccer team. Durán was away for a CMS match, which left Smith to tell the varsity boys players that they couldn’t practice or play.
“I myself and the team were all shocked that they were suspended,” said Greene boys player Heriberto “Lechi” Rodriguez. “I was pretty disappointed because we were just right around the mid-season mark and, as a senior,I was pretty gutted because I didn’t know if I’d be able to finish my last year of high school soccer.”
Greene and LOA sports stopped immediately. Morgan, however, completed most of its scheduled events last week, finishing with a golf tournament on Saturday.
The Morgan soccer teams competed at Jackson County last Friday. Boys head coach Aaron Paul had not talked with his team about the suspension prior to leaving for the game because Morgan County had a teacher workday. Still, Paul said he knew the players were fired up for the game, saying, “I knew there wasn't gonna be a problem motivating them.”
Morgan girls soccer head coach Anne Stamps said there was much confusion among her players.
“They had lots of questions,” Stamps said. “There's just so much uncertainty and concern from my seniors of, 'Is this my last game?' Hopefully, that's not even close to the case. Hopefully, we're gonna take these couple of weeks off and we'll be right back in it.”
But that’s completely up in the air.
The coronavirus has spread so much in the U.S. that government officials have asked citizens to limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer for eight weeks. That alone could spell the end of spring sports in Lake Country.
Around the same time that Stamps’ soccer team was playing last Friday, another school in the area was hit with suspensions.
Nathanael Greene Academy, which is part of the Georgia Association of Private & Parochial Schools (GAPPS), learned that GAPPS also decided to follow the GHSA’s recommendation and suspend sports until April 10. NGA later decided to close for two weeks.
Sean Brown, a senior baseball player at NGA, heard about the stoppage Friday evening after his team finished practice. Head coach Garey Clark called a meeting and told his players the news.
“Obviously, we were all not very happy,” Brown said. “[The other players] seemed to take it better than I did. I don't take things like that very well. I actually had to take a little drive to think about it and clear my head for a while.”
Brown suffered a broken leg late last summer, which cost him most of his senior football season. Now, the coronavirus could do the same for Brown’s last baseball season, which is only three games in.
“Football, I could handle, because that was under my control,” Brown said. “But baseball really sucked because it was something I had zero control over and it's just a freak thing that happened. For me, it was really disappointing.”
Stevens, Rodriguez and Brown all had one sport get suspended. Robertson is dealing with it on two fronts because he is a member of Morgan’s baseball and track teams.
The track team had a meet at Parkview scheduled for last week but it was canceled. Morgan’s baseball team played at Monroe Area in a doubleheader last Friday.
Robertson said the seniors all discussed how they needed to give their maximum effort Friday, considering it could be the last time they play baseball. Morgan swept the doubleheader, ending it with a mercy-rule win.
If the coronavirus crisis lasts long enough, Robertson could be affected post-high school. He recently signed a scholarship to play football at Georgia Southern. Spring football practices have been delayed all across the NCAA. Should things linger, that could potentially push back Robertson’s time to begin working with the team in Statesboro.
“It's been on my mind a lot,” Robertson said. “I finally get to college and finally get to live my dream and it's possibly being delayed. It sucks, but that's life for you. You see it all around the country; even recruiting is kind of shut down and slowed down a little bit. So, you get to see what type of toll this virus is having all across the country. I just hope it stops before I move down there and get to working.”
The immediate effect for all these athletes, though, is that they cannot congregate in an official team capacity.
Coaches cannot be present for any player gatherings and those meetings can only happen on the students’ time.
“What I told them is that it doesn't matter if we are not at practice right now, everyone can continue to prepare themselves mentally and physically by practicing at home,” Durán said he told his players. “When crowd restrictions are limited, I encouraged them to try and find ways to play together.”
Athletes in the area are disappointed to see their schedules get stopped. For many, there is also an inherent frustration about the way the situation is being handled.
“In my opinion, it's a big overreaction in general,” Brown said. “I understand that they have to keep the players safe from this virus, but, at the same time, you can't live your entire life in fear. You can get sick by going outside. How can you really control that? To me, cancelling games and cancelling practices really makes it worse because where are those students and where are those athletes going to go if they don't have practice or if they don't have school that keeps them in a set place at a set time? You know that they're going to go out and do stuff, even if they're not supposed to. It just worsens the effect.”
Morgan’s 4x100meter track team is currently ranked near the top of the state. The Morgan baseball team is in the thick of the Region 8-AAA title race.
Greene’s boys soccer team just needs a win over Crawford County to earn a playoff spot. The Greene track team, fresh off a state title last year, is chasing down another championship.
LOA’s soccer teams are on track to win Region 7-A for the second year in a row. The school’s golf teams are also trying to defend their Class A state titles.
And that’s just a small sample of the teams affected by these stoppages.
Because things were suspended so suddenly, athletes in the area still plan to get together and find ways to enjoy their sports, even if it can’t happen in an official capacity.
Stevens and Rodriguez both said they expect their soccer teams will have players-only practices. Brown said NGA baseball players intend to have a few days of practice, too. Robertson said the track team plans to work out while the baseball team hits in the batting cages and practices in-game situations.
Despite their best efforts to stay positive and keep things as normal as possible, the reality that the spring sports season may not resume looms over the student-athletes.
For most of them, the fact that they may not get to finish their seasons in proper style is the most crushing part.
“I think that's something that kind of hits hard, especially with the seniors,” Stevens said. “That's it for us. Everyone looks forward to your last game that you're ever gonna play. You never really see it as a blessing, but it really is a blessing to be able to know that you're playing your last game and it's the last time that you're gonna get to be out there with all your teammates. To have that taken away, possibly, is heartbreaking. It really is. It sucks.”