If there ever was a day to remember in the spring of 2020 for Putnam County High sports, it was Friday, March 13. It was a cool evening at the baseball field as Putnam was playing Elbert County in a much-anticipated Region 8-AA series.
But there was an ominous cloud hanging over the ballpark that night, and as much as all present wanted to talk about what was happening on the field, it was impossible for the thoughts and concerns of each person not to drift to the looming last pitch of the second game of the doubleheader that not only ended a long night at the chilly ballpark but also signaled the end of the season for Putnam baseball.
And that moment was the end of the season for all Putnam spring sports. The boys soccer team had laid the smack down on Union County a few days earlier and appeared destined to make a run for the state title. Baseball was in the thick of things preparing for the region playoffs.
The coronavirus was at pandemic levels and caused the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) to halt all spring sports. That baseball doubleheader was the last breath of Putnam spring sports as the suspension was scheduled to go into effect on Saturday, March 14.
After 90 days of not a single person at the school or the GHSA understanding where the future of Georgia high school sports would wind up, the GHSA loosened restrictions and allowed teams to return to workouts. On Monday, Putnam football, girls basketball and the JROTC Raiders began conditioning drills under GHSA and state safety guidelines.
And those guidelines are restrictive.
Putnam athletic director Paul Stokes had a maniacal task of making sure all the precautionary and required products and supplies were in place as well as the exacting rules that had to be followed by every player and coach. But at the end of the day, it all came down to the behavior of each person present.
War Eagle football started Monday morning in the weight room before moving to the practice field in the second half of the workout session while head coach Jerusha Hudson had the girls basketball team in the gym doing station drills including running and jump roping. The JROTC Raiders were outside conducting drills well away from the football team.
For starters, the GHSA increased the number of people allowed at each workout from 20 to 25 people. Each person must have a temperature check before entering the weight room or stepping onto the field for drill work. The readings cannot exceed 100.3 degrees, Stokes said, or the player or coach would be sent home immediately for a 14-day quarantine.
In addition, a series of health questions are posed to each participant during the door screening and if a “yes” answer was given for any of the health questions, the result was also quarantine. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were omnipresent and in great demand.
Complicating matters further was the restriction on the usage of any sport specific equipment. Plainly stated, nary a ball or blocking dummy could be used. Hudson’s Lady War Eagles could not dribble the first basketball. Running was the order of the day for JROTC. The workouts were strictly about conditioning for all the teams.
As players returned from such a long absence from each other, a big concern was the personal interaction among the players.
“The big issue is we have to keep people from being people,” Stokes said. “They can’t come in here shaking hands, hugging, high-fiving each other. Social distancing has to be maintained. People aren’t able to be themselves.”
For the Putnam football team, a brief and painful glimpse into the first round of the 2019 state playoffs will be a rallying point as the long wait has subsided and there are cleats on the ground for War Eagles football.
“We’re excited, the kids are excited and I know the parents are excited,” said head football coach Shaun Pope. “They are ready to get some of those kids out of the house. ‘When are you going to start? We have to find something for them to do.’ The kids are ready. I get messages from them all the time. We are glad to get going.”
During the long layoff, the War Eagles coaching staff provided workout composites for the players to do on their own.
“We are having to work them back into shape,” Pope said. “We’d like to believe they did exactly what we asked them to do but some of them weren’t able to do that. Some of them got jobs, they didn’t have weights and some went on vacation. We understand those things. Safety has to be first and foremost. We’re going to push them but at the same time, we’re going to push them with limitations. We will go as hard as we see they can go. It will take some time to work them back into shape.”
With a young Lady War Eagles team in 2020 after a taste of the 2019 state playoffs, Hudson is ready to get the young players acclimated as soon as possible with the use of ladders, steppers and an agility apparatus in addition to the jump ropes.
“The limit of people doesn’t really affect us because we’ve never really had more than 25 during the summer anyway,” she said. “It will be a challenge. We have a whole new group of kids and we’re moving into a tough basketball region. We have to buckle down and our returners have to work harder. I’ve been in contact with the parents and if they don’t want their kids to come, that’s OK. This virus has been a big hindrance.”