Back in business

Fall sports return, begin working through new normal

In+March+of+this+past+year%2C+COVID-19+put+a+hold+on+all+sports+at+all+levels.+Last+month%2C+the+GHSA+made+the+decision+for+sports+to+return+for+conditioning.+Fall+sports+have+had+to+create+practicing+strategies+to+get+the+most+work+done+possible+and+maintain+expectations+for+success.

Annika Pepper

In March of this past year, COVID-19 put a hold on all sports at all levels. Last month, the GHSA made the decision for sports to return for conditioning. Fall sports have had to create practicing strategies to get the most work done possible and maintain expectations for success.

Due to COVID-19 cancelling all spring sports, how sports would be handled in the foreseeable future has been a mystery. For now, adapting to the new normal and preparing for the upcoming season is a challenge that’s more than possible to overcome.

On June 8, the GHSA permitted all high schools to implement sports conditioning on campus. Georgia high school sports were able to start slow, with no contact or use of balls, but progressively open up those options. Panther sports have continued to focus on building up their teams and taking advantage of every moment they have.

“I think you can get appreciation for a lot of things when something’s taken away from you,” football head coach Chad Phillips said. “There’s a lot of positive things going on right now [for the team]. We’ve really got to focus on what we got to do to have another big season.”

Football had one of their best seasons in program history, including winning a fourth-straight region championship and powering through to the final four. All but one defensive player is returning, including rising senior Duke commit Cole Bishop

Most of the offensive line remains, but with the absence of Mercer running back Ben Bodne, Mississippi College quarterback Hunter Lawson, and Gardner Webb running back Kalen Sims, their answer for who to fill in the skill positions is unknown. Phillips’ goal for the team is to make sure that his players can outwork any other program to go on another big run.

[T]o be able to begin conditioning feels like we are progressing towards something instead of sitting around waiting.”

— Cross country head coach Kelly Rock

In cross country, head coach Kelly Rock believes returning serves as a morale boost for the team.

“To be able to see my athletes and for them to be able to begin conditioning feels like we are progressing towards something instead of sitting around waiting,” Rock said.

Last season, cross country competed highly at the state level once again. The boys placed second at the state meet while the girls placed fourth. Returning for the boys are seniors Joseph Muzzillo and Colton Olvey, along with sophomore Evan McConnell. Notable girl runners returning are seniors Darby Olive and Allie Walker, and sophomore Hailey Ross.

Softball head coach Mark Williamson believes that his players have been itching to get back to playing softball.

“Everybody’s wanting life to get back to as normal as possible,” Williamson said. “They seem to be excited to be back out here.”

After falling to Whitewater in the region championship, the softball team tore through Thomas County Central and Kell, but ultimately went 0-2 in the state tournament. Though pitcher Paige Andrews and three other seniors have left, the team still has batting talent in seniors Brigham Young University commit Lauren Flanders and University of North Georgia commit Jolie Lester, and junior Sydney Blair, as well as a phenomenal pitcher in rising junior Lilli Backes.

Rules imposed by the GHSA have led teams to figure out how to adapt to their circumstances. For football, the players have been separated into multiple groups throughout the morning and afternoon.  They have focused on athletic drills in June to put the players in the right athletic condition they need to succeed. The goal is to center around football-oriented drills going forward.

Similarly, cross country has also separated their runners into groups due to the sheer size of the team. The team has been split into four groups. They have been practicing off campus at the Braelinn Recreation Center by Oak Grove.

All this other stuff is out of our control, so we just have to keep working and trying to make ourselves better and be prepared when the season does come around.”

— Softball head coach Mark Williamson

“[Dividing the team up] has to be one of the hardest things to adapt to because cross country has always been a large group that interacts with each other,” Rock said.

Williamson has started conditioning the softball players in the weight and agility exercises on campus for about an hour for the first week. The next week they added an hour on the softball field to work on drills.

“We always talk about controlling what we can control,” Williamson said. “All this other stuff is out of our control, so we just have to keep working and trying to make ourselves better and be prepared when the season does come around.”

With every opportunity these teams have to improve, focus on the grind is just as important as ever. Panther sports have been using the time they have had meticulously in order to accumulate the most improvement possible.

Phillips talked about one word he and the coaches throw around frequently: complacency. He believes that it is the first step to mediocrity. His philosophy of avoiding complacency represents how not only football, but all of Panther sports continue to put as much effort as possible to improve.

“If you are complacent… things will unravel and start to go backwards, so you always have to drive to do your best every single day,” Phillips said. “If we want to win at our level of expectations, we’ve got to continue to outwork people.”

With dead week behind the athletes, there is a full month ahead for practice to continue to ramp up. 

These have been uncertain times for the world, especially in sports, but Panther sports are working to maintain a healthy, winning tradition.