Athletes, coaches adopt to new protocols

Douglas County High senior De’Vyn Elliott went through pregame warmups with a mask on as safety precautions were put in place by county athletic officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series appearing in the Sentinel this week on COVID-19 one year into the pandemic.

John Chandler jokingly calls the other athletic directors in Douglas County “the highest functional learning profession” in the county.

For the five athletic directors, it has been a school year presented with challenges and some obstacles as they got the athletes and coaches back competing.

With the county providing guidance, all the athletic teams have competed this school year after being forced to shut down last April because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year was very heartbreaking because the kids lost out on an opportunity to compete,” said Chandler, the athletic director at Alexander High. “Once we started back up this year, we had to balance safety and the opportunity to compete. We also had to get to a level of comfort where we could extend it to our fans. Everybody had to cope with changes.”

Just as spring sports were approaching their championship season last April, the GHSA canceled all sporting events because of the start of the pandemic.

Schools moved to all-digital learning models.

There were no spring sports championships last school year as fields and tracks were locked.

After the GHSA gave schools the go-ahead to compete this school year, the county athletic directors met with the school system’s athletic director to formulate how they would proceed with the sports seasons.

“It has been a challenge because everything has changed,” Douglas County High Athletic Director Travis Smith said. “We put some standards in place, but we also had to be flexible. It required us to think outside the box. You definitely find out a lot about yourself in these challenging times.”

And they also found out a lot about the athletes they coach.

At New Manchester High, the football and both basketball teams won region championships. It was the first in school history for the football and girls basketball programs.

“I’m proud of all the kids and coaches,” New Manchester Athletic Director Chris Long said. “Our coaches kept telling the kids to play like it was your last game. I’m happy we had no major setbacks.”

Chandler said it helped that the county athletic directors were unified in their approach to getting back to competing. Although the schools are rivals, he said the common goal was to make sure everybody could compete.

“We were helping and sharing ideas with some firm rules in place,” Chandler said. “I think this allowed us to do things at a high caliber. We wanted to be as consistent as possible. I think coming together helped us eliminate the possibility of throwing each other under the bus. We developed a standard that worked for everybody.”

The Douglas County High football team was one of 185 programs that were able to play all 10 scheduled games.

“That was big,” said Smith, who also serves as the football program’s offensive coordinator. “I think we were blessed and lucky. There were no issues and that is a testimony to our staff and athletes. I think our kids did what they needed to do to remain on the field.”

Chandler said building trust was a big part of the process.

“We know what we can and can’t do when it comes to safety,” he said. “I think we earned everyone’s trust, and then it became full speed ahead.”

Some of the protocols that are in place because of COVID-19 will become regular practices going forward with athletic programs.

Chandler emphasized that enhanced cleanliness will remain, as will the digital ticket process.

“As we try to get back to some form of normalcy, some things we will implement as a standard,” Smith said. “Some things we should have been doing all ready. We will operate under a different playbook now.”