- By Todd Holcomb For the AJC
The Georgia High School Association’s decision to move six postponed state-championship football games to high school fields this Friday night is unanimously unpopular among the six teams playing on the road.
Rome head coach John Reid called the move ‘a joke.’ Hapeville Charter coach Winston Gordon called it a ‘tragedy.’ Blessed Trinity’s Tim McFarlin said it’s ‘sad’ that 6,000 fans who bought pre-sale tickets for a postponed game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium now won’t fit in Marist’s 4,000-seat Hughes Spalding Stadium.
The GHSA says it was just following the contingency plan that it had communicated to the schools last week.
“This is what we said we’d do,’’ GHSA executive director Dr. Robin Hines said Monday. “Plans were already in place for these schools to go and host the games. That’s how the first four rounds were done. For many, many years before the finals moved into the Georgia Dome [in 2008], that’s the way the GHSA had done it. After weighing everything, we made the decision to stick to the plan.’’
The eight championship games were originally scheduled for last Friday and Saturday at the Falcons’ new domed stadium, but only two of those games – Eagle’s Landing Christian vs. Athens Academy and Calhoun vs. Peach County – were played before heavy snow prompted the GHSA to postpone the rest.
That marked the first time in 70 years of GHSA football playoffs that significant postponements had occurred.
There is nothing definitive in the GHSA’s bylaws that dictate where postponed championships must be played. Following guidelines it posted via Twitter last week, the GHSA ruled that the unplayed games would go to the home fields of the higher-seeded teams.
That put Colquitt County at North Gwinnett (Class AAAAAAA), Coffee at Lee County (AAAAAA), Blessed Trinity at Marist (AAAA) and Clinch County at Irwin County (A). For the two games involving No. 1 seeds, a coin flip sent Rome to Warner Robins (AAAAA) and Hapeville Charter to Rabun County (AA).
North Gwinnett, Lee County, Irwin County and Rabun County have never hosted state-title games, and they are thrilled at the opportunity. “We’re living the dream,’’ said Rabun County coach Lee Shaw.
But the visitors are losing sleep.
“It’s just a tragedy that grown people don’t step up and do what’s right by the children,’’ said Hapeville Charter’s Gordon, whose team is traveling 120 miles to Rabun. “We’ve played every No. 1 seed on the road this year. We’ve lost every coin toss. At some point, the kids are going to think everybody’s against us. You’d just think that greater minds will get together and see if these kids can play at Georgia Tech or Georgia State. It’s supposed to be a neutral site.’’
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is eight miles from Hapeville. The Hornets now will pay for charter buses for the drive into northeast Georgia.
Neutral fields are not guaranteed by the GHSA. In fact, until 2008, most every championship game for the previous 60 years had been played on a team’s home field.
In the 1990s, in a move that initially divided the state, the GHSA began staging the semifinals in the Georgia Dome. GHSA finally won a consensus to move the state finals to the Dome and give the semifinals back to the high schools. At the time, in ’08, Georgia was the only state in the South that didn’t hold neutral-site finals, and the change came only after years of vehement resistance, especially among rural and South Georgia schools.
The promise of more revenue and better crowd control won the day, but two years into the Dome finals, an AJC survey showed that almost 58 percent of Georgia high school coaches opposed it. Many still prefer having the championship games at the schools and their local communities.
But there’s not a coach traveling this weekend who is happy about it. For one, they weren’t prepared for it.
“They’ve got to have a better contingency plan,’’ said Colquitt County coach Rush Propst, whose team will travel 225 miles to Gwinnett County on Friday. “This is a premier sport that needs to be protected in our state, and we must do what we can to promote it. This does not promote it.’’
Colquitt County pleaded its case to the GHSA on Monday, questioning whether North Gwinnett had enough seats or an adequate field for a championship. Rome, Blessed Trinity and Coffee also made last-ditch arguments.
GHSA officials went to Lee County and North Gwinnett to measure bleacher seats to confirm that they can accommodate the required 6,000. Marist staved off a possible move to McEachern’s neutral Cantrell Stadium in Cobb County by securing portable bleachers to reach the minimum 4,000 for AAAA.
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The most disgruntled of travelers are probably Hapeville and Rome, the only region champions that are now playing on the road. Rome must travel 175 miles to Warner Robins in a game between 14-0 teams.
Rome coach Reid was blunt when asked if he was comfortable with the GHSA’s resolution.
“Are you kidding? This is a joke,’’ Reid said. “No plan. We have yet to be told how this will play out. Our fans, our band, etc., are supposed to drive through Atlanta on Friday afternoon four hours, and this is the plan for the state championship?’’
Reid is concerned that Warner Robins’ McConnell-Talbert Stadium doesn’t have enough seats. Rome fans bought its allotted 3,000 tickets last week but brought 10,000 fans last year to the Georgia Dome championship game against Buford, according to Reid. McConnell-Talbert seats about 8,000, and will hold much more for people who like to stand or sit on banks.
Blessed Trinity coach Tim McFarlin is also concerned about facility size.
“Even if Marist brings in 1,000 portable seats, we’re still short and people who buy tickets deserve a seat,’’ McFarlin said. “Plus, parking and traffic flow at Marist may not accommodate 6,000 to 10,000. … Marist or Blessed Trinity hosting a home game really isn't the main issue. Seating, proper portables, liability and parking are the major concerns when hosting the title game.’’
That’s also Coffee’s argument against traveling to Lee County. Coffee sold 4,000 pre-sale tickets and sent 20 school buses to Atlanta for Friday night’s postponed game.
“There’s just no way that their stadium can hold this many people,’’ Coffee County Schools superintendent Dr. Morris Leis said. “It’s not a neutral site. Our boys have played hard all year to go to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and we understand the weather. That’s nobody’s fault. But for Lee County to get to play at home, our fans and players are getting two negatives. Why not give them a neutral site that could be a win-win for everybody?’’
Coffee has gotten permission from Lowndes, Tift County and Albany State to use their stadiums, but the home team has veto power provided that its facility is GHSA-approved. Rome asked the GHSA on Monday to move the game to Georgia State’s stadium, the former Turner Field. Hines acknowledged that Georgia State offered to help but that plans were in motion, and there were logistical issues.
“We considered it; we considered everything,’’ Hines said. “But it’s a stadium we’re not familiar with; we’re not sure what staffing would be. Preparations would need to begin immediately. And I have confidence in our member schools that have put on events all year long to put on a state championship that’s going to be really exciting.’’
Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio, thrilled at the chance to host, felt the GHSA’s decision was reasonable.
“This is one thing that athletics teaches us – how to deal with disappointment and last-minute adjustments,’’ Fabrizio said. “We’re going to follow the GHSA and go where they tell us to play. It just so happens we’re the No. 1 seed. [Coffee is seeded No. 2.] We’re happy to play in a state championship game regardless of where it’s played.’’
Clinch County coach Jim Dickerson says he’s disappointed mostly for his players. Instead of playing in an NFL stadium, they’ll be going to Irwin County, a region rival that they’ve visited plenty of times.
“It was kind of like they were ready to open the box of the big Christmas present after seeing it sit under the Christmas tree all this time,’’ Dickerson said. “And then the night before Christmas, somebody stole it. But kids are resilient. They’ll be just fine.’’