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Loss of State Tournaments and Major Spring Events Affects Communities Nationwide

By Nate Perry on May 12, 2020 hst Print

The spikes will not be laced up this spring, the batons will not be passed, and the hurdles will not be cleared. The baselines won’t be chalked, the bubble gum and sunflower seeds won’t be chewed, and the eye-black won’t be applied. The iconic declaration that it is time to “play ball” will not be heard. Soccer balls will remain in their bags, lacrosse sticks will not need to be taped and there will be no practice rounds on the golf course.

Outside of a few southern states that employ an earlier cycle, “the spring season that never was” is the unfortunate reality facing high school student-athletes across America. And for the senior class of 2020, there is no next year. Hopes of a final chance to set a school record, hoist a state championship trophy or even make bus-trip memories with the closest of friends – all dashed unceremoniously by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The loss, however, goes much deeper than the student-athletes. Parents lost an opportunity to witness their children grow in the environment only athletics can provide; communities – particularly those with just one high school – go without one of their most sacred and fundamental sources of pride.

“That’s why we waited as long as we possibly could (to cancel spring sports), and let people know we were doing everything possible to try and make a spring season happen,” said Bernard Childress, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA). “We know the student-athletes – the seniors especially – their communities, their schools, their fans, their parents and everyone involved in the athletic family is affected by this and paid a tremendous price.”

The collective price Childress refers to is a heavy one, but one that is exacted differently in each state given the unique opportunities provided by each NFHS member association. For some student-athletes it would have been the chance to play in a major- league, minor-league or collegiate venue, where they could dig into the same batter’s boxes or toe the same pitcher’s plates as some of their favorite professionals. Some were looking forward to competing in nationally renowned events ripe with tradition and nostalgia dating back a century or more. Still others missed out on a uniquely centralized state tournament setup that embodies the true spirit of supporting one another. While every competition within the education-based athletics model is special regardless of the sport, there are some instances that only come around once in a lifetime and simply cannot be replicated.

Take California as an example. Each year, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) hosts its State Track and Field Championships, which have most recently been held at Buchanan High School in Clovis since 2009. Over the two days of competition, Buchanan’s Veteran’s Memorial Stadium attracts a yearly average of almost 20,000 spectators.

Outside of a three-year span during World War II, the state meet has been conducted annually since 1915 and has seen some of the greatest athletes the United States has ever produced. Among the lengthy list of alumni are Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Bobby Bonds, the National Football League’s (NFL) Lynn Swann, Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Misty May-Treanor and Olympian and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, the subject of the 2014 feature film Unbroken.

And just as it has become a perennial tradition to see spectacular athleticism, so it has to see the same faces make the pilgrimage to take in the experience.

“We have people show up to our track and field meet who drive from all over the state, and they’re there every year,” said CIF Executive Director Ron Nocetti. “We see the same people sitting by the finish line and many of them ran in those events when they were in high school. They get together with their former teammates and they drive from various places in the state to that meet.”

In the southern part of the state, baseball programs in the CIF’s Los Angeles City Section Open Division and Division I strive to win a sectional championship in Dodger Stadium – the home of MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers – while teams in Divisions II and III square off at the University of Southern California’s Dedeaux Field.

Playing baseball in world-class facilities are also among the highlights during the high school spring seasons in Georgia and Mississippi. Both the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) and the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) utilize partnerships with the various levels of the Atlanta Braves (MLB) organization for their championships.

Of the four GHSA baseball state championship sites, three of them belong to the Braves and their affiliates, including state-ofthe- art Truist Park – currently the newest ballpark in the MLB.

“We have a great partnership with the Braves, and they’ve made it very easy for us economically,” said GHSA Executive Director Robin Hines. “We partnered with them for the first time last year and they enjoyed it so much that we signed a multi-year contract, so we’ll be there for a while. It’s just a matter of moving it by a day or two to make sure the three teams – the Atlanta Braves, Gwinnett Stripers (Triple-A) and the Rome Braves (Single-A) – are out of town. It’s been a very good deal for us.

While a professional team no longer plays there, the fourth GHSA venue is very much noteworthy in its own right. Built in 1929, Luther Williams Field in Macon has had nine different tenants over the course of its existence and is listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places.

Trustmark Park, the home of Atlanta’s Double-A farm team – the Mississippi Braves – plays host to all six of the MHSAA’s state championship baseball games. The softball games are split between two of the best university facilities in The Magnolia State – Mississippi State University in Starkville and The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

“It’s special to be one of the last 12 baseball teams or one of the last 12 softball teams left playing at the end,” said Don Hinton, executive director of the MHSAA. “To get the chance to play baseball at Trustmark Park is really special. This is our seventh year I believe that they’ve had it, and it’s something everyone really looks forward to in the springtime. It’s in Pearl, so it’s centrally located within the state and it’s probably the best place to play in Mississippi, and even in some parts of The South. We always get great crowds. And for softball, both of our host universities do a tremendous job providing our young ladies with a championship atmosphere. The experience they offer certainly fits the stage.”

While it is still in the preliminary stages and is not yet official, there is a strong possibility that makeshift baseball and softball seasons will take place in Mississippi over the summer. Teams would remain within their geographic regions for competition and there would be no official MHSAA state champions crowned, but all of that would be dwarfed by the purpose of giving student-athletes one more chance to represent their schools.

Hinton is thrilled by the initiative on the part of his state’s coaches and has offered his full endorsement.

“They will have (the MHSAA’s) blessing and we will help them however we can,” he said. “We’ll do anything we can to make their summer as joyful and as meaningful as it can possibly be.”

Should the pandemic conditions run deeper into the summer months, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) will be in jeopardy of losing its Summer Conference and All-Star Sports Week and may be forced to move its Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame Induction for the second time.

The AHSAA Summer Conference and All-Star Sports Week is currently slated for mid-July and is not only a massive professional development and fellowship opportunity for athletic administrators that sees more than 4,000 registrants each year, it’s a chance to showcase the very best junior athletes in the state. Over the course of the week, the association hosts 11 different All-Star games/competitions that bring thousands of fans streaming to Montgomery.

“We truly hope that we’ll be able to hold it because it’s a tremendous event for our state, but the ability to bring that large a group of people together in July is questionable at this time,” said AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese.

The Alabama Sports High School Hall of Fame Induction has already been moved to June from its original date in mid-March, but, as more and more time passes, Savarese fears it could potentially have to wait until September.

Tennessee is home to what is arguably the nation’s most prominent state championship structure for spring sports. Titled the TSSAA Spring Fling Championships, the event bears a resemblance to the Olympic Games. Over Memorial Day weekend, 4,300 to 4,500 student-athletes descend upon Rutherford County to compete for championships in baseball, softball, soccer, boys and girls tennis and boys and girls track and field, which are all contested simultaneously at various high school fields, as well as Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

“It’s an unbelievable event that we hold that gives our student- athletes the opportunity to cheer for their other teams and support one another across Rutherford County,” said Childress. “The Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce does an outstanding job of hosting it each year.”

While these events certainly serve to create unforgettable memories for student-athletes and the invested individuals who follow and support them, the anticipation and subsequent disappointment that they are canceled is felt mutually by the cities and towns that band together to put them on.

“We were definitely disappointed for our student-athletes, but evaluating the big picture, we were disappointed for the entire state,” Savarese said. “In our communities, so many people make huge investments in hosting our events who count on their economic impact.”

Savarese detailed the longstanding relationship between the AHSAA and the city of Huntsville, which has been the site of the organization’s soccer state championships since their inception.

“(The city of Huntsville’s) investment into our soccer championship is unparalleled,” he said. “And that goes way beyond the economic impact – they truly love the event. The economic impact is the small part; the love for the sport and what they put into this – it’s a labor of love for them and they’re going to miss out on seeing the kids play and sharing those experiences with them.”

In Clovis, restaurants go as far as to adjust their hours to accommodate the influx of people for the CIF State Track and Field Championships, which is an apparent extension of the entire town’s sentiment.

“What’s unique about Clovis and that entire Fresno area is the sheer number of volunteers that we get,” Nocetti said. “We get 400 volunteers over two days for our track and field championships; the community just completely buys in. When we’ve gone down there over the years, the biggest comment we get from our families and our student-athletes is just how welcoming that entire community is.”

“It’s special for them to host, and with people coming into town who maybe haven’t been around before, it’s important financially,” said Hinton of his baseball championships. “They’re coming and spending the night and eating and spending money on gas and those types of things.”

Even though the courts, fields, courses and pools are all currently vacant and empty and an enormous void exists within high school athletic communities everywhere, an argument remains that the promotion of life lessons through participation in athletics and activities continues uninterrupted – and given their transmission comes through a painful break in the action – that promotion is perhaps stronger than ever.

“We know that education-based athletics provides so much more than just the wins and losses for student-athletes,” Nocetti said. “It builds character and resilience, and if nothing else, you can imagine that for the student-athletes in this class that resiliency is going to be something that they’re going to be able to draw upon with all that they’ve gone through.”