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STOVALL: Here’s hoping football talent, not COVID-19, decides GHSA state champions

Ola junior quarterback Jake Hall has been the engineer of a high-octane Mustangs offense that’s given them a program-best 9-1 regular season mark. | PHOTO: Jeff Hurndon Photography

I’m pretty sure he didn’t coin it, but former Stockbridge High School football coach—and now-Georgia Southern defensive backs coach—Kevin Whitley is the first coach I heard say it. 

“If you’re a high school football coach in Georgia, practicing on Thanksgiving morning is where you want to be,” Whitley said one day after a practice several years ago when Stockbridge was making what became, under Whitley, an annual deep postseason run. 

“It’s become such an expectation in our program, that we’ve put it on our preseason calendars that we send home to parents,” Whitley continued. 

That’s because the former Stockbridge coach had built a perennial state title contender out of the second oldest football program in Henry County that, before his arrival, didn’t accomplish much of noteworthy significance in the win-loss column. 

But once Whitley had built a program that was regularly reaching the state quarterfinals and semifinals, any one of his teams still playing that far into the bracket was guaranteed to be practicing on Turkey Day. 

This year’s a little bit different, though. This year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, teams don’t have to have a couple of playoff wins under their belts in order to get that Thanksgiving morning practice treat. Because of a season rife with postponements, cancellations, starts, stops and delays, what would typically be the week of the quarterfinals round of the GHSA football playoffs is actually just the beginning, and that’s special, because it means every playoff team in the state gets to feel that magic of playing meaningful football deep into November. 

For Ola football coach, Jared Zito, Thursday morning was especially meaningful. 

So many firsts have happened for the Mustangs since Zito took the program’s reigns seven years ago. Ola started playing football in 2010, but didn’t make its first postseason appearance until the 2016 squad that finished 6-5 made it. Last year’s bunch finished 7-4, and the 7-win season was a program first, until this year’s team finished the 2020 campaign 9-1 and was one scoring play at Jones County away from a perfect regular season. 

The firsts for this year? First 9-win season in school history. First second place region finish in school history, which means first back-to-back trips to the postseason in program history and first home field advantage in a playoff game since things began. 

Oh yeah, as of yesterday, add first Thanksgiving morning football practice in school history to the list. 

“It’s funny we talk about this, because a couple of my parents didn’t realize that if you’re still playing football at this time you have to practice on Thanksgiving,” Zito said. “I know at Ola we’re still young at this playoff thing, but I’ve gotten the chance as an assistant to coach on Thanksgiving a couple of times. And I’m glad we’re able to do it here. It’s kind of an old saying among coaches that you want to be practicing on Thanksgiving, and we’re fortunate as a program to be doing that.” 

Ola is one of 15 Southside schools that had Thanksgiving practice to look forward to this week—a sign that good high school football is alive and well south of Atlanta’s downtown connector. Ola’s Thursday practice was just a light walk-through to prepare the Mustangs to host Coffee on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

The Thanksgiving practice week brings a little bit more urgency, though, thanks to COVID-19’s lingering presence. Unlike the regular season when cancelled games due to coronavirus issues could be rescheduled, if a team has a situation that makes it unable to play a game in the postseason, that team will be forced to forfeit, and its opponent will move on to the next round. 

Just imagine if that happens to a squad that makes it all the way through the semifinals, only to catch a case of Covid and have to forfeit a championship game. Something similar has already happened at several schools around the country. 

It happened at Valley Center High in Kansas back in October due to seven players testing positive. Pewamo-Westphalia and Portland High Schools in Lansing, Michigan to call it quits for their district championship games due to 19 positive tests. Mead High in Colorado did the same last week. 

This is the very reason why Jonesboro coach Tim Floyd started doubling down on the importance of staying safe and healthy more than three weeks ago. 

“From my understanding, if a team can’t play, it’s a forfeit that has to come down,” Floyd said. “So we’ve definitely been talking about it. Maybe three or four games ago, that if we missed these games down the stretch, we wouldn’t be able to reschedule. And if something happens with one of us in the playoffs, then that’s the end of it. So we’re telling them to make sure they’re safe and their families are safe, obviously for safety first, but also for our ability to keep playing.” 

It’s big for Floyd who will lead his program to their third straight postseason berth and fourth out of the last five years. But Jonesboro’s heading to Griffin tonight without having won a playoff game since the 2015 squad that finished 11-2. Meanwhile, when Ola hosts Coffee tonight, Zito and company will be looking for the school’s first ever playoff win. 

To do that, they’ll need to knock off a South Georgia program that’s more accustomed to making deep playoff runs than not. But while practicing on Thanksgiving week is a new thing for Zito and company, the coach is convinced that when it’s time to step on the field in a few hours against a team that’s been there, done that, the moment won’t be too big for his Mustangs. 

“So this year’s group, and even last year’s group, I never felt like we were overwhelmed in a moment last year or this year,” Zito said. “Remember, we went down to Ware County last year and were winning that entire game until the fourth quarter with six minutes to go. We never wavered in confidence, and I think this year’s group carried that torch. 

“If we lose, it’s either Coffee is just better, or we made more mistakes than they did. But it’s not gonna be because our kids don’t think they belong.”

To be sure, Ola and Jonesboro aren’t the only schools looking to parlay a coveted Thanksgiving week of practice into an extended season. Lovejoy’s going to be looking to move on against a Rush Propst-coached Valdosta team. On Saturday, Riverdale will ride the momentum of its first region crown since 1998 when Cedar Shoals comes into Southern Crescent Stadium. A win for the Raiders would propel them to the second round for the first time since coach Rodney Hackney’s first tour of duty at Riverdale in 2001. Westlake has to be at least a darkhorse candidate for a Class 6A state crown. That’s just a few of the 15.

ELCA will be seeking its seventh straight Class A state championship game berth with hopes of collecting its sixth straight state crown. 

Despite all that’s happened this season, Southside schools now have a marvelous opportunity to make Thanksgiving week more than just a big meal with an extra side of practice. Let’s hope that whomever emerges as the state’s top teams in each classification will do so because of what happens on the field and not by default. 

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Gabriel Stovall

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