Athens High School Teams Find Good, Bad in COVID-19 Impact on Fan Environment

Cedar Shoals High School senior volleyball player Ashley Jones did not know what to expect for her senior season, but she did notice a change within her team’s atmosphere this fall.

The Jaguars’ volleyball players “had a better bond with each other,” Jones said, adding that they didn’t “exclude anybody” and worked “together as a team.”

This change in team culture is partly the result of an unlikely increase in support from fellow student-athletes, she said. 

While high schools nationwide suspended their fall sports, local teams competed but made adjustments to attendance to promote safety.

The changed fan environment affected fans, athletes and teams both positively and negatively. 

Athens Academy’s volleyball team won a state championship. Cedar Shoals’ volleyball team didn’t perform as well but experienced record high attendance. Inversely, Cedar Shoals’ football team had record low attendance, resulting in a drastic change in fan atmosphere.

In order to combat COVID-19, the Clarke County School District limited spectator seating to 25% capacity.

The Jaguars’ first football game of the season against rival Clarke Central sold out with 1,200 fans in attendance, in comparison to the stadium’s regular capacity of 4,800.

Head football coach Leroy Ryals attributed his team’s slow starts this season to the changed fan atmosphere.

You can definitely tell a difference in trying to motivate them,” Ryals said. “Trying to get them to get going and get their juices flowing, it is a task.”

Last year the Jaguars’ finished the football season 7-5, fourth place in Region 8-AAAAA. This year they moved to Region 8-AAAA, a smaller classification, but finished 3-7.

Athens Academy, a private K-12 school, started developing protocols in the spring through a software called SpartanNet to communicate restriction policies on attendance with parents and the Spartan community.

During volleyball season, Athens Academy allowed only parents to attend regular-season games. Everyone sat socially distanced and wore a mask. 

The players had to rely on each other more to create energy during games.

Jane Thomas, head volleyball coach at Athens Academy, called that “a really positive thing” because “it forced us to communicate more.” 

But, she noted that especially during big matches, the gym wasn’t as loud.

“It’s fun to play in front of people,” Thomas said. “So it’s both sides of the coin.”

Athens Academy volleyball team’s lone senior, Ali Rumpel, noticed it was quieter “because of the masks” and “the parents just aren’t that loud.” She missed having her friends in the stands for her senior season, she said.

Unexpectedly, volleyball at Cedar Shoals experienced an increase in attendance from fellow student-athletes at home games.

Historically, volleyball games at Cedar Shoals have not had a large fan presence. Parents are the main source of attendance. 

“A lot of them work second and third shift,” said head coach Jessica Colquitt. “So, we usually average about 10 parents.”

Colquitt said the team had four consistent parents attend games this season, while a lot of other teams had 20 to 25 parents to games. 

This season Colquitt worked with other coaches at Cedar Shoals, including her husband, linebacker coach Tyler Colquitt, to encourage fall sport athletes to support each other after practice.

“It was easier to have non-athletes come last year because they would finish school, our first game started at 5, so they would kind of hang around,” Colquitt said. 

Cedar Shoals students have been taking online classes all semester, making it hard for them to attend games.

On average, 40-50 students were at each volleyball game this season. 

Most of it’s been athletes that have come and it’s just to kind of help support all the programs,” Colquitt said. “It’s been really helpful for I think the school culture.”

Like Ryals and his players at Cedar Shoals, football fans noticed differences in the overall game atmosphere.

Aliceson Nobles, principal at Barnett Shoals Elementary School, called the attendance at the homecoming game on Oct. 16 “a little disappointing.” However, she added that there were still some loyal fans to support the team.

“It helps the boys know that they still have a steady fan base that is always going to support them along the way,” Nobles said.

Harry Bufford, a long-time educator from the Clarke County School District who coached at Cedar Shoals for 40 years, supported fall sports this season. 

“The main [difference in] atmosphere is the lack of the band being in the stands with the music playing,” Bufford said. “The cheerleaders not being down on the track as much as they should, and just the amount of fans because we do have to social distance as much as we can even though we are in open air.”

Throughout the season, Ryals emphasized his football players needed to create their own energy on the field because of the lack of fan presence. 

Senior linebacker Corbin Umble said he and his teammates would “just hype ourselves up.” He also mentioned that this has brought his team closer, which seemed to be a positive effect that all teams experienced, no matter how many fans were in the stands.

“We have to spend more time with each other than be out,” he said. “It’s best to stick around each other than to be out and get coronavirus.”

Camryn Williams and DonA Traylor are reporters for Grady Sports Bureau.



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