“One Morgan” is a saying among the approximately 20,000 people in Georgia’s Morgan County. But a county that preaches such a unified message is now as spread apart as ever, just like countless counties, cities and towns across the United States.
And like their peers around the country, seniors at Morgan County High have been deprived of prom, graduation and the last day of high school, not to mention their final sports seasons.
Coaches and administrators at the school demonstrated what it means to be “One Morgan” by delivering a personalized yard sign to all their seniors on the day it was announced spring sports were canceled. Baseball coach Merritt Ainslie even helped wrangle some cows that got loose from one family's pasture during a delivery.
“You would have thought I was giving them a million dollars,” tennis coach Stacy Manger said of the yard signs, which went to all seniors but were delivered by spring coaches to their seniors. “It was like we were coming home from World War II. It was just an incredible feeling and one I will never forget.”
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In order to gauge the impact of coronavirus on athletes and coaches at one high school, sports journalism students from the University of Georgia spoke in April with members of the Morgan County community. These are their stories:
Manger walks her dogs past a collection of desolate tennis courts every day. She gazes at them, wishing she could still be with her players.
Manger, a former college athlete and now a licensed professional counselor, sympathizes with her “second family.”
“I’m thanking God that I got the degree I did because it’s helped me to not only be a better coach, but be able to help others,” said Manger.
Senior Sara Moore’s relationship with Manger has helped her put the sudden and cruel cancellation of her last high school tennis season behind her.
“She’s like a second mom to me,” Moore said. “She’s always there for us.”
High school coaches everywhere have a new task: comforting their athletes, especially the seniors.
Girls soccer coach Anne Stamps is navigating her way through “what feels like a grieving process.” In an attempt to bond with her players, Stamps wrote each of them a letter and sent those with a team picture “as something to bring us together.”
Stamps’ son Ethan also had his senior baseball season taken from him.
“I see it as a mom of a senior and then as a coach of seniors,” she said. “So I kind of know the face they put on for the public but I see them at home, and they’re really bummed out. No matter if they’re telling me they’re OK, I can tell if they’re really not because I see it at my own house. I think that’s helped me reach out to these seniors.”
Morgan County High had an enrollment of 939 students as of last October. Approximately 450 of them participated in one or more sanctioned athletic activity.
Seth Robertson and his teammates had already run a school record-setting 4x100-meter relay this season. He made no qualms about his expectations: the Bulldogs’ first state championship in the event.
“It was devastating, for sure, just knowing that we could never finish,” said Robertson, a football standout committed to Georgia Southern who also played on the Morgan County baseball team. “It’s always going to be that not knowing that we could go on to the state level and show what we had.”
For the senior athletes of Morgan County, like thousands of others across the country, the premature end to their seasons left many unanswered questions – on the field and in their relationships.
Haylee Patterson and her golf teammates were playing in their first tournament of the season when they realized the impact that coronavirus would have on the remainder of the schedule. Patterson was looking forward to helping rebuild a young team with fellow senior Maitlin Stapp.
“We loved playing with each other,” Patterson said. “We had made a really good friendship the last two years. It’s been really tough on us.”
Although Patterson takes solace in being able to golf later in life, drifting away from her friends is not the storybook ending she dreamed for her high school career.
“I think we’re really missing out on our final goodbyes,” Patterson said. “It just felt like it was taken so fast.”
Patterson and Robertson stay in touch with former teammates and work out in their backyards to maintain semblances of bygone routines. While Robertson stays fit in hopes of going to Statesboro in June for orientation and summer camp, the possibility of no college football this fall weighs heavily on him.
“That’s heartbreaking,” Robertson said. “I just hope that I can go out there on Saturday and play ball really.”
Doug Connelly, Morgan County’s athletic director, strives to mimic the normal work day, getting to his desk by 8 a.m., in his red M-lettered ball cap.
That desk, however, normally serves as his family’s dining room table. And instead of having it to himself, it's a multi-purpose workstation. His wife, Ivey Connelly, is a teacher. Their three children -- Trace, 10; Lila Mae, 7, and Tucker 5 – are students. They all use the same space.
He works on projects (notably a revised athletic handbook) and communicates with coaches virtually. He has the freedom of an extra hour’s sleep. But something feels off. Connelly yearns for daily handshake greetings with colleagues.
"Nothing is typical any more," Connelly said. "This is all so new."
A cloud of uncertainty looms over Connelly, too. With sports grounded, there's no plan for when, or if, football season — the main money maker — will begin.
Connelly has no concerns for lost spring-sport gate revenues. The cancellation of championships, and the travel expenses that saves, serves as a financial "wash," he said. The county’s board of education also provides funding.
The issue lies with the uncertainty of football season and sponsorships. Connelly had designed a branding-display package for businesses. Some scheduled quarterly or bi-annual payments, and one is due in June. Connelly is debating whether to delay or cancel the collection.
"It's very important for us and helps run our teams," Connelly said. "It's a huge concern as to whether they'll renew sponsorship."
Everybody knows each other in Madison, so Connelly is extra aware of the burdens small businesses face. He’s trying to keep his programs afloat while not putting his neighbors in a position to sink.
Connelly struggles to find a solution. One that might not come until he’s back at his school office.
"When we do have our first football game, I feel confident that people will support," principal Miki Edwards said.
Ethan Stamps needed eight home runs to break his father’s school career record of 32. Stamps hit five in the last two series the Bulldogs played.
“Every time I hit a home run, I looked at my dad, and we laughed at each other, because he was getting worried I was actually going to beat the record,” Ethan Stamps said.
Crandall Stamps graduated in 1988.
The younger Stamps will play baseball at Lipscomb University in Tennessee next season. His goals for this last high school season were to hit the ball hard and get on base, he said, but the thought of beating his dad’s record constantly ran through his mind.
“By him getting closer and closer with the home runs he hit, it gave him more drive and focus to keep working hard,” Crandall Stamps said. “It would have meant a lot to him.”
Not being able to beat the record was tough, Ethan Stamps said, but losing his final season with his teammates after a good start in region play was tougher.
Ainslie, the coach, said he hopes to get the whole team together over the summer to play one last game.
“When we are done with the shutdown, we would like to have a senior night and a banquet and a final intrasquad game, so they can have some memories of going out on the field one last time." Ainslie said. "We all need that.”
Bill Malone has thought about 9/11 often in recent weeks. The Morgan County football coach for 26 years sees a lot of similarities in his community between then and now: fear, tragedy, uncertainty.
Back then, though, the time it took to return to normality was shorter.
“During 9/11, we canceled football games for that week,” Malone said. “But, by God, we knew we’d be out there next week.”
Things are different from 9/11, and by a wide margin. The rallying cry following the terrorist attacks for a small-town community gathering at a high school sports event can’t be replicated in a time of social distancing. For each day that rally doesn’t come, anxieties in Morgan County grow.
“This has been like a bulldozer to us,” Malone said. “This thing is just continuing to pile up and pile up and pile up, and we don’t know when it’s going to stop.”
You can hear the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns in people’s voices in Madison. Malone can also see it in the town square. What used to be a gathering place is now a ghost town.
“I have a very big concern for small businesses,” Malone said. “You go to the post office and that's about the only place you can go to in the town square.”
Football season serves as a beacon of hope here that can bring pride and joy back to the community. Now, a fall football season is in question, and hope dwindles as uncertainty grows.
“This is when we’re really starting to gear up,” Malone said. “There’s usually motivation that the season is right around the corner. Right now, we’re missing that.”