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UCHS teams face uncertainties due to COVID-19

By Trey Williams

When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and the prospects of playing high school “contact” sports in 2020, Unicoi County High School athletic director Michael Smith is certain of one thing.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Smith said Sunday.

On Wednesday, Governor Bill Lee extended a state of emergency that includes no contact sports through Aug. 29. Barring an exemption being granted to the TSSAA, football and girls’ soccer won’t begin practice before Aug. 30. Football season wouldn’t start prior to Sept. 18.

A variety of options for a shortened football season and postseason is being considered, and one is set to be chosen on Tuesday. An eight-game regular season with one less round of playoffs is an option, as is a seven-game regular season with the same number of playoff teams as previous seasons.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the state of emergency won’t again be extended at the end of August, which Smith, a reasonable man with a low-key demeanor, notes with an exasperated chuckle.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Smith said. “We’re just kind of playing it by ear at the moment and seeing what happens next. You never know, the governor may change his mind on Aug. 29 and rescind it earlier – or not. I don’t know. The TSSAA may end up being the one that takes over and is in charge of whether or not the high school sports get played (like it is with college and professional sports).”

Golf, volleyball and cross country are slated to begin on their normal schedule. Granted, volleyball players and cross country runners would certainly have their moments in close confines, and volleyball has the added risk of being indoors, which appears to be more conducive for virus transmission.

“And even cross country,” Smith said, “when you start a meet, you’ve got everybody right there on the line together.”

And cross country runners obviously won’t be wearing masks.

Smith doesn’t suggest having any strong feelings about what’s best for high school sports during these strange days.

“Who knows, we could start normal and nothing even happen, or we could start normal and half the people practicing get sick,” Smith said. “No one has a clue and everybody’s just guessing.”

He does cringe thinking about the possibility of football season being shortened or canceled when Gentry Stadium will be sporting a $3.2 million overhaul.

“It looks great,” Smith said.

Unicoi County High School football coach Drew Rice is still hopeful a full season can be played in the Blue Devils’ refurbished home.

“Best-case scenario is they give the TSSAA the exemption,” Rice said, “or even if they reeled the Aug. 29 extension date back a month, I think either of those allow us to have a normal, full 10-game season. After that, I support any option that allows our guys, especially our seniors, the opportunity to play football this fall. I really want our guys and our community to get to experience the new stadium. It’s truly incredible.”