Alabama High School Sports in 2020 was more than a game

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Linden High School Patriots winners of the 1A State Football Championship. Photo via AHSAA

When I first met with the staff at the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) in December of 2019 to map out stories for the upcoming year, the most common refrain I received from the staff was “high school sports, more than a game.” 

Never before have those words been more true than in 2020.

The following are some of my fondest memories from the stories we published on Bham Now this past year. 

Refs Are People Too

Alganese Gatson is a second-grade teacher at Hemphill Elementary School in Birmingham and a basketball official. Photo courtesy of Alganese Gatson

As a run-up to the AHSAA Basketball State Finals in Birmingham last February, we published a story about four officials who were chosen to referee the finals. Yes, we spotlighted the refs, the people some fans undeservedly love to boo and half the fans may disagree with every call. The refs understand, however, and steadfastly continue to do their jobs.

Along with their passion for basketball, I was most impressed by their backgrounds. A second-grade teacher. A retired combat vet. An auto manufacturer. A paramedic. 

I still remember teacher Alganese Gaston talking to me in between class periods at Birmingham’s Hemphill Elementary School.

My favorite quote from the story came from Marius Dockery, who works as a military contractor at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

“Officiating has enhanced my leadership abilities in corporate America. Being able to deal with different personalities, backgrounds, ethnic groups, understanding adversity and what the players are going through—I’ve blended that into my workplace as well. I take skills I’ve learned on the court and transfer them to my job.”

The Year Spring Sports Stopped

McAdory High School Athletic Director Bart Sessions is preparing for the fall sports. Photo by Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

Like many of us, high school sports in Alabama faced major challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck our nation and our world in mid-March. Who can ever forget the moment when Governor Kay Ivey, along with State Superintendent Dr. Eric MacKey, closed the schools statewide. After a few weeks, it was evident the spring sports season was over.

In May, we talked with McAdory High School Athletic Director and head football coach Bart Sessions about the heartbreaking day spring sports ended in 2020. 

Here is a passage from that story:

On March 13th, a Friday, the state announced it would be closing schools the following Wednesday, the 18th.  Despite the mid-week closure, Sessions and his coaches were hopeful that they would squeeze in a couple of baseball, softball and soccer games. They even looked at participating in a track meet.

It was not to be. By the end of the weekend, school was canceled.  

“We can’t even let people back into the building. Literally, half the teams at McAdory have cleats left in their athletic lockers.  Books were left in their locker up at the school, things you don’t think about. We haven’t been able to let them back in the school to get their items,” Sessions noted.

This past spring Sessions reinforced what he teaches on the football field—you don’t know when your last play is going to be. The same goes for life.

Teamwork

Hillcrest High School softball players at the Patriot Classic February 2020. (L to R) Haley Hollyhand, Gracie Vanderford, M’Kay Gidley, Ty McGee, Ayslan Blake, and Sara Kate Nichols. Photo courtesy of Hillcrest High School

In our June edition, we featured the impact girls’ sports has on a community. We featured the Ramsay High School girls’ basketball team’s courage to overcome the tragic death of a classmate. Meanwhile, over at Oak Mountain High School, junior Emily Cox, who was born with a life-threatening congenital heart defect, overcame it and then turned her journey into supporting the local chapter of the American Heart Association.  

Then, there are the remarkable Lady Patriots at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, who raised over $22,000 for Breast Cancer research. The money is raised via the school’s annual Patriot Softball Classic. Over the years, funds have gone toward:

  • Funding and maintaining two dedicated rooms at the DCH Women’s Pavilion. 
  • Enabling women without insurance the opportunity to receive annual mammograms and other much-needed health care services.

Each story was about teamwork—everyone pulling together.

Ramsay High School’s girls’ 2019-2020 team and coaches. L-R Back Row Standing: Head Coach J.Ward, Asst.-Rodger Smitherman, Naomi Smitherman, Tahli King, Jaleigh Miller, Sydnei Clemon, Bryanna Williams, Kamiyah Manyama (bending down), Zoe Cooper, J’Kala Wallace, Yari Sigler, Christilyn Lumzy, Asst. Coach-Christina Watson, Strength Coach-Triston Pearson Front Row: Keiara Griffin, Mekayla Lumpkin, Elisa Saffold, DK Sanders, Faith Reynolds & Kiyla Calvin. Photo courtesy of Ramsay High School

One other nice thing about the story in June: for the first time in nearly four months, we actually got to see a practice with student-athletes. The student-athletes and coaches were returning. Sports in 2020 were coming back.  

Fall Sports Return

NFHS Vestavia
Vestavia Hills High School student announcers Thomas Wade and Graham Duncan broadcasting from Buddy Anderson Stadium. Photo courtesy of Vestavia Hills High School

By late July, the AHSAA implemented protocols and rule changes to keep coaches, staff, student-athletes and fans safe.

Football returned, as well as volleyball, cross country and swimming and diving. It was a huge task, but the kids were able to play. 


Meanwhile, in August, we featured the NFHS Network, a live-streaming service that gives schools the opportunity to produce their own events via the NFHS Network School Broadcast Program Platform and also gives fans and families an alternative to attending the games, especially if they have underlying health issues. 289 AHSAA schools are now members of the NFHS Network, and the AHSAA’s schools currently rank fifth nationally in the Network for events produced this school year.

Vestavia Hills High School Coach Buddy Anderson. (Photo courtesy of AHSAA)

While football season was in full swing, we profiled Buddy Anderson, Alabama’s high school winningest football coach of all time. He retired after this season, ending up with a state-record 346 wins during his storied career at VHHS where he served as head coach from 1978-2020. What made that story difficult to write was the number of people who wanted to be interviewed. Once word got out a story was being written about him, folks started calling me, even rival coaches, wanting to offer a comment or two about the positive impact he has had on the community. We rarely talked about football games or wins.

AHSAA
Top: Left to Right Abby Waldrep, Addisyn Smothers, Dacey Baker, Lydia Ergle, Sunny Snoddy, Gracie Manley, Coach Kaydi Woodard – Bottom: Left to Right Bailee Ory, Bracie Rodgers, Hadley Butler, Anna Grace Luker, Katie Barrett, Molly Gilbreath. Photo courtesy of Addison High School

In late October, I got to see first-hand the Addison High School Bulldogs play the 2A girls’ volleyball state championship at the Bill Battle Coliseum in Birmingham. Located in Winston County, the town of Addison has one stoplight. On the day of the finals, I bet half the student body was in the stands. They won, notching their 12th Class 2A volleyball state championship since 2003. 

The Fall Sports season successfully ended in early December with the Super 7 Football Championships in early December. Each game was special, but the first game of the 2020 Championships (the Class 7A finals between Thompson High School and Auburn High School) has been called one of the greatest finishes ever and even made ESPN’s Sportscenter that night. Thompson, the defending state champions, scored 10 points in the last 18 seconds to win 29-28 and closed out a perfect 14-0 season. 

Here are the highlights:

Memories

In his most recent column in the December-January AHSAA Executive Director Update of 2020, Steve Savarese summed up the 2020 season this way:

“Watching the expressions on kid’s faces as they experienced championship events was priceless. The memories we have will be long lasting. More importantly, however, these memories would not have happened had we not all worked toward the same goal.”

  

Like any game, no one knows what the outcome of the game before us – fighting an invisible virus – will be. The last year has shown us, on the field and off, that we can get the job done when we work together. 

High school sports, more than a game.

What’s Next

We are in the midst of the winter sports season. On January 21-22, 2021, the state bowling championships will be hosted in Pelham. The Indoor Track State Championships are scheduled for February 5-6 at the Crossplex in Birmingham. And of course, the basketball State Finals are slated to return March 1-6, 2021.

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  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.