Playing high school sports this year was a blessing says retiring AHSAA Executive Director

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Steve Savarese AHSAA Director
Retiring AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese. Photo via AHSAA

“It was a blessing.”  

That’s how retiring Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) Executive Director Steve Savarese summed up the end of the 2020-21 high school sports year, which saw every AHSAA-sanctioned sport start and complete their season on time and play for a championship.

That’s right, everyone played despite a global pandemic.

Read on to learn how the AHSAA did it. 

A Journey

During the AHSAA Baseball Championships in Montgomery this month, Bham Now met up with Mr. Savarese to talk about the past year. We discussed the cancellation of the 2020 spring season and the collaborative effort it took to play sports again in the fall and the entire school year.

It was a journey to remember. 

Cancelling the 2020 Spring Season

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

No one was prepared for the shutdowns that occurred as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but for Savarese and the AHSAA, all their efforts were directed toward the student-athletes.

  

“It was a period of uncertainty that we all went through last spring,” said Savarese. “We didn’t know from week to week whether we’d be playing, whether we would be coming back. We saw so many groups come together, from our medical group to our educational folks. Everyone was on the same page. Everyone was working for the benefit of our student-athletes, hoping we would get back to play before the end of the school year. It was disappointing from the perspective that our students never had the opportunity to finish their season.”

Though there were no spring championships, many of the spring sports were able to get half their season in. Some schools were even able to hold senior nights. 

It was a very challenging time.

Return to Play in the Fall

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

Determined to return to play as soon as possible in the fall, over the summer, AHSAA staff met the grueling challenge with an amazing grit and determination preparing its schools to return to play. Savarese put AHSAA Assistant Director Denise Ainsworth in charge of leading the collaborative effort that would develop the guidelines.

“She worked hand in hand with our medical advisory board, our state education officials and our state government,” added Savarese. “We all worked together to come up with a process, including a plan to return to play. We wanted to start the fall season on time, because we never knew if we’d finish. We wanted to provide our students with something rather than nothing. Give our kids something that is really important. Every week we played was a blessing.”

Along with all the COVID health guidelines, Savarese also credits the AHSAA Central Board of Control for being flexible in changing and instituting playing rules to keep the students safe.

Before they knew it, the fall sports season was completed and the championships were going off without a hitch. 

The following winter and spring seasons were approached the same way, developing and revising the guidelines and playing the games one week at a time.

Support from the Community

Hillcrest High School
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

Throughout the year, AHSAA received the support of the community and all the parties necessary that allowed the students to play. It has been a deeply anchored community effort with the biggest benefactor — the high school student-athletes. 

“I think the students tell the story,” Savarese reflected during  the state baseball championships from his perch at Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium. “I see it in their eyes, how happy they are. Last night, Westbrook Christian (Gadsden, Alabama) won the state baseball championship. Last fall, every one of their football players sent me a letter thanking me for just being given the chance to start the season. We had so many kids counting on us, just to give them a chance.”

Memories, Records and Championships

It is often said, high school sports are more than a game. Those words have never been more true than this year. 

If you ever need to be inspired, AHSAA regularly publishes stories and news releases about our state’s student-athletes, coaches, educators and schools at the website AHSAAnow.com. The site catalogues memories, records and state title journeys.

Because they played in the 2020-21 season, these students and schools were able to make history and inspire our communities all across the state. Here is a small sample of some recent magical moments.

Bryant-Jordan
John Corbell was selected for the Ken and Betty Joy Blankenship Student Achievement Athlete of the Year Award. Photo via AHSAA
  • Sulligent High School senior John Corbell, a heart transplant recipient and cancer survivor, fulfilled a lifelong dream—to run onto the football field with his teammates. For his courage and inspiration, Corbell was awarded the Bryant Jordan Student Achievement Award this spring.
  • Senior track sensation Cooper Atkins of Scottsboro High School shattered the 33-year-old state of Alabama high school record for 1,600 meters, winning with a 4:08.40 time. At the same time, Brady Barton of Helena (4:11.90) and Mac Conwell of St, Paul’s Episcopal (4:12.55) also surpassed the previous record.
  • Atkins was not the only record-holder from Scottsboro High School in 2021. As a sophomore, Maddox Hamm set the AHSAA pole vault record clearing 17 feet, ¼ inch on his final successful attempt to win the Class 6A championship. 
  • In a state that has a history of producing Olympic medalists like Harvey Glance and Lilie Leatherwood, this year Parker High School senior Jekovan Rhetta and senior Chanice Spicer of Brewbaker Technical High School in Montgomery broke numerous sprint records including the fastest 100-meter dash times in AHSAA state history. 
  • Thompson High School won the state football championship overcoming a nine-point deficit in the final 19 seconds to beat Auburn 29-28 in  the Super 7 Class 7A finals at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
  • Imagine winning a triple header. Plainview High School’s softball team won three games in one day to capture the Class 3A championship.
  • Two dynasties continued—Bayside Academy girls’ volleyball team set the national record for consecutive state titles, while the Mountain Brook girls’ tennis team won its 30th state championship in school history. 
  • And tiny Linden High School, the smallest city school system in Alabama and quite possibly the nation, won state titles in football and track thanks in part to the strong leadership of its quarterback and sprinter Joshua Williams, who also was named the school’s valedictorian and the Bryant-Jordan State Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Savarese Retiring July 1st

Steve Savarese and Alvin Briggs
Retiring AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese and incoming Executive Director Alvin Briggs. Photo via AHSAA

On July 1st, Steve Savarese ends his career at the helm of AHSAA on a high note. On May 24th, Alvin Briggs was named by the Central Board of Control to replace the legendary Savarese becoming  just the fifth Executive Director in the organization’s 100-year history, and on May 25th, Assistant Director Kimberly Vickers was also named to become just its sixth Associate Executive Director by Briggs. 

“I’ve had a wonderful career. I wouldn’t change anything about what I’ve done. I thank God every single day and night  for the blessing He’s provided for our family, and allowing me to serve in this position,” Savarese concluded.

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Pat Byington
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.
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