Pandemic curtails middle school sports opportunities

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Courtesy of Cate Barton

Cate Barton has participated in club teams this year such as Inter Atlanta FC and AAU basketball. The postponing of middle school sports until the fall of 2021 has sparked some concerns about the ways Grady’s sports teams will receive this impact, but others think the playing field will even out quickly.

Jamie Marlowe

While Grady sports have progressed as normal this year, sports at Howard Middle School are on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

According to APS Assistant Athletic Director Rendell Jackson, all Howard sports were postponed this year due to Covid-19 and are set to resume in the fall. Because Howard students haven’t played school sports this year, some worry about what’s to come when they join Grady’s teams next year. However, Jackson believes there won’t be any decline in numbers of future freshmen on Grady teams. 

“Sports is not something where you just happen to say, ‘OK, I’m going to go play football today,’” Jackson said. “It’s not something that just happens. Most of those kids that want to play seek it out anyway.”

Cate Barton, a Howard eighth grader, hasn’t played a sport for her school since before Covid-19. In a normal year, she would be participating on the school’s cross country, soccer and basketball and two out-of-school leagues. This year, she can only participate in her two out-of-school teams: Inter Atlanta soccer and AAU basketball.

“I think this transition will be a little harder for me and others that haven’t gotten to play for Howard since this is less training than you’d usually have,” Barton said. “It’s been really weird because [Howard sports] would really help prepare for high school, but Inter Atlanta and the AAU basketball have helped a lot.” 

Because of preseason workouts and club teams, Jackson said rising ninth graders will be prepared for high school level sports.

“Summer workouts for football start as early as June, and they work through July,” Jackson said. “The season doesn’t officially start until late July, [or the] first of August, so you have time to get that work in there. That’ll give those kids an opportunity to get with the coaches prior to the start of the school year, and it allows them to work their way in.” 

Some students are playing their sports outside of school, but travel sports teams have become pricier than ever before, leaving some students unable to supplement their sports outside of Howard. Jackson has heard some travel ball teams cost as much as $5,000 per member on the high end.

Barton said she thinks those who haven’t participated or who can’t afford to be in private leagues might struggle to catch up next year when playing Grady sports.

“I think that will affect them a lot because to not get to touch the ball or go running for a long time [makes it] really hard to get back into the gist of it,” Barton said.

In a normal year, Howard eighth grader Grace Lisbon would be playing basketball for her school. This year, she hasn’t played on a basketball team.

“My parents were kind of scared because there’s a whole pandemic, and they didn’t really want me to be around other people – especially not playing basketball because basketball is a contact sport,” Lisbon said.

Students already face anxieties in the transition from middle to high school. Barton says entering an entirely different school environment with the addition of worries about not being able to perform in your sport is difficult. 

“I know a lot of people that are really nervous for next year,” Barton said. “I’m definitely nervous for next year.”

Lisbon said her lack of playing this year could affect her if she tries out for the Grady team, but is grateful to have been keeping fit through running.

Grady Athletic Director Patrick Johnson thinks the absence of sports at Howard isn’t something that should keep students up at night.

“Students who haven’t played or participated in a sport at all this year may be a little rusty to begin with, but I think it will even out pretty quickly once everyone is back on the same page,” Johnson said.

Although Johnson is unsure of the impact that the Howard sports cancellations will have on Grady’s teams, he also thinks next year’s freshman participation probably won’t be an issue.

“This is definitely a one-of-a-kind year; so, I’m not sure what to expect,” Johnson said. “[Grady’s teams having fewer athletes] could be the case, but it could also be the case that even more students are excited to play and participate after not being able to this year. We saw that with a lot of our teams at Grady this year. I thought we might struggle for numbers in some sports, but we actually saw more people than usual come out in many cases.”

Not everything about next year’s sports scene is unknown, however. Sports interest meetings have been held via Zoom, and coaches are getting a feel for how things might look in the future as they communicate with their possible incoming team members. 

“Athletes are athletes, and those kids seek out the opportunities to participate,” Jackson said. “Our athletic department is really pushing communication, connecting with counselors at the school, teachers at the school, using this opportunity to reach out to kids who may otherwise not have access to our coaches. We’re encouraging our athletic directors and coaches to make sure they reach out to the kids and let them know that athletics is here for them.”

The turnout for next year’s sports teams at Grady will remain unclear until school starts in the fall. 

“I would just encourage any incoming ninth graders who are interested in sports to get involved, even if they’ve never played the sport before,” Johnson said. “We have so many different great opportunities and programs, and it will be the first year of Midtown High School athletics.”

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