Havoc, heartache, and hope during sports shutdown

Havoc, heartache, and hope during sports shutdown

At every level, the American sports world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Professional, collegiate, and amateur athletes, coaches, teams, and related staff members have been stuck in a state of limbo for months, uncertain about their livelihoods and their futures.

Big cities have endured great economic harm with the shutdown of professional sports, while smaller cities and towns across the country have suffered a loss of identity and sense of community once centered around local high school or college athletics.

Dr. Dustin Smith, Athletic Director for the Greenwood School District, has seen the havoc and heartache up close as head of one of the state’s most successful high school sports programs. But with the start of the new school year in sight and the recent decision to restart prep athletics, Smith ultimately offered a message of hope going forward. The following interview was conducted earlier this week by telephone.

Starting his fifth year as Greenwood’s AD after filling the same role at the University of Arkansas in Fort Smith, Smith talked about how the pandemic and subsequent shutdown has affected him personally and how he’s been spending his time since schools closed in mid-March.

“I’ve known a couple of (infected) people personally, and they’ve done well and survived,” he said. “That’s obviously positive news for [them], but the reality is there are [many] people who haven’t been as fortunate. We see those numbers every day, and that is a tough pill to swallow, because that’s something we can’t control.

“I had a lot more free nights in the spring that I usually don’t have, which means I had [more] time with my family,” he added. With wife Jennifer, a 1995 GHS grad, Smith has two young daughters in the Greenwood school system. But while he appreciated the extra time spent with family, Smith admitted that he missed the action of the spring sports season. “I missed the competition incredibly,” he said.

“I love seeing our kids compete, and I hated it for our spring sports kids that didn’t get to have a season, and for our seniors who never got to wear the Greenwood “G” again. Some of those kids just play soccer or run track for us, and didn’t get the opportunity to complete their senior seasons, and that hurts my heart.

“When I got my master’s [degree] in athletic administration there was not a course about a national pandemic and how to deal with that, so this has been new to everyone,” said Smith. “We’ve had to adjust, and that’s what we do in athletics. If we preach that to our kids and our coaches, we have to be able to adjust as administrators as well.

“[So] it’s been a few months of adjustments and no day has been exactly the same, because there are different situations we are all dealing with. At the end of the day we’re trying to do what’s right for our kids and our coaches,” he added.

Asked about the role of politics in the pandemic in the midst of a presidential election year, Smith said, “I think blaming it on [politics] is an easy way out, and tries to justify what we can’t control. We try to explain it however we [can]. I just hate that every decision becomes politicized. That’s a bad place for us to be in our society.

“The fact of the matter is that it’s a global health pandemic. We try to politicize it too much. It’s a virus that we can’t control and it’s no respecter of persons. There’s politics involved in everything, but if we would care as much about people as we do assigning blame, this world would be a whole lot better place,” he concluded.

Asked to address the 2020 senior class of athletes who lost their final prep season to Covid-19, Smith said, “I don’t know that words are sufficient for those kids. They are only high school kids once. They are only seniors once. I hurt for our girl’s basketball team that was in the state finals and earned their right to play for the state championship. They were awarded a championship, but they didn’t get to play that final game.

“I hurt for people like [seniors] Harley Terry and Jaelin Glass, Stephanie Shay, Maggie Rozell, and Angela Price. But there are some life lessons [too]. Sometimes you don’t get what you want. Sometimes life intervenes. [But] it doesn’t make them any less of a Bulldog or a person.

“Our spring sports didn’t even get started,” added Smith. “Greenwood and Sheridan have been the two prominent programs in [5A] girl’s softball, and we didn’t get that opportunity to play. Paxtyn Hayes, Rheding Wagoner, Kya Schmidt, and Emma McCorkle are girls that just played softball and didn’t get their chance. My message to them is that I am proud of [them] and how [they] represented our school and community.

“Coach [Tyler] Woods (boy’s soccer) is in his second year and [they] had a chance to be really good, and Coach [Andrew] Post [with] girls soccer. There are girls that have been in [that] program for years. There are track athletes like [senior] Taylor Koeth, who ran long distance for us and won a state championship last fall in cross country, but had a chance to do some things in the spring with our track team. I hate it for them. Macie Cash can still have an outstanding senior year but didn’t get the opportunity to run as a junior [last spring].”

Smith also hired a new head varsity baseball coach in 2019, but Chad Mercado’s first campaign at the helm was wiped out after only a handful of non-conference games this past spring. Traditionally, the Diamond ‘Dogs have one of the best baseball programs in Class 5A.

“We tried to do some things to honor those kids and recognize our seniors with our parade and turning the [stadium] lights on, but that doesn’t replace the opportunity to play and compete. [But] I’m so proud of who they are and how they represented our programs,” said the Greenwood AD.

Fortunately, the pandemic and shutdown had little to no impact on the two dozen or so GHS athletes who signed college offers, most of them before the schools closed. “We had a lot of kids sign, and it was good that our signing days happened so much earlier than the pandemic. We were able to get kids signed.

“[But] I think about people like [senior] Landon Henning, who made a perfect score on his ACT and was a soccer player for us. Kids like [senior] Jackson Stewart played soccer and may not get the recognition, but they are outstanding kids in the classroom. I’m super proud of kids like that, not just the ones who get the scholarships. I’m proud of those kids who take care of business in the classroom as well as in competition,” said Smith.

“We may see a ripple effect with the seniors-to-be right now,” he added. “[But] if you are gifted, [college recruiters] will find you. [Colleges] had to make adjustments on how they recruited. But they are going to find kids that can really play.

“I [also] hated the [lost] opportunities for [younger] kids to develop in our programs, such as sophomores who had the opportunity to play [early]. They missed a season of being able to develop.” Those same student-athletes also missed out on being able to observe older players and learn vital leadership lessons, added Smith.

When asked about the role of school ADs and other administrators in the decision-making process at the state level, Smith was brutally honest. “We’ve been on the receiving end,” he said candidly. “Obviously, we can have conversations, but as far as decision-making, they are giving us directives and we make adjustments based upon that.

“There’s been direction coming from the Governor, and that’s not a position anybody wants. I don’t think when [Gov. Hutchinson] was running for office he thought there would be a pandemic he would have to deal with. [But] he’s responsible for the health and safety of [nearly] three million people. This is new to everyone. There’s no manual for this. They are learning on the fly just like we are,” said Smith.

Asked about the impact of the pandemic on football, Smith said, “Obviously, it took out spring football, but we’ve all operated by the same restrictions and guidelines since June 1, so [all schools] started at the same time. We did have opportunities to work out and train in the summer.” All teams missed spring football drills, not to mention on-campus weight training, conditioning activities, and the 7-on-7 passing competitions that have become so popular in recent years.

“It’s a difficult transition for Coach [Chris] Young because he’s a new head coach,” acknowledged Smith, referring to the longtime GHS assistant and offensive coordinator hired in February to replace the legendary Rick Jones. “He [also] has some new staff members that have to learn our kids and our system and program in the midst of a pandemic.

“Fortunately, Coach Young has been here for 20 years, so he knows our kids, our program, and our community,” added Smith. “I’ve been super impressed on how our coaches have adapted and adjusted to make lemonade out of lemons.

“I know football draws a lot of attention right now, but our volleyball coaches have to do the same things. They have to adjust. We’re hosting [the] state volleyball [tournament] this year, and the expectation is that we’re going to do well. Volleyball returns a good nucleus of [players] who reached the state finals. Girl’s cross country is defending a state championship. Golf and tennis are going on right now as well, so it impacts a lot of people.”

Dr. Smith further explained that district administrators are continuing to formulate plans for the fall sports season. “It’s a collaborative effort between administration, principles, and coaches. [We] don’t want to make a decision without [coaches] having a chance to voice their opinions. We’re working on those plans and what that looks like [with] guidance from the health department,” he said, adding that there will be restrictions and parameters for all [sports].

“There are so many things that are going to be impacted, and we’ve got to take all of that into consideration.” The district is weighing such things as restricting crowd size for both indoor and outdoor venues, restroom access, and how to handle concessions, bands, student sections, ticket sales, and entry points at stadiums and arenas. At present it’s clear all schools will require the wearing of facemasks and some form of social distancing for those attending fall sporting events. Of course, everything is subject to change.

“There will be some sort of mask mandate and social distancing. Those aren’t going away any time soon,” said Smith. “There will be some restrictions and we will get that information out [to the public] once it becomes solidified. There’s a whole lot that goes into it and we want to make the best plan possible.

The Greenwood AD also understands there is no perfect plan. “Is it going to fit everybody? No. The reality is that some people aren’t going to be happy, and I get that, and I don’t take it lightly. I’m just trying to do the best plan [possible] to follow the parameters we’re given,” he said.

The sale of pre-season tickets, along with season passes and parking permits have been put on hold until the district’s plans become formalized and are released to the public. “We haven’t sold them yet because we want to have our plan in place. The last thing I want is to sell a bunch of stuff and then have to make refunds. We’ve got a list for parking passes if people want to get on that, and those are always hot commodities. [But] I want to be able to inform people of the situation and allow them to make a decision that’s best for them,” said Smith.

The AD acknowledged that football and volleyball are the two biggest concerns this fall. “Cross country, golf, [and tennis] have been good at social distancing for years. They were doing that before the term [was invented],” he said. But football and volleyball typically involve larger crowds of people in proximity to one another.

Smith also discussed the possibility of livestreaming some fall sports for those family members and fans who can’t attend in person due to health considerations imposed by the pandemic. In recent years all varsity football games, at home and on the road, have been livestreamed free on the internet by the Greenwood Dog Pound.

“It’s not just football, but how do we try to livestream volleyball if parents aren’t able to get there? How do we livestream tennis, which is more difficult? Golf is extremely difficult. What does that look like for our cross country kids?” mused Smith. “We’re fortunate [in Greenwood], at least in football. But how do we take care of those other sports?

“There are not a lot of towns that have the benefit of the Dog Pound and all it does for our [athletic] program,” said Smith. “We just want to brag about what our kids are doing. There’s a whole lot of stuff we’re in the process of figuring out and that’s what I’ve spent the last four months trying to do.”

As usual, the most pressing problem will be an adequate number of personnel to cover all the bases, so to speak. “I’ve yet to figure out how to be in more than one place at a time, so it’s going to take some people being involved to make those things work,” Smith continued. “I’m trying to make it as seamless as I can, [but] I still want to do justice for those kids.”

Asked about policy changes or facility upgrades, Smith admitted that not much has been done since the pandemic started. “We’ve added a classroom in the arena, but as for the playing surfaces we haven’t made any changes. There are always discussions, but the most important thing right now is to get school up and running. Now is not the time to make drastic changes,” he said.

Fall sports schedules have been minimally impacted by the pandemic, added Smith. “Volleyball and football got clearance [last] Friday, and cheer and dance got some more direction and are on pace to start their fall schedules. Golf is playing right now in Mountain Home. Tennis begins next week, and cross country has been able to practice for a while.

“With school starting [almost] two weeks late (August 24th), we had to make some adjustments, but everything is still intact. We had to make some tweaks to make sure we weren’t playing on the 24th. We’re [still] scheduled to be playing August 20th in Fayetteville in a benefit game for varsity football.”

Varsity football practice started this past Monday (3rd) with players in shorts and helmets with no contact or tackling allowed. Those will follow next week. Parents and fans are also not currently allowed to attend practice due to social distancing requirements.

Smith did announce a recent decision by the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) and the Greenwood School Board impacting students enrolled in virtual learning, reversing an earlier policy restricting those students from extra-curricular activities, including participation in athletics.

“The AAA came out with guidance that said students are [now] allowed to be virtually enrolled and still participate in athletics,” he explained. “Eligibility requirements haven’t changed, [and] we encourage [students] to be on-site. We think that’s great for kids, but we also understand the situation, so the AAA voted to allow kids to learn virtually and also participate in athletics. Our school board approved that last week.

“Obviously, people have to sign up to do that,” said Smith, adding that, “I don’t know how that will impact our kids. Drama, robotics, choir – what that looks like for kids.  We’re trying to nail jello to a wall right now, and that’s difficult to do.”

Regarding the GHS coaching staff, Smith was quick to express his admiration. “It’s special being at Greenwood. It’s just a different place,” he said. “Our coaches have modeled what being a Greenwood Bulldog really is. They have adjusted and adapted and haven’t made any decisions without the health and safety of our kids and staff in the forefront of their minds.

“I have been beyond impressed and proud of our coaches through these last four months. I can’t brag on them enough on how they have handled themselves during this trying time,” said the Greenwood athletic director.

Asked about coaching changes for the new school year, there have been few aside from those in the football program previously featured on the Dog Pound. In other moves, assistant varsity boy’s basketball coach Matt Bryant has left Greenwood to return as head coach at Latta, OK. Taking his place is Dexter Pearcy, formerly the assistant coach for boy’s junior high basketball. New hire Mike Possage is the new junior high boys basketball assistant and varsity track assistant.

Pearcy is also assuming the head coaching duties for the GHS tennis teams, replacing Dr. Ken Hamilton who has guided the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs for a quarter of a century and will remain with the program as assistant coach.

“He has done yeoman’s work in our tennis program,” said Smith of Hamilton. “He’s still part of what we’re doing at this time. He’s not leaving the program. He’s built that thing and he loves the kids. That’s what makes Greenwood special, people like Ken Hamilton. He wants to continue, just in a little different role.”

Smith also addressed the financial considerations imposed by the current health crisis and its impact on attendance at ticketed sporting events. “That’s a concern,” he admitted. “We may have to cut down on capacity. There’s going to be a financial impact that we’re going to have to figure out.

“Fundraising has been put on hold, [but] we’re going to take care of the kids. It may not be as elaborate as in the past, from a funding standpoint. There will be a financial impact. We’re not immune to that. [But] I think we have set ourselves apart in the way we do things as a district. People use us as a model for a lot of things. [They] look to Greenwood as a leader in a lot of [ways]. They respect what we do.”

Asked for any concluding thoughts or a message to parents and fans, Smith said, “Nobody wants to play sports more than I do. Nobody wants to see our kids compete more than I do. It’s what I do every day. We will have athletics, [but] what that looks like is still to be determined. First and foremost, the health and welfare of our kids and coaches is of paramount concern. It may look a little different this year, but that’s okay. We’ve got to follow the guidelines we’re given.

“We [just] want to embrace the opportunities we’re given and make the most of them. But our expectations will not change. We have been blessed at Greenwood to have high-caliber kids and high-caliber athletes. People are proud of this place for very good reasons,” said Smith.

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