Mid-week championship games can’t dampen spirit of 16 finalists

The high school football state championship games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, four days later than planned, but the inconvenience is not enough dampen the enthusiasm of 16 teams and fan bases that will be part of the first-ever mid-week state football finals.

‘’We don’t care, how could you care? We can play tomorrow, next week, in somebody’s back yard,’’ said Heard County head coach Tim Barron, whose school is playing in a state championship game for the first time in its 47 seasons of varsity football. “Don’t mean that to be funny. We’re just excited. It’s something that’s never been done here. There are so many logistics that feed into the thing that we and coaches aren’t going to understand, and we don’t’ need to. The GHSA is going to make best choice they can with the information they have.’’

The games were postponed last month when the Atlanta United soccer team qualified for the MLS Cup, which was played Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta defeated Portland 2-0 to win the title.

The stadium was not available this coming weekend, so the GHSA agreed in preseason to mid-week games in the event of soccer.

The GHSA was proactive with contingency plans partly because of last year’s unprecedented postponement of six championship games due to a weather storm. The GHSA was criticized by some for moving those six finals to high school stadiums and not neutral fields.

This time, GHSA executive director Robin Hines was insistent on keeping the games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, even if it mean foregoing traditional weekend games.

"Our membership overwhelmingly wanted to play at the Benz," Hines said. "Going to the schools last year, we lost five TV games to which we were contracted with GPB. We also have sponsors that want to be at the Benz and have that type of exposure. But as much as anything, we want to have a world-class experience for our athletes. It's a big opportunity to play in the best venue in the world, really. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them. If we can provide that for our schools and communities and athletes, we want to do that."

Not all coaches and fans prefer the Benz, though. Lee County’s Dean Fabrizio, Peach County’s Chad Campbell and Irwin County’s Buddy Nobles, whose teams are back in the finals this year, have expressed their preference for  playing the finals at the schools. That’s a common position, especially those outside of metro Atlanta.

‘’I am fine with playing at the home stadiums, at least on our level [Class A] and maybe the AA-AAA level,’’ Nobles said. “It is a better atmosphere to me. Some of the big schools may not like it or have the stadium to host a final. Then they may have to find a stadium that can host it. … But it is what it is. If we are there [playing for a championship], then I am happy.’’

At Peach County, Campbell expects attendance to be hurt by playing mid-week. He believes that playing on high school fields is better financially most of the time.

‘’Ticket prices are $20 for state championships, and then have your fans have to pay a ridiculous amount for parking turns into a lot of money for one to have to pay to play inside Mercedes-Benz,’’ Campbell said. “It’s also better financially for schools and the GHSA to host games rather than pay an astronomical fee to play there. More money could be allocated to the schools who need it more. I know a lot of other coaches feel the same way I do.’’

Campbell also prefers weekend games to maintain his team’s normal practice routine. He said that postponing the games rather than playing them on the original dates at high school stadiums has pushed the games into his school’s week of final exams and EOC testing.

The mid-week games also have prompted Peach County and other schools to cancel a day of classes to students and staff could attend the game. Irwin County is dismissing students at 1:30 p.m. on Monday and won’t have school on Tuesday. Bainbridge schools are closed Tuesday. Lee County is letting students out at noon on Tuesday ahead of an 8 p.m. kickoff that night. Rockmart and Heard County schools and Colquitt County schools are closed Wednesday and Thursday. That’s just a sampling.

But most coaches interviewed indicated that they are either accepting of the plan, or thrilled at the opportunity to play in the state’s grandest football venue for the ultimate reward, a state title.

Warner Robins was among the 12 schools that were slated to play in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium a year ago, only to find their game postponed and farmed out to a high school field the next week. Warner Robins actually got a home game out of it and lost to Rome in the finals. This year, the Demons are back for another shot, this time in the Benz.

‘’We were able to go in and sit down in the stadium before the snow [last year],’’ Warner Robins coach Mike Chastain said. “It’s place that they’ll remember for a lifetime. People that have been in this game and done it, they’d say let’s go play it back in a high school venue, and we had an awesome experience last year, but I think our kids really look forward to going to play in that place. It’s something you fight for. I can remember for as long as I’ve been coaching that I want one day to coach in that game. I think it’s a neat experience, and I’m glad the GHSA decided to keep it there and play it mid-week.’’

Warner Robins’ crosstown rival, Northside, is also in the finals this week. Northside coach Kevin Kinsler also had no qualms with the GHSA’s decision.

‘’When all is said and done, kids are playing for a state championship,’’ Kinsler said. “If we have to meet on the practice field Wednesday at 8 o’clock in the morning, they’re OK with it. A mid-week game does present some problems with fans, and I hate that. The community deserves a chance to get there. But there are always things out of our control. We can either complain about it or roll with it. Our focus is on what’s important, and that’s kids getting to play in a state championship game.’’