4 Questions with Oconee County head coach Travis Noland

Oconee County quarterback Max Johnson (14) attempts a pass against the pressure from Blessed Trinity linebacker Michael Mitchler (18) in the first half of the Class AAAA high school football state title at Georgia State Stadium Saturday, December 14, 2019 in Atlanta. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Oconee County quarterback Max Johnson (14) attempts a pass against the pressure from Blessed Trinity linebacker Michael Mitchler (18) in the first half of the Class AAAA high school football state title at Georgia State Stadium Saturday, December 14, 2019 in Atlanta. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Today’s interviewee is Oconee County coach Travis Noland, whose team reached the Class 4A final last season. The Warriors are in 3A this season and will open Friday night at home against country rival North Oconee. Noland also is the president of the Georgia Football Coaches Association.

Travis Noland, Oconee County head coach

1. How does it feel to be days from the opener in the most uncertain season of our lifetimes? “It’s a great feeling knowing that what we all thought might be impossible is possible at this point. I also feel like we’ve been drinking water through a fire house. What usually takes months we’ve had to do in weeks. There’s excitement to play but a lot of nervousness to make sure we’ve got our team prepared.”

2. How would you describe the Oconee County-North Oconee rivalry compared to some of the ones you’ve experienced in your career? “I’ve been blessed over the years. When I was in North Carolina, we had the Tiscola-Pisgah rivalry. It’s been voted the No. 1 rivalry in the state [by USA Today]. Then when I was at Stephens County, we had Hart County and Habersham Central. Both of those were huge for us there. This compares to one of those. Part of what makes it special is because we’re four miles apart. Our kids interact a lot outside of ball. Both sides hate each other during the week of the game but pull for each other on other nights because Oconee County is a tight-knit community. ... It helps when you’re not competing for the same playoff spot. [The two are no longer in the same region.] That’s why we want it to be the first game, where we’ll have all summer to build it up.”

3. How will your team be this year? [Oconee County graduated quarterback Max Johnson, now at LSU, but returned 10 players who got all-region recognition.] “I don’t ever like to use the term rebuilding. I know people didn’t expect us to be the place where we ended last year. We have a lot of holes to fill, but there are a lot of good players left in the program. We feel we’ve got guys who’ve been working for a couple of years for their opportunity. If we’re fortunate to play a 10-game schedule, by the end of the season, I think we’ll be a formidable opponent.”

4. How do you feel the season will play out statewide with the challenges of COVID-19? “Nobody can predict anything the way this pandemic has gone, but it was great to see seven games on ESPN this weekend, not just state rivalries but playing across state lines. Every week we play, that will build more confidence in people that we can do this thing. If the numbers spike again at some point, it might be different. A lot of coaches have just about killed themselves trying to do everything right to give these kids a chance to have what they’re going to have Friday night. There are a lot of tired coaches going into week one because of the protocols, but in a positive way. Coaches wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ve done it probably to overkill making sure we get to week one. ...

“My biggest concern is contact tracing and quarantines. There are way more kids getting knocked out in school by far than those that have tested positive. We had one kid sitting in a class with a mask on six feet away from someone who was positive, so now he’s in a 19-day quarantine. He was never sick and had no symptoms. When he came back [after 14 days], he had to re-acclimate [for five days, per GHSA rules, before he can play in a game]. That’s going to be the most difficult determining factor of how the season goes because, over time, that could affect a lot of rosters.”

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