Rush Propst, COVID-19 among many big stories from busy offseason

Rush Propst, who led Colquitt County to state titles in 2014 and 2015 and won five championships at Hoover in Alabama, has taken over as the head coach at Valdosta. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

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Rush Propst, who led Colquitt County to state titles in 2014 and 2015 and won five championships at Hoover in Alabama, has taken over as the head coach at Valdosta. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Marietta closed the 2019 Georgia football season Dec. 14 with a 17-9 victory over Lowndes to win the Class 7A championship. It was the Blue Devils’ first football title since 1967.

Life was simpler then. Not just 1967, but 2019.

When a coach who led Valdosta to a 2016 state title is fired, then replaced by Rush Propst – and those aren’t the biggest offseason headlines – it has been an eventful past 233 days.

Here are GHSF Daily’s 10 most intriguing stories since those last games of 2019.

*Coaching carousel begins: Three days after leading his team to the state finals for the first time since 2007, Lowndes coach Randy McPherson retired after 18 seasons. McPherson kept his plans from players and staff to limit distractions in what turned out to be a banner final act in a career that produced four state titles, one in his native Florida, the rest at Lowndes. McPherson’s move started the annual carousel that resulted in some 75 coaching changes in the offseason, a total much lower than usual but no less interesting. Rush Propst is back in Georgia, for one. He’s coaching at Valdosta. Kevin Kinsler, formerly of Northside in Warner Robins, retired. Lee Shaw, formerly of Rabun County, came out of retirement. He’s at Lakeview Academy. Mike Palmieri, who won three state titles in North Carolina’s highest class, came to Denmark. Jamey DuBose, who won three state titles in Alabama’s highest class, came to Lowndes. McPherson is still there, by the way. He’s the athletic director, but content watching football from a distance.

*Signed, sealed: The NCAA’s fall signing date sure punctuates a high school season more swiftly than the traditional February event once did. In case there was doubt as to the most talented 2019 Georgia team, nine Marietta players signed with major Division schools Dec. 18. They were Arik Gilbert (LSU), Harrison Bailey (Tennessee), B.J. Ojulari (LSU), Ricky White (Michigan State), Jake Wray (Colorado), Taji Johnson (Boston College), Kimani Vidal (Troy), Rashad Torrence (Florida) and Kiersten Lee (Stanford). All but White enrolled at their new schools in January, but not before the Blue Devils would take the field one more time. On Dec. 20, they defeated Eastside Catholic of Washington 53-14 in Las Vegas. Gilbert would go on to win the AJC and Gatorade state player-of-the-year awards. Last week, the tight end was named the Gatorade national high school athlete of the year.

*Not soon forgotten: Buddy Nobles, coach of Irwin County’s 2019 Class A public-school champion, died Jan. 22 after a six-month battle with stomach cancer. He coached for 32 seasons and was part of six state-winning teams, including those in his native Florida at Union County and University Christian. Interim coach Casey Soliday was promoted as Nobles’ successor. “Coach Nobles was an awesome man and great coach,” Soliday said last week. “His impact and memory will have lasting effects here.” Nobles would be the first of three 2019 Georgia head coaches to die in the offseason and not the youngest at 53. Mountain View’s Rob Kellogg died April 28 at age 58. Kellogg, a diabetic, had been hospitalized in 2019 and 2020 for recurring issues with an infection that originated from stepping on a nail last summer. Rockdale County’s Jamie Baldwin died July 11 at age 45. Baldwin had suffered from a sudden, severe case of bronchitis.

*By a vote of 5-4: The Valdosta school board fired coach Alan Rodemaker by a 5-4 vote Jan. 28 despite his 36-17 overall record, 2019 quarterfinal finish and 2016 state title. Rodemaker said he had “no inkling” he might be fired and called the move unjust, even racially motivated. “I’ve never been reprimanded, never been called on the carpet for anything by my superiors, never been told what I didn’t do right,” Rodemaker said. He filed suit. Rodemaker’s protests prompted the school board to take a second vote at a meeting that drew dozens of supporters, but the new vote fell 5-4 again. Rodemaker was hired in May as Colquitt County’s defensive coordinator.

*Spring without sports: The Georgia High School Association recommended March 12 that schools suspended spring sports until further notice. At the time, Georgia had 31 confirmed or presumed positive tests for the new coronavirus, most of those in metro Atlanta. Five days later, the GHSA made the recommendation mandatory after Gov. Brian Kemp closed Georgia’s public schools. Hope remained that spring seasons, including football spring practice, might resume, but it was dashed April 2. “It is with a heavy heart,” GHSA executive director Robin Hines posted on the association’s website, “that I inform you that all GHSA activities and sports are canceled for the 2019-2020 school year.”

*Propst to Valdosta: Rush Propst, the coach who led Colquitt County to state titles in 2014 and 2015, then was fired and stripped of his teacher’s certificate after Colquitt County’s 2018 runner-up finish, got the Valdosta job April 14. Propst has been one of the nation’s most successful and controversial coaches since his time at Hoover in Alabama, where he won five state titles. Propst was a volunteer assistant coach at Alabama-Birmingham last fall. In March, he regained his certificate from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission and claimed vindication against allegations of misconduct, which Propst largely denied, made by Colquitt County’s superintendent. “It’s just an honor,” Propst said of taking the reins at Valdosta. “I don’t think there’s a coach in football that hears the word Valdosta and doesn’t think of good football teams. Valdosta is synonymous with winning.” Valdosta plays Colquitt County on Sept. 25.

*Something to look forward to: With sports shut down and football uncertain, the GHSA reminded us of what once was good and could be again with the April 28 release of the 2020 football schedules, Granted, COVID-19 has disrupted them. Out-of-state powerhouses such as Hoover and Dutch Fork are no longer coming to Georgia, and Georgia teams aren’t going to St. Thomas Aquinas or Don Bosco Prep as planned. But 2020 represents the first year of new regional alignment, and that will produce Peach County vs. Crisp County, Parkview vs. Grayson, Blessed Trinity vs. Cartersville, Dacula vs. Buford, Sandy Creek vs. Cedar Grove and Coffee vs. Warner Robins, among others. Even reigning champions will play region games against one another – Harrison plays at Marietta in the new Region 3-7A.

*Sports are back: Saying it was time to get back to a sense of normalcy, the GHSA’s Hines on May 21 reopened sports activities beginning June 8 with restricted conditioning. Hines wanted a June 1 resumption, but a few board-of-trustees members urged more caution, so a compromise was made. “These kids have already been away from their fellow students for two-and-a-half months,” Hines said. “They’ve already missed proms and honors nights. They’re ready to get back, and that’s been made clear to me from the hundreds of emails I’ve gotten from parents saying, ‘Please let our kids get going.’ It is time to get going.” The green light came with some speed bumps, though. Workout groups were limited to 20 students and staff, locker rooms and showers weren’t allowed, and social distancing was required. Restrictions were slowly lifted until mandatory practices were allowed July 27.

*Not so fast, my friend: The GHSA’s specially called July 20 board-of-trustees meeting had a sense of dread about it. Would the trustees cancel games? End the season? No, Georgia would play on, but two weeks later. Opening games would be the week of Sept. 4 instead of Aug. 21. Championship games would be played after Christmas. “I wanted to keep the 10 (regular-season) games for all schools because they’re very dependent on playing those games for income, especially those that don’t make the playoffs,” said Glenn White, the GHSA’s president of the board of trustees. “So that was my goal, to keep all 10 games. We all agreed that was important.” Championship games are now scheduled for Dec. 28-30, a Monday through Wednesday at Georgia State.

*Practice begins with uncertainty: July 27 marked the first day that football teams could hold mandatory practices, and they went to pads Saturday. Not all were up and running, however. More than a dozen schools, including Northside of Warner Robins and Tucker, canceled at least one practice because of positive COVID-19 tests or contacts, and more stoppages are inevitable. There had been 655 positive cases reported to the GHSA’s office since summer conditioning began June 8. Some coaches were leery of moving too quickly. “When it comes to putting their lives in jeopardy just to play a sport, because of politics and economics, I think that is wrong,” Baldwin coach Jesse Hicks said in an interview with Oconee Radio Group. “I would love to play football, but God has told us that we can’t. There is a pandemic that we don’t have an answer for. It’s too many unknowns.” Hicks and Baldwin began practices last week, pledging to cautious. Most coaches remained confident football could be played safely. “I think if we all can get to the season, it will be off to the races,” Washington County coach Joel Ingram said. “I do not fear COVID one bit, nor do my players. We do take it 100 percent seriously and are vigilant. Our goal has been to be smart, do all we can to keep things running. Any shutdowns along the way, we still must realize football will still be played, so plan accordingly for when we return.”

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