Q&A with Robin Hines: GHSA boss talks COVID-19 and the winter ahead

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The GHSA Football State Playoffs got under way this weekend and a grand total of 125 first- round games were played across the state. Score Atlanta Senior High School Writer Craig Sager II caught up with GHSA Executive Director Robin Hines on Monday morning to talk about the ongoing playoffs and what he expects with the winter sports seasons after making it this far into the 2020-21 school year.

Q: The first round of the football state playoffs wrapped up this weekend. It looks like there was a lot of travelling involved, but also that it went by pretty smoothly with a lot of good games. What were your general impressions of what you saw from the first round of football state playoffs?

A: Initially, we are just happy to be there. I thought that things went extremely well. We had a couple teams (Arabia Mountain and Banks County) that were not able to participate due to COVID, but it was considerably less than three percent of our schools and so we just feel good about where we are and we feel good about the jobs that our local districts, athletic directors and administrations have done to allow us this opportunity.

Q: What is it like for the state of Georgia to make it this far with our fall sports and have you been able to receive feedback and discuss the successes and challenges with other states?

A: Yes, we meet quite regularly with Section III, which is the southeastern states. We meet often and we met this past week virtually. Those states that have jumped in and made the effort have results that are very similar to ours. We believe that our fall sports have been tremendously successful. We got through volleyball, fast-pitch and cross country and have already crowned those champions. Now we are into the football playoffs and things continue to go well and we feel grateful to be able to provide this for our kids. If you look back at the spring when we had to cancel the spring seasons, it was devastating to those kids to miss their seasons and to be able to provide it at this point, where we didn’t know where we were going to be in March and April, makes us extremely grateful to be where we are at this point in time.

Q: There is certainly a week-in, week-out approach towards making sure things run their course, but I want to ask you what it was like to be able to make it through that first group of championships with volleyball, fast-pitch and cross-country?

A: What we tried to do is do our best to allow us social distancing and we’ve been working on those things all fall long. The event for volleyball for instance up at Lakepoint allowed us to really spread out and have all our teams in different parts of the building so limiting the contact was important. We obviously prepared to do the same thing in Columbus with fast-pitch and the way we structured the tournament, instead of an Elite 8, we brought in the Final 4 to be able to somewhat control the crowds even though there were really good crowds there. We were not limited as much as we thought we were going to be because the week prior the city of Columbus had relaxed some of its guidelines. And then with cross country, just the way we finished the chute was a difference in the way that we did things. I certainly have concerns about moving into the winter. We put our guidance and recommendations in for those sports, but as it gets colder and moving indoors, that certainly is a concern for basketball, wrestling and swimming. Swimming for instance, there are a lot of places that our schools typically compete in and practice in that aren’t allowing them in. We have plans now to do the state swim and dive competition without fans and that is due to us having the best facility in the country there with Georgia Tech, but we also have to play by their rules and continue making effort to make sure that kids have the opportunity to have their seasons and championships.

Q: Moving forward to the winter sports. Wrestling was one of the sports placed in the highest tiers in terms of risks when it comes to COVID. I glanced over the protocols you have introduced for the upcoming season and it looks like cutting down the number of wrestlers per mat will be one of the biggest safety measures at your disposal?

A: Yes, it is a logistical challenge, so is limiting the number of wrestlers on each individual mat when we get into our playoffs and championships. We will be doing the duals at many different locations so we limit the crowd size. When we get into the traditional rounds, we will be limiting the number of participants per session. Again, you are trying to limit the amount of contact that the wrestlers have. By having additional places where they are not wrestling where they can stay and relax and not be up in the stands with the spectators for example. That’s kind of where we are with that. We will continue to see how things go and we will keep tracking positive cases again and see where we are with that and where our trends may be.

Q: It looks like DeKalb County made a similar move to how it approached football with the upcoming basketball season and announced that they would be delaying their start. What is your overall confidence level when it comes basketball and the season being a success like we have seen with the fall sports?

A: I have a lot of confidence in our schools, in our local boards and our administrations. Just like from the very beginning from pushing the season back like we did, that is certainly something that is their option to do that. No one is forcing people to play. We are at a place where we are doing everything we can to limit the risk. There is always going to be some risk and so each of the individual districts and athletes have to look at those risks and make the decision on where they are going to go with that. There are some districts that are going to push back and that is for a lot of different regions, such as pushing it back to region play because of multi-sport athletes. We support our member schools however they choose to do it.

Q: During nights when we are tracking scores and covering games, I often think about how my job is the easy part of all this. I think about how much effort and preparation that these players and coaches have put into each game and it gives me a sense of how many people are involved with high school athletics in the state. Is that something that motivates yourself, and the GHSA—just knowing how many people are working hard and dedicating their time to make all this happen?

A: There is no question about that. We’ve said from the very beginning is that our goal should have been and was to get back into training and conditioning as quickly and safely as we could. We believe that there are things that are able to be learned through sports and activities that we believe there is not a better place to learn those. Things such as how to be a good citizen, how to be a good follower, how to be a good leader and how to have goals and those sorts of things. So it is very important that we put our young people in those situations. And to look at the effort that went in from those local boards of education working with the departments of public health and fine tuning the things that we provided for them to make it match what they are going through in their local communities is huge. And certainly those local school administrations and particularly the athletic directors and the coaches. The jobs that they have done and all the hard work so they could provide this for their schools and their communities and especially their young people is beyond commendable.

Q: Let’s look forward to this year’s football state championships. One of the differences is going to be that extra week off for the holidays between the semis and the finals. Do you see that as a positive or a potential concern regarding if teams exit their typical environment for the holidays?

A: I absolutely believe that those schools and teams and coaches that are in that situation will certainly have some instructions for their players to keep them safe. Obviously, we’ve got Christmas to deal with, which causes the amount of time going forward, but I think from a preparation standpoint, there would be some coaches that would appreciate that extra time. If you look at it from a COVID standpoint where you are in that bubble so to speak and there is time off and you aren’t in that bubble you’ve been in, there is going to be some concern. And we hope that our coaches and players take care of themselves and that we don’t have any issues going into the championships.

Q: You talked about how important it was to get things started this year. It’s hard to imagine all the opportunities that would have been missed out on. A team like LaGrange making history under its first-year head coach is just one of the examples that sticks out. How important has it been for football to be able to hold on to this season after such a wild and challenging offseason?

A: Looking back at the spring and understanding the physical and mental and emotional well-being of those student that had given so much to their sports and activities and to have had that taken away from them has been shown to be detrimental. And so as I have stated before, for us to be able to do this is the right thing for these kids. You bring up these coaches that were just hired before the season like LaGrange’s Matt Napier, that were still able to put it all together without springs practice, workouts and those kinds of things, it is pretty incredible what they and everyone else has been able to do. For us to be at this point, we are just ecstatic and pray for a safe playoff season with no issues whatsoever and I couldn’t be more proud of our Association.