COVINGTON, Ga. — A hot topic issue was recently brought up at a board of education meeting for Newton County School System (NCSS). On April 26, Chief Operations Officer Michael Barr laid out a capital improvement plan that mentioned renovations to Sharp Stadium.
Among the renovations was the installation of an artificial turf playing surface for Sharp Stadium — a facility that first opened in 1956 now shared by Alcovy, Eastside and Newton high schools.
Local coaches expressed how they believe upgrades to Sharp Stadium would go a long way for their overall program’s success. In fact, Newton head football coach, Camiel Grant Jr., recognized how Newton County athletics’ past success may be a contributing factor to why nothing has been updated for awhile now.
Grant referred to past success as a double-edged sword.
“There may be a perception that, because we do so well, that we have everything we need,” Grant said. “We are kind of a victim of our own success in a lot of ways. If I had one message to get across, it would be: Please realize we’re doing more with less. The success we’re having is mainly because of the great kids that we have, but there is so much more that could be done here if we could just catch up with what’s going on around us.”
Jay Cawthon, Eastside’s head football coach as well as a former player for Newton in the late ‘80s, said he’s noticed that athletic facility upgrades inside and outside of Sharp Stadium have been long overdue.
“I just don’t think athletics are put as high up on the pedestal as they need to be,” Cawthon said. “I just really think athletics and any extracurricular activity in high school is a major part of the morale of the school. I don’t think the importance sometimes is put on athletics, in general. And in other counties, it is.”
Entering his fifth year at the helm of the Rams, in addition to his time as an assistant coach, is Grant. And while he agrees with Cawthon, Grant pointed to specific areas inside Sharp Stadium that need to be addressed.
“There’s not really a great space for the visitor’s locker room,” Grant said. “The press box hasn’t been updated in years. The field itself…If we’re going to have three teams on that field, then either you have to spend a lot more money for the grass surface and drainage or you have to put turf there. Because, when you get to the end of the season, it’s not a good playing surface for any of us.”
Concerning the playing surface’s durability throughout a season, Cawthon shared a story of an Eastside home playoff game in 2018. Due to the poor field conditions by that point in the year, the Eagles’ second round home playoff game had to be relocated to Social Circle High School, which has a turf field. Then, in the quarterfinal, Cawthon said the conditions weren’t much better a week later.
“You shouldn’t have to move a home football game, especially in the playoffs in the second round in the GHSA, to another site because of your playing surface,” Cawthon said.
Alcovy athletic director Thomas Lowe acknowledged how he’s a fan of installing turf at Sharp Stadium. One of the reasons is turf’s resilience throughout the season.
“If you did have to stack the games back-to-back the field couldn't handle it,” Lowe said. “I couldn’t imagine if we had three home games on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, by that Saturday game the field is torn up. Hopefully, they can adopt what the other counties are doing and have turf on all of the fields. That way we can practice on the same type of surface we’re going to play on.”
Grant said the out-of-date nature of the facilities becomes glaring when traveling to compete against teams in Newton’s region.
“I don’t think there is a thorough understanding of what it means to be a 7A program,” Grant said. “And when you look at what the other 7A programs across the state of Georgia have in terms of facilities, then you realize how far behind you are.”
As a matter of fact, Cawthon has found himself discussing the quality of facilities with opposing head coaches before kickoff on Friday nights. Turf, in particular, seems to be the theme of each conversation, Cawthon said.
“It’s every Friday night when we’re hosting a team, that’s what the opposing head coach and me are talking about,” Cawthon said. “They can’t believe it’s not turf when you have three high schools that play on the same field. Then every team around us and in our region, Alcovy’s region and Newton’s region…it’s turf.”
According to Cawthon, the last upgrade to Sharp Stadium was in 2009 when the visitor’s stands were installed. Prior to that, Cawthon said that it was 1987 when the last renovation was done.
Issues with out-of-date amenities of Sharp Stadium aren’t the only ones Cawthon and Grant have, though. Cawthon acknowledged how other facilities aren’t the best, either.
“I know all three high schools’ practice fields are awful,” Cawthon said. “I feel like if there were some people who knew what we had to practice on every day, there would be something done. Our kids deserve something better.”
But the coaches’ frustrations do not stem from personal interests or from their own desires. However, they both want to see better facilities for their student-athletes to enjoy.
Grant stressed how important it would be for a player’s high school career in more ways than one.
“For me, it’s about my kids being able to experience the same type of quality as their competitors,” Grant said. “Is that going to win another ball game? Probably not. But it does go a long way in the experience our kids are going to have. As a coach, I want them to have the greatest athletic experience.”
Additionally, Grant highlighted how the different athletic atmosphere in today’s society could influence a kid’s perspective on their high school career.
“A lot of kids, in youth sports, play travel ball,” Grant said. “So, when they get to high school, they have played with kids from a lot of different communities. When they go to other places and see certain things and have to come back home and it isn’t up to what their former teammates have migrated to, then it’s hard to retain them.”
Though both coaches have acknowledged the importance of facility upgrades are to each program day in and day out, they each took it a step further.
Cawthon accentuated how successful athletics could bolster a school year for any school in any county.
“I believe athletics are a big part of a school’s morale,” Cawthon said. “I’ve always said, ‘If you have a good football season, that sets the tone for a school year.’ There’s no doubt about that.”
All in all, both Cawthon and Grant long for the day to see improvements made to Sharp Stadium and beyond. They both recognized the impact better facilities could make on the success of each athletic program at Alcovy, Eastside and Newton, as well as the schools in general.
Cawthon said placing more of an emphasis on athletics could make a difference from an individual student’s perspective, too.
“We just feel like, as coaches, any extracurricular activity is so important to a student because it doesn’t take but for one student to get involved with something and you’re taking her or him out of trouble,” Cawthon said. “And it makes them want to come to school, pass their classes, have good academics, stay eligible and stay out of trouble. That’s our main goal. And I believe the more importance that is set toward athletics really helps the youth.”
But now, with this issue being discussed among the Board of Education, both coaches are hopeful moving forward.
“[Discussing improvements at BOE meetings] is a big step forward from anything I’ve seen in the 13, 14 years I’ve been here,” Grant said. “But I would hope that the coaches and the athletic directors in the county are allowed to be a part of those conversations. I think you have a lot of experience in the county and people who know what these things should look like. And it would be very disappointing if we aren’t involved in the conversation.”