In the eight years or so that I’ve covered primarily high school sports in Georgia, I’ve always heard so much about the South Georgia football experience.
And we’re not just talking players and quality of the product on the field. But more so the pageantry and pomp and circumstance of it all.
It's the game day atmosphere that’s second to none, and more comparable to some college settings, and the overall passion fans in the southern most region of the state have for the game of football.
While I’ve covered my fair share of South Georgia football teams, it’s always been when they travel north to play a metro Atlanta school. Needless to say, I’ve wondered what it would be like to actually take in that much ballyhooed atmosphere.
Well, after Friday night’s excursion to Lowndes in Valdosta, I can no longer say I’m void of the experience. I also can say it wasn’t the kind of experience I thought or hoped it would be.
First, the results were definitely less than what Newton football fans were hoping for. At the risk of someone thinking I’m sounding like a homer, let me say that there is no way Lowndes is 57 points better than Newton.
Vikings quarterback, Michael Barrett is as good as advertised, and there’s some obvious speed and physicality sprinkled throughout their roster, but 57-0 better?
Nah. Friday’s game was a classic case of the snowball effect where a few bad breaks, bad plays, costly penalties and mistakes just compounded in the worst possible way.
Add to it the often fragile emotions of teenagers trying to battle through that and a storm-shortened week of practice, and you have a recipe for disaster in a hostile road environment. To its credit, Lowndes took advantage of every misstep, mis-snap and mistake, and the Vikings momentum was like that of a snowball rolling down hill.
I picked Newton for the upset, and I would do so again if these teams were playing next week. This year’s version of Lowndes is good, but definitely no powerhouse. Even one of their own fans who stood with me on the sidelines said that this was the weakest Lowndes squad they’ve seen in years.
Beyond that, the atmosphere at Lowndes was definitely a rarity for high school football in most places.
A 15,000 seat stadium. Huge band. A large, digital scoreboard broadcasting the success of state championship teams of the past during timeouts. It all screams, “Lowndes football is a big deal,” which is why I was less than impressed with the way the press was treated — at least the visiting press.
Typically when there’s five-star treatment doled out in a program, it encompasses everything from the game day experience to the treatment of press. I didn’t find the latter, Friday.
As we tried to bring you the best coverage possible, our sports staff that traveled to Valdosta was met with multiple obstacles, runarounds and diversions that just didn’t seem to make sense for a properly credentialed reporter and photographer trying to cover a non-region, regular season game.
Everything from being told we couldn’t get in because we hadn’t called beforehand — something I’ve never had to do in a home or away high school football game, even during the playoffs — to being given sideline passes only to have them confiscated because they weren’t “visiting passes.”
One individual actually told me as we walked to retrieve these visiting passes that proved to be non-existent that, “we do not let press in the press box.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
I feel like if the Newton coaches didn’t walk by, one after another, to shake my hand and thank me for coming, I probably would’ve been ushered to general admission seats. The two orange general admission tickets we received as we first came in, despite showing our press passes, seemed to suggest that.
I was going to leave it alone until I started getting corroborating reports on social media from more than a half dozen Georgia sports writers about the very “unhelpful” attitude that seems to pervade the South Georgia area when it comes to welcoming members of the press to cover football games.
Apparently this is, and has been a major problem. And if we were coming to muckrake or be a nuisance, I could understand.
But we weren’t, and typically we don’t. Sports editors and sports writers, probably more than anyone in my profession, typically want to find as many feel-good ways to cover quality student athletes as possible.
You’d think a program so steeped in football success would invite that, or at least welcome it. Instead, the way we were treated gave off the vibe that we were merely being tolerated. And that, barely.
Maybe such schools believe that they’ve arrived to a place where they see sports journalists and quality sports journalism as expendable. I’m glad that I don’t serve such schools as the sports editor of The Covington News.
All of our programs and their coaches are accommodating to media, as far as I can tell. And you make it easy for us to do our jobs. I know sometimes you hold your breath or roll your eyes a bit when we approach after a tough loss or if a player gets injured or in some sort of trouble.
But I want to say, ’thank you,’ for understanding that we have a job to do and making it easy for us to do it here.
I also want to express appreciation to those from our area who stood up for us on social media as I told the story of our difficulties. I only ask Newton County sports fans, athletic directors and personnel one thing:
Even when our teams start regularly challenging for state titles and even as we continue to build top-notch athletic programs throughout our county, please let’s never lose that cooperative and hospitable spirit.
Trust me when I tell you, it’s appreciated more than you know. And even more so, now that I’ve seen that the “other side” isn’t always so kind.
Gabriel Stovall proudly serves as the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 and follow our sports Twitter page @CovNewsSports.