The 2020 Batesburg-Leesville football season is shaping up to be like none other.
With the impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the season is in question. Head coach Gary Adams is preparing for his fourth season in charge of the Panthers program and is dealing with unprecedented challenges. Last season the Panthers went 7-5 overall and were second in Region 2-AA with a 4-1 mark and a win over eventual state champion Saluda Tigers in the regular season finale.
“I am kinda excited that we have a date set,” Coach Adams said. “I know that could change as we go down the road. For the kids we are trying to find something that is remotely close to normal. I know there are going to be some changes, and it is not going to be as normal as it used to be. After the kids lost a spring season last year, I am glad that there is at least some sort of hope for a fall season.”
Last week, the South Carolina High School League announced several decisions by the Executive Committee that affect not just football but all scholastic sports for the coming year. Those moves included moving the fall sports start date from July 31 to Aug. 17 for all fall sports. That target date will be reviewed within one week prior to determine if it is possible to start on that date.
If that date is changed then so too will the season start date, and with it the length of the sports season as well as the playoffs. At present, the first game of the football season would be Sept. 11 with region contests and a maximum of seven games in the season. Playoffs are slated to begin on Oct. 30 and the state championships on Nov. 20.
The Panthers, like most schools in the state, began their offseason conditioning workouts in mid-June with special guidance regarding COVID-19. Those precautions included small group workouts, temperature checks and coaching staff posing health questions to players prior to workouts. However, these workouts were ended because of health concerns and have not resumed. There were no reported cases of coronavirus among coaches or players.
The workouts “were open it up to all the fall sports,” Coach Adams said. “We were not in the weight room. We decided to do everything outdoors to put us in a position for the 6-feet social distance. We had stations and rotated coaches and players.”
Adams reported that about 45 kids participated in the workouts for about two weeks before they were shutdown. He added that he will meet with Region 4-AA athletic directors this week to “make sure we are following the new guidelines from the High School League for all fall sports.”
For the 2020-21 season, Batesburg-Leesville is now in the newly revised Region 4-AA along with Columbia, Eau Claire, Gray Collegiate, Newberry and Saluda. The original schedule included five non-conference games with B-L traveling to Ridge Spring-Monetta, Swansea and Mid-Carolina while hosting Gilbert and Strom Thurmond. However, with the recent changes the Panthers’ non-conference opponents tentatively are Midland Valley at home and on the road at Fox Creek. It is hoped that these games will be finalized soon.
Plans to schedule Ridge Spring-Monetta and Gilbert were unfortunately scrapped. “We are limited to two non-region games, and we traditionally try to keep the rivals on the schedule,” Coach Adams said. “RS-M is in an odd region with six games but got a bye in week one (when B-L was already scheduled for a region contest). Then Gilbert is going to play Lexington and Pelion for their non-region games.”
With teams scrambling to fill their limited non-conference slate, the Panthers picked up two Class AAA opponents that play in Aiken County. Fox Creek moved up to Class AAA with realignment after going 5-6 in 2019 in Class AA. Midland Valley also is a Class AAA school and in 2019 went just 1-8
The offseason was a busy one for Adams’ coaching staff. The offensive staff shake-up saw Rob Bouknight replaced as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach with Ron McKie. McKie comes from Crestwood High School in Sumter, where he served as offensive coordinator and brings 10 years of coaching experience. Wide receiver coach Bob Roudybush has moved to the middle school staff with former South Florence head coach David Prince taking his spot on the staff.
Offensive line coach Kyle Lynch moved from the district, and his replacement is a familiar one as Eric Gambrell will return to the sideline while remaining Assistant Principal at B-L High School. Nelson Chandler will return at the running backs coach.
The defensive staff remains the same with Omar Collier handling the defensive line, Shane Bryant working with the inside linebackers, Andy Harris with the outside linebackers and Jake Getson with the defensive backs.
The Panthers lost several starters from the 2019 lineup that were expected to contribute in 2020. Tre Robinson, who finished 2019 with 1,682 yards passing and 14 touchdowns, has transferred to new region foe Gray Collegiate. Defensive linemen Jevon Morris and Meosphia Yarbrough have also both transferred.
“I wish all the kids well,” Coach Adams said. “I coach to impact kids, and I wish them well and honor the decisions they made.”
The schedule changes will end two of the longest running rivalries for the program as the Gilbert series has been played annually since 1988, and B-L and Mid-Carolina have met every year since 2000. The longest running rivalry is Saluda, which has been played uninterrupted since 1948.
The 2020 season also had promised a renewal of rivalries with Strom Thurmond (51 meetings) and Swansea (44 meetings). B-L has played football every year of its existence, dating to 1920. In 1932 the school district announced that football would be cancelled due to the Great Depression, but the community rallied around the program and donated enough money for the team to compile a 2-1-1 record.
During World War II, with coach Tom Carson volunteering for the Navy, Bob Miller (who owned the Batesburg Western Auto) volunteered to coach and ended up coaching B-L throughout the war from 1942-44. The 1957 flu epidemic led to three games being cancelled but through it all, the games went on.
While some concrete plans are being set in motion as the season approaches, there are still more questions. One major question is the attendance of fans at sporting events in the age of social distancing.
“The SCHSL has not made a determination on that yet,” Coach Adams said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions right now, and hopefully we will have some answers shortly. We are blessed to have a huge stadium to provide for social distancing.”
Also, traditional dates such as Homecoming and Senior Night have not yet been set. This season will have challenges, of course, but at the moment it appears that the 101st season of B-L football will happen.