The Early Lead: How Greene County’s athletes carried the torch of responsibility and success in a pandemic world
By BRANDON HURLEY
The mighty virus was dealt its first substantial body blow.
It was the ultimate team effort, one certainly worth celebrating.
Relatively speaking, the fall athletic season was a resounding success as athletes from Greene County expertly navigated a minefield of Coronavirus threats.
While the on-field victories were plentiful and thrilling in their own right, the triumphs secured surrounding the various competitions are the most noteworthy and deserve their time in the limelight.
Yes, I’ll admit, this column feels a little bit strange considering how the state of affairs are COVID-19 wise, but it’s still worth acknowledging what our young athletes endured, valiantly coming out on top.
The varying Greene County and Paton-Churdan varsity squads crossed the finish line, completing the fall slate in its entirety - that’s a statement victory if there ever was one. Consider where we were as the calendar barreled through spring. We didn’t know if we’d actually experience a football and a volleyball season, let alone make it to the playoffs.
Perhaps relief is the best way to describe it, but I’m settling on joy.
Not only did the Rams and the Paton-Churdan Rockets avoid a substantial COVID-19 outbreak, but none of our area’s four varsity teams were forced into any type of elongated quarantine. That’s massive, a crowning achievement for a group of students forever connected.
These athletes, who, let’s not forget are mere teenagers tasked with managing a huge responsibility many of us never experienced, not only competed, but entertained us. The kids took the necessary steps, followed instructions and were careful. By no means was it an easy process, but it didn’t take much for the local districts to zero in on the goal. As the end neared, the GCHS athletic department tightened its grip, which may have preserved victory.
“Our teams played and they finished, I count that as a win,” Greene County activities director Todd Gordon said. “That’s our goal going into the winter, I’m really proud of the coaches and the athletes.....
As a whole as a society, I think we got a little complacent. The football team, especially, they got to a point where they were masking up all the time, they wanted to finish the season.”
The key, Gordon said, was avoiding a massive outbreak and keeping the spread low. The Rams combated that by rotating groups in practice, sanitizing and avoiding shared equipment, if possible. Gordon admits there were times throughout the fall when athletes and coaches relaxed, and began regressing to pre-COVID practices. The activities director sprang into action with a gentle, but effective reminder, invoking a message the Greene County High School has adopted as their own. Humans are a resilient bunch, there’s rarely anything that can’t be spun into a positive.
“It’s the new normal. Our motto through the whole (school year) has been - Adjust, adapt, overcome and stay positive,” Gordon said. “You just don’t know. Things could change from week-to-week, you have to adjust, and control what you control.
Our coaches modeled that, and the kids followed, I do believe kids will rise to a standard you set for them and they will sink to where you’re at, too.”
HOW TO DEFEAT A VIRUS
This fall was never merely about wanting to play - the opportunity at hand was a much needed shot at redemption for many involved. The football team entered the 2020 season fresh off the greatest single season in GCHS history, but knew they had something to prove. The Greene County volleyball team hadn’t won a postseason game in nearly a decade, while the Paton-Churdan volleyball squad wanted to prove to first year head coach Tressa Rasmussen that she had some talent on her hands.
The threat of Coronavirus made the journey a tad challenging, but nothing the 2021 senior class and a throng of underclassmen couldn’t handle. The football team - which is comprised of athletes from both Paton-Churdan and Greene County - was focused on carrying forth a new tradition of winning, a pandemic couldn’t slow that momentum.
Seniors like Jaxon Warnke, Sawyer Schiltz and Zach Goff helped guide Greene County through a COVID-shortened season, using the strange and premature end to the previous academic year as fuel, a quick lesson in what to expect once kick-off arrived.
“Focusing on football wasn’t any different I’d say,” Warnke said. “My mindset was ‘yes, COVID is setting us back,’ but I’m not going to let that affect me and meeting my goals for my senior season.”
Greene County’s small stable of veterans delivered on their promise, powering the Rams to two playoff victories and an appearance in the 2A third round, punctuated by the first home playoff win in the consolidated school’s history. The success was a testament to Greene County’s perseverance and dedication. The Rams heard the whispers, those who questioned whether they could successfully replace some of the county’s best athletes, but boy, did they silence those critics amid a season of doubt. Those wins, and not the Coronavirus, is what Warnke and his teammates will remember most.
“I know the senior class especially had something to prove this year. Our grade has always been the grade that was doubted, we were never going to be as good as the year in front of us and we didn’t have as many athletes as the year behind us,” Warnke said, who played wide receiver and defensive back, leading Class 2A, District 9 with eight touchdown catches. “We wanted to show everyone that we shouldn’t be doubted and I think in the end we proved that. We all made sure we were wearing our masks when needed so that we could meet our group goal.”
There were a few scares along the path to glory, but the athletes from both Greene County and Paton-Churdan triumphantly relied on their resiliency, each squad - including the Greene County cross country program - earning their way into the postseason. There of course was Greene County football’s mad scramble to find a homecoming opponent back in September when Des Moines Christian’s positive test forced a cancelation. Thankfully, Nodaway Valley was available, a win which eventually became a turning point, kick-starting a six-game winning streak.
The Greene County volleyball team briefly went on hiatus when South Hamilton entered quarantine, cancelling their conference match in September. Other than that, local sporting events went on rather smoothly.
These athletes locked in, making a pact to help extend a strange season. A number of factors played a roll in keeping our youngsters in check. A crippling fear of another sport-less stretch (yes, sports are life, trust me) helped remind the Greene County football team of what it meant to wear the black and red and take to the gridiron. They weren’t going to let a unique opportunity slip out of their hands like an errant pass, Warnke said.
“We all knew that at any point our season could be taken away with the snap of a finger, so we all made sure that every game, practice, and film study was locked in so that if it was our last we could make it count,” the senior said. “The whole team wanted to succeed and I think that’s why we made it so far. Our mindsets were that we wanted to win, we didn’t want any game to be our last game and that’s what drove us. On the field when we were playing good, the players enjoyed it, and we had fun as a team.”
The success started with Greene County’s wide range of coaches and the school’s top administrators pushing an elite standard of compliance. They made an effort to not only preach caution, but to join in on the varying safety practices. The football team added a new piece of equipment, a plastic face shield attached to the face mask which curtailed the spread of germs. Hand sanitizers were used often, while athletes on the benches for both Greene County and Paton-Churdan volleyball teams wore masks as often as they could.
Not only did area athletes power through the full fall schedule, they secured a number of top-tier achievements. The Greene County football and volleyball teams as well as the Paton-Churdan volleyball units all captured postseason victories. The Greene County cross country program fielded a full roster at the state qualifying meet, as a slew of boys runners cracked the top 50. Each youngster showed a remarkable ability to block out all the noise and distractions to attain some of their goals. The on-field success not only proves teenagers are some of the most resilient creatures in the world, but a relative return to normalcy can be achieved. The gamble was worth it, in a sense. “It shows that it can be done,” Gordon said. “I think the percentage rate of teams that finished the season may be higher than (what we had in ) the summer. That’s something i think people can live with.I know there are other states that are up there. I think its important to have our kids to be together, to make those memories. It feels good.”