East Ridge played its first two football games of the season on the road.
It was good practice — because all of a sudden, the Pioneers are homeless.
Raymond James Stadium, at least the home side, has been condemned by the city of East Ridge. It appears the team will still be able to use the coaches' offices and the locker rooms for now.
Pioneers coach Tracy Malone would confirm only that the home side of the stadium had been condemned and that East Ridge's first home game, set for 7:30 p.m. Friday against Signal Mountain, would be played at Baylor.
"We're taking this day by day," he said. "We knew we wouldn't be able to play at home this week because our visiting side bleachers aren't big enough to handle home and visiting crowds."
When Malone learned of the dilemma, he called Baylor, knowing the Red Raiders were on the road this week, and secured the use of their Heywood Stadium.
"We're very appreciative that Baylor is allowing us to play our game there," he said. "We're hoping to go over and play a good game against Signal."facebook
Sources in the East Ridge community said a citizen registered a complaint regarding the condition of the stadium and that an East Ridge fire marshal showed up at the school about three weeks ago.
He returned within a week with a building and code inspector for the city of East Ridge. The stadium was condemned at that time, with a letter detailing problems with the facility and what must be done to bring it up to code then sent to Hamilton County Schools officials.
"I haven't been in the loop thus far, but I know it's a shame," East Ridge athletic director Catherine Neely said. "Tracy told me about it, but I don't know what has happened. I don't know if it's just the bleachers (that have been condemned) or whether it includes the coaches' offices and the locker rooms or what."
The county hasn't been sitting on its hands. Lee McDade, assistant superintendent for the school system, was at the school late last week to assess the stadium's shortcomings. When contacted Sunday afternoon, McDade said his first priority was to have a structural engineer check the stadium.
"I don't know if it can be patched enough to make it through the season or not," he said. "If he says it is structurally sound, we'll go from there. If not, we'll have to see. I don't want to speculate."
It seems likely East Ridge's football team could be on the road the rest of the year.
"I can't say for sure, but that's what it sounds like to me," Neely said.
The school was built in the late 1950s and, according to Times Free Press records, the first Pioneers football team took the field in 1959.
The late James was the school's second head football coach, following Mack Franklin, and served in that capacity from 1969 to 1990. Among those who followed him in the role were his son, Tim.
"It's unfortunate. The timing is bad, but any time there's a safety issue, you want to err on the side of caution," James said. "There have been issues for years trying to keep (the stadium) together."
He recalled a time in the late 1980s, when the facility was almost 30 years old, when the county had workers install some structural steel.
"It's a concrete facility that's free-standing, so you're going to have some issues with decay," James said. "It's always been a battle of maintaining facilities there, but I think it's an issue throughout Hamilton County, and you do the best you can to maintain your facility. When we had leaks or plumbing problems, the county came out and addressed those as best they could. If the facility is salvageable, I hope that it's salvaged."
James is now an assistant coach at LaFayette after starting the program at Heritage in 2008 and serving as head coach there through 2013.
"Hamilton County was always good to me, and I'm not going to knock them," he said. "I'm in Georgia now, and I know that the school systems (in Georgia) are responsible for maintaining the facilities as far as fieldhouses and that type of thing."
But with East Ridge's stadium bearing his father's name, James has a vested interest.
"Right now it's a wait-and-see situation," he said when asked about a possible fund-raiser. "Anything I did would be knee-jerk. I'm sure the powers that be will meet and try to find solutions."
Contact Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.