It may go down as the great season of what-ifs in Georgia.
Georgia High School Association athletes will not grace the state's fields of dreams the rest of this school year after Gov. Brian Kemp officially closed schools Wednesday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prematurely ending promising seasons and careers.
While that possibility certainly had crossed the minds of the thousands of student-athletes involved, several area coaches said the reality hit their teams as suddenly as a bottom-of-the-seventh walk-off home run.
"It's tough," said Chip Henderson, who has coached Calhoun to three baseball state championships and whose 2020 Yellow Jackets were 9-0. "To have it just taken away like that, I guess that's why this is so hard. You always know once you get toward the end of the season it could end soon, but to play your ninth game and then it's over ... it's just tough."
Calhoun's roster included seven seniors.
"I've talked to the seniors, and they all said the same thing: They just wanted to suit up one more time, Henderson said. "For the safety of everyone involved, it's the right thing to do, but it still hurts."
Unlike the NCAA, which is granting extra years of eligibility for college seniors, prep seniors are finished. Though the GHSA had been inundated with similar requests for its student-athletes, executive director Robin Hines quickly ended the talk after a GHSA meeting Thursday.
"There are no plans to grant an additional year," Hines said in a released statement. "As sad and disappointing as this spring has been, there is a backward trickle effect and there are many unintended consequences associated with waiving this by-law."
For now, though, high school baseball and softball fields, soccer pitches, tennis courts and tracks and the golf courses teenagers compete on will sit barren, like some cruel joke.
"The ironic thing is," Calhoun's Henderson said as he sat outside his house on a sunny, 70-degree afternoon, "the first part of our season was plagued by bad weather. Just look at today, though. What a perfect day for baseball. The field is in great shape. It's begging to be played on, but what do you do?"
Gordon Lee entered the season favored to earn its third consecutive Class A public school baseball championship, and at 8-2 versus a tough schedule the Trojans were rounding into form behind elite pitchers Jake Wright and Jake Poindexter, who were a combined 6-0 with two earned runs allowed.
Wright, a senior committed to Carson-Newman, is still trying to adjust to not being on a baseball field.
"It's tough when you play all those years and not know when the end is and suddenly it hits you," he said. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't playing at this time of year — probably when I was 4."
Wright, Will Sizemore and J.D. Day, Gordon Lee's seniors, exit with 96 wins, two state titles and one runner-up finish in three-plus seasons. Coach Mike Dunfee, in his ninth season in Chickamauga, has tried to stress the importance of remembering the good times to the trio.
"I've told them there are two things you have to learn out of this," Dunfee said. "One, you can't focus on what you can't do. Focus on what you did accomplish. The other thing is one thing coaches always say to athletes: You never know when it's going to be your last one, so always cherish it."
As good as baseball is in northwest Georgia, boys' soccer may have surpassed it in success in recent years. Southeast Whitfield, Northwest Whitfield and Dalton have each won a state title in the past three years, with Coahulla Creek earning a Class AAA runner-up finish last year.
Dalton's Catamounts, in winning their fifth title under coach Matt Cheaves, also won a mythical national championship in 2019. They were well on their way to playing for another Class AAAAAA title this year with a 6-1 record, four of the wins coming by shutout.
"I really feel like we were just starting to play well," Cheaves said of a team with six first-time starters. "We missed a lot of games early because of weather, but we were just figuring out where everybody belongs."
Cheaves hopes to help organize a game, maybe by the fall, in which area seniors can, in his words, "get one last chance to play." Until then, he and others are feeling the void.
"It's very disappointing for everybody," he said. "Right now is the best time of year around the Dalton area. It's kind of a culture here to go out to a soccer game, so I believe everybody is missing it."
The same sense of loss is being felt across the state and its nine GHSA-sanctioned spring sports — baseball, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, riflery, soccer, slow-pitch softball, tennis and track and field — and it's not just the athletes who are struggling with the sudden, official end of competition.
Instead of filling venues like Ringgold's immaculate Bill Womack Field, teachers, students and fans are left wondering what might have been.
"This is a difficult situation on so many levels," Ringgold athletic director Lee Shell said. "It is sad not being in the classroom with our students and enjoying the daily interaction. It is sad to see athletes that work so diligently to compete in their sport not being able to complete their seasons.
"No senior night, no closure on a season and high school career. Granted, the situation our country and the world is coping with is much grander and even grimmer, but it is still heartbreaking for the senior student-athlete that will never be able to reflect on her/his senior season.
"A season interrupted. A season that will never be."