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Florida Crowns High School Football Champions Amid Pandemic

football player runs with the ball as another player attempts to tackle him
Will Brown / WFSU News
Baker fullback Seth Baksa, left, evades Hawthorne's Camren Cohens for a 21-yard touchdown run during the FHSAA Class 1A state championship game on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Baker won 27-14 to earn its first state championship in 27 years.

Doak Campbell Stadium may not be the intimate setting many of the state's best football teams are accustomed to. But its cavernous stands were the setting the Florida High School Athletic Association sought as it crowned state champions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many Florida communities the lights will let you know that you have arrived. At FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium Thursday night, the lights were bright, shining on as Okaloosa's Baker High School took on Alachua's Hawthorne. It wasn't just official school delegations rooting for their teams. Madison County's Thomas Miller came, "to watch good football."

Miller graduated from high school earlier this year, right at the start of the pandemic. His senior baseball season was cut short by COVID-19, so he can empathize with the kids playing on the field.

"When it [COVID-19] hit baseball season, it hit so fast. It got worse and worse over the weeks. I didn't think it was going to get to this, but I am glad it did. It let the kids get out there. I just hope it [recovery] keeps going and getting better."

The coronavirus pandemic wiped out spring practices, interrupted summer workouts and delayed the start of the season. FHSAA Executive Director George Tomyn says during the initial peak pandemic, "some people were saying we can't do things. Some people were saying we should not do things...we started thinking about how can we do things."

In August, the FHSAA Board of Directors voted 11-5 to restart varsity sports in the state. The move was bolstered by Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to restart games at the high school and college level. In a video message, DeSantis touted the games as a success.

"We're fortunate Florida was able to give those opportunities to folks," he said, calling students "fortunate to be in Florida" even as sports in other states saw their seasons postponed amid the pandemic.

Still, there were challenges. More than 100 high school games were cancelled or postponed because of the virus. Parents like Kent Tambling, found themselves worried too.

"I'm not so much concerned about my son, but what I might end up with being the oldest parent on the team," he said. Tambling's son is with Hawthorne's team which played its first football championship game ever, it's season was also filled with stops and starts.

"The biggest concerns was related to continuity for football players. We had to lose a game earlier this season. Actually, two I believe it was. When they come back, you can tell how rusty and out of synch they are. Playing a game every week, that culture of playing a game every week, is important," said Tambling. Baker beat Hawthorne 27-14 to win its first state championship in 27 years.

The FHSAA's Tomyn is pleased to see the season come to an end. More importantly, he's even happier that students, their families and their schools made it through a pandemic semester fueled by setbacks, and obstacles. The goal was never about a perfect season.

"Yes we had a number of teams that had to quarantine. Yes we canceled some games...And we gave our kids, our coaches and our superintendents and our parents the opportunity to see their kids play, and that was the huge deal," he said.

The FHSAA's centennial year closes with two championship games Saturday.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Will Brown