COVID-19 caused the cancellation last fall of one of the nation’s greatest high school football rivalries – Pisgah vs. Tuscola.
Although the game has finally been rescheduled for next week, the coronavirus pandemic will have an impact on the number of spectators in the stands, due to capacity limits.
That has fans, families and elected officials in Canton and in Waynesville all fired up.
You may recall what a crowd usually sounds like when 15,000 spectators gather to watch a high school football game in North Carolina but with the season set to begin next Friday, those crowds will more likely be much more quiet.
Despite having an outdoor stadium with a capacity of more than 10,000 spectators, when Haywood County’s Pisgah High School hosts Tuscola on Feb. 26, the decades-old rivalry game will only be allowed a capacity of a hundred people.
“We've got a hundred people coming to a football game that normally has 10 to 15,000 people? It does not make sense,” said Chuck Francis, a Tuscola High School graduate and the elected chair of the Haywood School Board.
In 2020, the game was cancelled, leaving the rivalry on pause and Pisgah with a seven-game winning streak. To be clear, no one wants 10 to 15,000 people to show up at Canton’s Pisgah Memorial Stadium next week, but the 100-person capacity limit has plenty of people upset.
“I can't think of hardly another event that means more to the citizens of Haywood County than to go to this football game and to cheer for their favorite team,” said Francis. “And it's bragging rights for a year. Unfortunately, with the pandemic this year it's been a little over a year that they've had bragging rights on the Pisgah side of the county.”
The capacity limit doesn’t include players, coaches, cheerleaders or band members, but all of them have parents, grandparents, step-parents, siblings, friends and extended family who have waited a lifetime to see their children take part in an annual ritual that’s as important to the cultural fiber of Haywood County as anything else.
Just as his father did before him, Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers went to Pisgah High School and played in the rivalry game. Smathers says the 100-person limit is the result of a conflict between statewide orders issued by the governor and more stringent limitations issued by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
“I know Gov. Cooper's orders allow any outdoor arena that has a capacity of 10,000 or more, you can have 7 percent which would be 700,” Smathers said.
Given that the orders are statewide in nature, they don’t just affect tiny Haywood County’s football players and fans. All across the state, schools that are similarly situated will be held to the 100-person limit.
“The Pisgah-Tuscola game is the first game of this new high school season, but truly this is a Murphy-to-Manteo issue,” said Smathers. “And this is again, personally, for me talking here whether you're a 1A school out in Robbinsville, or you're a big 4A school down east, you have stadiums of all different sizes. We're blessed that in Haywood, we have two large stadiums with large capacities.”
If high-capacity outdoor stadiums like concert venues can have 700 spectators, why can’t high schools? Local elected officials like Francis and Smathers think the game can be conducted safely with a 700-person limit.
“This is a time for the leadership, to find some solutions,” Smathers said. “I truly hope that the High School Association leads on this issue because, as I've said before, I'm a Pisgah bear through-and-through, but this year seems a little bit different and it is very important to me that every participant for Tuscola, they have the ability to have their parents there.”
With the game and the start of the season only a week away, Haywood County officials like Francis are throwing up a Hail Mary hoping for a last-minute win. They’ve contacted North Carolina High School Athletic Association Commissioner Que Tucker, asking for the higher limits.
“We've been leading the charge because of course the rivalry game is not just a Haywood County issue,” Francis said. “It has a huge importance, not only for here, but across the state. And the political influence that we're going to try to push is to get all high schools to be able to increase that capacity.”
Francis said he’s been getting calls from other schools around the state asking how they can help, but he hasn’t heard any news from Gov. Cooper or High School Association Commissioner Que Tucker. Tucker was also not available for an interview when contacted earlier this week.
Earlier Thursday, a bill was filed in the state Senate seeking to up the capacity limits. During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Gov. Cooper didn’t directly answer a reporter’s question about the bill, but did say the issue would be given consideration once the current executive order expires - days after the start of the high school football season, which includes the Pisgah-Tuscola game.