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Feb. 17—It's the moment Haywood County has been waiting almost a year and a half for, and yet most won't be able to enjoy it in person.
Despite pleas from leaders around Haywood County, the state remains firm that only 100 fans will be allowed into Pisgah Memorial Stadium to watch the rivalry game between the Pisgah Bears and Tuscola Mountaineers football teams.
Some have called for outright defiance of the pandemic-inspired rules, but repercussions for violating the 100-person occupancy limit could include fines and even a playoff ban for all of Pisgah athletics.
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers has been a strong advocate for players and fans alike and even reached out to NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker and Gov. Roy Cooper's office. He called Tucker directly.
"I strongly advocated that I have no doubt there is a way we can make this safely happen," he said. "Our players, fans and state deserve it."
Smathers said the big game is important for the greater community but even more so for the loved ones of players, cheerleaders, and band members.
"We are continuing to do everything we can to encourage decision-makers in Raleigh to find a solution that can at the very least allow the attendance of family members, including step-parents, to watch their children participate in this tradition," he said. "I have absolute confidence in our school system, our teams and communities to have more than 100 fans at the stadium in a safe manner."
Despite folks like Smathers and Haywood County Schools Superintendent Bill Nolte making their objections known, Pisgah Athletic Director Heidi Morgan is moving forward under the assumption that only 100 fans will be allowed in to watch a game that usually sees fans standing shoulder to shoulder anywhere room can be found.
"We've asked for them to space out and use the entire stadium so they can social distance properly," she said. "Families have been asked to social distance and sit only near people within the same household."
Morgan said that as a leader, she feels obligated to abide by the state's rules, no matter how frustrating they may be.
"I wish a bit more consideration had gone into that process, but I've tried to remain focused on the fact that we're at the mercy of the governor and the athletic association, and I would not be a very good leader if I broke what they mandate," she said.
Because the home team has no obligation to offer tickets to fans of the away team, the county clash also creates an additional predicament other home games later in the season wouldn't. In a game so important to Haywood County, Tuscola parents also have the same desire to see the game as their Pisgah counterparts. Morgan said she's been working with Tuscola Athletic Director Michael Belue to find a solution.
"They're still part of our community. I wish more than anything they could be here," Morgan said.
"She has been wonderful to work with," Belue said of Morgan. "I speak with her several times per week trying to get our ducks in a row. At this point, it looks like they'll allow a few of our fans, and we're extremely grateful."
Nolte said he's also been thrilled to see Morgan and Belue working together to meet such a daunting challenge.
"That's some of the best cooperation I've seen between those two schools," he said. "I want those two to be as fair and reasonable as can be within the ridiculous restrictions we've received from the state regarding a stadium that seats 7,000 easily."
Nolte said he's been in the loop with Morgan and Belue and noted that there are a few potential courses of action, although he wouldn't discuss details until a more concrete plan is locked down.
"Just know that both schools are working to provide opportunities to senior parents and as much as they can for other parents," he said.
Besides having far fewer fans in the stands, the game will also look different in other ways. For example, two years ago, the festivities began with skydivers parachuting into the stadium carrying a massive American flag. This year, things will be a bit more subdued.
"I'm working on a small pregame show that'll incorporate some COVID front-line workers that'll deliver the game ball," Morgan said. "And we've got a small show that's going to happen right before kickoff, but I don't want to give too much information on that ahead of time."
Some traditions will carry on regardless.
"I know that our boosters club and parents have had conversations about forming a tunnel on the bridge as they normally do," Morgan said.
For those not watching the game in the stadium, there are other options. People who want a bit more of a game day experience can hit up some local establishments that will be showing the game. In Canton, at least BearWaters and Southern Porch will have it on, and in Waynesville, Smoky Mountain Cinemas is making an event out of it.
"We're going to play it on all three screens inside," said owner Greg Israel. "And we're going to show it on at least the big screen out front but potentially both outside screens."
Inside, people will be able to enjoy the game without the elements while outside will offer more of tailgating vibe.
"You'll be able to come out and bring your lawn chairs and watch the game on the big screen," he said. "People will bring their own food and can grill out all they want, but we'll still have food and hotdogs and everything."
Tickets are $10 to sit inside and $7.50 for outside, and Israel said he is still looking for other businesses to cosponsor the event. In addition, Israel said his business will be doing its own half-and-half raffle, with all proceeds going to the schools.
"Obviously this is a huge game with a big rivalry," he said. "People have been cooped up for a long time now with the pandemic and there's not a lot to do that's why we did the drive-in last year to get out of the house."
For those who would prefer to watch the game in the comfort of their own homes, it will be broadcast on MY40 as the first Friday Night Rivals game of the year.
And it seems like those are the most likely ways most people will watch the game. Nolte, who himself isn't even going to the game due to the limitations, confirmed Monday night that it's unlikely that the decision makers at the state level will change their minds.
"I'm planning that we'll only be allowed 100 spectators," he said.
However, there is still a chance that a last-minute change may come through, considering Gov. Cooper's executive order is set to expire Feb. 28, and he has announced new changes ahead of those expiration dates in the past.
"We are always working on plan B and plan C," Nolte said. "I wouldn't say it's probable, but anything is possible."
Likewise, others are hoping the opportunity comes to make a quick pivot to allowing more folks into the stadium.
"I have a tentative plan in place for that and if that happens then we'll do the best we can to accommodate obviously it depends on when that information is actually released," Morgan said.
"People need to know that we are doing everything we can to encourage leadership in Raleigh, but we are prepared locally to be ready in a moment's notice to allow for a larger attendance,'" Smathers said.
Either way, no matter how many people are in the stands, Belue said there is one thing that is concrete, one thing that will never change.
"Pisgah Memorial Stadium is the hardest place to play anywhere," he said. "I don't care if there are 10 people or 10,000 people in the stands. The rivalry is still there, and in my personal opinion, it's the greatest one in the state, the southeast and the nation."