Smith schools chief says protocol was followed

Andy Reed • Aug 23, 2017 at 5:42 PM

Smith County’s director of schools defended Smith County High School’s soccer coach and athletic director, saying they acted appropriately in regards to the weather when Mt. Juliet Christian’s coach pulled his team off the field, citing thunder and lightning in the vicinity of the Smith County Soccer Complex in South Carthage.

Barry Smith said in a statement released Wednesday he investigated the incident and found Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association rules were followed.

“After speaking with the principal and athletic director, I stand behind my coaches and administration,” Smith wrote in the statement. “The game administrator and TSSAA officials were watching the weather closely. TSSAA protocol was followed at all times. At the time the MJCA coach removed his team from the match, the athletic director asked the head official if he (the official) was requesting a weather delay. The official replied, ‘No,’ and to continue the game.

“I expect our coaches and administration to always keep safety a first priority and will always err on the side of caution in situations like this following the guidelines set forth by the TSSAA.”

MJCA coach Justin Berry wrote in a postgame email to The Democrat on Tuesday night he and athletic trainer Melissa Todd Freeman made several efforts to stop the game with lightning registering 1.6 miles from the game site. He said Freeman and two Smith County sheriff’s deputies asked the AD to stop the game, but were told no. He also wrote the SCHS football team had stopped practice because of the weather.

Berry continued saying Smith County coach Nicholas Bussell told his team to keep playing. But Berry pulled his team off the field with 13:57 left in the first half, forfeiting the game, to jeers from the Lady Owl fans.

Smith disputed some of Berry’s statement, saying the only deputy he was aware of at the game was the SCHS school resource officer, who said he did not request a delay or cancellation. Smith also said the football team did practice and did not stop because of weather. The schools director added that, according to the administration and SRO, the MJCA party left the complex without incident.

When reached late Wednesday afternoon, MJCA athletic director Paul Christensen said he could not comment on the matter, referring to a statement released by school headmaster Mike Lee.

“At Mt. Juliet Christian Academy, student safety is a priority over the completion of an athletic contest,” Lee’s statement says. “We do not put the responsibility of our students’ safety on officials or another team’s coaching staff, nor do we attempt to force our decisions regarding student safety on anyone else.

“The decision our coaching staff made on Sept. 22 was in the best interest of MJCA students and families, and we support that decision.”

As for TSSAA, the primary governing body for high school sports in the state, an investigation is under way. Executive director Bernard Childress told Nashville television station WKRN News 2 he had spoken to one of the two game officials.

“We are still in the process of getting written reports from them,” Childress told the TV station. “The one that we talked to is saying that he didn’t hear anything, nor did he see anything.

“Right now I am getting two conflicting stories, and we have got to get to the bottom of what actually happened.”

TSSAA rules, in accordance with the National Federation of State High School Associations, say when thunder is heard or cloud-to-ground lightning is seen, play is to be suspended for a minimum of 30 minutes and take shelter immediately. Play may not resume until 30 minutes after the final thunderclap or lightning flash.

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