BAINBRIDGE — Bainbridge football coach Jeff Littleton was fully prepared to return to Class AAAAA next season and lead his Bearcats against Region 1-AAAAA schools that were upwards of 180 miles away.
Instead, the Bearcats get to stay a little closer to home the next two seasons.
In a surprising move by the GHSA’s Executive Committee on Tuesday, the Bainbridge and Thomas County Central football teams were placed in Region 1-AAAA, while Cook dropped to Region 1-AAA.
All other sports from Bainbridge and TCC were already placed in Region 1-AAAA for the 2014-16 seasons, but TCC, citing isolation and travel issues, filed an appeal to have its football team also join Region 1-AAAA.
On Tuesday in the GHSA’s final region alignment meeting, TCC was granted a move down to Region 1-AAAA — and because that left Bainbridge as the only school south of Columbus in Region 1-AAAAA, the Bearcats were dropped as well.
“It was surprising. I wasn’t expecting them to overturn the Thomas County Central appeal,” Littleton said. “But it helps us out tremendously scheduling-wise. With the travel that we were going to have to do in 1-AAAAA, it was going to put a strain on us. We were prepared to play in 5A because we had 5A numbers. But the GHSA said 4A, and we are happy they changed their mind.”
Bainbridge would have been left in a region with seven teams from the Columbus area — Carver-Columbus, Columbus, Hardaway, Harris County, LaGrange, Northside-Columbus and Shaw. Now the Bearcats are the 10th team in a restructured Region 1-AAAA that includes Albany, Americus-Sumter, Cairo, Crisp County, Dougherty, Monroe, TCC, Westover and Worth County.
At 1,499 students, Bainbridge is by far the largest team in Region 1-AAAAA, towering over schools like Albany High (912), Worth County (942) and Dougherty (954) — three schools that moved up from Class AAA for travel purposes.
Dougherty County athletic director Johnny Seabrooks said if the smaller schools in Region 1-AAAA had known about Bainbridge and TCC being dropped into Class AAAA, then they would have likely stayed in Class AAA.
“They would have probably chosen to bite the bullet and travel a little more,” Seabrooks said. “In the latter part of the third and fourth quarters (of a football game), players (from the smaller schools) start to tire, and from there it becomes a competitive disadvantage. You are talking about a great disparity of the amount of students.”
Seabrooks attended the Executive Committee meeting as a spectator and said he was stunned to hear the news.
“It was shocking,” he said. “The best thing about it was that I witnessed it and nobody had to actually tell me. It’s hard to call your coaches and tell them. … How do you compete with those numbers?”
Bearcats athletic director Stan Killough said there was talk of Bainbridge filing its own appeal to move to Region 1-AAAA in football, but instead the school decided to let the GHSA make its decision based on TCC’s appeal.
“We felt like we had the confidence that the committee would do the right thing, and that if Central dropped we felt that they would surely move us as well,” Killough said. “With Central moving, we would have been the very definition of isolation.”
Bainbridge completes in a region that has suddenly become one of the toughest in the state in Class AAAA. Along with TCC and Bainbridge, powerhouse Cairo will be in the mix annually for one of four playoff seeds — leaving schools in Albany and surrounding counties with an uphill battle for state playoff spots, especially on the football field.
“This is going to be a very tough region,” said Littleton, who was an assistant at Cairo for eight seasons before taking over the Bainbridge program last year. “It will be hard to get into the playoffs. All of those teams have years where they compete, so it’s going to be tough.”