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Championships moving to the dome

    ATLANTA — The Georgia High School Association voted 46-0 on Monday to hold all five state football championship games at the Georgia Dome in 2008 and ’09.
    The Dome, which began hosting every GHSA semifinal in 1996, will serve in the same capacity on Dec. 7-8.
    In 2008, however, the 10 semifinals will return to local high schools with the winners advancing to Atlanta. Contracts between the GHSA and the Georgia World Congress Authority, which operates the state-owned indoor stadium, run for two years.
    If the championships become a fixture at the Dome, the semifinals will stay at local schools. The Dome is committed to hosting the Southeastern Conference championship game on the first Saturday of each December, and the National Football League owns rights for the entire third weekend.
    ‘‘It’s been a long process, but we’ve become more and more aware that our high school stadiums can’t hold big crowds and that we’d better serve our schools and fans in neutral sites,’’ GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin said. ‘‘We’ve been talking about this for several years. It’s not a brand-new concept.’’
    All five host schools last year oversold their ticket allotment, and 2006 also marked the first time since 1973 that the state’s largest classification had to move its championship to a neutral site.
    Though Roswell was due to host Peachtree Ridge at its stadium, the GHSA wouldn’t allow a Class AAAAA title game at a site under 6,000 seats, so the game was moved to McEachern High School in Powder Springs.
    ‘‘When you’ve reached a point where people have paid money for a ticket and they can’t sit down, then you’ve got a problem,’’ said Earl Etheridge, a former coach at Beach High in Savannah and the chairman of the GHSA subcommittee on football. ‘‘A venue like the Dome was intriguing enough for us to try in the first place, and it’s worked very well for us in the past. The bottom line is, with our sport growing as much as it is, we owe it to the public to give the majority what they want.’’
    Another problem arose in Dublin, where Charlton County visited the Irish.
    ‘‘The stadium held 7,000, and they pre-sold 8,000 and had another 1,000 or so that showed up at the game,’’ Swearngin said. ‘‘Many people didn’t even try to attend because they knew the only thing they could get was a right to stand outside (the stadium).’’
    Though the GHSA expects some backlash from fans who never wanted to move the semifinals to Atlanta, Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell believes championships are a good fit at a venue that’s weatherproof and in a city that easily accommodates big crowds.
    ‘‘When we played Clinch County this year in Lincolnton, they were at a terrible disadvantage,’’ said Campbell, whose Red Devils won their 11th state title last year. ‘‘Where in a small town are you going to find a nearby hotel to put up 65 kids, feed everybody and accommodate fans, family members and friends? You don’t have the same demand for tickets to a semifinal that you do for a championship game.’’
    Trey Woolf, who’s coached at Early County since 1990 and overseen the Bobcats’ football program since 2001, remembers the ’98 state title game in Blakely as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a tiny community located some 15 miles east of Alabama and 20 miles north of Florida.
    Carrollton left with the victory, but Woolf, a Blakely native and an Early County graduate, said local people still talk about the big game.
    ‘‘That’s the only negative thing, removing a state championship from a little town,’’ Woolf said. ‘‘But don’t get me wrong. We’d play the game in the middle of I-75 if we had to. If you’re fortunate enough to make it that far, then you’re not going to complain about where you’re playing, but I know that game still means a lot to the folks here.’’
    Charlie Henderson, the athletic director of DeKalb County Schools, acknowledges that local communities will lose revenues. The bright side is that 10 schools will host semifinals instead of five hosting championships.
    ‘‘You can’t make everyone happy, and I certainly know that because we have the state’s largest district with 19 schools,’’ Henderson said. ‘‘But a lot of the people complaining about moving the games to the Dome aren’t looking at it from the perspective of getting ready to play and hold the game. There’s ticket sales, parking issues, food, restrooms, all kinds of issues that need exclusive attention. In a lot of cases, it’s the football coaches who the work, and they’re the ones trying to get their teams ready to play the biggest game of the season.’’
    Beginning in 2008, schools will begin the regular season one week earlier, at the end of August, so the Dome can reserve its usual spot on the calendar, during the second Friday and Saturday of December, for the GHSA.
    The vote Monday took place in Forsyth at the GHSA’s annual spring meeting. Swearngin said he’s not a voting member of the executive committee, which consists of one representative from each of the state’s 40 athletic regions and five classifications.
    The committee also voted, 25-21, to abolish co-championships and use overtime if football or soccer title games are tied at the end of regulation time.

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