Five Star Stadium: More than just the Bears’ den


Image: [email protected]

JENNA EASON/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, Georgia, 09/12/2015: [email protected] Mercer’s home opener against Stetson, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015.

Hayes Rule, Staff Writer

It’s Saturday in the fall. The scoreboard at Five Star Stadium is illuminated. Football players fill the field, and hectic fans dominate the stands. The description depicts the expected scene at a Mercer football game. But think again.

The Mercer Bears football team is nowhere to be found. It’s a high school state championship game.

Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) takes over the artificial turf on Five Star Stadium for its state championship football game in all three of its classifications. But the private school association is not the only one taking its talents to the home of the Bears.

The Georgia High School Association (GHSA), the major classification for public schools in the state, has held games at Mercer, such as an opening-week doubleheader on a Friday night to kick-off the 2015 season. In 2014, Northside Warner Robins even used Mercer’s facilities to host a playoff game after its own field’s conditions were too poor.

“The kids get to play in normal high school stadiums all their whole career,” said Thomas Smith, the head coach for Robert Toombs Academy, who just lost the GISA AA state championship at Five Star Stadium Nov. 28. “For that to be sort of the ending moment of their high school career, it’s something they’ll always remember playing there.”

Deerfield-Windsor School head coach Allen Lowe also spoke of the special chance for players to leave the comfort zone of the typical “Friday Night Lights” atmosphere for the facilities at a Division-I college football program.

“Our kids, we had never been there, so it was an exciting time for us to be able to go and play at Mercer,” he said. “The facilities are fantastic, and we were treated very well. At that point and time, we would play anywhere for a state championship, but we enjoyed the invitation and the right to play.”

But Mercer Athletic Director Jim Cole said the experience does not only offer high school players a once-in-a-lifetime experience it provides an opportunity for the school to put a small sum back into the facilities and draws in prospective students.
“We do want to show (the facilities) off,” Cole said. “And it does help student recruitment. The more kids you can get on campus, especially from the Atlanta area who may not be coming down this way anyway, the better.”

Cole said it’s “50-50” between associations contacting the school and the university reaching out to organizations when scheduling events at Five Star Stadium. But he said it’s not just Mercer Athletics-centric.

“When I say, ‘We,’ it’s a Middle Georgia effort; it’s not just us,” he said. “The city of Macon might really want to promote a game, and they might want to use our facility.”
But the system is not perfect. Cole and the university’s compliance office must monitor that they follow NCAA rules with high school athletes on campus. Also, scheduling presents a problem when the Bears are in town.

“We don’t want to host a game on Friday night when we play on Saturday,” Cole said.
And while positives are seen from both Mercer and the high schools’ perspectives, don’t expect events to overrun Mercer. Cole said he would like the partnership with the GISA and GHSA to continue, as long as it does not harm the athletics program.

“A lot of those, they run it themselves, but we have to provide certain services because they just can’t – security, parking, operating the scoreboard, things of that nature — that they don’t have an expertise,” he said. “Our main mission is Mercer athletics, so we don’t want to do so many events out there that we burn out.”