LAWRENCEVILLE — Coolray Field is not going to stray from its sole purpose as the home to the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers baseball team, but its portfolio continues to expand.
The latest event headed to the Lawrenceville venue is the annual Corky Kell Classic high school football showcase, a partnership unveiled publicly Tuesday morning at the ballpark. The middle day of the three-day Corky Kell Classic, Friday, Aug. 23, will feature Archer against Tucker at 5:30 p.m., followed by Buford against Milton at 8:30.
“We had a short experiment last year with the Atlanta United 2 (soccer) team, that was the first time we’ve had anything (at Coolray) but baseball,” said Stan Hall, executive director of the Gwinnett Sports Commission. “Once we got them on the field, and we saw it could configure pretty well as far as sight lines for spectators and things like that, then we knew we were going to try to push some other things. The Corky Kell Classic, the history of football in Gwinnett County, all of those things coming together. Plus our goal to introduce this facility to other sports disciplines, it was a no-brainer for us. We’re very excited about it.”
The football field inside Coolray will run down the third-base line in the same position as the Atlanta United 2 soccer field set up in 2018. No additional bleachers will go on the outfield grass, so the seating will be down one football sideline and in the end zone. The stadium seats more than 10,000 fans, including seating on the hill in right field, but the football configuration is expected to hold 7,500.
Unlike the soccer games, there will be no sod brought in to cover the dirt infield. Organizers called it a “throwback” to when baseball and football teams shared stadiums, like the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
“It will be like for us growing up in the ’80s, watching (former Falcons running back) William Andrews and those guys,” Archer head football coach Andy Dyer said.
Corky Kell executive director Dave Hunter cited travel time for metro Atlanta teams north of the city as the primary reason for holding the two games in Gwinnett. Friday night games had been hosted at Georgia State, but trip times were rough for local teams and their fans.
It took Dyer’s team two hours, 20 minutes to get to Georgia State last year. Buford and its fans had similar issues. Neither should be a problem this season.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” Buford head football coach Bryant Appling said of Coolray as the new host site. “Last year was really hard for our fans to get down to Georgia State Stadium at 5:30 with Friday traffic in Atlanta. The fact that it’s right down 20, right in front of the mall, it’s probably a 5-minute drive for us. Even the buses, it will be real easy on the gas. We’re real excited.
“Once I rolled it out to a couple of administrators, a couple of teachers, some of the kids, our parents, they’re all excited. We get to go right down the road to play a football game in a great venue.”
It will be the first game as head coach for Appling, a longtime assistant who was promoted in the offseason. The debut game will be more memorable because the perennial power faces Milton, the defending champion in Class AAAAAAA, two classes larger than Buford.
“It’s going to be tough,” Appling said. “My first game being head coach and we’ve got a young team coming back. Our kids are excited. Buford’s never backed down from anybody. I’m not saying we’re going to do anything differently. We’re going to prepare and try to represent Buford as best we can on that Friday night.”
The field transition, because no sod is involved, will be relatively easy, organizers said. Hall said consideration was given to obtaining permanent football goalposts for future events, but a deal was worked out to use the ones owned by the Atlanta Braves' home, SunTrust Park, which has a mobile set acquired when it hosted a college game with Kennesaw State.
The view for fans, and for players, will be different, but those involved think it will be a great atmosphere.
“It’s going to be different,” Appling said. “You might be on the sideline with no fans behind you. There are going to be a lot (of fans) down the left-field line and some in the end zone. But anything different is good for the kids, whether you go out of state for a big game or go down to the Benz for a big game. Putting them in a different atmosphere with different scenarios, different locker rooms, it’s good for you so you’re never surprised.
“You might get down to South Georgia in a playoff game and it will be totally different than what you’re used to. You might have a 5-minute walk to the field or a tight, cramped space, whatever it is. It’s good to change those things and not be comfortable on a Friday night.”
Goalpost pads, pylons, down markers and other game operations necessities will be provided by Brookwood. Hunter leans on the Snellville school because of his past there as football coach, athletic director and stadium namesake. A number of his game workers have Bronco ties, including David Lockwood, who will handle field operations at Coolray.
“David Lockwood, he’s our Swiss army knife,” Brookwood athletic and activities director Jason Dopson said. “He kind of does everything, field set up before the game, making sure a lot of our technology stuff is done. Then he goes up in the press box and he’s the Voice of the Broncos. He’s just one of those guys that you can count on to do anything you need. A lot of times you don’t even have to ask him to do it. He’s just very dependable. Stuff just gets done. David’s one of a kind. We’re lucky to have him.”
While the event promises to be unique for the players and coaches, it also will mean some interesting views for the fans, particularly those in the left-field corner who are right on top of the action. The Corky Kell likely will introduce Coolray Field to a number of new fans who have not attended a game there in the past to watch the Gwinnett Stripers, previously the Gwinnett Braves.
“I think we’ll have a lot of people that have never stepped foot in the building before,” Hall said. “That’s our goal, to show people, ‘Look what we have here.’ The Corky Kell Classic will be a good vehicle to get that done. It’s a good, historic event that’s been around a long time.”
The opportunity to show the building off for prospective fans is welcomed by Coolray’s primary tenant.
“I think you’ll find we’ll probably bring in fans that we don’t bring in for baseball, which is awesome for Coolray Field and great for the Stripers as well,” new Stripers vice president and general manager Adam English said. “To partner with the community is something that brings so much value to us because the community is what supports us. So to support a great event like this and to host it at Coolray Field means a lot.”
This year’s Corky Kell games also will be televised through a new TV partnership with CBS 46 Atlanta. All of the Thursday to Saturday games will be broadcast by CBS and its station, Peachtree TV.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium remains the host for the Saturday, Aug. 24 Corky Kell games this year. The matchups in Atlanta are Kell-Mays at 9 a.m., Norcross-Walton at noon, North Gwinnett-Colquitt County at 3 p.m., Brookwood-McEachern at 6 p.m. and Mill Creek-East Coweta at 9 p.m.
The Thursday, Aug. 22 Corky Kell games are hosted in Rome, with Ridgeland vs. Calhoun at 5:30 p.m. and Rome vs. Marietta at 8:30 p.m.
Schedule for the 2019 Corky Kell Classic:
Thursday, Aug. 22, Rome
5:30 p.m. — Ridgeland vs. Calhoun
8:30 p.m. — Rome vs. Marietta
Friday, Aug. 23, Coolray Field
5:30 p.m. — Archer vs. Tucker
8:30 p.m. — Buford vs. Milton
Saturday, Aug. 24, Mercedes-Benz Stadium
9 a.m. — Kell vs. Mays
Noon — Norcross vs. Walton
3 p.m. — North Gwinnett vs. Colquitt County
6 p.m. — Brookwood vs. McEachern
9 p.m. — Mill Creek vs. East Coweta