Joe Parker is an Editor with Appen Media Group and covers Milton, Forsyth County and high school sports.

GEORGIA — At any level, sports gives fans a community with a common cause. It provides a level of entertainment few other pursuits can provide, because it can, almost simultaneously, hand us the “thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat.” It allows us to cheer on our flesh-and-blood “heroes” and witness their failures and triumphs in real time. Sports can be a showcase in overcoming adversity, show us that underdogs can still triumph, exemplify the nature of hard work paying off.

But sports also provide an escape from our daily troubles.

For a few hours, we can let go of our day-to-day anxieties, stressors and burdens to envelop ourselves in a game, a community and a common goal of “win.”

And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we need this escape more than ever.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the 2020-21 high school sports season was not games won, trophies lifted or the bragging rights of beating a rival, it was just the appreciation of getting to suit up and play or watch our teams hit the field.

This was amid many new rules put in place because of the pandemic. Hundreds of competitions were cancelled statewide due to COVID cases, sometimes just hours before they were set to begin. Many teams played in front of empty stadiums.

Still, all were thankful that full seasons were played in all sports, especially following the cancellation of the 2020 spring season and the devastation and disappointment of all those involved in high school baseball, lacrosse, soccer and other sports.

I recently spoke with Johns Creek head football coach Matt Helmerich, who put things into perspective.

“We always talk about not taking anything for granted, and the kids have seen that first-hand now,” he said. “After last year, they know nothing is guaranteed.”

That feeling, of not taking sports and competition for granted, may be the biggest storyline of the 2021-22 high school season. And every player, coach and fan will enter this year with a sharply increased love and admiration for the game.

The trouble is, we are far from seeing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many, and I put myself in this camp, thought we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel a few months ago.

But with the highly transmissible Delta variant and pandemic fatigue that has seen many people dismiss strong social distancing measures and ditch their masks, regardless of vaccination status, we enter the 2021-22 even worse off. When the 2020 high school football season kicked off a few weeks late, the weekly average of new cases statewide was about 2,000. At kickoff for this season on Aug. 20, that figure was over doubled, and the statewide healthcare system is again overwhelmed. Unfortunately, many reports from these physicians is that the fourth wave is hospitalizing more and more younger, healthier people.

It could easily be argued that, due to the current state of the local healthcare system and the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant, even among those inoculated, we should actually be entering the 2021 high school sports season with even more safety regulations in place than last year. Instead, the state’s prep sports governing body, the GHSA, has essentially said it will approach this season, for now at least, as a “return to normal” while allowing local control over certain safety measures.

Back on track: High school sports set for full return

I truly hope it’s not a regrettable decision.

I sincerely wish that all these great student-athletes and coaches we have in North Fulton, Forsyth County and Dunwoody are able to play full seasons. I hope that all involved with teams, from equipment managers, fans and parent volunteers to the coaching staff and players stay safe and healthy throughout the season and get to fully enjoy the escape that high school sports can provide from our daily troubles and worries.

One thing is for certain — they will not take any workout, team meeting, practice or game for granted. As fans, neither should we.

Reach Joe Parker at 770-847-8334. Follow him on Twitter @joeparkerga.