December 28, 2013

A year in review: Champions met their challenges in 2013

Marty Kirkland

“This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

As Bilbo Baggins luckily answered when given Gollum’s riddle in the dark, the answer is time. And time would seem to be the answer to so many obstacles we face, because there’s never enough of it. Our task, then, is to make the most of it.

At this point in the holiday season, as we pack away Christmas and look forward to celebrating a new year, hopefully everyday life has slowed down enough for us to pause and reflect. There’s great value in celebrating the year’s success, learning from its failures and going forward with newfound motivation to look forward optimistically and enjoy the moment that is now as often as possible in 2014.

As for making the most of one’s time, many of The Daily Citizen’s top local sports stories in 2013 are testaments to those who just did that and rose to met the challenges all athletes face in the pursuit of excellence. Those winners offer a great example of the rewards that come with time well spent.

In no particular order, here are 10 of the most memorable local sports stories from the past year:

CATS LOVE WATER: Dalton High School’s boys swimming and diving team was the year’s earliest success story when it came to state championships.

The talented core of seniors Taylor Dale and Pierson Scarborough, junior Taylor Mathis and freshman Ethan Young — more on him later — pushed the Catamounts to the Class A-5A state title in February at Georgia Tech. It was the program’s second state championship, following a 1993 triumph.

The fabulous foursome won the 400-yard freestyle relay and the 200 medley relay. Dale also won the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, while Young was second in both events.

Dale, who is now competing for the University of Georgia, was proud to bring the title home for the entire 18-member team and coach Charles Todd.

“We came through and got an amazing title for an amazing coach,” Dale said after the victory.

YOUNG RISING: How often do you get the chance to watch an Olympic athlete on the way up?

That very well may be the case with Young, a sophomore at Dalton High School who is making a name for himself nationally in the pool.

With his most recent trip to a USA Swimming national meet, Young established himself as not only one of the fastest 15-year-old swimmers in the country, but one of the fastest ever.

Earlier this month at the Speedo Winter Junior National Championships in Greensboro, N.C., while representing the Carpet Capital Aquatics Club, Young claimed third place in the 200-yard backstroke and fourth in the 100 backstroke. In both cases, he was the only 15-year-old in each of those eight-swimmer finals, where most competitors were 17 or 18.

In the 100, Young’s time of 47.53 seconds was the third-fastest in USA Swimming history for a 15-year-old. In the 200 — where he led for much of the race — his time of 1:43.06 was the second-fastest for someone his age in USA Swimming competition.

Young has quickly become a veteran of such national meets, and his ability to set and meet ever higher goals suggest there are few limits to  what he may accomplish in the coming years.

“The experience from this is going to be great,” Young said after his third-place effort in the 200. “It’s going to be something that I’ll carry into my training going into high school state and nationals next summer.”

SECOND TO NONE: One of the best testaments to learning from your mistakes, not settling for anything than your best and going back to finish the job came from Southeast Whitfield High School wrestler Carlos Fraire.

After finishing runner-up at 220 pounds at the Class 3A state traditional tournament in 2012, when he lost in overtime, Fraire entered his senior season determined to land on the top step of the medal stand when it was all over this year.

He did just that, going 53-1 on his way to beating Griffin’s Terry Sloan 2-1 for the 220-pound Class 4A title this past season at the Macon Centreplex. Making the win even more impressive was that Fraire fought through a knee injury he suffered early in the match.

His escape with 1:20 left in the third and final period proved the difference.

Fraire became the third state champion wrestler at Southeast, following Justin Brown (1997, 1998, 1999) and Bryan Spence (1993).

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better to end my senior year,” Fraire said after his title win.

THE GREAT INDOORS: And now for something completely different.

Murray and Whitfield counties have long supported high school football teams as they take their places under the lights in outdoor stadiums on fall Friday nights. But this year northwest Georgia had the chance to cheer on an indoor football team in the winter and spring as the Georgia Rampage, a professional squad, began playing its home games at the trade center in Dalton.

The Rampage went a disappointing 3-5 this season, missing the Ultimate Indoor Football League playoffs. But they finished their schedule with a win at home and owner Kacee Smith is excited about the prospects of next season, which kicks off in early March.

In the offseason, Smith helped form the X League, to which the Rampage now belong. With greater financial freedom granted to individual franchises, it’s hoped teams will benefit in the new league, Smith said at the time of the formation.

“As the league grows, the teams grow,” Smith said. “We didn’t want to be a league that just stands there with our hands out.”

SOCCER CITY: Success in high school boys soccer is nothing new for the area, but local teams raised the standard for future squads in 2013.

Of the eight varsity teams in Murray and Whitfield counties, six made the state playoffs in their respective classifications and three of the final four teams in the Class 4A bracket were schools from inside Whitfield County.

Southeast beat Northwest in the semifinals to set up a state title matchup with Dalton, which beat the Raiders for the fourth time this season. But the fact that the Cats beat Southeast that many times shouldn’t take anything away from what the Raiders accomplished in 2013.

Even in such an outstanding year, Dalton was clearly in a different class as it went 22-0, capping the undefeated run with a 5-0 title victory. It was the second state title in program history for the Cats — the previous one was shared with Heritage-Rockdale in 2003 — who outscored teams 34-1 in the state tournament and 134-8 over the course of the season in 2013.

Senior striker Ramiro Huitanda, who scored a program-record 47 goals and was named The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year, summed up the title win moments after the final buzzer.

“It feels really good to put all the hard work and practice (to work),” senior striker Ramiro Huitanda said. “We never stopped trying, we never stopped running, and we always focused on the small details like coach always talks about, and that’s what makes this team a championship team.”

ON TARGET: The archery program at Murray County’s Woodlawn Elementary School is one of the area’s best success stories of not only 2013 but the past several years.

In their short but storied four-year history, winning titles has become a habit for the Timber Wolves, who this year won region, state, national and world championships in National Archery in the Schools Program elementary school division competition. And they did so in record-breaking fashion, becoming the first elementary school to shoot a 3,300 with their national title and breaking that mark with a 3,320 in the world title win in St. Louis.

But for all the success with bows in hand, Woodlawn coach Brad Bates will also point to improved results in the classroom and better attitudes in all aspects of life for team members who take the discipline-demanding sport seriously.

“We had the clean sweep, and we did it with smile,” Bates said after the world win. “We have had a great week and have been celebrating an almost unbelievable week. It has been incredible.”

ONE TO REMEMBER: When Dalton and Northwest compete, it’s an event. That’s especially true when football is the game, despite the Cats’ dominance of this intracounty rivalry that started in 1976.

The game has been played at least once every year since then, save 1994 to 1997 and the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and Dalton sports a 28-5 edge in the all-time series.

While there have been plenty of good games over the years when the Bruins and Cats tangled, this year was undoubtedly one of the best.

For one thing, entering this year’s Sub-region 7B-4A matchup at Bruin Stadium, it looked likely that whoever won would be on a fast track to the Region 7-4A title. But the game quickly became memorable for more than what was at stake.

Northwest, which entered the game with a 5-0 record, struck quickly against Dalton, which was 3-2. Tevin McDaniel scored on a 78-yard pass on the Bruins’ first offensive play, and Northwest led 14-0 after the first quarter.

But Dalton rallied to tie the game at 14-all entering halftime, and the final two quarters became a back-and-forth battle before the Cats methodically drove 73 yards on the game’s final possession. Junior kicker Kiko Rodriguez delivered the final punch in the bout, splitting the uprights on a 25-yard field goal as time expired for a 31-28 win.

Both teams ended up making the state playoffs — and losing in the first round — but the Cats’ win in a classic rivalry contest sent them on their way to the Region 7-4A championship.

TWICE AS NICE: All three area high school programs that won team state championships in 2013 had done so previously.

But Northwest’s fast-pitch softball team was the only repeat winner, and the Lady Bruins made an emphatic point about how well-rounded their squad was with back-to-back Class 4A championships.

In 2012, the Lady Bruins claimed the school’s first-ever fast-pitch title with much thanks due to senior pitcher Emily Boyd. The ace, who went on to sign with Ole Miss, was The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year each of her high school seasons.

But without Boyd on the roster this year, the Lady Bruins kept winning thanks to another talented pitcher, junior BriLeigh Baggett, and a fearsome lineup led by the power of senior catcher Bayli Cruse.

It was Cruse who had slugged an extra-inning walk-off homer in 2012 as the Lady Bruins topped Madison County for the title. While this year’s title run didn’t have quite that same kind of drama, it did show how persistent Northwest could be in its pursuit of another state championship.

Despite losing the Region 7-4A crown to Heritage-Catoosa, the Lady Bruins bounced back at state, including beating Heritage in the championship series.

Senior shortstop Ashley Conner made it clear after the victory what she and her classmates’ intentions had been all along

“We wanted to go out winners,” she said.

WEIRD WEEK: The book was all but written on this year’s most memorable stories when a late entry popped onto the page.

Coahulla Creek High School fired football coach Jared Hamlin the Monday after the Colts’ season ended with a loss and their second straight 2-8 record in two years of varsity competition at the third-year school.

The school appeared ready to move on in very impressive fashion just a few weeks later when former South Pittsburg (Tenn.) coach Vic Grider was introduced as the program’s next coach at its postseason team banquet. He even spoke to the players and others present about plans for the program and how he wanted to move things forward.

But by the end of the week, Grider — who compiled a 162-43 record and won three state titles at South Pittsburg — had withdrawn himself from the job, for which he not yet been formally approved by the Whitfield County Board of Education. The reason was that Coahulla Creek Principal Stanley Stewart made an offer — of money and assistant coaching slots — above and beyond his authority.

While the money was to have been raised by the school’s booster club, such extra benefits for coaches beyond $200 are not permitted per Whitfield County Schools policy. Stewart said he was unaware of the limit when he lured Grider, who had previously turned down the job.

All in all, it left Coahulla Creek in a very strange position and back at the beginning of its search process.

“We’ll open it back up and make sure that we cover all of our bases,” Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Judy Gilreath said on Dec. 13. “We are not going to rush to any decision. We will look at all of our options again and make sure that things are done correctly and the best coach available is hired.”

ROADRUNNERS RETURN: The year’s final memorable entry is a story still being told.

Dalton State College returned to varsity intercollegiate athletic competition this year, decades after what was then Dalton Junior College put away the balls and jerseys. This year, the Roadrunners put together so many memorable moments with their several “firsts,” they could fill their own list.

The school’s athletic teams were accepted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and, after initially being denied, the Southern States Athletic Conference. Volleyball, cross country and men’s golf teams all began competition this fall, with volleyball playing several “home” matches at Dalton High School and the Mack Gaston Community Center as renovations took place at the on-campus Bandy Gymnasium.

But it’s on the basketball court, where Dalton Junior College had great success from 1969 to 1979, that the new Roadrunners have been at their best so far. With an impressive 14-1 record midway through the season, Dalton State has more wins than any NAIA men’s basketball team in the country.

With former Roadrunners guard Tony Ingle guiding them, they’ve given the area a college hoops team to holler for with pride.

And they’re delivering on a promise senior guard Ricky Sears made before the season started.

“I know this town is ready for basketball,” he said, “and we’re going to give them a show.”