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LOOKING BACK: The top 10 stories of the 2016-17 school year

Graphic Art by Brian Worton | The Covington News/

Things move so quickly in the high school sports world, now. In times past, even the athletes could look to the summer for a bit of reprieve. But now, in the year-round craze of amateur athletics, high school student-athletes have found that summer is a season of its own. So perhaps the best way to begin the summer sports season in earnest is to put a nice, neat bow on the 2016-17 school year that was by selecting what our sports department considers the top 10 sports stories of the year.

Here they are, starting with No. 10

10.   Eastside/Newton athletes win state championships. It wasn’t exactly a repeat performance from the 2016 track and field season when both Newton and Eastside boys walked away with overall state championships in their respective classes, but there were some good consolation prizes.

The Eagles won the Class AAAA state crown in the 4x100 meter relay, with Georgia football signee Eric Stokes anchoring the team, despite nursing a hamstring injury. Stokes, freshman Jovan King, Anthony Thomas and Matthew Brown took home the gold by edging out Luella with a time of 42.36 seconds.

Meanwhile, in Class AAAAAAA it was junior Elija Godwin claiming top honors in both the 200 meter dash (21.01 seconds) and the 400 meter dash (46.40 seconds). Both Eastside and Newton track teams lost a lot from the previous year’s state crown squads, but these recognitions show that the future could still be bright for these two schools.

 9.      Newton County signs 18 to football scholarships. Newton County will be well represented when the 2017-18 college football season rolls around, thanks to a solid National Signing Day class in February. The class included over a half dozen NCAA Division I signees, including four from Newton and Eastside who will attend the two premier programs in the state.

Newton’s J.J. Holloman and Eastside’s Eric Stokes will attend UGA, while Jaquan Henderson and Josh Tukes, both Newton High graduates, are set to join the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Holloman decided to opt for an early signing in December 2016 which made way for him to enroll early in Athens. He made good use of his time, culminating a strong spring with an impressive performance in Georgia’s annual G-Day spring game in April.

 8.      Eastside boys soccer scores double OT win in playoffs. In what may be an omen of things to come for this young Eagles squad, Eastside notched a big win against a stout Mary Persons squad on the road. The Eagles won 1-1 (4-3PK) after a penalty shootout to send the Eagles into the second round.

Eastside lost in the next round, but with a ton of young returners and highly touted incoming freshman Jordan Beam on the way, these Eagles may be making much deeper postseason runs for the next couple of years at least.

7. A pair of Newton County ballers eclipsed the 1,000 points barrier. Newton’s J.D. Notae and Eastside’s Keiodre Perry both went over the 1,000 career points mark during their senior campaigns this past season. Notae eclipsed the mark during a Newton road win at Duluth in mid December. Notae scored 23 in that game, and was honored during the team’s December 22 home game against Whitefield Academy.

Eastside’s Perry reached his milestone on January 30 during an 80-67 region win against Luella in a 25 point performance. Both athletes will play in college next fall, with Notae joining NCAA Division I Jacksonville and Perry on his way to Northern Oklahoma.

6. Eastside-Newton football plays an instant classic. The tiebreaker game ended in a tie. Despite Newton and Eastside being in much different classifications – The Eagles in Class AAAA and the Rams in Class AAAAAAA – the county rivals tend to always play each other tight. Coming into the late August matchup, the two schools were tied in their all-time series at 6-6, and early on when Eastside went up 24-8, it looked like the Eagles would run away with the W.

Newton would come back to push a 27-27 tie before Eastside quarterback Austin Holloway hooked up with Josh Sims to give the Eagles a late 34-27 lead. Elija Godwin’s 95-yard ensuing kickoff return for a score knotted things up again at 34, and both teams would score one more touchdown a piece before a scoreless fourth quarter ended things at 41-41. The county rivals will meet for the 14th time on Friday August 25 at Sharp Stadium. 

5. Chris Edgar and Alcovy football’s resurgence. Before the 2016 season, there wasn’t much for Alcovy football to cheer about. The Tigers went 1-19 in the last two years of coach Kirk Hoffman’s tenure before longtime assistant Chris Edgar took the reins of the program. The positive results were immediate. A 4-1 start to the 2016 season netted the Tigers three more wins in the first half of the year than it was able to collect in the previous two years combined.

 

Now, with the majority of the skill position players returning, Edgar’s looking for his young program to take the next step – a deep playoff run.

 

 4. The Kurt Taylor/Newton-Grayson drama. This one kind of started last summer when Newton’s star running back opted out of finishing his high school football career with the Rams, electing instead to transfer to Grayson, adding to a glut of top athletes who migrated to Grayson to help create a high school football super team. As expected, the Bears won the Class AAAAAAA state crown. But the meat and potatoes of the narrative happened after the season was done and it was learned that Taylor transferred back to Newton in January so he could finish his last semester of high school “at home,” as he put it.

The move drew national attention when a Georgia state senator suggested Taylor was “mocking the system” in transferring for one semester only to come back to Newton after football was done. It prompted an investigation by the Georgia High School Association into Grayson football and the transferto see if Taylor’s move was a bona fide transfer. If found guilty of a non-bona fide transfer, Grayson would’ve faced losing its title and forfeiting its games. But Taylor’s move was justified.

Taylor will begin his college career this fall at Michigan.

3. The loss of a soccer community fixture. The passing of Sean Beam shook the local soccer community, as he succumbed to brain cancer early in the year. He and his wife Kharmin were fixtures in the community, even maintaining their own soccer training facility which was growing in popularity. But when Beam’s passing happened, it also gave his soccer standout son Jordan, an emerging talent from Cousins Middle School, an opportunity to show first hand, the kind of impact his father had on his young life. It was a story that not only connected with Newton County’s soccer family, but the area’s sports scene in general.

2. Newton Rams boys basketball – period. If you’re a hoops fan in Newton County this season was a smorgasbord of hoops highlights and hardwood treats for you. Coach Rick Rasmussen’s Newton Rams were literally a spectacular play waiting to happen. With the addition of former Eastside high flyer Isaiah Miller adding to the already formidable duo of senior JD Notae and sophomore sensation point guard Ashton Hagans, the Rams were being mentioned for most of the season among the best high school hoops teams in the nation.

But from the dunks and acrobatic plays, to showcase games against some of the most elite players in the nation to a triple overtime playoff thriller against Westlake to an unexpected visit from NBA legend Charles Barkley, this Newton hoops season had everything you wanted except, of course, a state crown. Had the Rams not had to truck through one of the toughest brackets in recent GHSA state playoffs history, who knows?

1. Michael Hipps/Jovaal Hollinghsed’s tale of sportsmanship. I’m not sure there would be much argument in naming this feel-good story the biggest sports story of the 2016-17 school year. In case you missed it, it happened when Eastside senior pitcher Michael Hipps was set to take the mound against region foe Henry County in Eastside’s first game since the passing of Hipps’ father, Mike – another community sports fixture. In an atmosphere already emotionally charged, thanks to the Eastside faithful donning shirts with the hashtag #One4Seven in support of the younger Hipps, it was the players on the field who took things to another level.

Henry County player Jovaal Hollingshed came to the batter’s box, then put his bat down and walked up to the mound to Hipps, giving him a hug and, no doubt, giving him an encouraging, comforting word. The heart gesture turned into something heard and felt across the country, literally, as major news outlets around the nation picked up the story, giving it the much needed pub that it deserved. Kudos to Hollingshed for a classy showing of love and sportsmanship. Kudos to the Eastside baseball family that showed such strong support to the Hipps family, and continued thoughts and prayers to to them as they, no doubt, continue to push through their loss. If there was a moment that singlehandedly defined the potential sports community, it was this one.

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