Looking back on the 2012 Rockdale sports scene, it doesn't jump out as a banner year.
No team championships were won, no records were shattered, and the biggest story of the year was one of turmoil. However, with deeper reflection, 2012 was a year with plenty of highlights, mostly good. Even with all the negativity surrounding Rockdale football, that story could have a productive and happy ending.
As the year got underway, Rockdale set its new direction and brought on Mario Allen to replace Michael Etheridge as the Bulldogs' new head football coach. Allen was selected from more than 80 applicants by a panel consisting of a Rockdale booster club parent, Craig Headgrove, Dr. Garett Brundage, Michelle Glover, Kevin Rogers, Greg Brown and Rockdale principal Georgi Nour.
The former assistant coach at Florida A&M and Alabama A&M was the head coach at Columbia for three years prior to being hired at Rockdale.
Nour brought Allen on to Rockdale after he turned Columbia from a 3-7 program in his first year to its first playoff appearance in 10 years during his final season.
"I'm pleased with the results when I do what's best for our young men," Nour said. "With his experience at Columbia High School, he was very successful there."
However, his resume was also missing a few details such as an ability to do things against the Georgia High School Association's ethics procedures. Some of those ethics violations came to light at Rockdale, where he broke several GHSA rules such as recruiting and practice procedures.
Through an Open Records request filed by The News, it was shown that Allen had a 100-plus page report with interviews by coaches, players, witnesses and administrators that led to Allen's firing just 11 weeks after he was hired.
It was discovered that Allen had a player from Columbia High driven to Rockdale, where he participated in practices and weight training with the RCHS football team. Another violation was illegal practices occurring between the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Rockdale was fined $200 by the GHSA and had to set out replacing a coach months before the season started. A season in which it moved from Class AAAA to Georgia's new Class AAAAAA, the state's largest. Kevin Rogers led the Bulldogs during spring practices as a search lingered on for who would lead the program into a new era.
Venson Elder was brought in as Rockdale's third coach in eight months when he was hired on May 31. Elder spent years as an assistant at Peachtree Ridge, and is a graduate of Towers High and the University of Alabama with 23 years of football experience.
"I've been waiting for the right moment, and the right situation and the position really found me," Elder said. "One of my friends was looking for an assistant coaching job, and I was looking online for him and ran across the Rockdale County job. It caught my eye and I decided to go for it."
Elder went about trying to rebuild the Bulldogs both in their style of play and their attitudes, and it slowly paid off. The Bulldogs had a solid defense in 2012, but its offense started to show signs with young playmakers set to be around Rockdale for the next three years.
The Bulldogs lost their first four games of the 2012 football season, before they broke through with a 9-0 victory over Morrow on Sept. 21, the Bulldogs had lost 13 straight games. In 2012, the Bulldogs won three games, all in region play and earned a spot in the state playoffs. Something Rockdale can now build on as its new coach looks to improve the play on field and strength off it.
"Oh man, it feels great, but it really feels great for those kids right there," said Elder, who picked up his first ever win as head coach. "It's been a long time since they won a game, and they deserve that win more than I do."
While Rockdale's football team had an up-and-down year, its basketball teams had playoff runs in the 2011-12 season. The girls' team won 20 games and reached the state playoffs behind Breanna Richardson, who later in 2012 signed a letter of intent to play at Mississippi State next year. The boys' basketball team reached the second round of the state playoffs in 2011-12, and in 2012-13 began the season with senior C.J. Wilson making his mark as one of the state's better players.
Outside of Rockdale County, former Bulldog Kevin Ware reached new heights as a freshman on Louisville's basketball team, when the Cardinals reached the Final Four.
The 2011-12 basketball season also marked the last for Rockdale High's gymnasium. The final game played at Rockdale's first gym was, unfortunately, a 65-50 loss to Marist, but the Bulldogs opened its new gymnasium, named after Cleveland Stroud with a win in 2012-13.
The Rockdale Junior Varsity wrestling team opened the gym with its first event in November, but last year, the Bulldogs' wrestling team made its biggest splash. Alonzo Allen, Ulises Ponce and Jose Robledo all were state finishers in 2012, and Heritage's Bryce Cornwell joined the Bulldogs as a state wrestling champ.
Also on the basketball court, Salem made waves as one of its own reached pro levels after Courtney Hurt was drafted by Indiana.
Hurt spent the last four seasons of her basketball career shattering Virginia Commonwealth records, and Tuesday a new phase began.
The 6-foot-1 senior was selected in the third round with the 34th overall pick by the Indiana Fever in the 12-team WNBA draft.
During her senior season, Hurt led VCU the NCAA in rebounding with 13.1 boards per game and was ninth in scoring with 22.3 points per game, and as a junior led the country with 25 double-doubles.
At Salem, the Seminoles decided tomake a change as Maurice Gibson was replaced as athletic director by former boys' basketball coach Darren Wilkens.
Gibson who was hired in 2010 after Bill Roberts took over the position from Jim McBrayer who retired in May of 2010. Wilkens was announced the newest Salem Seminoles' A.D. Monday, and will officially take over beginning with the 2012-13 school year.
"When coach Gibson announced he wasn't coming back I was asked my interest in the position," Wilkens said. "I've been coaching 23 years and thought it would be a good idea to try something different. Having been in athletics for a long time, I thought it might be a good change of pace."
Wilkens finished his final basketball season with Salem reaching the state playoffs, before his assistant Noah Harrell took over in 2012-13, winning four of his first five games.
Harrell wasn't the only former assistant to reach the postseason in his first year as head coach in Rockdale, as Heritage softball coach Jason McBay led the Lady Patriots to a 30-5 season, finishing as region runner-up and reaching the second round of the state tournament. Heritage was led by Kierra Camp, who was named an All-State honoree after her junior year.
Heritage golfer Hunter Elliot was also named an All-State player. The accolades continued for Heritage as a former Patriot was honored by the High School Hall of Fame. Ron Bradley, who coached Heritage's boys' basketball team was named to the Hall after a legendary career at Heritage and Newton High.
The Patriots finished the 2011-12 school year's athletic season with a run by its soccer teams. The boys' team went unbeaten in Region 8-AAAA play and won its first region title since 2003. The Patriots hosted a first-round playoff game after Mauricio Reyes led the team with 13 goals and eight assists and they finished with 34 goals total in the regular season.
The girls' team won 17 games and earned a spot in the state quarterfinals, where it was outgunned by state champion McIntosh 7-1. Regardless, Heritage had a big year, allowing just 13 goals prior to its playoff loss in 21 games.
Last year provided plenty of highlights and major story lines in Rockdale, and 2013 seems to be shaping up the same with the Heritage girls' soccer team poised for another strong year, Rockdale and Salem basketball doing well and the Bulldogs and Patriots football teams continuing to improve.