What a difference a year makes. Freshmen become sophomores, sophomores become juniors and juniors become seniors. With that caveat is a revolving door of athletes and coaches that come together to reach a common goal: win. There was a lot of the latter between the two bordering counties of Newton and Rockdale and we recap some of the best stories of the 2014-2015 academic year here.
ROCKDALE! The only school to have a team win a state championship was Rockdale, but we'll get to that later. In the Fall it's all about softball and football.
LadyBulldog softball, led by head coach Justin Arrington, managed to secure a 4-6 record in Region 2-AAAAAA and finish fourth in the region after a devastating 13-11 loss to Lovejoy in the region tournament.
Rockdale's football team came in to the season with a lot of promise. They started the season by eking out two wins against county rivals Heritage and Salem for a 2-0 start. The Bulldogs were an up-and-down team all season, finishing with a 5-6 record (2-3 Region 2-AAAAAA). Still, RCHS had a chance to take an easier road to the state championship had they beat Newton in the final game of the season. With the Bulldogs up by five and nine yards away from the endzone, Newton forced a turnover and eventually took the lead with less than 30 seconds to play. The Bulldogs lost the game and were forced to play as a No. 4 seed in the playoffs. Rockdale faced one of the best teams in high school football in Colquitt and it showed in a 62-12 blowout loss in the first round. Head coach Venson Elder and the Bulldogs lose some valuable seniors such as T.J. Warren, and it'll be interesting to see how they bounce back from it.
The Bulldogs' big three of Jalen Jordan, Connor Ferrell and Dwayne Brown led the basketball team to a 21-8 record (8-2 Region 2-AAAAAA) and a second place finish in the region. Rockdale swept Newton this past season, winning all three contests including the game to determine which team made it to the state championship. The Bulldogs fought valiantly in the region championship game, but after three quarters Rockdale couldn't get close again and lost 60-40 against Tucker. A first round contest without Jordan and Ferrell fouled out somehow turned into an overtime victory for the Bulldogs, putting them in the sweet 16. That was RCHS's last stop as they couldn't get over the hump against Shiloh, losing 55-45.
Head coach Alf Holst and the boys soccer team played a good season. The Bulldogs finished third in the region, just ahead of Alcovy after sweeping the Tigers. RCHS also swept Newton. The Bulldogs were taken out in the first round, but had a productive season nonetheless.
Rockdale baseball started off its season undefeated in region play and then the Bulldogs ran into some of Region 2-AAAAAA's toughest competition and suffered a losing streak. The final series of the season came against Newton, and the Bulldogs needed to sweep the Rams in order to secure the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. Rockdale won the first two games, and things looked promising, but Newton won the third and the Bulldogs were swept out of the first round in first-year head coach Jonathan Brewer's inaugural season.
Last, but certainly not least, is Rockdale track and field. Both the boys and the girls had extremely successful seasons. The girls, led by Candace Hill (ranked No. 1 in the nation in her class in the 100m) finished fifth at state and can only get better as Hill and her teammates continue to grow and get better.
The boys track and field team, headed by Elder made one great comeback to capture the state title just a couple of weeks ago. Lawrence Crawford and Jhibri Greer won three state titles between each other and helped RCHS top Archer 53-45 for the 2014-2015 Class AAAAAA state championship. Not bad at all.
Newton probably had the best year in terms of winning teams in high school athletics between the two counties, but you could also argue for Rockdale. Each Newton team from its respective sports likely had a winning season that led to post-season success. We'll start with the team that had arguably the best/most surprising run, the Newton football Rams.
The Rams' football team made a deep run in the playoffs this year after coming off a 5-4 season where they went 3-2 in Region 2-AAAAAA on their way to claiming the No. 3 seed. Their seed set them up for a first round matchup with Valdosta, the team that has won the most games in Georgia playoff history and Newton hadn't won one playoff game in over two decades. Anybody in their right mind would tell you they expected Newton to lose, except the Rams. Head coach Terrance Banks and the Rams not only upset Valdosta, but they went on to beat Central Gwinnett in the second round before falling to Etowah in the third round.
Lady Rams' softball went just 13-17 in the regular season but dominated in Region 2-AAAAAA finishing with an 8-2 record in the region. Newton finished as region runner-up to rival Alcovy after falling in the championship game, before falling in the first round of the playoffs. First year head coach Ashley Coles did an excellent job with the young team she had. Rising senior Ciara Bryan was also named Region Player of the Year for the Lady Rams.
Newton boys basketball must have fed off of the momentum of the football team because they mirrored each other's success. Like their gridiron counterparts, Newton basketball had a good regular season (20-8, 5-5 Region 2-AAAAAA) and an even better postseason. After falling to Lovejoy in the the Region tournament, the Rams were locked in as a No. 4 seed in the playoffs. However, they prevailed, twice. The Rams upset both Tift County and Dacula by seven points combined to advance to the Elite Eight. Newton's runs stopped in the third round when they ran into the eventual state champions in Wheeler and the second best senior in the nation in Jaylen Brown.
The Lady Rams basketball team enjoyed some success of their own during the season. With four immaculate freshmen and head coach Tiffani Johnson, the Lady Rams were set to defend their Region 2-AAAAAA championship against Tucker, the defending state champions, in the 2-AAAAAA region championship game. Newton wasn't able to repeat losing a close contest, 45-41. The Lady Rams went on to fall in the first round in another close game, 48-44, to Colquitt.
Newton baseball didn't start its season as expected, but managed to finish the season with a 9-6 record in the region and the No. 3 seed after beating Rockdale in the final game of the regular season. The Rams lost 2-1 in a three-game series in the first round against Lee County, but after losing a number of seniors from last year's region championship team, things are looking up for head coach Andre Byrd and his team.
Newton track and field, both girls and boys, showed a lot of promise this year. The girls managed to win the region championship for the first time in 14 years and sent a number of athletes to compete at state. The boys were runners up at the region championship and placed fourth overall at state, with Jeremiah Holloman winning the Class AAAAAA triple jump state title.
Heritage football is usually much stronger than it was this past year, but the Patriots made up for it in other areas and the football team will likely be back near the top next year.
Under second-year head coach Vernon Denmark, Heritage boys basketball continued to thrive. The Patriots, who finished the season 20-10 and 10-3 in region play swept Salem, split with Newton and beat Tucker, made it all the way to the region championship game. In a classic quadruple overtime game against Cedar Shoals, the teams went back and forth until the Patriots had nothing left to offer and fell 68-63 in the fourth extra period.
Heritage soccer has always been one of the sports that Heritage could hang its hat on. That continued this season with the girls and he boys earning playoff berths. Lady Patriot soccer started its season slow and had to battle to get in the playoffs. Heritage secured the No. 4 seed, but lost in the first round. Chad Suddeth and the Lady Patriots came up short, but they lost 3-1 to a team that made the final four of the playoffs. Brandon Stewart and the Patriots played on for the girls. Heritage's boys, after earning the No. 2 seed in Region 8-AAAAA, made it all the way to the elite eight where they ran into Allatoona and couldn't get it done in the final 20 minutes as they lost 4-3.
Football and girls basketball are the sports in which Salem excelled in this past year. Each of the respective teams made the playoffs and made a lot of noise on the way.
Seminoles football ended its playoff drought and at times played like one of the best teams in Class AAAAA. Salem finished 6-5 (6-3 Region 8-AAAAA) which included close losses to Flowery Branch and Lanier plus wins over Cedar Shoals, Clarke Central and Loganville. Salem wasn't able to earn a higher seed than No. 4, and lost in the first round to Dalton 23-6.
After reaching the elite eight last year and with the core of the Lady Seminoles basketball team still intact Salem had state championship dreams. The Lady ‘Noles won the Region 8-AAAAA championship and had impressive wins over Alcovy, Newton, Tucker and a split with Heritage. The Lady ‘Noles won their first two playoff games by a combined 34 points, but the third game was a defensive battle. Back in the elite eight again, Salem couldn't muster up enough offense as they lost 31-29 to Forest Park.
Salem track and field didn't have a great showing in the state championships, but Quintis Maddox was able to win a state title in the discus throw.
Eastside softball set the tone for a good season of athletics for Eagle nation. The Lady Eagles were dominant in the regular season with a record of 16-6-1 with a 7-3 record in Region 4-AAAA. The Lady Eagles didn't make it to the playoffs after falling to Locust Grove in the region tournament, but they only lose a couple of seniors and will have a lot of talent back next season.
Eastside football continued a solid run as the Eagles marched to the playoffs and battled to get past the first round. After being down by 21 points toward the end of the third quarter, it looked like the Eagles were ready to go fishing and then Austin Holloway connected with Quintrell Mathis for a touchdown to begin a 21-0 run. Holloway hit Mathis again for a 50-yard bomb on fourth-and-10 with less than 30 seconds left to tie the game and force overtime. The Eagles battled back and forth with Thomson in overtime, but they were finally able to get the win after Thomson failed to tie the game and missed the extra point attempt after scoring a touchdown. Eastside dropped its second round matchup against St. Pius, and head coach Rick Hurst took a job at a different school. But the Eagles core is still in tact and new head coach Troy Hoff has been with the team for years. Don't expect a huge dropoff.
Eastside baseball had one great run this past season. The Eagles went 21-5 after starting the season 0-2 and they made themselves known in the region with a stellar 15-3 record in Region 4-AAAA including wins over Griffin, Walnut Grove and Spalding. Despite their impressive record, the Eagles fell in the first round of the playoffs, which has more to do with the way their region is set up and the seed they got because of it than the team's talent.
Eastside boys soccer joined other Eastside programs in making it to the playoffs. The Eagles had a pretty good regular season and it carried it over into the postseason as Eastside travelled to Wayne County to win in the first round despite being the lower seed. Eastside and head coach Champ Young lose one of their best players in Tyrik Francis but Terrell Francis and co. will look to get better next year.
Eastside's girls golf team had its share of success. The Lady Eagles, led by Judy Smith, improved on last year's season. The Lady Eagles won the Newton cup for the second straight season and also placed third at sectionals. The Eagles improved on last year's 12th place finish at state, moving up one spot to finish 11th this year.
Finishing off a terrific year for Eastside was sophomore athlete Eric Stokes. Stokes won the 400m Class AAAA state title in track and field helping the team finish seventh at state.
It wasn't a good year for Alcovy athletics, at least in terms of winning teams, for the boys teams as they struggled in pretty much every sport except soccer. The Lady Tigers, however, were there to save the day.
Alcovy's softball season was full of W's. The Lady Tigers completely owned Region 2-AAAAAA. Alcovy finished with a 21-5-1 record and went 10-0 in region play. They also won the region championship quite easily in a 16-1 blowout victory over Newton. The Lady Tigers advanced to the playoffs where they swept Lee County, winning each game by one run, before getting swept themselves by Hillgrove. The Lady Tigers will be one year better next year under second-year head coach Brandy Keeter.
Lady Tigers basketball kept the ball rolling oso to speak. Alcovy had a pretty solid season that saw them finish third in the region after Arlana Barnes hit a beautiful game-winning three-pointer in overtime against Lovejoy to win 44-42. Alcovy played well in the first round, but couldn't come up with the win against Valdosta.
Soccer was good for both the girls and the boys at Alcovy. The boys played their way to a fourth-place finish in the region before losing in the first round. Alcovy's girls, on the other hand, tore through region play and finished second in the region led by four fantastic freshmen and head coach Anna Hebert. The Lady Tigers suffered a crushing 4-2 loss in the first round to Lee County, but this is just the beginning of Alcovy's success.