What a ride it’s been.
From the 48-40 loss to Harrison in the fourth game of the season that had Newton Lady Rams coach Tiffani Johnson frustrated about her team’s lack of fire and focus, to last Saturday’s improbable 18-point comeback to beat four-time defending champion McEachern that left Johnson in tears.
Again I say, what a ride it’s been.
And now we’re here at the final stop. The ultimate grand finale. This Newton girls basketball team has defied odds and turned a deaf ear to critics and those who were indifferent to its success en route to the moment that all 400-plus Georgia High School Association schools mark as their ultimate goal at the beginning of a basketball season. Yet, in the end, only one school gets the chance call it a reality.
Saturday will be Newton’s chance.
It’s state championship time for the Newton girls basketball team. But in case you haven’t noticed, it’s state championship time for the entire Newton County and Covington area.
One of the things that struck me when I first arrived on the scene as your sports editor was the sense of community, camaraderie and pride associated with the local sports scene. While so many get enamored with the big schools and the metro areas, I take pride in finding ways to shine lights on those who are just as talented and just as passionate, despite being under the radar.
I found that in Covington. But I’ve also found that when it comes time to support your own, you do it and do it well.
The county rivalries are pretty intense, but they aren’t bitter. And when one school has a chance to represent the county on the highest level, the entire county takes notice and takes it to heart.
I’ve seen it most during sadder times. Like when Eastside baseball’s Hipps family experienced bereavement. I’ve seen it in smaller doses when athletes and teams are winning big and grabbing headlines beyond the hometown.
But the way the county has come out in support of the Lady Rams’ march to a potential first-ever state championship has been nothing short of phenomenal.
In many ways, I’ve gathered that Newton County, its schools and athletic community is like family — in every sense of the word.
Sometimes, like family, there’s disagreement. Sometimes there’s a little eye-rolling at something said or done that doesn’t sit well. But also, like family, when it’s time to turn on the love and support, it gets turned up to the highest degree.
Last week I was told by a reader of The Covington News who has grown fond of messaging me on Twitter lately that the county “has changed” over the 50 years he or she has been reading. The assertion was that, to this reader, it wasn’t a positive kind of change. Draw your own conclusions as to the underlying meaning of that.
All I’ll say to that sentiment is this: Every community has its issues, for sure. But if you can push past those issues long enough to throw genuine love and support behind others in your community in times like these — regardless of differences — I’d say that wherever Newton County may have changed for the bad over the years, it’s also congruently done some shifting toward the good. And that should be noted and celebrated.
The positive messages coming from other schools — like Eastside, which used its digital board on the school campus to send well wishes to the Rams — other coaches, the Board of Commissioners, the Newton County School System’s top-shelf administrators, businesses who are throwing their support behind the team by being first-time advertisers in The Covington News’ special state tournament coverage. It’s all just been phenomenal.
Even as I was writing this column, I saw a slew of support photos and videos from Fairview and Live Oak Elementary Schools’ teachers, faculty and students on Twitter.
It’s been absolutely amazing. And, again, it’s the kind of thing sports often does to remind us that it’s much better and more advantageous for all of us to spend more time highlighting our similarities and common ground than fighting over our differences, whatever those differences are.
Hopefully the support continues Saturday in tangible fashion. Parking is gonna be a bear at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. But I hope that doesn’t stop you from showing up and making it as loud as a home game in Newton’s own gym.
I’ve seen the Lady Rams in practice this week. I think they’re focused. I think they’re locked in and about as confident as a program can be while making its first state finals appearance since 1963. And I know win or lose, the county will remain proud.
But let’s not be forced to take a moral victory unless we have to. Get behind these Rams one last time Saturday at Georgia Tech and let’s see what kind of ending this championship tale has.
A few times throughout the playoff run, Johnson has called this a storybook season, and that it has been. From the way her six seniors have taken their bond to another level, to this group winning their first region championship during their time at Newton on their own home gym, all the way to the McEachern comeback despite enormous adversity.
But there’s one more chapter to be written, and that happens Saturday at 6 p.m. against Westlake.
As the kids say, this season has been a movie. Here’s hoping that the final act will be the sweetest one yet.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.