COVINGTON, Ga. — The 2017-18 sports season was one full of top performances, gritty showings, big decisions and success through adversity for so many of our Newton County area athletes.
So much so that it’s impossible to truly recap the fullness of the season’s highlights exhaustively in this space. But what we’ve done, just as we have the last couple of years, is compile the plethora of moments into a list of the top 10 sports storylines that caught our attention throughout the school year.
Enjoy this list, and let it tide you over for the next six weeks or so before we get to witness more moments from our student-athletes in the 2018-19 school year.
10. Last minute National Signing Day Drama. Typically in Newton County — and really throughout much of the National Signing Day landscape — last day switch-ups and “hat drama” don’t follow our area athletes, most of them having made their decisions well in advance. But this year was a bit different. Sure, we had the addition of the new early signing period which saw athletes like Newton’s Darnell Jefferies take off early for Clemson, that after he’d been committed to Clemson since before the season began.
But Eastside’s Lamarius Benson had a different situation. Benson, too, had been committed to South Carolina since the previous spring, but some circumstances beyond his control caused him to go a different way. He officially recommitted from South Carolina about a week before National Signing Day, and shared with sports editor Gabriel Stovall his reasons why in a video interview. Benson said he’d likely make a signing day decision, but after a weekend visit to UCF, Benson pulled the trigger immediately, committing to the Knights that weekend and then signing officially the following Wednesday.
9. Newton vs. Archer football. In a game that already felt different because of the rare Saturday, 2 p.m. kickoff time, the Newton-Archer clash had “big game” written all over it. It was a chance for the Rams to lick some wounds it still smarted over from a 57-0 pasting at the hands of Lowndes (we’ll talk about that a little later) in Valdosta. That game was a drastic 180 degree performance from the previous three games of the season — all fairly convincing wins.
The Lowndes loss was a shot to the pride of a team that had the talent to be considered a state champion darkhorse. Newton followed that loss up with two more blowout wins against Heritage and South Gwinnett, and saw the Archer game as a chance to prove that it, indeed, did belong as a top team in Class AAAAAAA. Archer came to Sharp Stadium ranked No. 3 — same ranking as Lowndes when that game happened — but Newton came in with a point to prove.
The Rams jumped out to a quick 12-0 lead, and appeared to be driving toward a 19-0 advantage until starting quarterback Myron Middlebrooks was slammed into the turf by an Archer defender. The hit injured Middlebrooks’ collar bone, rendering him out for the game and the season. Enter untested sophomore Neal Howard who did an admirable job, and stabilized the Rams enough to keep them in contention to win the game. Newton lost 20-19 after a couple of questionable special teams decisions, and Howard almost led coach Terrance Banks’ squad to a first round playoff win at Parkview.
8. Gabriel Stovall’s Lowndes football experience. One of the sports stories that grabbed the most clicks and page views — and certainly the one that triggered the most vitriol — was sports editor Gabriel Stovall’s column chronicling his experience covering Newton’s game at Lowndes in Valdosta. Stovall wrote about his unrivaled difficulty getting into the game among other observations in his first trip to Valdosta, the south Georgia football hotbed passionately known as Winnersville. Stovall’s column touched of a huge outcry against him from Valdosta area football fans that triggered some South Georgians to literally call The Covington News office for his job and eventually landed Stovall as a guest on several sports talk radio shows local to Valdosta.
7. Wheeler vs. Newton basketball also Hagans vs. Montgomery. It may have been one of the most anticipated high school basketball games anywhere in Georgia for the season. Newton and Wheeler’s boys basketball teams squaring off in the Class AAAAAAA Elite Eight with a chance to go to the Final Four was big enough. Add in the fact that Wheeler’s E.J. Montgomery and Newton’s Ashton Hagans — arguably the top two overall prospects in the state, regardless of classification — would lock horns, and you had a Newton gymnasium packed to the brim with fans from both schools, as well as a Who’s Who list of college basketball coaches and recruiters trying to get a glimpse of the two stars who were both unsigned and uncommitted at the time. Newton won the game, and Hagans and company moved on to face Norcross in the semis. But both players — now likely to be Kentucky Wildcat teammates — put on a show for the crowd.
6. Eastside baseball gets a new coach. Typically coaching changes, while big stories, aren’t the kind to make lists like these unless some unique circumstances accompany them. And the way Eastside baseball coach Brandon Crumbley ascended to the program’s helm was indeed unique. Crumbley served on the staff with previous head coach Bruce Evans before Evans abruptly resigned his position after three seasons. The timing of Evans’ departure caused a bit of a scramble for the program which was solved when it tabbed Crumbley as interim head coach.
All Crumbley did in his first work as a head coach was lead Eastside to a 26-6 record, Region 4-AAAA runner-up status, a Sweet 16 Class AAAA playoff berth and a school-record 16-game winning streak to boot. Shortly after Eastside’s narrow loss to West Laurens in the playoffs, the Eastside powers that be removed the interim tag from Crumbley and seated him as permanent, full-time head coach, much to the delight of Eastside’s players and parents.
5. Eastside girls softball wins region title, makes unlikely trip to Columbus. When the softball season began for the Eastside Lady Eagles, it was seen by some to be a bit of a rebuilding year for coach Heather Wood who lost nine seniors from the previous year, including a couple of solid pitchers. When the 2017 campaign ended, however, it proved to be anything but a rebuild as Eastside claimed another Region 4-AAAA championship and clinched its first berth to Columbus since 2010.
The latter happened after then-sophomore Kailey Rusk delivered a masterful performance on the mound, fanning 12 batters in a complete game performance. The Kennesaw State pledge’s big night helped Eastside stave off Spalding 2-1 in an eight-inning thriller. Although Eastside would lose both its games in Columbus, with a squad that lost only one senior, it was the kind of season that may have laid a foundation for more Columbus trips — and wins — to come.
4. Ashton Hagans’ recruitment dance with Georgia. By late December it was clear to everyone that Newton point guard Ashton Hagans was a phenomenal talent, worthy of his five-star designation. Hagans was in the midst of pushing the Rams — a team with four new starters — to what would eventually be a Class AAAAAAA Final Four finish. Along the way, Hagans had been steadily collecting recruiting attention from virtually every college basketball blue blood program in the country. So when Hagans committed to Georgia four days before Christmas, it sent some shockwaves throughout the area. At this point, former UGA coach Mark Fox had assembled quite the recruiting class, and was hoping it’d be enough to keep him off the hot seat.
However, a lackluster finish to the Bulldogs’ season saw Fox dismissed and his ballyhooed recruiting class disassembled. That included Hagans decommitting from Georgia a little more than two months later. Dawgs fans held out hope that Hagans could return to the fold after Georgia hired Tom Crean — a coach Hagans had built prior relationship with — as Fox’s replacement. Who knows what could’ve happened if a certain school from the Bluegrass State would’ve never come calling?
3. Ashton Hagans commits to Kentucky. Although it was a huge story when it broke, it was hardly unexpected — especially not after the offer from Tom Calipari and Kentucky came to Hagans. Hagans himself acknowledged that this was the offer he’d been waiting for since eighth grade. So when the Wildcats sent its basketball recruiting suitors to Covington, that was basically a wrap for Hagans’ recruitment. Hagans officially committed to Kentucky on April 10, and shared his reasons why in a video interview with sports editor Gabriel Stovall that got picked up by several news outlets that specialize in covering UK basketball. We later found out that Hagans, perhaps anticipating what was to come, had begun working toward early graduation from Newton in order to forego his senior season and play as a freshman — potentially a one-and-done season — at Kentucky during the 2018-19 academic year.
According to a recent article from SEC Country published several weeks ago, Hagans was just one class away from completing the required extra coursework needed to satisfy graduation requirements, and is expected to join the Wildcats team — along with Wheeler star E.J. Montgomery — this summer.
2. UGA's National Title run with a Newton County flare. The Georgia Bulldogs' SEC Championship win over Auburn and subsequent berth into its first college football national championship game in well over 30 years probably will make a lot of top 10 lists at year's end. It's a big enough story to stand alone, even in this localized list, but the fact that this past season's UGA football team had Newton County flavor on it makes it a no-brainer top 10 story on our list. Former Eastside and Newton High stars Eric Stokes and JJ Holloman were suited up and on the sidelines during both monumental Georgia games. And in addition to our game day coverage of both championship contests, we found a fairly local member of Georgia's 1980 National Championship team to feature -- Tim Crowe, the stepfather of Eastside baseball coach Brandon Crumbley.
The national title game itself -- though not the desired result for Dawgs fans -- was an instant classic with SEC rival Alabama. It all made for one of the biggest events our sports department has covered in several years.
1. Newton girls basketball team plays for state title, galvanizes community. They say football is king in the south, but the basketball headlines were king and queen in Newton County this past season. We’ve shared at length how Hagans and his recruitment were top stories this past school year, but it shouldn’t be arguable that what the Newton Lady Rams did, not just on the court but in the community, is the largest local sports story of the year.
Not only did the Lady Rams win their first region title since 2012, coach Tiffani Johnson’s senior-heavy squad marched through the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs all the way to Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion to battle Westlake for a state championship. It was only the second time in school and county history that a girls basketball team from Newton County qualified for the state title game. The Lady Rams last did it back in 1963. And although Newton fell short of hoisting the state championship hardware, it became the county’s champion, both for basketball achievement but also promoting community unity.
The outpouring of support to the Lady Rams from Newton County Schools, Covington residents young and old, black and white, Newton, Eastside and Alcovy alums, current students and faculty and just scores of people all across the area from all walks of life was a tremendous example of the kind of unity and camaraderie sports can bring to a community.
It injected a “next-level” kind of aura into Johnson’s already solidly run program, and provide the team opportunities to give back in greater ways to the community even after the season was over. It also catapulted two of Newton’s top players, Jurnee Smith (Columbus State) and Lexii Chatman (Georgia Southwestern) to college scholarships, even as Chatman surpassed her coach to take on the No. 2 all-time leading scorer slot in Newton High girls basketball history.