Stories of the Year: First half of 2016 featured region, state titles, clutch players

December 30, 2016 GMT

It was another unpredictable, exciting, successful year in the sports world locally in 2016 in Calhoun and Gordon County. Today, we look back on the players, games, stories and events that made the biggest headlines.

Below you will find the top stories from the first half of 2016 (January through June). The top stories from the second half of the year will run in this upcoming Wednesday’s paper. Here they are in chronological order:

Griffith’s onside kick helps Alabama to national title

GLENDALE, Ariz. — No wonder the normally stone-faced Nick Saban was smiling.

The Alabama coach made what will go down as one of the biggest successful gambles of his career in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s national championship game against Clemson.

He called an onside kick just after former Calhoun standout Adam Griffith’s tying field goal in a pivotal moment of the Crimson Tide’s 45-40 win over Clemson. Marlon Humphrey recovered and two plays later Jake Coker hit tight end O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown.

TV cameras captured a kind of satisfied, I-got-you grin from Saban on the sideline that doesn’t often surface publicly.

And why not? The five-time national champion coach who insisted a couple of days earlier that he’s “a very happy person“ probably deserved a moment of back-patting after that one. Because it worked.

Boy, did it.

Clemson’s dynamic quarterback, Deshaun Watson, made sure that didn’t end the game even after yet another huge special teams play by Alabama. Kenyan Drake, who’s endured a broken arm and leg in his final two seasons, raced 95 yards for a touchdown on a kick return that gave the Tide 17 points in just over a three-minute span.

Saban’s gamble kept the ball out of the hands of Watson for a bit after he bedeviled the nation’s top defense both passing and rushing. With the Tigers also buckling down against Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry late in the game, the gamble came at just the right time. It caught Clemson and everyone else by surprise.

Onside kick? In a tie game? With a national title on the line? The $7 million-a-year coach is crazy like a fox. It’s far from the first time Saban has pulled out a timely trick. It’s just not what he’s known for in a career that now includes four national titles in seven seasons and a fifth at LSU. His reputation’s built more on recruiting, intense preparation and teams sporting punishing running games and even more dominant defenses.

Nine local players ink scholarships on National Signing Day

Wednesday was a day some lifelong dreams came true for several local football standouts.

National Signing Day always brings with it excitement, emotion and for many, including players, coaches and parents, a sigh of relief. Nine local players put pen to paper on Wednesday to sign football scholarships with their school of choice.

Six players from Calhoun and three from Sonoraville signed with various programs during special ceremonies to continue their football career and give themselves the opportunity to get a college education while doing it.

From Calhoun, the six signees were Jack DeFoor (Ole Miss), Kaelan Riley (Mercer), Jireh Wilson (Wofford), Drew McEntyre (The Citadel), Austin Stout (West Georgia) and Kolby Reynolds (Missisippi College).

“This is a special day for those guys,“ said Calhoun coach Hal Lamb. “They are a part of a really good group of seniors, and the ball’s in their court now. They can go on and take advantage of the opportunity to get an education by playing football, and even more than that, get ready for life beyond football. I’m very excited for these young men and can’t wait to see what they do from here.“

Sonoraville’s three signees included Kenny Cooper (Georgia Tech), Cody Long (Reinhardt) and Jonathan Novicki (Reinhardt).

“For these kids and our program, this is one of the most important days there is,“ said Sonoraville coach Jim Kremer. “This is a lot of hard work paying off. These three kids did the right things and worked really hard to help us have success. They’ve been a part of three straight playoff teams and going to the second round for the first time this past season. These three and the whole senior class has laid a good foundation for the program going forward. They’ll always be known as they guys that started building this thing.

“Now, they’ve got to go on and fight through adversity when, and not if, it comes their way. They’ve got to stay committed and see it all the way through to get their degrees.“

For Calhoun, the six that signed on Wednesday makes seven total from this senior class that combined for 53 wins and one state title in their four years in high school. Landon Rice signed with Auburn in early December and is already enrolled there for the current semester.

Lamb said there could be a few more that sign in the coming months.

“I think that if a kid wants to play football on the next level, we’re going to try and help them any way we can to get there,“ said Lamb. “To have seven sign means a lot to this program and the community. A lot of kids that play high school football do not get the opportunity to go on and play in college so to have this many guys sign is big for the program.“

Sonoraville’s three signees on Wednesday make up the highest total of Signing Day signees the program has ever had. The Phoenix have built some momentum in the past three seasons as they’ve earned state playoff berths each year and got their first-ever playoff win this past fall when they defeated East Hall in the Class AAA First Round. Cooper, Long and Novicki along with the rest of the senior class, which could feature three or four more signees in the next few months, had a lot to do with that success.

Kremer said a lot of people have played a role in getting these three and possibly a few more the chance to play on the next level.

“It says a lot not just for the football program but for the teachers, administration and community,“ said Kremer. “It takes a lot of people to get them to this point, starting with their families. This has been a lot of effort on everyone’s part. My role is mostly as a mediator to get them going in the right direction.

“This isn’t the final goal for them, though. They’re in for a lot more work. It’s not going to be easy, but hopefully they’ll persevere and stick with it. We’ll be ultimately proud of them when they finish their degrees.“

The signees each contributed greatly to their teams’ success this past season as Calhoun went 13-1 to advance to the Class AAA Final Four after winning their 15th straight region title and Sonoraville finished with an 8-4 record and went to the second round.

Sonoraville girls win region title in Ringgold

RINGGOLD — The Sonoraville Lady Phoenix definitely made the saying ’third time’s the charm’ ring true on Saturday night.

Facing Ringgold in the Region 6-AAA Tournament finals, a team that had defeated the Lady Phoenix on two occasions during the regular season, Sonoraville came up with a huge effort, especially on the defensive end, to down the host Lady Tigers when it mattered most for a 51-34 victory to claim the region title.

It was also the third region title in the past four years for Sonoraville (22-5) with the previous two coming in Region 5-AAA in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. The title gives the Lady Phoenix a No. 1 seed going into the Class AAA Tournament where they will face Banks County on Tuesday.

Sonoraville coach Stephanie Caudell said her team is truly playing their best basketball at the most crucial time and that allowed them to ultimately hoist the 6-AAA first-place trophy.

“I think moreso than any team we’ve had here that this group has continued to get better as the year went on,“ said Caudell. “The team’s playing better. Individuals are playing better. We’re really playing well right now.

“I’m so excited for the girls, especially the seven seniors. That group has been together a long time… since middle school, and I know this meant a whole lot to them. It means a lot to all of us.“

The Lady Phoenix jumped out on top of Ringgold (22-4) to start the game, outscoring them 12-2 in the first quarter. After Ringgold then rallied in the second quarter to gain a 13-12 lead by starting the period on an 11-0 run, Sonoraville settled back down and finished the first half strong to lead 19-15 going into the locker room.

Sonoraville’s defense once again took control of the game in the third, forcing several turnovers and contesting almost every Ringgold shot. They outscored the Lady Tigers 13-5 in the period, including starting the second half on an 11-0 run, and took a 32-20 lead into the final quarter.

And Sonoraville played clutch basketball from there as they answered every time Ringgold threatened in the fourth. The Lady Tigers closed to within 10 two times in the period but never got within single digits of the lead as the Lady Phoenix continued their strong defensive play and hit 11 big free throws down the stretch.

Caudell said switching primarily to a zone defense was the catalyst for dominant defensive effort.

“It’s a credit to the girls how well they played defensively not just tonight, but last night as well,“ said Caudell. “We’ve played man all year, and we played zone tonight and some last night, and they did a great job with it. We played two really good teams the last two days and played really well on defense. That has a lot to do with this being such an experienced group, and it didn’t bother them at all to change things up. They go with the flow.“

Becca Cheeks had a huge night for the Lady Phoenix with a game-high 24, including seven in the fourth quarter. Evie Delp added 13, and Kendall Bowman six.

Cheeks, whose 24 gave her a total of 60 points combined in the three games Sonoraville played at the region tournament, said winning another region title is special, and she knew she needed to bring her best when the stakes were the highest the last few days.

“This is my third region title, and it feels amazing,“ said Cheeks, one of Sonoraville’s seven seniors. “We just came in prepared and ready to work tonight. Plus, we were really confident coming off the win over Calhoun yesterday.

“We said it in the locker room that it’s now or never so I knew it was time to turn it up a notch.“

Ringgold’s lone scorer in double figures was Kaylee Womack with 17 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter as she tried to lead the Lady Tigers’ rally. Kiana Dale dded six for the Lady Tigers, who will host East Hall on Tuesday in the first round of the state tournament.

Caudell said her team is ready to go into state tournament and hopefully build on what they did at region.

“We should be going into State with a lot of confidence,“ said Caudell. “We’ve got to come in prepared and ready to do what we need to do against Banks County. It’s nice to be the No. 1 seed and be at home, but we’ve learned before that No. 4 seeds are not easy teams to beat.“

“I think we’re ready,“ added Cheeks. “We’re happy to be going in as a No. 1 seed and ready for the challenge ahead of us.“

Calhoun boys make it four straight region titles

RINGGOLD — Calhoun has been on a mission all season to prove that they are the cream of the crop in Region 6-AAA, and they made their final, definitive statement on Saturday night.

The Jackets methodically built a lead and never let up to defeat Coahulla Creek 82-64 in the Region 6-AAA Tournament championship game to clinch their fourth straight region crown and continue their undefeated season.

Calhoun (25-0) now moves into the Class AAA State Tournament as a No. 1 seed and a true contender for a spot in Macon. They will open play in the first round at home on Wednesday, facing West Hall.

Calhoun coach Vince Layson said continuing the streak of region titles is certainly special, but his team now has to shift the focus to their next goal… winning a state title.

“Winning four in a row is special,“ said Layson. “These seniors are the group I started with four years ago when they were freshmen, and they’ve put Calhoun basketball back on the map. They keep building the tradition, and now, a region title is not just a want, it’s an expectation.

“We’ve got 50 percent of our goals checked off now, but our next one is a state title. We’ve got a long way to go to get there. Everything we’ve accomplished up to this point is behind us. We’ve got to go out and play for our life now that we’re going into the state tournament.“

On Saturday night the Jackets built their lead to a substantial point in the second quarter after leading 18-14 following the first. They outscored Coahulla Creek (21-6) 25-12 in the second to head into the locker room with a 43-26 advantage.

In the third, Calhoun continued to control the game as the Colts never got within 15 points. The closest the game got after that was 11 at 62-51 early in the fourth, but the Jackets immediately responded with an 8-0 run to push the lead back to 19.

Layson said his team has shown resilience all year in games as the opposing team tried to make a charge, and that was no different on Saturday against a Coahulla Creek team that had given Calhoun their toughest two tests during the regular season. The Jackets won in come-from-behind fashion at Coahulla Creek on Jan. 2 and then had to battle for an overtime win against the Colts on Feb. 2 at home.

“Our guys don’t really dwell on much,“ said Layson. “When other teams make a run, they don’t let it affect thim. They have the next-play mentality, and by doing that, good things usually happen.

“The guys had a chip on their shoulder following the overtime game a couple weeks ago. We tweaked a few things defensively to try to take away some of the things they do well, but mostly our guys are just competitors no matter what it is. Whether it’s basketball, football or playing ping-pong, they come out and compete and do everything they can to win. What more can you ask for as a coach.“

Kaelan Riley and Malik Lawrence each had 19 points to lead the Jackets. Jireh Wilson added 18, 14 coming in the first half, and Chapin Rierson scored 13.

Wilson, who along with Riley started on all four region title teams, said getting another region crown is incredible.

“This is special,“ said Wilson. “To start four years ago with Coach Layson and go on this journey has been really fun. We’ve still got work to do though. If we play up to our potential, I think we can win it all. We still have to come in and grind and work hard. If we do that, we can be an even more special team.“

The Colts had four players in double figures as well led by Alex Fisher with 18 points. JR Laird scored 15, including hitting four 3-pointers. Caleb Lewis added 14, and Tyler Phillips had 11. Coahulla Creek will host Banks County in the first round of the state tournament on Wednesday.

As far as the Jackets, Layson said the table is set, his team just needs to continue working toward their goal.

“We’ve set ourselves up by being the No. 1 seed,“ said Layson. “We’ll get the No. 4 in the first round, and we have the opportunity for home court for the first two rounds.“

Sonoraville’s Burdick, Hunt win state titles

Sonoraville’s Trevor Burdick and Tyler Hunt might be freshmen, but they are certainly no strangers to wrestling in big-time matches… and that showed this past weekend at the Class AAA State Traditional Tournament at the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth.

The pair of first-year high school wresters for the Firebirds has competed in their share of elite tournaments during their youth years, including both previously winning youth state championships. They carried that experience over into their trip to Duluth with both running through their bracket in dominant fashion over the three-day tournament to earn individual state championships, the first for the Sonoraville wrestling program since 2008.

“It was huge,“ said Sonoraville coach Steve Hamilton of his pair of freshmen’s championship performances. “For both of them to be freshmen and still winning it… and really winning it pretty dominantly, is big for them and the program. This is a goal they’ve had for a long time. They both work extremely hard and are model kids for our team. They beat on each other so much in practice that it just makes them that much better.

“This is the best they’ve wrestled all year. They are big-match wrestlers, and they always respond in the clutch.“

Burdick went 4-0 at State to claim the title at 106 and didn’t allow a single point to his opponents the entire tournament. He defeated Jefferson’s Ian Statia by major decision in the finals on Saturday.

Hunt also went 4-0 in his 113 bracket to win a state title, and he didn’t allow an offensive point to his opponent. He clinched the first-place finish with a decision win over Jefferson’s Dawson Bates in Saturday’s finals.

Hamilton said the pair have high aspirations for their high school career and this is a solid start to that.

“They would obviously like to win four straight state titles,“ said Hamilton. “Both of them are guys that have plans to wrestle in college, and this is part of that process. It’s huge for them and huge for the program, especially both of them beating guys from Jefferson, which is probably the top wrestling program in the state.“

Sonoraville’s Kenny Cooper was the team’s other state-placer as he finished sixth at 285. Ian Clark (126), Kevin Hurtiz (160) and Jaccob Bagwell (220) also competed at State for the Firebirds who placed seventh in Class AAA in the team standings with 67.5 points.

Calhoun qualified six wrestlers for State with four earning top-six finishes. The Jackets had three place fourth in their weight classes, including Aaron Aguirre (120), Jacob Callahan (138) and Brice Craig (195).

Christian East (160) placed sixth, and Zach Smith (145) and Eduardo Aguilar (285) also wrestled at State.

Brody Mills was the lone representative for Gordon Central at State and went 1-2 at 170, but didn’t place.

Calhoun girls, boys tennis continue region title streaks

The streak continues.

Both the Calhoun girls and boys tennis teams knew tradition was on the line on Thursday at the Calhoun Tennis Center, and neither had plans to let their run of consecutive region titles come to an end. The Jackets defeated Sonoraville 5-0 in the Region 6-AAA finals to win their fifth straight region crown, and the Lady Jackets made it 10 straight region titles with a 4-1 victory over Adairsville.

“We’re really proud of this team,“ said Calhoun co-head coach Lynn Davis. “Especially after losing so many players off last year’s girls and boys teams. But they knew they wanted to continue the tradition, and they did it. It’s pretty sweet to continue the streak of region titles. And neither of the finals matches were easy with the girls coming down to the doubles matches and the boys having a tough one against Sonoraville.“

In the girls match, after defaulting at No. 1 singles due to an injury to give Adairsville a point, the Lady Jackets (13-5) came back to take the other four spots to clinch the region title. They got singles wins from Jalen Holland (No. 2) and Emily Jourdain (No. 3) and then swept the doubles matches as the team of Madison Turner and Lauren Barber (No. 1) won 7-6, 7-5 and the team of Sammy Bramlett and Neeley Abernathy (No. 2) pulled out a three-set victory 4-6, 6-0, 6-4.

On the boys’ side, Calhoun (15-3) got singles wins from Luke McKenzie (No. 1), Cameron LeBoeuf (No. 2) and Kevin Dinh (No. 3). LeBoeuf’s match went to a third set after Sonoraville’s Brad Whittinghill took the second set in a very competitive match.

To finish off the 5-0 score, the Jackets earned doubles wins from Patrick Box and Aaron Lively (No. 1) and Matthew Turner and Coen Marcus (No. 2).

Earlier in the day, the Sonoraville girls defeated Murray County 5-0 to win the third-place match. Earning points for the Lady Phoenix were JoAnna Gallman (No. 1 singles), Alexandria Hunt (No. 2) and Julianna Hunt (No. 3). They also won at both doubles spots with Emily Evelti and Anna Trantham (No. 1) and Alyssa Childs and Ramsey Smith (No. 2) earning victories.

With the Calhoun girls and boys wins, both lock down No. 1 seeds for the Class AAA State Tournament which starts next week. They will both host No. 4 seeds from Region 7-AAA in the first round.

“I think the kids’ confidence is high right now,“ said Calhoun co-head coach Robin Proffitt. “They’ve really gained confidence as the season has gone on. They were a little nervous going straight into the region tournament coming off spring break, but they got back in the right mindset and did what they needed to do. We’re past that hurdle now and ready for State. We’ll take each match one at a time and see how far we can go.“

Phoenix, Lady Jackets win region track titles

The Sonoraville boys and Calhoun girls track teams both came into the Region 6-AAA Meet this week knowing they needed their athletes to bring their best efforts of the year as trips to State Sectionals were on the line… and they got exactly that.

The Phoenix and Lady Jackets had peak performance from several members of their team and the result was a region title for each.

Sonoraville got eight first-place finishes and several other top-eight performances in different events to rack up an impressive total of 182 points to take first place in the team standings. Calhoun had 141 points, and Gordon Central finished with 70 to round out the top three.

For more photos from the meet and full results, see Saturday’s Calhoun Times.

Sonoraville coach Jeremy Green said he was proud of how his team came together and performed as well as they did to to earn the region crown.

“It’s history for the program because we’ve never won it,“ said Green. “It’s part of something bigger at Sonoraville. The athletic culture is changing out here. We want to be competitive all the way around. I’ve been here three years, and I’ve seen a big change in the level of competitiveness in our kids.

“We won by more than 40 points, and we had several more points that could’ve gotten us over 200 but were disqualified. So I still don’t think we’ve had our best meet as a team. And we’ve got several kids competing despite injuries. That shows true toughness. This group is so focused and driven on winning that I think they would run practice on their own if I wasn’t there. I just drove the bus, and they took care of everything else.“

On the girls side, Calhoun had seven first-place finishes and several other scoring finishes to combine for a total of 160 points and take first over Gordon Central (115) and Sonoraville (102). It was the fourth straight region title for the Lady Jackets.

“I’m very proud of both my teams’ performances,“ said Calhoun coach Brant Murry. “The girls capped off an excellent season with their fourth straight region title and have several girls to move onto sectionals. We were able to secure points in every event so it was a complete team effort from everyone. Sydnie did a great job in her events and relays and has been a great leader for our team these past three seasons. We feel like we have a great chance to send many of our girls past Sectionals.“

Leading the way for the Sonoraville boys was Kenny Cooper, Dylan Dixon and Tarik Holmes who had two first-place finishes apiece. Cooper took the top spot in the discus (141-02) and shot put (45-08.50), Dixon was the top finisher in the high jump (6-04) and long jump (21-02.75) and Holmes swept the 100 meter dash (11.47) and 200 meter dash (23.16). The other two first-place finishes for the Phoenix came in the 4x100 meter relay from their ’A’ team (43.24) and 4x400 meter relay from their ’A’ team (3:40.29).

In total, the Sonoraville boys had 23 sectional-qualifying performances. (The top four in each event advance to Class AAA State Sectionals.)

The Calhoun boys had five individual first-place finishes with Ethan Woodard and Esvin Garcia accounting for two apiece. Woodard won the triple jump (40-06) and 110 meter hurdles (15.53), and Garcia took first in the 1600 meter (4:42.13) and 800 meter (2:06.23). Jack Rhea also placed first in the pole vault (13-00). The Jackets had 14 total sectional-qualifying performances.

“I thought our boys did a great job competing,“ said Murry. “We had a very young group and many first timers this season that contributed to our runner-up finish. Ethan and Esvin were a strong combination for our boys. We were glad to finally have Ethan back from his ACL injury, and he made his presence known very quickly. This was Esvin’s first season in track, and he really gave us a boost in middle-distance. We didn’t quite have the finish we wanted, but hats off to Sonoraville. They competed well.“

Gordon Central’s lone first-place finish on the boys side came from Morgan Swaim in the 400 meter dash with a 52.97. The team had five total sectional-qualifying performances.

The Lady Jackets’ seven first-place finishes were led by Sydnie Parker, who took the top spot in a trio of events. The senior won the triple jump (34-10.50), 400 meter dash (58.90) and 300 meter hurdles (49.95). Other first-place finishes for Calhoun came from Tori Roper in the long jump (16-06), Zianna Maximo in the 800 meter (2:38.57), Emily Driscoll in the 3200 meter (14:12.31) and the 4x400 meter ’A’ team (4:23.25). They had 16 total sectional-qualifying performances.

The Gordon Central girls had two first-place finishes and several other scoring performances to help them to their second-place finish as a team. Megan Hudson won the discus (105-07), and Macy Wilbanks took first in the 100 meter hurdles (16.97). Those two wins were a part of 11 sectional-qualifying performances.

Gordon Central coach John Rainwater said he was proud of the way both his teams performed at Region.

“I am very pleased by the way our track Warriors worked very hard and did well on a very good Region,“ said Rainwater. “Our young Warriors really stepped up and did well. We qualified eight girls in nine events for the Sectional meet. For the boys we had five Sectional Qualifiers in six events. Many of our kids had their personal best in the last two days and our warriors are already talking about what training they are ready for in 2017.

“I challenged our kids to ’Unleash the super hero inside you,’ and many of them did just that. They are beginning to believe in what great things we see in them. The overall results showed what great track and field we have here in Gordon County with our three teams here finishing in the top three for girls and boys.“

The Lady Phoenix had there first-place finishes led by Faith Austin who won the 100 meter dash (12.96) and 200 meter dash (27.07). Their 4x100 meter relay ’A’ team also placed first with a 51.33. Sonoraville had a total of 10 sectional-qualifying performances.

Lady Jackets win ninth straight region golf title

The Calhoun girls pushed their streak to nine consecutive region titles on Monday by finishing first at the Region 6-AAA Tournament at Calhoun Elks Club.

The Lady Jackets were led by Katie Rose Rawls, who shot a 76. Also contributing to the team score of 245, which was nine strokes ahead of second-place North Murray, was Kate Mashburn with an 81 and Maddie Crump 88.

Sonoraville’s Clara Hulsey also had a great day, shooting a 73 to earn runner-up low medalist honors, four strokes behind Murray County’s Tori Owens who shot an incredible 69 to take first.

Sonoraville took third in the team standings with a 257. Gordon Central was fourth with a 283. Both of those teams qualify for State Sectionals at Indian Trace in Chatsworth on May 2.

Calhoun earns a spot at the Class AAA State Tournament on May 16 at Pointe South Golf Club in Hephzibah.

Calhoun downs rival Phoenix for fourth straight region title

Calhoun exacted a measure of revenge and made a little bit of history at the same time on Friday.

Facing Sonoraville in the Region 6-AAA Championship game, the Jackets got off to a quick start with three first-half goals and rode that momentum to a 3-1 victory to not only avenge their only regular-season region loss but also earn their fourth straight region crown, the first time the program has ever achieved that feat.

“This was a special night, no doubt,“ said Calhoun coach Matt Rice. “(Sonoraville) is a top-notch team and a good program, and to come out here and play as well as we did was incredible. All wins are good wins, but when you beat a good team and it’s for a region title it makes it even better.

“This is a special team and a special group of seniors. They’re the first to ever win four straight region titles. That just shows the longevity and consistency they’ve had and how much hard work they’ve put in. They’ve earned their time on the field. They’re a special group that plays for each other, and you saw that tonight.“

Calhoun (9-5-2) came out fast, earning several early chances to score, and got on the board in the seventh minute as Rudi Esquivel headed the ball into the net off an assist on a free kick from Gabriel Garcia.

A few minutes later, Calhoun’s Steven Guerrero was fouled in the box resulting in a penalty kick, which Garcia capitalized on for the Jackets’ second goal. They then made it 3-0 in the 30th minute with Alex Flores knocking one into the back of the net on another assist from Garcia.

Sonoraville (14-4) came out refocused and gained some momentum in their favor to start the second half. They got on the board on a goal by Alexander Soldevilla off an assist from Jonathan Soldevilla in the 46th minute. The Phoenix kept the pressure on and threatened a few more times before the game was delayed midway through the second half due to lightning.

Once play resumed after a more than a 30-minute delay, Sonoraville continued pushing the ball forward and had several free kicks and corners, but the Calhoun defense and goalkeeper Tray Alexander held strong to secure the 3-1 victory.

Rice said his team learned from their first contest against Sonoraville a couple weeks ago, a 2-1 loss, and made the proper adjustments for Friday’s game.

“We knew Sonoraville would come out and start fast, and we had to match their intensity,“ said Rice. “We saw a different team tonight than the first time we played them. Our guys stepped up from the beginning and battled all the way through to bring it home.

“We knew Sonoraville would make adjustments at halftime and come out strong in the second half so we had to change a little of what we do defensively. I put some guys in different roles, and they gave the commitment needed to finish off the win.“

Calhoun’s Garcia, one of seven seniors, said the win was a special one to be a part of and he was happy to play a role in it.

“It feels great,“ said Garcia. “Not a lot of players get to experience something like this, winning four straight region titles. That was the motivation we had all year.

“I always tell coach that I want to take every kick, whether it’s a free kick or penalty. I knew it was going to go in.“

Both teams will now turn their attention to the Class AAA State Tournament, which they will begin on Thursday. The Jackets will enter as the No. 1 seed from 6-AAA and host Fannin County in the first round on Thursday at 7 p.m. Sonoraville, the No. 2 seed, will also host their first-round opponent, West Hall, at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

The Jackets are trying to return to the Class AAA State Championship Game once again after making it their last season before falling to West Hall. Rice said he has confidence his team can make another deep run into the postseason.

“These guys can do anything,“ said Rice. “They set the goal to get back their (to the state championship game) again, and they can do anything they set their mind to.

“We’ll have a strong opponent in the first round in Fannin County, but if our guys play with heart and dedication like they have all season, I have no doubt we can come out with a win and move on to the next round.“

Phoenix tennis advances to first-ever Final Four

CARROLLTON — In pressure moments, some athletes let the nerves control them, and some rise to the occasion with an incredible performance.

For Sonoraville’s No. 2 doubles team of James McCracken and Trent Holley, the approach and outcome was the latter on Wednesday afternoon.

With the match and a berth to the Class AAA Final Four hanging in the balance, the pair stepped up and put their team on their back to earn a straight-set win to give Sonoraville a 3-2 victory over Central-Carroll and keep their season alive.

The teams split the first four lines in their Class AAA Elite Eight matchup, with Sonoraville earning points at No. 2 singles and No. 3 singles while Central-Carroll rallied to win at No. 1 doubles and No. 1 singles and tie things up at 2-2.

That’s when McCracken and Holley took center stage and didn’t disappoint with their performance as they made minimal mistakes and rode their momentum to a 6-2, 6-2 victory to send their team on to the Final Four.

“I’m so proud of James and Trent for stepping up like they did and finish things off,“ said Sonoraville coach Becki Hall. “We’ve focused on being a team all year, and today’s results showed that. It took the whole team to get this win, and they were focused on that. I couldn’t be more proud of James and Trent and really this whole team.“

The match started off very well for the Phoenix as they dealt the first blow by winning the first set in each of the first four matches. (The No. 2 doubles match was the final line to start due to there only being four courts available.) Sonoraville’s No. 2 singles player Brad Whittinghill was the first to put a tally in the team column with a 6-4, 6-0 victory.

Sonoraville’s Justin Jones then kept the momentum going by winning at No. 3 singles (6-3, 6-2) to make it 2-0. But Central-Carroll didn’t go away quietly as they rallied to earn wins at No. 1 doubles and No. 1 singles to even things up. Sonoraville’s Tyler Bowers (No. 1) fell in three sets (6-2, 2-6, 1-6), and Sonoraville’s Noah Gibbs and Jacob Rickett (No. 1 doubles) also lost in three sets in a competitive back-and-forth match which required a third-set tiebreaker.

Then all eyes were focused on the No. 2 doubles match as each team knew their season continuing was on the line. Sonoraville’s Holley said as the results unfolded, he and his partner remained calm and focused as they knew they had a very important match in front of them.

“We saw everyone up early, but then things went a little downhill after the good start so I just talked to James and told him we just needed to play like there was no pressure,“ said the junior Holley. “We got out there and everything was up to us, but we stayed focused and played really well. That’s probably the best we’ve ever played. We got it done.

“Going to the Final Four is some big stuff. We’ve broken a lot of records this year as a team, and we’ve set the standards high for the future for this program.“

With the victory, the Phoenix, who have never been past the first round of the state tournament prior to this season, move on to face Oconee County in the next round, and they will be on the road as the Warriors are the No. 1 seed from Region 8-AAA. (The day and time of the match was not available at press time.)

Hall said getting to the Final Four is a huge accomplishment but at the same time, her team has to remain in the moment as they look to continue this dramatic run even longer.

“This is huge for Sonoraville tennis and for our community,“ said Hall. “Sonoraville is really coming around and doing some great things.

“We’ve got to keep working though. We’re going to be excited about this, but we’re still going to remain focused. That’s the key. We’re proud of this, but we’ve got to know that we’re not done yet.“

“We’ve got tons of momentum right now,“ added Holley. “This is a dream come true for us. But we’re going to keep fighting hard and try to take this thing all the way.“

Calhoun girls make it back-to-back state titles

The pressure was on Monday as Calhoun went to a playoff with Blessed Trinity in efforts to defend their state title from last season, and the Lady Jackets responded in fine fashion.

Calhoun won on the second playoff hole to defeat the Lady Titans and finish first to clinch their second straight Class AAA state title on Monday at Pointe South Golf Club in Hephzibah at the Class AAA Girls State Tournament.

The Lady Jackets finished with a team score of 257 after 18 holes, which was tied with Blessed Trinity’s score for first, forcing a playoff. Leading Calhoun was Kate Mashburn with an 85. Maddie Crump and Katie Rose Rawls both shot an 86 to complete the team score. Katie Kauffman also shot a 92, which didn’t count on the team score.

Calhoun, who is coached by Clay Stephenson, advanced to State after winning their ninth straight region title last month. He said Monday was a roller-coaster type day for his team that ended on a huge high. According to Stephenson, the Lady Jackets got off to a rough start, shooting there 45s and a 44 on the front nine, falling behind both North Murray and Blessed Trinity going to the back nine. They were still down after the 12th hole, but that’s when things started to turn around.

“Holes 13-16 were the holes that put us in position to get back in the tournament,“ said Stephenson. “We played those four holes 2-under as a team.“

Crump birdied holes 13 and 14, and Mashburn and Rawls both birdied 15 and 16 before the Calhoun struggled on the final two holes.

“We didn’t finish the last two holes like we wanted but having that hot stretch pulled us through to get the tie,“ said Stephenson. “It was a bit of a shock for our players (who had been scoreboard watching for a while) when Blessed Trinity forced the tie. They thought we had won the tournament when Kate finished her round. When both teams’ scores were tallied, we finished in a tie. Having to tell the girls that they were going to have to play in a playoff, and then get their focus back to golf was not easy.“

Stephenson said having assistant coach Roger Gresham show up just before the playoff started was really good for his team. Gresham had spent the previous portion of the day with the Calhoun boys team at the Class AAA Boys State Tournament in Fort Gordon.

“Coach Gresham showing up was a huge help for me and the girls,“ said Stephenson. “He had a fresh outlook on the day. He just kept reminding the team how good they were and that they were the better team. The girls were pretty beat down because of the way they played during the round but we kept trying to reiterate that they were getting a second chance in the playoff. Things got pretty emotional during our team meeting before the playoff. Coach Gresham and I told them that no matter what happened, we had an awesome year and that we were proud of them.“

All four players played on the playoff holes with the best three scores combining after each hole. After Blessed Trinity had a couple chances at tournament-clinching putts on the second playoff hole, Calhoun’s lone senior Rawls, stepped up and sunk a 10-foot par putt to clinch Calhoun’s second straight title.

“It means a lot to our players, their families, and the school (to win another state title),“ said Stephenson. “They put in a ton of practice this year in preparation for the tournament. Seeing them celebrating with each other and their families was very special. We had by far the biggest crowd following our players, and I think this helped out in the playoff. It was a tough day for us, but hats off to Blessed Trinity for the way they played. All year we were able to avoid having all four players play poorly in a tournament. Other than a few hole stretch on the back, Monday was kind of a perfect storm of bad golf for most of the day.

“Being able to regroup during the break was awesome. By the time we teed off in the playoff, I think they were all able to get their focus back and concentrate on the job at hand.“

Stephenson added that the group he coached was a truly special one.

“I told them before they playoff how much I loved them and how I was super-proud of them no matter what happened after that,“ said Stephenson. “These four girls are truly extraordinary. They are great student-athletes and even better individuals. This was evident as soon as the Blessed Trinity player missed a very short putt to extend the playoff...Kate Mashburn, who was playing in the group went straight over to her and gave her the longest tear-filled hug. That is what golf is all about...honor, integrity and character, and I am so proud our girls showed those traits even before celebrating with each other.

There were countless times this year, that they were studying during practice, or writing papers on road trips. It’s a blessing for Coach Gresham and I to coach players who truly have their priorities in order. We hate losing Katie Rose because she has been a constant on the golf team for four years. We will miss her leadership and her character. No matter what else happens in her golf career, no one will ever be able to take away that feeling she had standing over that par putt on the second playoff hole and making it.“

Also competing in the Class AAA Girls State Tournament on Monday was Sonoraville and Gordon Central. The Lady Phoenix finished 10th as a team with a score of 292 led by Clara Hulsey’s 81. Her score was good for fifth-place individually.

Also contributing to the team score for Sonoraville was Sarah Smith with a 102, and Sydney Phillippe and Hannah Arthur, who each shot 109’s.