When Savannah State granted Troy Wyche a release from his football scholarship in April, it opened the door for the former all-state Riverdale linebacker to sign with Arkansas State. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)
It was a year of triumph for many teams and individuals in the county, but 2013 also provided some disappointing defeats and setbacks. There were some big wins, and heart-breaking losses in the season.
A longtime winning football coach was forced out while miracle finishes helped capture a season of highlights for Lovejoy.
The Mundy’s Mill football team finally finished among the state’s elite as its standout running back shouldered the load.
A new county volleyball champion was crowned after 13 years of dominance by Jonesboro. A former high school all-state linebacker finally landed a Div. I Football Bowl Championship scholarship in early summer.
These are the many highlights to a 2013 year that made for an exciting sports scene in Clayton County.
The Clayton News Daily sports staff chose 10 of the most intriguing moments of the year. Here is a look at the list:
1. Al Hughes forced out at Lovejoy
Apparently four straight region championships, including making the state finals in two of the last three years, wasn’t enough to convince Lovejoy that Al Hughes was the right person for the football coaching job. After returning from the Thanksgiving break, Hughes was informed that the Wildcat program was going to make a coaching change.
The veteran coach retired to spend time with his ailing father, and contemplate his next move. He said he wasn’t through with coaching after 36 years on the sidelines. Hughes is the county’s all-time winningiest coach with 119 victories at stops at his alma mater Jonesboro and the last 13 at Lovejoy.
During the 2011 and ‘12 seasons, Hughes helped lead the Wildcats to appearances in the state finals at the Georgia Dome, and over the last four years, he has compiled a 47-6 record. The Wildcats were 10-1 this past season, losing to Lowndes in the second round of the Class AAAAAA playoffs.
2. Clayton State reaches NCAA Elite 8
For the better part of the season, Clayton State women’s basketball team held the top ranking in the NCAA Div. II. The Lakers cruised to the Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament championship en route to the NCAA Southeast Regional title.
Clayton State would advance to the Eight Eight in San Antonio, Texas, to face Augustana on the campus of St. Mary’s University. An 81-68 loss ended the Lakers season with a 32-1 record. The loss ended a historic season for the Lakers, which entered the game on a 32-game winning streak, the best in school history.
Senior Dremeka Griggs paced the Lakers all season as the leading scorer. She was named the conference player of the year in addition to receiving several other postseason awards. The Jonesboro High product was named to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American team at the Elite Eight banquet.
3. Mundy’s Mill makes playoff run
Like the previous season, Mundy’s Mill started 0-4 in 2013.
But unlike the 2012 campaign, the Tigers would have a better finish in the end. Mundy’s Mill would win its next six games to clinch the Region 4-AAAAA, Div. A title and secure the No. 2 seed in the region. The Tigers got to host a first round playoff game against Houston County at Tara Stadium.
Mundy’s Mill defeated Houston County 33-13 before getting a win over Lee County 41-35 in Leesburg. The Tigers eight-game winning streak would end against defending state champion and No. 3 Gainesville the day after Thanksgiving Day on the road.
It was the first two playoff wins in school history for the program, which fielded its first team during the 2003 season. Mundy’s Mill would finish with an 8-5 record, which is the most wins in school history.
In the final Georgia Sportswriters Association poll, Mundy’s Mill would finished ranked No. 8 in Class AAAAA, the first ranking in school history.
Smith was named the Region 4-AAAAA, Div. A offensive player of the year while linebacker Jonathan Celestin took top defensive honors in the subregion.
The Tigers’ 0-4 start came against what Maxwell Computer Ratings called the toughest schedule in Class AAAAA. Included in the losses were setbacks to Class AAAAAA’s Lovejoy to open the season and a four-point loss on the road to Coffee.
4. Gordon Gibbons resigns as Clayton State basketball coach
A few weeks before the start of the Peach Belt Conference tournament, longtime Clayton State men’s basketball coach announced he would resign at the conclusion of the season.
In 12 seasons at Clayton State, Gibbons has a 214-131 record, giving him more wins and a higher winning percentage than any coach in the program’s history. In addition to his accomplishments at the Morrow school, he also amassed over 246 wins at Florida Southern, making him the only coach in NCAA Division II history to capture 200 victories at two different schools with a winning percentage of over 70 percent.
Overall, in 22 seasons at the NCAA Division II level, he is 460-193 for a winning percentage of .704, which ranks fourth in the nation among the active head coaches with 15 years of experience.
Gibbons has led the Lakers to two NCAA Division II National tournaments, including a Sweet Sixteen Appearance, a Peach Belt Conference Championship and a Peach Belt Conference Tournament Championship title.
In his first season in 2000-01, the Lakers captured their first Peach Belt Conference Championship regular season title with a 19-9 record overall and a 15-5 mark in league play. He led the program to its best season ever in 2006-07, as the squad finished with a 24-8 overall record, advancing to the Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship game. The Lakers clinched their first NCAA Division II National Tournament bid that year and was ranked in the nation’s Top-25 the entire season. The squad spent eight weeks ranked as the nation’s No. 2 team.
5. Preston Williams makes miracle reception
Lovejoy needed a miracle in the closing seconds against Marietta in the Class AAAAAA playoffs’ first round.
And not surprisingly, wide receiver Preston Williams delivered. The junior had a 47-yard scoring reception from quarterback Quintarius Neely as time expired to give the second-ranked Wildcats a 27-23 the win over Marietta at Twelve Oaks Stadium.
After Marietta kicked a field goal to take the lead with under two minutes remaining in the contest, the 6-foot-5 Williams returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to set up the game-winning touchdown.
It appeared that Lovejoy was going to take an early exit from the postseason when Marietta kicker Ian Shannon booted a 40-yard field goal for a 23-21 lead with 1:09 remaining in the contest. But Williams returned the ensuing kickoff to the Lovejoy 45-yard line to set up the game-winning drive.
On second down, quarterback Quintarius Neely fumbled, but tightend Randy Anywanu recorded, and the Wildcats spiked the ball to kill the clock.Then on the next play, Neely threw to Williams, who was guarded by three Marietta defenders. After making the catch, the Blue Devils fell down as Williams coasted in to the end zone from about seven yards out.
Williams had an MVP-type of game for the Wildcats with seven receptions for 275 yards and four touchdowns. He also intercepted a pass and made a touchdown-saving tackle.
Many national recruiting analysts upgraded him to a five-star prospect, and some even began touting him as the top prospect in the nation for the 2015 recruiting class. Earlier in the season, Williams gave a verbal commitment to Tennessee.
6. Rodney Smith runs over Houston County
It was perhaps the biggest game in school history, and Mundy’s Mill senior running back Rodney Smith didn’t disappoint. Playing his first-ever home playoff game, the 200-pound Smith rushed for a career-high 348 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Tigers to a 33-13 win over Houston County at Tara Stadium.
It would have been hard convincing anyone associated with the Houston County program that Smith is a year removed from a torn ACL injury. The running back showed no ill effects from that injury on Friday night on the wet, cold turf at Tara Stadium.
Smith did his damage early and often for the Tigers.
Smith racked up 186 rushing yards in the first quarter alone, scoring three touchdowns as the Tigers took a 20-0 lead. He carried the ball on all seven plays on the opening drive, leading the Tigers 76 yards for a touchdown.
Smith accounted for more than half the yards on the second drive, which ended with his 16-yard touchdown run.
During the postseason, Smith rushed for 830 yards on 83 carries and 10 touchdowns in wins over Houston County and Lee County before a season-ending loss to Gainesville. He finished the season as one of the top rushers in the state with 2,201 yards and 26 touchdowns.
7. Mount Zion snaps Jonesboro volleyball streak
After 13 years of dominating the county in volleyball, Jonesboro finally met its match against rival Mount Zion.
Although the Bullldogs might have labored a little longer than they anticipated after a fast start, Mount Zion defeated Jonesboro 3-2 to capture the Clayton County Volleyball Championship on the Cardinals’ homecourt.
After battling through the losers bracket, and then being taken to five sets, Mount Zion defeated Jonesboro in the best-of-five series in the Clayton County Volleyball Championship match over the weekend.
The win ended the Cardinals’ 13-year run as the county champions. Mount Zion won 25-21, 25-18, 20-25, 19-25, 19-17 in the championship match to cap off the one-day, double elimination tournament.
Mount Zion had to come through the losers bracket after suffering a loss to Drew in its second match. The Bulldogs opened the tournament with a win over Morrow before losing to Drew. They would go on to defeat Forest Park and Drew in a rematch before meeting Jonesboro in a highly anticipated championship match.
This was the second time this season that the Bulldogs had defeated Jonesboro. The Bulldogs won the earlier contest, but Jonesboro would finally get its revenge on them in a later match. Jonesboro would defeat Mount Zion in a season-finale before making a first round appearance in the Class AAAA playoffs.
8. Kayla Potts tears another ACL
Going into the offseason following its narrow loss to eventual state champion Southwest DeKalb in the Class AAAAA semifinals, Forest Park girl’s basketball team had a cause to feel good about the upcoming season.
The Panthers were returning the majority of their players from a team that had gained a tone of playoff experience over the last three years.
And then, right when summer ball action was getting started in June, deja-vu happened for the team’s top players.
Kayla Potts, who rebounded from a torn ACL injury that sidelined her for the entire 2011-12 season to average 12.9 points, four steals and three assists per game — despite missing the first 14 games of the season — went down once more.
This was expected to be a big season for the all-state player, who was looking to net a scholarship offer. Potts is expected back during the 2014 portion of the Panthers season as they look to repeat as region champions.
9. Scott Woerner goes into Hall of Fame
Before an All-American career at the University of Georgia, Scott Woerner was a highly-recruited all-state player at Jonesboro in the late 1970s. In September, the defensive back was elected to the Georgia Hall of Fame.
Woerner is one of eight new members for the state’s Hall of Fame. He is the second Jonesboro High graduate to get into the Hall. In 1990, former Olympic gold medal swimmer Steve Lundquist was inducted. Lundquist is a 1979 graduate of Jonesboro High.
Woerner’s All-American career included playing on the Bulldogs’ 1980 national championship team.
At Jonesboro High, Woerner was a 1976 Class AAA first team all-state selection before signing with Georgia and becoming a big part of the Georgia’s famed “Junkyard Dawg” defense. At Georgia, he became an All-American defensive back, and helped lead the Bulldogs to the 1980 NCAA national championship. His shining moment in a Bulldogs uniform came in the team’s 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl for the national title.
Woerner had two interceptions in that game which was played at the Superdome in New Orleans. In the closing moments of the contest, Woerner picked off a pass that helped seal the win as the Fighting Irish were driving for a score.
10. Troy Wyche gets late FBS offer
Former Riverdale linebacker Troy Wyche signed with Savannah State during National Signing Day when several of the FBS schools that recruited him had already filled their scholarship allotment.
He was all set to play for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference program before being granted a release from his scholarship at Savannah State after the school dismissed second-year head coach Steve Davenport in April.
Wyche then signed with Arkansas State, the two-time defending Sun Belt Conference champions, and which plays in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the NCAA highest division.
During the 2012 season, he helped Riverdale reached the Class AAAA playoffs for the first time since the 2005 season, Wyche was one of the Southern Crescent’s top players with 145 tackles. He was rated as the No. 151 outside linebacker in the nation by South.com, a national online recruiting service.
He was the fourth player to sign with the Arkansas State since Feb. 6, which was National Signing Day.