Area Sports...

DECEMBER 3, 2003

Next Stop: Hawkinsville
Tigers Hope Big-Game Experience Will Pay Off Against 12-0 Red Devils
Most of the Tigers were probably too busy tending to business with Bremen Friday night to hear the announcement that their next playoff foe had just polished off Miller County to the tune of 45-0.
But news of Hawkinsville’s lopsided-win hardly came as a surprise.
“Hawkinsville is a really good team,” senior split end David Evans said. “They’re a tough team and they’re a really hard-nosed team. But we came out and played well tonight. If we can come out next week and play the same way, we should be OK.”
As daunting as the task is, the Tigers will certainly go into Friday night’s contest against Class A’s second-ranked outfit with big-game experience on its side, having already clashed with some of the state’s best this year.
After all, Commerce faced off with Class A’s top-ranked program, Lincoln County, in one of the most inhospitable locales in the state — Lincolnton.
The Tigers also played Class AA’s seventh-ranked team, Morgan County (10-2) this year.
Commerce head coach Steve Savage said this is where his team’s tough regular season
schedule — especially its non-region slate — should aid the Tigers in a game of this magnitude as it tries to make it back to the Georgia Dome for the third time in five years.
“You have to play tough teams,” he said. “We try to play as tough of teams as we can. I think it helps you. I think it helps you in the big games. There are five or six games on our schedule that have a playoff atmosphere.”
One of those games that had that playoff atmosphere was the Tigers’ Sept. 26 clash Lincoln County. Commerce, minus its starting quarterback, pushed the top-ranked Red Devils to the edge before falling 14-7.
Hawkinsville (ironically the Red Devils as well) sports a resume reads much like that of Lincoln County.
These Red Devils are also 12-0 this year and have beaten two playoff foes (Pelham and Millder County) by a combined 85-0.
“The kids are playing really hard right now,” Hawkinsville head coach Lee Campbell said. “They’ve been really focused too and I think that’s the main thing right now — their focus.”
That focus has lead to the team outscoring its opponents by an average of 35 - 7 this season with the only reasonably close games being 20-10 and 40-26 victories over Fitgerald, ranked eighth in AAA at the time, and Dooly County, runners up in Class A last year. Hawkinsville also has shutouts in four of its last five games.
“They’ll be the most athletic team we’ll see all year,” Savage said.
What’s scary is that assessment also includes Lincoln County.
While he said Lincoln County was definitely a fast and physical team, Savage said that Hawkinsville will be bigger along the defensive line and the edges and would possess more speed.
Quite a hurddle stands between Commerce had the Georgia Dome the coach said.
“It will be a tremendous undertaking,” Savage said.
When you talk about speed and athleticism on Hawkinsville’s team, the buzz centers around the guy college scouts throughout the entire nation are talking about, Charles Johnson.
Johnson, a 6’3,” 250-lb. defensive end who’s already signed with the University of Georgia, can play receiver and tailback when called upon and even returns kicks. But he’s a hot commodity for the damage he does on the defensive side of the ball where he’s recorded an astounding seven sacks the past two games. Johnson also had an 83-yard interception return for a touchdown this past Friday.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Savage said. “At his position, he might be the best we’ll see all year.”
For a guy who’s already built like an SEC defensive end, Johnson has some impressive moves for a guy his size.
“He dances too much to be as big as he is,” Campbell said.
While he said Johnson’s stats “aren’t the greatest in the world,” Campbell said his presence on the field is invaluable.
“He’s someone our kids can rally around. He gives us a lot of confidence,” he said.
Johnson’s ability has also brought a bit of notoriety to the small South Georgia school. In fact, Johnson will be featured on Fox Sports South’s “Count Down To Signing Day” Wednesday according to the coach.
“We’re getting a lot of press now — from everybody,” Campbell said.
While Johnson is the team’s most notable player, Hawkinsville possesses a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball as well.
“They’ve got a lot of great players,” Savage said.
In fact, the team has a standout offensive and defensive lineman in Brandon Perry who was named all-state in just his sophomore season last year.
Offensively, the Red Devils have a multi-talented quarterback in John Coley (5’11,” 180-lb.), who’s thrown for over 1,800 yards this year, and a trio of receivers who have over 500 yards receiving — Dedric Smith, Kemuel Spivey and Philanzee Lawson.
Jeremey Marshall (5’8,” 160-lb.) is the team’s tailback which Campbell describes as a “dasher and slasher.”
Linebacker Antwan Thomas is the team’s leading linebacker.
Both Commerce and Hawkinsville high schools are located in similar sized towns and both programs have been major players in the Class A post season — especially over the last years.
But the two have never once faced each other on the gridiron.
The matchup has been a long time in the waiting.
“I think it’s going to be huge to have (a game with) a traditional power like Commerce,” Campbell said. “When you mention football, you can’t mention it without talking about Commerce. I think it means a lot for this town because we’ve got a lot of tradition down here. I think it’s great for single ‘A’ football.”
Like most opposing coaches, Campbell expressed respect for the Tigers’ style of play.
“Coach Savage does a great job with them,” he said. “They’ll be tough, they’ll be hard-nosed. They run the ball right down our throats.”
They have identical last names, the same first initial and both coach powerhouse Class A Red Devil teams.
But Lee Campbell said there’s no blood relation between he and Lincoln County’s Larry Campbell, the state’s all-time leader in coaching wins.
“I wish it were true,” the Hawkinsville coach joked. “Maybe some of that could rub off on me.”
•Campbell said Commerce had good players “everywhere you look” on the field, pointing specifically to Dennis Wilder, Josh Haynes, Casha Daniels and David Bray.
“He’s a load,” the coach said of Bray.
•Savage expects the trip to Hawkinsville to take three hours, roughly the same length as last year’s playoff trek to Dooly County. Dooly County boarders Pulaski County where Hawkinsville is located.

Tourney Sweep
Leopards get first two wins in holiday tourney; GAC comes to Homer Fri.
The Leopards will no doubt have their hands full in the next few games. But head basketball coach Mike Ruth said that’s the way his kids like it.
“Our kids look forward to those types of challenges,” he said. “That’s all you can ask out of them. We’re real pleased with our attitude right now.”
Banks was set to take on a tough, pre-season ranked Buford team Tuesday night. On Friday, they’ll get the always tough GAC in the Leopards’ home opener at 8:30 p.m. The JV boys play at 5:30 p.m.
“We’re excited to have a home game and excited about GAC coming in here,” Ruth said.
The Leopard head coach said some of the Spartan’s players may still be on the gridiron with the team that remains in the state football playoffs. But they’ll still be competitive, he added.
Saturday, Banks gets one of the top AAA teams playing at perennial powerhouse East Hall at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re looking at that as just a game,” Ruth said. “We’re just going to go over there and play them.”
And to top it off, Banks gets another pre-season ranked team in Wesleyan at home Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
The Leopards well outran a Nantahala, N.C. team that did not quite match up with Banks. The Leopards downed the team 90-17 in their second game in a Towns County Tip-off Tournament Saturday.
Though his team had an overwhelming 43-point lead at the half, Ruth said he was pleased with the consistent intensity through the entire contest.
“The kids saw it would be a walk in the park after the first quarter but the intensity level never dropped,” he said. “You would have thought we were behind by 20.”
Banks put five scorers in double digits during the game, hitting 55 percent (33 out of 60) from the paint.
Reggie Smith led the field with 16. Kyle Roberts had 15 while Jacob Williams added on 14. Seth McCoy put up 11 in the effort and Matt Dale had 10.
Ruth said before the season that his team’s goal was to improve every game. And after comparing the Leopards’ first game with their second, he saw a big improvement during the team’s 55-54 win over Fannin Friday.
“I saw a lot of good things out of these kids this weekend,” Ruth said.
After trailing in the second and third quarters, Banks made a run for the lead in the last part of the game.
With time winding down, Seth McCoy stole a ball on what Ruth called a “great defensive play” and took the ball down court, scoring to put the Leopards ahead 55-54 with less than 30 seconds to play.
Fannin wasn’t able to get any shots to fall on their ensuing possession and big man Kyle Roberts held onto the ball as time ticked off, giving Banks the victory.
“Our kids came back and played well,” Ruth said. “Anytime you can make a comeback and win a close game, it does nothing but boost morale. I saw a lot of good things out of these kids this weekend.”
Ruth said he saw much better shot selection during the team’s second game of the season. He called the opener against Towns County a “wake-up call” and pointed to the Leopards’ shooting percentages in game two as a mark of the improvement.
Banks hit 50 percent of its three-point shots against Fannin, compared to just 18 percent against Towns. The Leopards were also 80 percent from the paint during the first half.
“It the first ball game you’re kind of anxious and you will rush some shots and take some shots you don’t normally take,” Ruth said. “The kids set each other up much better against Fannin.”
R. Smith and Dale both led the team in scoring, picking up 14 points each.

Dragons set to begin defense of state crown
The three-time defending Class A state champion Jefferson wrestling team has been what most would call the best program pound-for-pound at any classification in the state in recent years. But because of several key losses off of the 2002-03 team, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the Dragons heading into tonight’s season opener at Norcross.
“I would say it is definitely a rebuilding year,” Dragon head coach and “2003 Georgia coach of the year” Doug Thurmond explained Tuesday.
The reason for Thurmond’s modesty heading into the season is mainly due to the loss of five seniors from last year that have helped to carry the program during the last few years. Gone now are three state champions and one runner-up from 2003 (all seniors), plus another top-three wrestler in the state and another top-five senior from last year. In all, 10 Dragons reached state finals and five won state crowns last season, a mark that put them well ahead of second-place Bremen in the team standings of the state tournament.
State champion Hunter Garner solidified his place among the greatest grapplers in state history in 2003 when he won an individual Class A crown for the fourth time in as many years on the mat as a Dragon. It was a feat never before accomplished in the long, prestigious history of Jefferson wrestling that includes seven state championship teams over the years. Jeremy Smith also won three individual state crowns including one last season, each in a different weight class along the way.
Another state champion lost from 2003 was 125-pound champ Nathaniel Wilson. He won a state crown twice during his career. Wilson’s brother, Jeremiah, also won state two seasons ago, and took the 130-pound runner-up title in 2003. The Wilsons and Garner all have since moved on to wrestle for Anderson College in South Carolina.
Other key losses from last season include the fifth best 135-pound wrestler in the state last year, Scott Nix, who also graduated, and Hunter Glenn, a third-place winner in the 275-pound class who transferred to Commerce this season.
All of this means one thing in the eyes of Thurmond: there are plenty of big shoes to fill in the 2003-04 season that lies ahead.
“Losing half of our starters from last year is big,” he explained. “But we’ve got a couple of kids who can step up.”
But don’t make the mistake of thinking this year’s Dragon team is not without a solid nucleus of stars in their own right.
Returning are defending state champion Forrest Garner (152 pounds) and one-time state champion and a runner-up last year, Corey Mack (119). They are as good as they come in Class A, according to Thurmond and will be counted on for leadership in the coming season.
Also expected to return and lead the way for Jefferson this season are 2003 runners-up Jason Fields (145), Enrique Zavaleta (125), and Caleb Beckwith (103), not to mention last year’s third-place 171 grappler, Love.
This year the Dragon wrestling team began practicing a week later than usual, however, something that Thurmond stated is cause for concern heading into this week’s matches at Norcross and then at the Panther Invitational hosted by Jackson County this weekend.
The reason for the delay is that many of the Jefferson wrestlers also play football for the school. Because the Dragons advanced past the first round of the state football playoffs for the first time in 16 years, many of those that play both have had to put wrestling on hold a little longer than usual.
“With the football team going an extra week it pushes us back an extra week, but that’s fine,” Thurmond explained. “We’ll take the good with the bad...we’re happy for them though, but you can even ask (Dragon head football coach Bill) Navas that football shape and wrestling shape are totally different.”
One new face Thurmond said he expects some big things from in the future is J.J. Brueshaber, a transfer from Madison County who won the Area 8-AAAA 145-pound champion in 2003. Also expected to have an impact this season are Kyle Baird, Will Roper, Jose Zavaleta, Mark Newton and Brett Cantrell. Jake Gurley (189), Chris Berbesi (215), Seth Love (HWT.) and Jesse Fowler (160) should also be among Jefferson’s stronger grapplers.
But the main thing heading into the opening week is conditioning, according to Thurmond.
“Just getting out of football, all of your weights are different,” he said. “They’re definitely not in shape. It’s going to take us two to three weeks to get in shape, but we’ll get there,”

Facing the new and the old
MCHS faces latest installment of rivalry with Franklin; travels to Salem for first time under Crouse
It will be a weekend of both new and old acquaintances for the Raider basketball team.
After losing to one of the region’s top teams by 25 points Tuesday, Madison County (2-1) will look to make amends this weekend in a pair of contrasting contests — one against a newer region foe and the other against an old rival.
The Raiders will take the floor at Salem’s gym for the first time ever under head coach Steve Crouse Friday night before traveling to a locale which they’ve seen perhaps more than any — the familiar Franklin County “Lion’s Den.”
While the venue at Salem will be new to the Raiders, so will the Seminole players. With the loss of a host of seniors off last year’s Salem squad, Madison County figures to see a much different Seminole outfit this time around.
“We won’t know much about their personnel,” the Raider coach said. “We beat their JV team last year. Maybe that’s who we’ll play.”
On the other hand, Madison County should be more than familiar with those who’ll be on the floor for rival Franklin County Saturday. However, it’s the two players that the Raiders won’t be seeing that could play in Madison County’s favor.
The Lions lost its top two offensive threats from last year, Matt Shoemaker and Amonzo Gantt, to graduation,
“Those were their main scorers,” Crouse said.
While not having to contend with that duo could aid the Raiders, Crouse pointed out that one really can’t predict what will happen in one of these type of games.
“It’s like they say in football, when you have a rivalry game like this, you can throw all the records out ... Saturday night is going to be an all-out rivalry.”
Crouse said the key to victories this weekend, as well as the rest of the year, is for the team to play its type of tempo, something that didn’t happen in its 82-57 loss to Newton County.
“We feel we can compete with anyone we play as long as we keep the game the way we want it,” he said.
Besides being taken out of their game, the Raiders were vastly out-rebounded in the loss which resulted in several scoring opportunities for the Rams. Newton County built a 34-19 edge at the half and a 55-40 advantage after three quarters before out-scoring the Raiders 27-17 in the final period.
“They got on the boards well,” Crouse said. “When they missed a shot, they would get another one. We just didn’t box out.”
That also hurt Madison County on the offensive side of the ball as well. Newton’s zone forced the Raiders to shoot from the outside where it had several misses and then failed to come up with offensive rebounds.
“You’ve got to be able to read the shot and go get a rebound,” Crouse said. “There were times when we didn’t even make an effort. That was disappointing.”
Russ Drake kept Madison County afloat with 22 points.
Defensively, Crouse said his team found few answers for the Rams who proved they could score from anywhere on the floor.
“We tried to play zone,” he said. “When that didn’t work, we tried to play to play man-to-man but they just penetrated it.”
The loss to Newton County came a week after the Raiders claimed a huge 52-49 win over Eastside at home to take the Northeast Georgia Invitational title.
“It hurts coming off a big win and not playing that well the next time out.,” Crouse said.
Still, the victory over the Eagles a week ago was quite a morale booster. It was only a year ago that Eastside beat Madison County 69-42.
Josh Booker led the team with 14 points against the Eagles while Drake scored 12 points in the win and was named tournament MVP. Tobias Gantt also scored 12 points which included a final-second dunk which iced the win.
“That was a really big win for us,” Crouse said.

Slimmed down Panther Invitational field to provide early season tests
Although the number of teams participating in this year’s Panther Invitational Wrestling tournament may be scaled down somewhat compared to previous years, the quality of those taking part in the two-day event is still strong.
With a variety of teams from all over Northeast Georgia participating in the 17-team tournament hosted by Jackson County this weekend, squads from all classifications will get to see where they stand at this early stage of the wrestling season.
For most squads involved the event will mark the beginning of the 2003-04 season on the mats. And with that in mind the majority of coaches don’t expect to see their grapplers in mid-season form just yet.
As is the case in most years, the number of players that participate in football in the fall, as well as wrestling in the winter is high again this season and the participants in both slowly will make the transition from the field to the mat.
Jefferson head coach Doug Thurmond’s three-time defending Class A state championship program is used to dealing with the near overlap the two sports seasons have. But, he stated, this year because the Dragon football team won a playoff game for the first time in 16 years, the practice time his wrestlers have had as a full squad have been numbered.
Because of the conflict schools with football teams in the state playoffs encounter, many wrestlers that show up this weekend will not be in particularly strong wrestling shape. What’s more, teams like Jefferson which have had little time to prepare as a whole will have to contend with the likes of Jackson County and Banks County who have had plenty of time to prepare as a full team because their football teams were not involved in postseason play.
Overall though, organizers expect this weekend’s event to be another solid one, despite the fact that the number of squads participating this year have been reduced by three from last year.
At least one squad, Stephens County, will be short-handed this weekend because the Indians advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state football playoffs.

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