Gotta say goodbye for the summer: A look back at 2015-16

In Georgia, the year in high school athletics starts and ends on the diamond.

The first games on the GHSA schedule are softball games. The final events that take place are baseball championships.

In between that first softball game and that final baseball game comes plenty of action in a variety of sports. The double-overtime football game decided on an extra-point attempt. The basketball game that turns on a delicate shot at the horn. The soccer game that goes into multiple rounds of a penalty-kick shootout.

There were no GHSA football championship game appearances for Middle Georgia teams last fall. But there were no shortage of team champions in other sports, from GMC in softball and girls track and field to Wilkinson County in boys basketball to Tattnall Square and Houston County in baseball. Bleckley County won a state title in boys cross country, as did Vidalia in girls golf and Telfair County in boys tennis.

So what were some of the best moments from 2015? The top athletes? Here are The Telegraph’s picks:

Top moments

A new home begins to rise, December: Few football facilities in the state have been as busy as McConnell-Talbert Stadium, home to Warner Robins, Northside and Houston County for a quarter century. The stadium got new turf last summer, a few months before ground was broken on a new home for Houston County and Veterans, which had been playing home games at Perry since it started football. But the Bears and Warhawks — in more than just football — will have their own home when Freedom Field opens in August adjacent to Houston County.

Stratford at Aquinas football, Dec. 4: Trailing by 14 points with time winding down and Aquinas taking possession on a muffed kickoff, Stratford was left for dead in the Class A private school semifinals. The Eagles, however, didn’t quit. After stopping Aquinas on downs with 4:43 to go, Stratford turned things loose on offense. Running out of the spread, the Eagles opened up their passing game, moving quickly down the field. A touchdown — and missed extra point — made it 28-20 with 2:53 remaining. Quintez Cephus made a break for it on the ensuing onside kick attempt, recovering the ball to set up a quick touchdown and two-point conversion to tie things up at 28 with 2:38 to go. The quick touchdowns, however, gave Aquinas plenty of time to score a touchdown of its own, forcing Stratford to drive one more time in the final minute. A 41-yard pass from Sim Patrick to O’Showen Williams took the ball inside the Aquinas 10, but the Eagles were unable to punch their way back into the end zone and lost 35-28.

Banks County at Central boys basketball, Feb. 20: Very few high school athletes were able to end the final home game of their prep careers the way Derrick Evans did. The Carson-Newman bound quarterback saved some magic for the basketball floor, calling his own shot in the second round of the Class AAA basketball playoffs. With the game tied at 67, Evans dribbled the ball at midcourt, milking the clock. With time winding down, Evans encouraged the capacity crowd in Central’s gym to rise up, at which point he dribbled down to the foul line. The runner Evans put up dropped through the net as time expired, sending the crowd into a frenzy as Central claimed a 69-67 victory.

The GHSA basketball finals, March 3-5: Veterans’ girls were warming up before their Class AAAA championship game against Americus-Sumter, and players kept telling their coaches that something was off with the baskets. The Warhawks went only 13-of-30 from the free-throw line and lost 56-38. The players were right. The goals were a foot farther from the court than they should have been, leading to a heap of criticism of the GHSA and Macon Coliseum, and within three months, the moving of the tournament from Macon — for the first time in many decades — to Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Hebron Christian at Tattnall Square baseball, May 14 and 16: Logan Simmons enjoyed some magical moments in the Class A private school championship series. He connected on a dream home run to win the first game of the best-of-three affair, hitting a solo shot off Wofford signee Jake Hershman in the bottom of the seventh after Hershman struck out 12 Tattnall batters. He then made his first pitching start of the year in Game 3 and absolutely shined, shutting out Hebron Christian 5-0 to give Tattnall its first GHSA team title in any sport.

Houston County’s championship baseball run, May: The Bears’ final three series gave fans and the team a season’s worth of thrills, suspense and anxiety. There was a three-run seventh inning to win the first game against Columbus, then a mind-boggling comeback in the nightcap that included a batter (Tony Locey) reaching with two outs when he was hit with the throw after a dropped third strike, a pinch-hitter without a hit this season (Ryan Milton) hitting a tough grounder to shortstop that brought in two runs to tie the game and then a pitcher (Chandler Ring) on the mound for the first time in six weeks hitting a batter with the bases loaded only for it to be ruled a dead ball because that batter leaned into the pitch. Houston County won in eight innings, topped Gainesville in three games and then saw the third game of the championship series implode on Jake Fromm’s “fair or foul?” home run that eventually was ruled fair, inspiring Loganville head coach Jeff Segars to argue hard enough to get tossed, along with pitching coach Brandon Anglin. A close game turned into a 12-0 championship win for the Bears.

Top athletes moving on

Cephus: The Stratford senior started the school year as a basketball recruit who committed to Furman, but when February came around he signed with Wisconsin football. After playing quarterback as a junior, Cephus moved out to split end, where he caught 42 passes for 872 yards and 12 touchdowns. He set numerous program records in basketball, including games played (122), points (2,419), points per game (19.8), field goals, assists and steals, as well as the single-game scoring record (53) he set as a junior. To top things off, he claimed victory in the Class A Private triple jump at the GHSA track and field meet.

Evans: The Central senior played a key role in the Chargers’ football resurgence. He threw for 2,082 yards and 23 touchdowns while giving up just one interception all season. His scrambling ability kept the Chargers in games, with Central taking Westside — a team it had never defeated — to overtime before losing on a field goal in a game that ultimately decided the fourth and final playoff spot in Region 2-AAA. Central finished 6-4, its first winning season in a decade. He helped guide the basketball team to a 27-3 record, the Region 2-AAA title and a spot in the Class AAA quarterfinals, averaging 15.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists.

JaQwun Stinson: Howard’s top running back was set to be a key piece in Howard’s revamped offense, one in which head coach Barney Hester ditched the misdirection in favor of the spread. And while Howard finished above .500 for the first time, a midseason knee injury sidelined Stinson for Region 2-AAAA play. He bounced back during wrestling season, however, winning an individual state title.

Cassondra Hall: She transferred from Northside to Warner Robins and took her superb sprinting ability with her. Hall won the GHSA Class AAAAA 100 meters for the fourth straight time last month and the 200 for the third straight time time. The two-time All-Middle Georgia Girls Track Athlete of the Year is headed to LSU.

Tanner Hall: Houston County’s Game 3 pitcher was better than most teams’ Game 1 pitcher, and he showed it with a supreme effort in the finale of the semifinals at Gainesville and then firing a five-inning one-hitter in the state championship series third game against Loganville. While going 9-1 with six saves, he also was a solid fielder at first and batted cleanup, finishing with a .368 average

Nausia Woolfolk, Peach County: Sure, she was headed to Florida State, but the two-time All-Middle Georgia girls basketball player of the year really had one goal in 2015-16 — get the Trojans past the second round of the state playoffs, which they did before letting a lead slip away in a 46-43 quarterfinal loss to Johnson.

Calli McMullen: The senior at GMC was a mainstay in helping the Bulldogs to consecutive GHSA Class A public school track and field championships with her performances in the sprints, the high jump and relays. The valedictorian has been unconditionally accepted to West Point.

Torrez Finney: He stands about 5-foot-7, maybe in cleats, but his impact at Jones County in football and wrestling, to go with a quality academic career and personality, rare in high school kids. In football, his scouting report as a defensive lineman was “unblockable,” and he won consecutive state titles in wrestling, going undefeated as a senior and twice earning All-Middle Georgia Wrestler of the Year honors.

Giles Amos, Westfield: Amos was a standout in football, basketball and track for the Hornets, playing on both sides in football and averaging a double-double in basketball. He competed in the throwing events and ran a leg on the 4×100 relay team in track and field. He’ll be down to one sport in college, but he won’t get much rest. He’s headed to Alabama as a preferred walk-on.

Coaches we will miss

Bryan Way, Warner Robins football, and Ronnie Jones, Westfield football: Well, they’re still around, just not in the roles or at the schools Middle Georgia associates them with. Way has spent all but his college years at Warner Robins, as a player, assistant and head football coach, and Jones is synonymous with Westfield after nearly two dozen years leading the Hornets’ football program. Now they’re together on the Tattnall Square staff, working for Chance Jones, Ronnie’s son.

The Brookers: Middle Georgia without a Brooker on the sideline or dugout? It looked like it would happen when Michael, who has coached basketball at FPD and Mary Persons, accepted the head coaching position at Lake Oconee Academy. The move left a bruise at GMC, where Julie Brooker — who has coached at Westfield and Tattnall Square — had built a state championship softball program while also coaching boys soccer. But Julie has taken over the softball program at Putnam County.

Jamie Dickey, Stratford basketball: The Eagles’ boys basketball head coach and football offensive coordinator made a highly successful 2015-16 school year, which included Class A private school semifinal appearances in both sports, his final one in the profession. With a young family to raise, Dickey is transitioning into the automotive industry.

George Collins, Rutland football: The longtime Middle Georgia head coach who also had stints at Perry and Houston County retired following the 2015 season. The former NFL player had just one winning season at Rutland, but he was a key figure on the organizational side of things, serving as the Region 2-AAA secretary.

Athletes to watch in 2016-17

Fromm, Houston County football: The standout quarterback is headed to Georgia as an early enrollee in January, but his final season with the Bears is going to be exciting to watch.

Malik Herring, Mary Persons football: Herring is one of the best defensive players in the state heading into his senior season, and he has plenty of big-name college programs battling for his services.

Savion Knowlton, Westside football: After passing for 1,869 yards and 24 touchdowns as a first-year starter last year, Knowlton will have plenty of experience with him as a senior. He helped lead Westside to the Class AAA quarterfinals, the Seminoles’ deepest postseason run in six seasons.

Kentrevious Jones, Central basketball: The big fella (6-10, 265 pounds) worked hard to develop an outside shot as a junior, complementing what he can do inside. A lot of eyes, recruiting and otherwise, will be on him during his senior season.

Khavon Moore, Westside basketball: Moore came on big as a sophomore, averaging 20.7 points and 11 rebounds. He is already getting major looks, rated as a five-star prospect by 247Sports.

Christian Armstrong, Warner Robins football: The big offensive lineman wasn’t a full-time starter a year ago, but he has been getting offer after offer from big-time programs, like Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Florida State. The rising junior will be of major impact in a new offense under first-year head coach Mike Chastain.

Kearis Jackson, Peach County football: Football head coach Chad Campbell was raving about Jackson before his varsity football debut. More will see why from the rising junior, who is getting SEC offers. He just completed a quality track season in the shot and discus, as well as the 100.

Tobias Oliver, Northside football: It appears his college future in football lies at somewhere other than quarterback, but Oliver has led the Eagles to a 23-3 record in two seasons as a starter, showing leadership from the start. That’s not bad for a player who got the starting job the week before the first game of the season his sophomore year.

Marcal Knolton, Crawford County basketball: The Eagles lose their go-to player of a few years, William Jarrell, but more college coaches’ eyes will be on 6-7 forward Knolton, a two-time All-Middle Georgia boys basketball second-teamer.

D.L. Hall, Houston County baseball: The center fielder/pitcher has committed to Florida State, and his junior season backed it up. He was the Bears’ No. 2 pitcher and batted second in the lineup, finishing with a .339 average.

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