Another year has passed in Columbia County, and though the athletic exploits of 2003 are history, the memories will remain.
There were victories to savor. There were losses, of games and of lives.
Even as we turn the page to 2004, there is reason to reflect, because 2003 was one for the books.
Out the door
The year got off to a strange start. Word leaked out that Evans High School football coach Lee Chomskis was being forced to resign by Evans principal Don Brigdon.
Chomskis broke the news to his coaching staff, and the "secret" spread like wildfire.
"I want to go out as clean as I can," Chomskis said. "All that stuff in the media shouldn't have gotten out. It all could have been taken care of differently."
Supporters of the Evans coach were in a uproar, but Chomskis didn't have the support of his principal, and that was all that mattered.
"I'm sure there are a lot of unhappy people, but they're not privy to everything, and they're not experiencing what I am," Brigdon said. "They'll never know the whole story, and I'll never tell them."
The Lakeside High School athletic teams warmed things up last winter.
In basketball, the Lady Panthers appeared at No. 5 in the Class AAAA poll, and beat traditional state power Hephzibah during the season. The Lakeside girls went on to win the most games of any basketball team in school history.
Lakeside's wrestling team, meanwhile, defended the Region 3-AAAA title.
"We wrestled with intensity," Lakeside coach Randy Hill said. "We really wanted this one, because it's hard to win back-to-back titles."
Senior Justin Otis won the Class AAAA state wrestling title in the 160-pound division in Rome, Ga. He became the first Panther to claim a state wrestling title. Otis later signed a scholarship with University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
The Augusta Christian Schools Lions won a seventh straight Region 4-AAA basketball title, but it wasn't easy. AC had to get past defending state champs George Walton Academy, but the Lions wouldn't be denied.
Lakeside's girls basketball team rose as high as No. 5 in the state Class AAAA poll.
"George Walton was tough, but we came through," AC coach Andrew Bryan said. "They had beaten us twice before, so we had to give it to them."
This was the game local high-school baseball fans were waiting for - Greenbrier vs. Harlem.
Greenbrier opened in 1996, but for various reasons, the Wolfpack and Bulldogs had never squared off on the diamond. When the teams convened at Harlem last March, a huge crowd soaked in every minute of action.
The Pack drew first blood, and held on for a 5-3 win.
"They kicked our livin' tails," Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis said. "That's the bottom line."
Mother Nature put a damper on things. Constant rain caused many postponements and left local teams struggling to keep their heads above water.
"You can't throw the shot in the mud, and you can't long jump in quicksand," Augusta Prep athletic director Tom Holodak said.
The only silver lining in the dark clouds was the chance to add a little levity to a serious situation.
"Dove, turkey, deer - all the animals I like to hunt - I'm gathering in twos," Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis said. "And I'm getting a pontoon boat, just in case."
In prep soccer, the Greenbrier boys beat Lakeside for first time in five years, and the Lady Pack ended Lakeside's two-year reign as region champs.
"I haven't beaten Lakeside since I've been at Greenbrier, so we've been working for this game all year," Pack senior Joey Grigsby said after the exciting 3-2 win at Panther Stadium. "As long as we won this game, I was coming out of here happy."
The Greenbrier girls handed the home team a 2-0 defeat to finally gain the upper hand on the pitch.
Lakeside's teams rallied back. Both advanced to the state semifinals, and coaches Donny Rogers (girls) and Dave Morgan (boys) each were named Class AAAA coach of the year.
Golfing great Jack Nicklaus visited Columbia County this year to help plan part of a 27-hole golf course.
Former Aquinas High School football coach and athletic director Marty Jackson was hired to replace Chomskis as head coach of the Evans football team.
"This is a great opportunity for me," Jackson said. "I wanted to come to a place where I know we have a chance to win year-in and year-out. This came open, and I know you can win here."
Spring break had just ended, and heartbreak began at the Brierpatch.
Greenbrier golfers Daniel Hall and Shane Williams were traveling to a match near Lincolnton, but were killed in an automobile accident less than a mile from the course.
Despite losing two teammates, and having two others injured in the crash, the Pack decided to play on in honor of Hall and Williams.
"They were big team players, and they would have wanted this golf team to carry on and do the best they could," Greenbrier athletic director Mickey Derrick said. "The golf team is definitely playing for more than pride at this point. Every time they tee it up from here on out, they'll be thinking of these young men."
Columbia County's athletes excelled during the spring season, collecting a hoard of region and state titles.
In soccer, the Harlem girls earned their first-ever region title; the Evans Knights ruled Region 7-AAAAA; Augusta Prep's Lady Cavaliers clinched the Region 4-AAA championship; and Greenbrier swept the Region 3-AAAA crowns.
The Augusta Prep golf team won region then turned in a record-setting score to claim the Georgia Independent School Association Class AAA championship.
"We all started playing good, and it just happened to be in the big tournaments," Augusta Prep's Jefferson Knox said.
The Lakeside Panthers surged to a golf title in Region 3-AAAA.
County prep stars had a field day in track and field.
At Evans, Taylar Stallings won region titles in shot and discus, and took the Class AAAAA state title in discus; Greenbrier's Tesha Thurmond powered past region foes and then won the Class AAAA crown in discus; Augusta Christian's Sarah and Rebekah Madebach were the top distance runners in the GISA, as Sarah won state in the 1,600-meter run, and Rebekah was champion in the 800 and 3,200 events; and, Augusta Christian's boys won state in the 4x400 relay.
On the tennis court, the Augusta Christian Lions repeated as region and state champions, while both Lakeside teams extended their dominance in Region 3-AAAA.
"We wanted to make sure we kept the 13 years of region championships going," Lakeside senior tennis player Brooke Cadle said.
In the red
After Augusta Christian senior Jordan Belcher finished a stellar baseball career with the Lions, he was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 41st round of the baseball draft.
"I wanted to go higher, but I guess getting drafted is all that counts," said Belcher, who signed a professional contract and is now a member of the Reds' minor-league organization.
It was only a matter of time before Terry Holder got a call from the hall - it happened last June when the former Evans and Greenbrier high school baseball coach was informed that he was nominated for the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Holder was inducted into the hall in July.
"I didn't even know they had something like this until they called me and told me I was nominated. It was certainly a surprise and an honor," said Holder, who coached his teams to eight state titles.
Jack Nicklaus made a site visit at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, where the six-time Masters champ is designing nine holes of a 36-hole complex that also will feature nine holes each by Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Palmer and Player would make their visits later to oversee construction work, but Jack took the first crack at Champions Retreat.
"It's going to be terrific," Nicklaus said. "From my standpoint, it's going to be something unique and different. A lot of people are going to be attracted here to see this, to see, 'How did Jack, how did Arnold, how did Gary do?"'
The Columbia County Recreation Department Dixie Boys all-star baseball team traveled to Tennessee for the Dixie Boys World Series, and they brought a trophy back home by winning the World Series in the 13-14 age division.
"Winning the World Series was the best feeling I've ever had," Columbia County pitcher Nolan Belcher said.
Talk of the town
The Lakeside football team was coming off an 0-10 season, but the Panthers put that disappointment behind them by rolling to a 3-0 start in 2004.
Greenbrier's April Bennett won the 300m hurdles at a region 3-AAAA track meet at Greenbrier. Many local athletes excelled in track and field in 2003.
"That's just the way we're going to play," Lakeside coach Randy Hill said after his team pounded Evans at Panther Stadium. "Were a tough-nosed bunch and we're going to get after it 100 percent."
The Panthers then beat Greenbrier to claim bragging rights in Columbia County, and the team's turnaround was the talk of the town.
"I'm not surprised, because we worked hard over the summer, which put us in a good spot for the games," running back Tosin Fawibe said.
Changes in latitudes
The Georgia High School Association announced its region realignments for the 2004-06 seasons, and the GHSA's initial decision sent Columbia County's prep programs reeling.
Seemingly out of the blue, the GHSA placed Greenbrier, Evans and Lakeside in a Macon-area region of 11 teams. The county schools were expecting to go into a south Georgia region that featured just seven teams.
"This is not what the original proposal was," Evans football coach Marty Jackson said. "Some of the powers that be probably knew what was going to happen, but not in our county."
The GHSA later amended the original proposal, and Columbia County's three Class AAAA programs were placed in a revamped Region 2-AAAA. The change alleviated travel concerns and also leveled the competitive landscape.
"I'm very satisfied," Greenbrier football coach and athletic director Mickey Derrick said. "This is pretty big. It really evens up the region."
Title time, take two
Columbia County wasn't in the hunt for any football championships, but the other prep sports fared very well in the fall.
The Evans softball team won the Region 7-AAAAA title.
Greenbrier, meanwhile, ran roughshod over its Region 3-AAAA foes, claiming crowns in softball, boys and girls cross country, and volleyball. All those teams went on to have stellar showings in state-tournament play.
In GISA cross country, the Augusta Christian girls swept to region and state titles, and Rebekah Madebach ran to the individual crowns at both region and state.
Jones Creek Golf Club in Evans was out of commission for seven months, as the course underwent an extensive renovation project.
Medalist Golf Group did the dirty work, while renowned architect Tom Fazio was brought in to lend his expertise.
When Jones Creek reopened in November, local players were in for a treat.
"The renovation is pretty incredible. You have to see it to believe it," Jones Creek golf professional Gregg Hemann said. "I was always one of the biggest fans of the course, but I really love the changes and improvements."
Pack in playoffs
The Greenbrier football team thrived in rugged Region 3-AAAA, and when the regular season ended, the Pack was back in the state playoffs for the first time since 1998.
"The team's real excited, and we're happy to be in this position," quarterback Brooks Robinson said. "We've worked hard all year, so this is kind of rewarding. It makes you feel good about yourself because you got the job done during the season."
We are the champions
Before the curtain closed on 2003, the Greenbrier basketball teams delivered encore performances at the Columbia County Christmas Tournament.
The home teams swept the Christmas titles at the Brierpatch, where the Lady Pack beat rival Lakeside in the finals, and the Wolfpack topped Evans to defend their holiday title.
"They've had to overcome a lot of adversity this year, and they've done that pretty well," Pack coach Casey Dees said. "It was important to these kids to win this tournament, without a doubt."
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