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A year of champions, changes
Wrestling titles, coaching carousel top local sports headlines

In the final analysis, 2007 was another outstanding year for local sports.

Individual state champions, superb performances, region titles, coaching changes, reclassification and the ebb and flow of intriguing seasons were all a part of the 2007 tapestry.

In February, three local wrestlers brought home individual state championships.

In the spring, the Heritage baseball team played a prominent role in 2007, making another run at a state title. This time, the Patriots only fell two games short of the goal as they reached the Class AAAA state championship series.

Not to be outdone, the Heritage boys tennis team left its own indelible mark on the spring with a run to the state semifinals.

In 2007, the six area schools combined for eight region championships.

As always, coaching changes made plenty of headlines in 2007, including football, where three of the six positions changed hands.

Finally, it didn't matter what month it was, the local teams produced exciting seasons in their quests for region championships and the state playoffs.

Individual efforts

On a magical night at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, Salem's Peter Yates and the Eastside duo of Joel Stafford and Joey Montgomery claimed individual Class AAAA state championships in wrestling.

Yates (140 pounds) captured the second state title in his career and finished the season undefeated at 52-0. Stafford (56-1) won his title at 103 pounds, while Montgomery (52-2) claimed the championship at 130 pounds

Newton's Justin Smith just missed bringing home a fourth state title for the area, finishing as the runner-up at 160 pounds in Class AAAAA.

State title runs

For the Heritage baseball team, the third time was the charm. The Patriots finally cleared the semifinal hurdle in the state playoffs on their third try in three seasons.

Casey Teal's squad won its third straight Region 8-AAAA championship with a 23-1 record and finished the regular season with a stellar 24-2 record.

In a postseason full of twists and turns, Heritage used everything in its arsenal - strong pitching, timely hitting, strong defense, some trickery and even the long ball - to reach the championship.

Heritage lost its first playoff game to Cherokee 9-3 before bouncing back to win the first-round series with 7-3 and 17-3 victories. Freshman Tyler Austin hit three home runs and drove in eight runs in the series.

In the second round, the Patriots swept Ringgold 2-1 and 12-6, winning the first game on a dramatic walk-off home run by Trent Dooley.

In the quarterfinals, Taylor Whitenton's strong pitching beat Jones County 4-1 in the first game at Gray. However, the Patriots suffered their worst loss of the season in Game 2, falling 11-1 in five innings. But in the final game, Anthony Bazzani tossed a one-hit shutout and Dooley added a clutch RBI single in the sixth for a 1-0 win.

This time in the semifinals, the Patriots were not to be denied, winning at Lee County 9-4 and 6-5 on Memorial Day. Bazzani played a key role, hitting a go-ahead home run and getting the save in Game 2.

In the state championship, Greenbrier swept Heritage 10-3 and 3-2. The Patriots finished the season with a 34-6 record.

The Heritage boys tennis team made a state title run of its own.

The Patriots won the Region 8-AAAA South subregion title with a perfect 10-0 record. Then, they captured the first tennis region championship in school history with a 3-1 victory over Dacula in the Region 8-AAAA Tournament.

In the state playoffs, Heritage beat Cherokee and Rome before facing St. Pius in the quarterfinals. In that match, the Patriots won a thrilling battle 3-1 to advance to the state semifinals.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, Heritage lost 3-1 to McIntosh in the semifinals. Still, the Patriots finished with a 22-2 record, the best in school history.

Region championships

Heritage led the way locally in 2007, capturing three region championships, all in the spring. While the Patriots breezed to titles in baseball and boys tennis, their boys track championship was easily the most dramatic. Heritage won the final five events in the Region 8-AAAA meet to claim the crown.

For the second straight year, Eastside pulled off the double-double in wrestling, winning both the dual meet and traditional wrestling championships in 8-AAAA.

Salem captured region championships in football and girls soccer. The Seminoles collected their third 8-AAAA title in the last four seasons in football, while the Lady Seminoles secured their second straight crown in girls soccer.

Newton scored a repeat of its own, claiming the boys soccer championship in 2-AAAAA.

Coaching carousel

Coaching changes were big news again in 2007.

No sport was hit harder than football where three new coaches took over programs. At Heritage, Chad Frazier was hired to replace Al Pellegrino, who stepped down after three seasons. At Rockdale, William Johnson took over the reins of the program from Lee Carter. At Newton, Ben Reaves, the longest tenured coach in both counties, stepped down was replaced by Nick Collins.

Just two seasons after leaving Newton, legendary basketball coach Ron Bradley returned to the local ranks, this time at Heritage, where he replaced boys coach Tony Watkins.

In soccer, former Rockdale boys coach Chad Suddeth needed a new wardrobe after moving to Heritage to become the girls soccer coach.

In wrestling, Eastside's Michael Smith-Foot stepped down after an extremely successful reign with the Eagles. He was replaced by assistant coach Brandon Blakeman.

Even longtime Heritage baseball coach Danny Blue made news, returning to the coaching ranks, this time on the collegiate level at Georgia Perimeter.

Reclassification

While the three Rockdale schools and Newton stayed put during the Georgia High School Association's biannual reclassification, Eastside and Alcovy will see big changes starting next fall.

Eastside has dropped from Class AAAA back to Class AAA and will compete in Region 8-AAA for the next two seasons, starting in the fall of 2008.

Alcovy was moved from Region 8-AAAA to Region 4-AAAA, which features schools to its south and west.

Entertaining seasons

Winter

Eastside pulled off its second consecutive double-double in wrestling, while three basketball squads punched their tickets to the state tournament.

The Eagles won their second straight 8-AAAA dual meet title, losing only four individual matches in the event. Then, Eastside finished third in the Class AAAA state dual meet after entering the event ranked No. 1 in the state.

At the 8-AAAA traditional tournament, the Eagles' championship was just one part of the domination by the local schools. All told, 11 of the 14 individual championships went to area wrestlers. Local schools sent 28 wrestlers, led by Eastside's 12, to the Class AAAA meet.

In Class AAAAA, Newton qualified seven wrestlers for the Class AAAAA state meet.

The Heritage wrestling team claimed its third straight Conyers Cup.

In basketball, first-year school Alcovy stole the show as Coach Eugene Brown guided the Tigers on a magical run to a runner-up finish in the Region 8-AAAA Tournament. Alcovy lost to Pebblebrook in the first round of the state tournament.

The Salem girls notched their third straight state playoff berth under the guidance of Coach Bill Roberts. The Lady Seminoles were the runner-up in 8-AAAA and lost to Hillgrove in the first round of the state tournament.

The Newton boys also qualified for the state basketball playoffs in Class AAAAA with a fourth-place finish in 2-AAAAA. The Rams lost to Beach in the first round.

Individually, Salem's Courtney Hurt surpassed the 1,000-point mark in her career.

In swimming, Salem continued to rule the pool by winning its ninth consecutive Rockdale County Championship.

Spring

While Heritage's baseball and boys tennis teams made the deepest runs in the state playoffs, there were several other local squads that had strong springs.

In soccer, six squads earned state tournament berths with the Salem girls, Newton girls, Salem boys and Heritage boys advancing to the second round. The Newton boys and Rockdale girls also received postseason bids.

Penalty kicks took center stage in the soccer season.

The Salem girls were involved in one of the most thrilling games of the year. In the second round of the state playoffs, the Lady Seminoles fell 3-0 in penalty kicks to St. Pius after a 3-all tie in regulation.

The Salem boys survived in penalty kicks against Cedar Shoals in the 8-AAAA playoffs to claim another state playoff berth.

Both of Newton's squads went to penalty kicks in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs. The Lady Rams beat Windsor Forest 3-2 in PKs, while the Newton boys lost 6-5 to Savannah-Johnson.

On the other hand, the Heritage boys soccer team got hot at the right time, scoring upsets over Clarke Central and Salem in the 8-AAAA playoffs to claim the runner-up spot behind Habersham Central.

In baseball, the only other team to qualify for the postseason was Salem, which fell in the first round to Woodland. The Seminoles also had the distinction of handing county rival Heritage its only region loss.

In track, Heritage's Tiffany Schultz was the top local finisher in the track events at the state meets with a third-place finish in the Class AAAA 100-meter intermediate hurdles. Salem's Chelsea Denson produced the top finish in the field events, claiming fourth in the Class AAAA pole vault.

The Heritage girls track team came up short in its quest for a three-peat in 8-AAAA by finishing second.

In golf, Newton's Landon Cheek was the low medalist in Region 2-AAAAA for the second straight year. The Newton girls were only local team to capture a state tournament berth. On the local level, the Heritage boys and Rockdale girls continued their domination of the Conyers Cup. The Patriots won for the fourth straight year, while Lady Bulldogs claimed their third consecutive title. The Eastside boys won their third straight Newton Cup. On the girls side, Eastside claimed the inaugural title.

Besides the Heritage boys, three other local tennis squads - the Heritage girls, Newton boys and Newton girls - claimed trips to the state tournament. The Rams made it to the second round.

Fall

Salem's run to the Region 8-AAAA football championship and the state playoffs was the top headline in the fall.

The Seminoles posted a 9-1 mark in the regular season, claiming their fourth trip to the state playoffs in the past six seasons. Salem earned the region title with a 31-11 win over Madison County in the region playoffs. However, the Seminoles fell to St. Pius in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.

Two Newton County football squads - Eastside and Alcovy - also produced memorable moments on the gridiron. The Eagles produced their first winning season since 2001 with a 7-3 record. The Tigers claimed their first win in school history by beating county rival Newton.

On the softball diamond, Rockdale ended an 11-year state playoff drought. Eastside saw its three-year reign as the 8-AAAA champions come to an end, but the Lady Eagles still advanced to another state sectional. Newton also claimed a Class AAAAA state playoff berth, winning two games in the sectional before being eliminated.

In cross country, Heritage's Shuaib Winters capped off his outstanding career by finishing fourth overall in the Class AAAA boys state meet. The Heritage boys finished sixth at state, which was their best effort in school history.

Streaks were a big part of the cross county seasons. The Heritage squads completed a decade of dominance, claiming their 10 straight trips to the state, even though the Lady Patriots saw their three-year run as 8-AAAA champs come to an end. Heritage also won the local area meet for the 10th straight season.

At Newton, Travis Knight won the Region 2-AAAAA individual title in cross country. Both Newton squads earned their fourth straight trips to the state meet.

In volleyball, Heritage claimed the 8-AAAA subregion title, but, along with Rockdale, fell one victory short of a return trip to the state tournament.

Other notable news

· Former Salem pitcher Billy Buckner made his Major League debut with the Kansas City Royals in August.

· The Oxford men's tennis team repeated as the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national champion.

· The Rockdale Riptides won the Division III title in the USA Senior State Swim Championships at Georgia Tech.

Jeff Gillespie can be reached at jeff.gillespie@rockdalecitizen.com.