Piedmont’s crown means its seniors will graduate with a state championship in their final year of high school. Their last state title came as freshmen, when they arrived on campus in time for a state championship season in football.
Since then, they were part of Piedmont’s football teams that put together unbeaten regular seasons in 2011 and 2012 but fell in the state playoffs, including a second-round loss to Deshler last season.
“The biggest thing with that group of seniors is that everyone played football, so they all had a little bit of a bitter taste in their mouth, because we were picked to win it all,” Piedmont track coach Mark Mitchell said. “We came up short, and it gave them a little extra motivation.
“Once they got about halfway through the track season and saw they had another chance for something they have wanted since ninth-graders, I really think in the back of their minds they had a shot at it. Anytime you lose and get a second chance, you have to make the most out of it.”
And for senior Jamie Major, a three-time first-team all-state football player, the motivation was there. Major, who has signed to play football at Samford, ran the first leg in the 4-by-100 relay. That was the event that sparked Piedmont last weekend at the state meet in Selma.
Cody Daughtry was the second leg, followed by Darnell Jackson and Denard Spears. And when Spears got the baton, he had only one thing in mind.
As Piedmont edged out Deshler in the 4-by-100 relay, Spears also won the 100-meter dash. Event winners earn 10 points toward their team total, and considering Piedmont totaled 81 for the meet, which is seven more than second-place Trinity, those two victories served the Bulldogs well.
“I just knew we needed those 10 points if we were going to come in first place,” Spears said. “I think we also owed Deshler one, too, from football.”
But the success of Piedmont wasn’t expected after the boys finished 18th at state last year. But a swift hire by athletics director and football coach Steve Smith to get Mitchell was a big start.
“It was a no-brainer by us to go get him,” Smith said. “He’s a great assistant on the football staff, but he’s also one of the most organized people I know in any sport. He does a great job of finding kid and finding events they can score in for the team.”
Smith was familiar with Mitchell after coaching with him at Class 1A Cedar Bluff from 1995-2005. While Smith took over at Piedmont in 2006, Mitchell remained at Cedar Bluff, coaching boys teams that won six straight state championships. He also was named the National High School Federation state track coach of the year last year.
“We came into the first day of practice with a sorry attitude, and he came in and changed a lot of stuff up to have us doing what he wanted us to do,” Jackson said. “We just did what we said. Things changed a lot, and now we’re state champs.”
Mitchell thought it would take a month to set his formula in place, and after a track meet at Lincoln in mid-April, he said he “knew we had a chance then.”
Two weeks later, when Piedmont went to sectionals, the boys left with first place next to their names.
“I had to sit them back down and explain to them that just because you win sectionals doesn’t mean anything,” Mitchell said. “Our goal wasn’t to win sectionals -- it was to qualify as many kids in the right spots to get to state. If you just wanted to win sectionals, you can do that and not win state.”
And while the boys brought home the state championship trophy Saturday, the girls team finished higher than any previous team in school history, finishing in third place with 67 points behind state champion Bayside Academy (131.5) and runner-up T.R. Miller (110.5). The Lady Bulldogs also won sectionals.
“The girls bought in the same as the boys did and worked just as hard,” Mitchell said. “They didn’t have the same outcome, but we finished better than any girls team at Piedmont. I think that will motivate our girls in the future because our girls want a blue trophy in the school very badly.”
Despite not winning the state championship as a team, senior Breanna Thompson not only won state in the triple jump, but she also broke the state record. Her distance of 37 feet, 2 inches topped the old mark of 36-5. She hadn’t competed in the event before this spring.
“I’m not going to take any credit for it, but I’ve seen people like her before do very well in triple jump. She went out and did the drills and I taught her, taught her and taught her,” Mitchell said. “Her goal was 38 feet, and she almost got there. But I was very proud of her breaking the state record. She worked hard at it and deserved it.”
Now with another season -- and championship -- under Mitchell’s belt, the Piedmont seniors that have strived for a title since the winter of 2009 can cross the graduation stage knowing they’ll get rings over the summer. And for the underclassmen, they’ll have a chance to repeat as champions next spring.
“We went down there knowing a little bit about what we have to compete against, but now we know what to expect,” Daughtry said. “In the future, that will help us out.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star