Remarkable high school sports year marked by titles, near-misses and the end of an era in Clay County
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
May 29, 2012 | 3367 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Every year I’m involved in our high school sports coverage, I question whether the current prep sports year can top the last for memorable moments and raw emotion.

Every year has, but next year needs to do work.

How to top a year that produced coverage-area state champions in all the major sports?

How to top a year that saw several other area teams and individuals make deep and even breakthrough runs?

And with all due excitement over the new, merged school known as Central of Clay County, how can any year without the Lineville-Clay County rivalry top any year before it?

This year had legendary former Wellborn coach Mike Battles finally winning that Alabama state championship with Handley.

Jacksonville became the first school from Calhoun County to win a state title in girls’ basketball, and Donoho won its first state volleyball title in nearly a decade.

Oxford’s baseball team won the school’s first state title in 6A, and it came just months after the football team reached the semifinals — the program’s deepest run in 6A.

We saw Saks’ Taylor West pitch a perfect game to cap a masterful state tournament and clinch a state title in softball.

We saw more raw joy in one school year than some areas of the state see in decade. It’s like CBS has been playing the Final Four lookback anthem “One Shining Moment” on a continuous loop for nine months.

Since so many teams made runs but so few seasons end in championships, we also saw plenty of raw grief from young people who came so close. It’s hard not to feel.

It’s all part of this year’s rendition of Medley’s Moments:

Glory in Battles

Battles isn’t known for flamboyance. It’s not his style to be the most quotable coach.

He is known for producing hard-nosed, winning football teams. He did it for years at Wellborn and has done it for years at Handley.

As of this past fall, he’s now won championships in three states, but that first Alabama championship took the longest — 42 years of coaching, with several deep playoff runs along the way.

Maybe that explains the different side of Battles we saw in the Super 6 postgame in Bryant-Denny Stadium. We saw a happy, even excited old coach who couldn’t contain his colorful side.

“It was all the ballgame you could get in 48 minutes,” he said. “We’re just proud we came out on top. The ball bounced our way.

“Our kids hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese sandwich folks. We was ready to go.”

How about that decision to go for a 2-point conversion, which failed, but things came out OK because Handley recovered an onsides kick?

“Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you,” Battles said to laughs in the room. “That’s all there is to it.”

It was nice to see Battles finally eat that bear, and it was fun to finally see his bear-eating grin.

Getaway before greatness

So, it was the North Central Regional softball tournament. We had 10 Star-area teams there, your friendly neighborhood sports writer was scurrying about Liberty Park, seeking score updates to tweet.

I walk into a scorekeeper’s booth during the Jacksonville Christian-Ragland game, and whom do I find?

It’s none other than West, the junior pitcher and easily the most key performer for a Saks team that didn’t score a ton of runs through its run to the state title.

Still in her Saks uniform and with her cleats propped up on the scorekeeper’s table, she was between games. She decided to pass the time by keeping the scoreboard in a quiet, little booth.

As she explained, it was her way of getting away from it all for a while, of coming in out of the fray.

Later that night, she hit a 3-run home run and pitched Saks to a 3-1 victory over Glencoe.

A week later, she struck out 58 batters over four state-tournament games and capped Saks’ run with a perfect game, winning most valuable player honors.

Here’s to an MVP’s willingness to do the little things, and here’s to the energy and mental toughness she stored up in her quiet way, in that scorekeeper’s booth.

Merger before the merger

One of the most remarkable moments of perspective I’ve witnessed in sports came in the moments immediately following the final Clay Bowl.

Clay County had just won 7-6 over rival Lineville on Clay County’s home field. The home public-address announcer was playing “Nah Nah Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).”

But even as the home fans soaked in the joy of the moment and not-subtle taunt of the song, both teams were huddled on the field. Both coaches — Lineville’s Steve Giddens and Clay County’s Kris Herron — took turns delivering a forward-looking message.

The final Clay Bowl was in the books. The teams that had just played out the final game in a storied rivalry would soon be one in the merged school. It was time to start thinking as one.

Months later, Clay Central just completed its first spring football practice under Giddens, the head coach, Herron, the defensive coordinator, and the rest of a merged staff.

Come this fall, if the home PA plays “Nah Nah Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye),” it will be to taunt a team from another county.

Opposite of joy

Teams that win championships celebrate with unrestrained joy in full view of peers and parents, but the overwhelming majority whose seasons end short of that dream show emotion just as raw in the same arena.

The dedication was there. Sometimes, the breaks just aren’t, and it can be momentarily devastating for young people.

Viewing such emotion in those moments is tough for anyone with empathy. That could be my son or daughter, my brother or sister, my friend or even me.

We’re all either young or were once.

Oxford’s and Anniston’s football teams had special seasons. Oxford got farther than it ever had in 6A, and Anniston’s semifinal run was its deepest since winning a state title in 1994.

Make no mistake, players on both teams wanted and expected more and hurt when it didn’t happen.

Piedmont advanced farther than it ever had in baseball, reaching the 3A finals. The Bulldogs’ playoff run — four rounds of which played out on their new home field — left their community memories to cherish for years.

Make no mistake. The Bulldogs wanted and expected more, which more than explains the scowl that showed through sweat-smeared eye black on the face of senior Landon Pruitt after the Bulldogs lost to Trinity in Montgomery.

White Plains’ softball team was ranked No. 1 in 3A headed into the state tournament, and the Wildcats carried the dreams of their school for its first-ever state championship in any sport.

For the second year in a row, the trip to Montgomery wasn’t kind, and tears flowed on the field. One player was so upset that she became visibly ill.

Perhaps hardest to watch was injured Ragland senior Emily Church as she sat on the bench, watching her team fall in the 1A semifinals in basketball.

It wasn’t just that Church was a frustrated competitor, good enough to lead Ragland to three consecutive state titles in softball. It’s that she wanted so badly to experience the same thing in her favorite sport.

“I signed a softball scholarship,” she said, her eyes still red from tears, “but I would take a basketball scholarship in a heartbeat.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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