VALDOSTA — Valdosta, Georgia remained Winnersville in 2006.
Even though three of the city’s most successful teams — the football teams from Valdosta State, Lowndes High and Valdosta High — missed the playoffs, other programs built on the town’s legacy of winning.
Valdosta State won a national championship in tennis. Valwood and Clinch County both played for a state championship in football. Open Bible won its second straight girls basketball state championship.
Choosing the top 10 local sports stories of the year was somewhat difficult, but the sports department of The Valdosta Daily Times decided these were the area’s 10 biggest stories in 2006.
1. VSU tennis team wins first national championship
John Hansen had been Valdosta State’s tennis coach for 33 years, and had built the Blazer tennis program into one of Division II’s elite teams. But until 2006, one thing had always eluded him: a national championship.
In 2006, Hansen and the Blazers got that national title.
The Blazers started the season 18-0, with several of those wins coming against teams ranked in Division II’s Top 10. That included a victory over two-time defending national champion West Florida.
At the national tournament in Kansas City, Valdosta State beat No. 1 Drury in the second round, then went on to make it into the finals.
In the finals, on May 13, Valdosta State beat Lynn 5-2 to win the national championship. The Blazers, as they had done in three previous matches at the tournament, won two of three doubles matches. Then they picked up wins at Nos. 2, 4 and 6 singles to wrap up the university’s third national crown, and its first in tennis.
“It’s been a great day,” Hansen said afterwards. “I’m so proud of these guys, and happy for all of them. This is a special group of guys. It feels great to win the national championship.”
Valdosta State’s top three players, Christoph Schneider, Mickael Andreo and Thomas Provost, each won at least 12 matches going against every opponent’s best players. No. 4 player Leos Jelinek went 21-1, while No. 5 player Niko Overkemping and No. 6 player Dominik Hansen also lost just once. All of them won at least 17 matches in doubles.
VSU men’s tennis joins baseball (1979) and football (2004) as the school’s three winners of the ultimate prize.
2. Tommy Thomas announces retirement
For nearly four decades, there has been one constant in Valdosta State baseball: Tommy Thomas.
The Blazers’ longtime coach has had one of the greatest careers in college baseball history, which includes the Division II record for most career wins.
That career will come to an end in 2007. In May, Thomas announced that his 40th season in the Blazers’ dugout would be his last.
“Someone once told me I’d know when it was time to go, and now it’s time to go,” Thomas said. “I’m very thankful for all that has happened to me over the last 40 years. I have been very blessed to have been the baseball coach at Valdosta State.”
In 39 seasons coaching at Valdosta State, his alma mater, Thomas has won 1,281 games, losing only 786, and has won 13 conference titles and eight regional crowns. In 39 years, he has had only five losing seasons. The highlight of his career was the Blazers’ 1979 national championship, the school’s first for any sport.
“I have really enjoyed the last 40 years,” Thomas said. “I’ve really enjoyed it. I have no regrets.”
In 2006, Thomas was elected to three Halls of Fame, including the Valdosta State Athletic Hall of Fame. He was the first active coach to be enshrined in VSU’s Hall.
3. Kinderlou Forest gets pro tournament
When the Langdale family decided to build Kinderlou Forest Golf Club, and paid veteran PGA golfer Davis Love III $1.8 million to design the course, they wanted to build a course that would be one of the finest in South Georgia, and one that would be good enough to host professional tournaments.
For the past three years, Kinderlou has hosted a Hooters Pro Golf Tour event, the Langdale Ford Championship. Then in August, Kinderlou was awarded a Nationwide Tour event, the South Georgia Classic. The inaugural South Georgia Classic will be played April 9-15, 2007.
“The Tour is very pleased to be coming to Valdosta and to Kinderlou Forest Golf Club,” said Bill Calfee, chief of operations for the Nationwide Tour. “This event is a great new addition to the Tour and we expect that the golf course will be well received by our players.”
“Langdale Industries, Inc. and Kinderlou Forest Golf Club LLC are proud to have the opportunity to partner with South Georgia Medical Center Foundation, Inc. to generate financial support for SGMC,” said Johnny Langdale, president of Langdale Industries, Inc. “We are excited that this Nationwide Tour event will showcase the Kinderlou Forest golf course as well as Lowndes County, and we are proud to be bringing this caliber of event to our area.”
The Nationwide Tour is considered the top developmental golf tour for golfers aiming to play on the PGA Tour. A proving ground for golf’s future stars, the tour’s impressive alumni list includes John Daly, Ernie Els, Tom Lehman, David Duval, Jim Furyk and David Toms.
4. Valwood football plays for state championship
Valwood School’s football team had a Cinderella season, one that took the Valiants all the way to the GISA Class AA state championship game.
With its high academic standards, Valwood has generally been much more noted for its academic success than its athletic success. But in 2006, head coach Mike Patrick’s team also showed the school could also compete on the gridiron.
The Valiants started 3-1, lost their next two games, then upset region favorite Brookwood 28-21. Valwood wound up going 6-4 in the regular season, and finished in a three-way tie for first in GISA Region 3-AA. In the region tiebreaker, the Valiants defeated Southwest Georgia Academy and Brookwood to earn the region championship.
Valwood opened the playoffs with a 14-0 victory over Gatewood. Then in the semifinals, the Valiants defeated Edmund Burke, 31-24, to advance to the state championship game. The Cinderella run ended in the state title game, though, as the Valiants lost 56-7 to Trinity Christian in Dublin.
Valwood was led by All-State running back Robert Hires, who rushed for 1,980 yards and led the state in touchdowns, as well as fellow All-State selections Kenny Green, Jon Rutkowski and Skyler Crosby.
5. Valdosta and Lowndes miss the playoffs
The football teams from Valdosta and Lowndes both missing the playoffs? Hard to believe — but true.
Two of Georgia’s premier high school football programs found themselves at home for the 2006 state playoffs. Valdosta and Lowndes had combined for over 20 victories in each of the previous three seasons, but this year, they won just seven games (six of them by Lowndes).
Lowndes had been the AAAAA state champions in both 2004 and 2005, going a combined 29-1, but the football program was hit hard by graduation in May, losing 18 starters. Head coach Randy McPherson knew it would be, by Lowndes standards, a rebuilding year.
The Vikings started the season No. 1 in the state and won their first three games. They lost to Central Gwinnett, but rebounded to win three of their next four games, and with two games left in the season, they were in position to win their third straight region title. But Lowndes lost to eventual state semifinalists Tift County and Warner Robins, and would up missing the playoffs despite a winning record (6-4).
Valdosta’s demise was even more shocking. The national record holder for victories (829), the Wildcats had only five losing seasons since beginning play in 1913, and only two since World War II.
But the Wildcats assembled a brutal regular season schedule — eight of their 10 opponents made the playoffs, and all 10 wound up with a winning record. It was too much for the Wildcats, who wound up going 1-9, the worst record in their history.
Week after week, Valdosta played neck-and-neck with its opponents, only to ultimately fall at the end. Four times (against Jordan, Lincoln, Tift and Lowndes), the game came down to the final play. Four other times (against Brookwood, Colquitt County, Warner Robins and Houston County), it was decided in the final minute. Only the Coffee game, which was scoreless going into the fourth quarter, did not come down to the end (the Trojans won 14-0).
The good news for both Lowndes and Valdosta is that both teams return most of their starters in 2007. Both schools could easily return to their winning ways next year.
6. VSU’s 25th anniversary of football
Valdosta State celebrated two anniversaries in 2006: the school’s 100th birthday and the football team’s 25th season.
Started in 1982, the Blazers developed into a winning program in the late 1980’s under coach Mike Cavan, then rose to Division II national prominence in the early 1990’s under coach Hal Mumme and quarterback Chris Hatcher. In 2000, Hatcher returned to VSU as head coach, and in his seven seasons leading the Blazers, they have gone 77-12. The Blazers made their first national championship game in 2002, going down to the wire with Grand Valley State before falling 31-24. Then in 2004, Valdosta State won its first football national championship, upsetting Pittsburg State 36-31.
To recognize the 25th anniversary, the Blazers wore silver helmets in 2006, and also wore silver pants for some of their games.
In 2006, the Blazers had hopes of another deep playoff run. Led by quarterback Willie Copeland, a deep corps of receivers and All-American safety Sherard Reynolds, the Blazers went 9-2. But those two losses were to Gulf South Conference rivals North Alabama and Delta State, so VSU wound up third in the conference. The committee that selects the playoff teams decided it didn’t want three Gulf South teams in the playoffs, so VSU got left out in a controversial decision.
Nevertheless, voters still ranked the Blazers No. 14 in the nation at the end of the season, ahead of three playoff teams.
7. Rick Tomberlin hired as Valdosta football coach
For the second time in a span of three years, Valdosta High conducted a national search in hopes of finding its next great football coach. Coaches were brought in from all over the Southeast (and one from Indiana) to interview. In the end, the coach the school decided on was Rick Tomberlin.
Tomberlin had built a Class AAA powerhouse at Washington County, winning 157 games in 14 years. In his time at the school, the Golden Hawks won three state championships, and were runner-up two other times. In his career, which has taken him to five Georgia schools in 22 seasons, the Baxley native has won 201 games.
Valdosta brought Tomberlin to Winnersville hoping he could bring that same kind of success to the Wildcats. Time will tell if he can.
Alas, Tomberlin’s inaugural season in black and gold was a struggle, as the Wildcats went 1-9. But Valdosta’s administration remains optimistic he will mold the Wildcats back into winners real soon.
8. Open Bible girls repeat as state champions
For the past two years, Open Bible’s girls basketball team has dominated the competition.
The Lady Warriors won the 2004-05 Georgia Christian Athletic Association state championship with a 45-41 upset of Killian Hills. They returned virtually their entire roster in 2005-06, including all five starters, and had one goal in mind: repeating as state champions.
It wasn’t even close. Open Bible hammered every opponent on its way to an undefeated season. No opponent came within 20 points of knocking off the Lady Warriors.
“I can’t say enough about this team,” Open Bible head coach Michael Alvarez said. “It’s been a great year. And this was a great way to end it. It feels great to be back-to-back state champions.”
The veteran starting five of Annalisa McCarty, Shatara Ross, Gabby Sermons, Hannah Smith and Janiel Valdez usually built a huge lead for Open Bible in the first half, then sat out the second half because the game was already decided. Alvarez only needed his starters to play two full games.
Usually the state tournament provides some competition. Not this time. Open Bible beat King’s Way 64-24 in the quarterfinals, then routed Bible Baptist 66-37 in the semifinals. Killian Hills was Open Bible’s opponent again in the state championship game. But instead of another close game, the Lady Warriors blew out Killian by 23 points, 60-37.
“This team showed up and just did an awesome job,” Alvarez said. “This is great for these girls, and for Open Bible, and Valdosta and South Georgia. We’re all excited about this. I’m so proud of these girls.”
Graduating McCarty, the team’s leading scorer the past five seasons, and Ross should make another state championship a little harder this year. But so far the Lady Warriors have continued to dominate, and remain undefeated this year, led by the 6-foot-3 Sermons, a Jacksonville University signee.
9. Clinch football plays for state championship
Clinch County continued to be one of Class A’s elite football programs, with another trip to the Georgia Dome and another appearance in the state championship game.
The Panthers started the season 0-2, losing to Class AA champion Charlton County and AAAAA playoff qualifier Coffee, but then won their next 12 games, most of them in dominant fashion. Clinch won its fourth Region 1-A championship in five years (it has lost just one region game in that span).
Clinch was led by Class A Offensive Player of the Year Justin Gainey, who rushed for 1,814 yards and 25 touchdowns. Backfield mate Dexter Reeves also ran for over 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Ronnie Hill added over 800. Quarterback Shane Burns threw for over 1,000 yards. Eugene Kinlaw and Lafiyama Lacey were two of the best defensive linemen in the state.
In the playoffs, Clinch beat Taylor County 40-0, Wilcox County 19-7 and Warren County 42-15. That gave the Panthers their fifth trip to the Georgia Dome for the semifinals in six years. In the Dome, Clinch survived a challenge from Athens Academy to win 16-13.
But in the state championship game, Lincoln County was too much for the Panthers. The Red Devils, who had been the team to beat all season, won their second straight state championship, 21-14.
10. NASCAR drivers Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman drive at SGMP
Since its opening four years ago, South Georgia Motorsports Park in Cecil has ambitiously aimed to build a reputation for being a superb half-mile track. In its short history, the track has earned several awards.
It has also attracted the attention of NASCAR. A few drivers have come to SGMP to either race in smaller events or test their cars.
In April, three-time Nextel Cup champion Jeff Gordon and his team quietly came to town and tested their DuPont Chevrolet at the track.
“Jeff is perhaps the most noted driver to test here,” said SGMP general manager Shad Dean. “We actually have scheduled testing booked for a number of NASCAR and Busch teams, and expect testing on the speedway to become as big a part of our program as the dragstrip testing.”
In October, NASCAR regulars Ryan Newman, Ken Schrader and Dave Blaney came to Cecil to race in the SGMP 100. Newman took the lead with 23 laps to go, and won the race.
VSU tennis, Thomas’ retirement, VHS-LHS missing playoffs head local sports news from 2006
VALDOSTA — Valdosta, Georgia remained Winnersville in 2006.
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