It took 10 months, included six team championships, a mess of individual awards and some incredible storylines, but the 2011-12 high school sports season finally came to an end for area programs this week.
What a (school) year it was. And, after looking back through it all over the past couple of days, I can say that local sports fans should consider themselves pretty blessed.
It seems an age ago that we witnessed one of the most intriguing prep football seasons in recent memory -- one that included a near-miss on a fifth straight state championship for Buford, the rise of the Gainesville team led by quarterback Deshaun Watson (to the Class AAA semifinals), and a Flowery Branch team that so nearly pulled off another magical Falcons playoff run.
The fall also included a fifth straight state title for the Buford softball program and a Class AAAA crown for the Flowery Branch boys cross country team. The two victors would eventually be joined on the championship podium by the Jefferson wrestling team (twice -- state duals and traditional champs) and both the Gainesville boys and girls golf teams.
There were also three state track champions -- Flowery Branch's Austin Eckenroth (pole vault), North Hall's Luis Gonzalez (3,200 meters) and East Jackson's Cale Pirtle (3,200) -- and seven wrestlers that claimed individual championships -- Commerce's Cody Legg (113 pounds) and Chance McClure (220), Flowery Branch's Nick Lankford (132), Jackson County's Zach Moore (120) and Buford's Chip Ness (152). North Hall swimmer Paul Powers also earned a state championship in the 50-yard freestyle, while Habersham Central's Lee McCoy claimed low medalist honors in the boys Class AAAA golf tournament with a 4-under, 68 -- and he wasn't the only area golfer to do so (more on that later).
That's a pretty astounding 10 months worth of accomplishments. In fact it may be the best title haul in years.
And yet 2011-12 was far more than just championships. In fact I'd like to think this school year will be most memorable for the sheer number of teams that put together outstanding seasons -- and all of them seemed to posses unique and intriguing storylines.
Yes, we witnessed six team titles and all those individual championships. But area teams were also in the running for so many more.
The Gainesville boys soccer team finished as Class AAA runner-up, while the Red Elephants baseball team and girls soccer team each reached the "Final Four." You'll notice there is a bit of a theme here, as Gainesville enjoyed arguably the best 2011-12 of any area school on the athletic field -- thanks to both golf titles (including low medalist honors for Parks Brown and his 4-under, 68), one second-place finish, three more final fours, the volleyball team reaching the final eight and both tennis teams progressing to the second round of the postseason.
It was an emphatic final season -- at least for the near future -- in Class AAA, as the Red Elephants prepare to shoot up into Class AAAAA for 2012-14.
Yet it wasn't just Gainesville fans that were spoiled over the past 10 months.
As already mentioned Buford had its traditionally strong sports showing, claiming one team title, one individual crown for Ness on the mat and finishing runner-up in football (a shock for Wolves fans but something most programs can only dream of) and girls basketball (see football), as well as reaching the semifinals in girls soccer. The Buford baseball team also showed it has a bright future, reaching the Class AA quarterfinals -- despite replacing almost the entirety of last year's state championship squad. The Lady Wolves volleyball team also reached the second round of state.
Again, however, this season was about far more than even two great athletic departments.
Flowery Branch put together its share of impressive showings -- the Falcons football team had eventual state champ Tucker on the ropes in the Class AAAA quarterfinals, while the girls soccer and tennis teams clinched Region 8-AAAA titles -- the tennis team reaching the quarterfinal round. That's not even mentioning a host of other strong performances for the Falcons -- including Eckenroth's second straight championship vault and the boys cross country title.
There was also the North Hall girls basketball team and their impressive charge to the Class AAA semifinals in Macon, fighting favored Washington County and standout Allisha Gray every step of the way before eventually succumbing 68-52. It was the Lady Trojans first semifinal appearance since 1991, and this entire campaign simply seemed to repeat stories of that nature over and again.
Perhaps the adventure that best sums up the greatness of this season's accomplishments was the incredible postseason charge authored by the Dawson County boys basketball team.
The Tigers entered the Region 8-AA tournament with hopes of reaching the state tournament -- a whirlwind of exciting finishes and fairytale performances later found the Tigers on the winning end a region title and one shot away from reaching the program's first-ever state semifinal showing. Featuring no seniors and utilizing no more than six players, Dawson County squeezed some incredible performances out of a tight-knit group -- one that pulled off upsets of East Hall and Buford along the way and was a buzzer-beater away from supplanting Jordan in Macon.
If harnessed, the electricity present in Dawson County's gym on the night the Tigers upset Buford in the second round of the postseason could probably operate Dawsonville's outlet shopping mall for a year.
And -- again -- that was just one story. And, believe me, there were plenty more.
I hope area sports fans appreciate what they have. I certainly have enjoyed watching and following along in the footsteps of some truly awe-inspiring moments over the past 10 months.
Thanks to all of the area's athletes for providing this writer with another great year, perhaps my most memorable in a several years of coverage.
-- Morgan Lee is sports editor for Access North Georgia.com