Thursday May 26th, 2016 10:51AM

Opinion: Giving thanks to a season of memories

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
With the arrival of Thanksgiving, one thing is certain: high school football season is nearing its conclusion once again.

Last year, we saw what we thought was perhaps the greatest season ever for northeast Georgia with three teams -- Buford, Gainesville, and Jefferson -- fighting their way to state titles.

Most of us figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It may still be, although all three of those teams are still alive in this year's playoffs. But this season saw a tremendous amount of firsts or rebirths.

As someone fortunate enough to be able to witness firsthand many of the exciting and not-to-be-forgotten moments over the year, this past season offered some of my most enjoyable moments covering high school football.

And while the season, hopefully, still has moments left to give, on a day of giving thanks I would like to offer mine to all the teams and players who have given us some moments to remember.

Some of my favorite moments do not involve a particular play but embody what I feel sports is all about.

Which is why atop the list would be Chestatee's first-ever playoff win two weeks ago against Grady. Many of you know I lived in the Chestatee area for a decade and have come to know many of the people in that area and they know I have a soft-spot for the War Eagle nation.

After the game, as the fans huddled around coach Stan Luttrell to hear his after-game speech, you could see tears on many of the faces in the crowd, including the players and coaches. They were caught up in the moment of what had been done and what they had worked for. It was not lost on them, which was refreshing to see.

Another of my favorite moments was really more of a series of things as we witnessed West Hall's resurgence on the gridiron. The Spartans' first game of the season against rival Johnson would tell a lot, both as a team and the community support.

A packed stadium awaited and the Spartans displayed an efficient offense and hard-hitting defense in a lopsided win that none of us expected. They would have their ups-and-downs like all teams, but then we saw them erase 11-years of frustration with a gritty win over Dawson County in a showdown for the final playoff spot in Region 7-AAA on the final night of the regular season.

And although I wasn't there to see it, talking to coach Tony Lotti after the Spartans nearly pulled off the biggest playoff upset in years against Cartersville -- missing a field goal as time expired in a gut-wrenching 28-26 loss -- I now understand why he is the right man for the job in Oakwood.

Lotti's voice broke on several occasions as he talked about how his team never quit and didn't listen to naysayers who said they didn't have a chance. While he was disappointed in the ending, he said he was ready to get started on next season and the promise it shows. I think we all are.

I also didn't witness this one, but the phone call with North Gwinnett coach Bob Sphires after the Bulldogs somehow scored 21 points in the final six minutes to pull off a miracle rally to beat Mill Creek was priceless.

He had no stats, barely knew who scored, and just kept saying over and over again that he didn't really know what happened but that the scoreboard said they won. No matter what question I asked, he could barely answer. I had to call someone else to get the information, but it was worth it.

There was the Gainesville-Buford showdown at City Park early in the season. We all knew both teams were loaded with talent and to have two defending state champions square-off is always a rare treat. The first play of the game will always stick out to me.

Deshaun Watson in the shotgun, takes the snap, a quick step back, and then prepares to find some daylight on a designed quarterback draw like we have seen a hundred times. Only problem was that TWO Buford defenders hit him head-on before he could take a step forward.

It set the tone for a dominating season for Buford's No. 1 defense, which only allowed two regular season touchdowns all year.

There was Chestatee's truly miraculous win over Lanier in what proved to be the game for second place in Region 8-AAAA. The War Eagles trailed 7-0 the entire game until they blocked a punt and ran it in to tie the game late in the fourth quarter and then found a way to win it in double-overtime.

The Flowery Branch defense turned in one of the best efforts of the year in a beatdown of Clarke Central in a must-win game for the Falcons to have a shot at a second straight region title. The Falcons held Cameron Johnson, who came in averaging over 300 total yards a game, to just 12 yards rushing and sacked him eight times.

So, as we all wake up this cold Thanksgiving morning, head to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, and get ready to celebrate the most unique of American holidays, we need to ask ourselves, "What does this day really mean to me?"

For me, family and football.

Thanks to all those who have given me some cherished moments to remember over the past year.

(Raising a cup of coffee): Here's to making some more, please.

-- Jeff Hart is a sports writer for Access North

Check back later today and on Friday for video features and previews of Friday's big quarterfinal showdowns.
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