It's hard to believe we are just hours away from the end of 2013. It seems just yesterday we were getting things going with a January that brought plenty of big sports headlines.
But now that it's almost over, let's take a moment and look back at some of the biggest sports stories of the past 12 months -- a time period filled with more than its share of big sports headlines, especially here in northeast Georgia.
We have taken the liberty of ranking what we feel were the top 10 stories for us here in northeast Georgia in 2013. There are some stories that became national. But purely national stories didn't quite make the top 10 this year due to all the big local headlines...
1. AREA TEAMS AND INDIVIDUALS CLAIM STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Any year that sees the areas top sports teams and individuals make championship pushes is a blessing. With that in mind, 2013 saw us rake in the blessings, as eight area programs captured nine state titles and area individuals claimed 22 solo crowns.
Certainly there were some historical marks, led by the Jefferson wrestling program --which won its 13th straight traditional state title and 12th straight duals crown. Buford softball, meanwhile, won its seventh straight championship. The Wolves' football team also snagged its ninth state trophy in 13 seasons. The Flowery Branch boys cross country team also notched its fourth championship in six seasons, while the Gainesville boys golf team won its second straight title.
There were also plenty of repeat individual champs, as their efforts draped northeast Georgia in the color gold and made memories to last a lifetime and make 2013 one for the ages.
TEAM TITLES (9)
-- Banks County wrestling (duals), Class AAA
-- Buford football, Class AAA
-- Buford softball, Class AAA
-- Commerce boys track, Class A public
-- Flowery Branch boys cross country, Class AAAAA
-- Gainesville boys golf, Class AAAAA
-- Jefferson wrestling (duals and traditional), Class AA
-- Towns County girls cross country, Class A public
INDIVIDUAL TITLES (22):
-- Paul Powers, 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, North Hall
-- North Hall's boys 200-yard freestyle relay team
TRACK AND FIELD/CROSS COUNTRY
-- Emma Garrison, Union County, cross country
-- Mason Hamrick, Jefferson pole vault
-- Maia Caldwell-Booker, 100 meters, West Hall
-- David Curry, pole vault, Buford
-- Jenna Gearing, 3,200 meters/cross country, White County
-- Gabrielle Hoffman, pole vault, North Hall
-- Chance McClure, Commerce, 220
-- Ben Kelly, 113, Jefferson
-- Tyler Marinelli, 138, Jefferson
-- Jace McColskey, 182, Jefferson
-- Chase Piperato, 106, Jefferson
-- Jack Barber, Buford, 113
-- Jeff Chandler, East Jackson, 285
-- Brayden Hartley, Buford, 126
-- Daivon Ledford, Jackson County, 170
-- Chris McCrackin, Banks County, 106
-- Chip Ness, 182, Buford
-- Greg Hilliard, Lumpkin County, 113
2. MEMORABLE NEAR MISSES CREATE BIG MEMORIES
There weren't many more exciting playoff runs than the one the Gainesville boys basketball team put on in 2013. The Red Elephants won four straight games by a COMBINED seven points and fell to championship-hogging Miller Grove -- which won its fifth straight state title -- by a mere four points in the state championship contest.
North Hall baseball made its own push for most exciting playoff run, however, battling back from a 1-0 deficit on the road to win a quarterfinal series at Pierce County -- claiming Game 2 with a walk-off home run before dominating Game 3. The Trojans then knocked off Blessed Trinity 2-1 in the semifinals before finally succumbing to Cartersville in two razor-thin games.
The Dawson County girls also shocked the state by marauding their way into the Class AAA basketball title game, making history en route before finally falling to St. Pius.
They were all gut-wrenching losses -- but only because the victories that preceded them were so sweet. Five other area programs also made state semifinal runs and created storylines that gripped our little corner of the state en route.
No, they didn't finish with a trophy, but their performances were worthy of winners and more than enough to thrill us all.
-- Dawson County girls basketball, Class AAA
-- Gainesville boys basketball, Class AAAAA
-- North Hall baseball, Class AAA
-- Buford boys basketball
-- Buford girls soccer
-- Gainesville football
-- East Hall boys soccer
-- North Hall boys basketball
3. FALCONS LIGHT UP BOBBY GRUHN FIELD WITH PRACTICE SESSION
Remember back when we all thought the Atlanta Falcons had Super Bowl designs? Well, the season may have been a major disappointment, but the preseason excitement the Falcons created -- and their appearance at City Park for a public practice session -- had the area's football fans flocking to get a glimpse of what was to come.
Every corner of Bobby Gruhn Field was crammed with Falcons fans, as more than 14,000 people found their way inside to watch practice. It was both exciting and impressive to see such an outpouring. It's only a shame the performance on the field this season didn't match the passion on display that night...
4. INJURY BUG BITES BULLDOGS, FALCONS TO HELP DERAIL PROMISING CAMPAIGNS
...The Falcons can point to a number of physical setbacks to their players as a reason why they never built momentum in 2013, and it was disheartening, as its receiving corps and defense were ravaged by injury. But no team saw its season come apart at the seams quite like the Georgia Bulldogs.
At one point Georgia was 3-1 with two of those victories over top 10 teams and the loss coming by a field goal against another top 10 team on the road. Things were looking up for the 'Dogs, whose high-powered offense was making up for a porous defense and providing a thrill-a-minute for fans and neutrals alike.
Then a running back went down, and another, and a receiver, and another, (three of them in one game) and another... and then the starting quarterback. In the end the season felt more like a Twilight Zone episode, as the 'Dogs fought to wins over South Carolina, LSU, Florida and Georgia Tech -- but also lost to Vanderbilt. Defeats to Missouri and Auburn (BAT IT DOWN!!!! -- sorry, having flashbacks there) also got in the way of a once-hopeful season and Georgia fans the world over were left wondering "what if?" as they skidded to an 8-4 record and an underwhelming Gator Bowl berth against Nebraska (again).
It certainly was a campaign for the ages -- unfortunately for mostly the wrong reasons.
The Falcons also saw players dropping in droves, and while professionals will never point to injury as an excuse, there's no denying it did not help a season that started with perhaps the highest hopes in franchise history.
5. AREA SCHOOLS MOVE UP/DOWN IN CLASSIFICATIONS, PLACED IN NEW REGIONS
Just two years after the GHSA re-organized into six classes, it underwent its every-two-years reclassification line-up for 2014-15 and 2015-16 -- and the results proved interesting indeed for the area's schools.
Buford, North Hall, White County (all to AAAA) and Jefferson (into Class AAA) will all move up one classification level, while Lumpkin County (into Class AAA) will slide down one level.
Some of the new region alignments also raised eyebrows, not least of which was Region 8-AAAA, which will consist of (in alphabetical order): Buford, Chestatee, Johnson, Madison County, Monroe Area, North Hall, North Oconee, Stephens County, Walnut Grove and White County. Seven of those schools reached the football state playoffs in 2013 in their current region set-ups. Also within that region are the reigning Class AAA softball champ (Buford), two state semifinalists in basketball from a season ago (Buford and North Hall boys), as well as a state finalist in baseball (North Hall) and a state semifinalist in girls soccer (Buford).
Meanwhile, Habersham Central got some possibly welcome news by getting moved out of Region 7-AAAAAA (made up of all Gwinnett County schools -- outside Habersham) to Region 6-AAAAAA (which consists of Forsyth County and Fulton County schools).
Jefferson will also strike up plenty of local rivalries with region records on the line, facing a region set-up that includes cross-town foe Jackson County and East Jackson.
6. BRAVES/FALCONS PROVIDE STADIUM SOAP OPERA DRAMAS
For months we wondered whether the Falcons would move from the Georgia Dome and if so, where. It took months -- and plenty of twists and turns -- to discover the answer to that question.
The Braves, however, caught us a bit more off-guard with their announced move from the city center of Atlanta to a more suburban location near Interstate 285. Yet that move has also provided plenty of subplots, as the trek northwest was cast into question thanks to political maneuvering.
Politics and sports are never a good mix -- sports are there to help us forget about politics for a while -- but when the two do mix, it is usually memorable.
7. AREA PROGRAMS SEE PLENTY OF CHANGES AT THE TOP, AS COACHING CHANGES ABOUND
Never have we seen so many new high school coaches taking to their various playing fields at one time as in 2013. For instance, eight area football programs underwent coaching changes in 2013. Meanwhile, basketball coaching changes also fell like dominoes, with a number of area teams trading coaches -- as Todd Cottrell moved from Gainesville to Lakeview, and Benjie Wood traded North Hall for Gainesville (with even a quick stop at Flowery Branch in between). Meanwhile, West Hall's girls saw Bryan Richerson begin his second stint as a head coach in Hall County. And that's just scratching the surface. We wish all the new coaches well in their endeavors.
8. PAUL POWERS TAKES ANOTHER BIG STROKE TOWARD WORLDWIDE STARDOM
Already dominant at the state and national level, North Hall swimming phenom Paul Powers took a big step on the world stage when he finished fifth in the boys 50 freestyle at the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in Dubai. Powers, who harbors dreams of competing in the Olympics some day, touched the wall in 22.53 seconds to finish behind winner Luke Percy of Australia (22.11) in the competition being held in the United Arab Emirates. When you see something like this, it makes it easy to see why the North Hall standout can dominate so clearly in the high school pool. Big things are on the horizon for Powers, and it will be a fun career to track.
9. KOLTON HOUSTON'S LONG NIGHTMARE COMES TO AN END
For years, the former Buford offensive lineman's struggles to get on the playing field were known only to Bulldogs and Wolves fans. Tainted by a steroid dosage given to him by a doctor following a surgery (in high school, no less), Houston -- and the University of Georgia -- did everything possible to get the drug out of his system. And yet it would not go away. Finally, after years of trying, he cleared the NCAA's requirements to get on the playing field -- but not before his hard luck story was featured on ESPN's Outside the Lines. Houston didn't want sympathy, however. He only craved the chance to play, and it finally came -- in bunches this season.
10. BRAVES MARCH BACK TO PLAYOFFS -- ONLY TO LOSE IN THE FIRST ROUND, AGAIN
Between the emergence of "El Oso Blanco" and the heroics of Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Craig Kimbrel, there were plenty of memories made for Atlanta Braves fans in 2013, as they regained the NL East title. Andrelton Simmons also showed that he has a bright future, playing a key role in the Braves' charge to the division crown, while Justin Upton balanced a few barren streaks with plenty of power and clutch at-bats (unfortunately the same could not be said of brother B.J. or Dan Uggla). Of course the postseason wasn't so memorable, as another first round playoff exit ensued and left us with that all-too-familiar empty feeling, but few predicted any playoff future the Braves after spring training, and, while it was another letdown, it was not a season to forget by any means.
HONORABLE MENTION: Here's some stories that weren't quite big enough to make the top 10 because they weren't purely local -- but they were still big enough to have all local sports fans talking...
-- AUBURN SOMEHOW FINDS WAY TO BCS TITLE GAME: Two improbable finishes have highlighted the most jaw-dropping turnaround in recent memory in the SEC.
-- AARON HERNANDEZ MURDER CHARGES ROCK NFL, SPORTS WORLD: It was compelling for all the wrong reasons, but it had our attention without a doubt.
-- LANCE ARMSTRONG ADMITS TO DOPING: We won't get into the discussions of how important it was or if it matters that Armstrong doped in a sport rife with doping, but when an icon (not just a sports icon) makes an admission of that nature, it is huge news.