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Titles and talking points: The Top 10 area sports stories of 2011

Top 10 stories of 2011

1. More rings, please

You'd think we'd be getting used to championships around northeast Georgia, as area teams have garnered so many over the past few years. Nope. Every new title brings with it a rush and celebrations anew, and this year we had five team titles and numerous individual crowns to celebrate. Congratulations to all of the champs:

-- Buford baseball: The Wolves won their first baseball title in 34 years, defeating Pike County 2-1 in the best-of-three championship series.

-- Buford girls basketball: The Lady Wolves won their third straight championship, blasting Greater Atlanta Christian 57-38 in Macon.

-- Buford softball: The Lady Wolves won a state record fifth consecutive title, doing so with a young group that could extend that incredible streak for years to come. (Editor's Note: We apologize for erroneously leaving this colossal achievement out of the initial list. We covered it all season, and it somehow got left out. We'd like to blame it on old age, but that's still no excuse. Be proud Lady Wolves fans.)

-- Flowery Branch cross country: The Falcons won their third state title, led by Drew Garland in a thrilling finish in Carrollton.

-- Jefferson wrestling (duals and traditional): The Dragons won their 11th straight state traditional title and also claimed their 10th duals crown, laying claim to being THE dynasty in north Georgia and possibly the entire state.

-- Franklin County girls golf: Led by a 5-under 66 from senior Jessica Welch, who finished low medalist, the Lady Lions roared to the team title.

-- Cody Barger, North Hall, 1,600 and 3,200 meters
-- Austin Eckenroth, Flowery Branch, pole vault
-- Kerry Mata, East Hall, 300 hurdles
-- Nick Fulks, East Jackson, discus
-- Erika Rucker, Flowery Branch, 800 and 400 meters
-- Mason Hamrick, Jefferson, pole vault

-- Travis Burton, Lumpkin County (215 pounds)
-- Cain Finch, Jefferson (145)
-- Chance McClure, Commerce (189)
-- Austin McDonald, Jackson County (215)
-- Caleb Morris, White County (130)
-- Chip Ness, Buford (152)
-- Forrest Przbysz, Jefferson (171)

2. The saga of GHSA reclassification

This is the story that never seemed to end, and, in fact, is still going. The Georgia High School Association is looking for the best way to classify its rapidly-expanding membership and keep most of them happy, as they balance travel and competition issues. It's a near impossible task, and one that will bring myriad changes to the landscape of high school sports starting with the 2012-13 school year. The GHSA voted during the year to move from the current five to a six-class system, shooting down a complicated 4/8-system in the process. The move means that a number of local rivalries that have developed over the past decade in north Georgia will now dissolve -- like North Hall vs. Gainesville. New ones will undoubtedly form, but it will take some time. And there could be some twists and turns en route -- like a possible breakaway league being formed by a number of smaller rural schools (33 are discussing leaving the GHSA to form their own association). The GHSA is now planning to discuss the possible division of public and private state champions in Class A when it meets on Jan. 10 in Macon -- the date the reclassification saga SHOULD officially come to a close. This story effects every high school sports player coach and fan in the state and is clearly No. 2.

3. Georgia football rebounds in style from losing record, slow start

Hands up as to who thought that the Bulldogs football team would make the SEC Championship game after following a 6-7 record in 2010 with an 0-2 start to 2011. OK, now we know you're lying. Certainly there are a few folks out there that never lost the faith, but we're willing to bet that even the majority of the 92,000 crammed into Sanford Stadium every Saturday had their doubts about the future of Georgia football -- and coach Mark Richt. Yet Richt and his charges defied those questions and put together the best winning streak of Richt's tenure in Athens. Georgia then teased fans with a stirring first-half display against heavily-favored LSU in the SEC title game. We won't discuss the second half. Just suffice to say that the Bulldogs have silenced a number of doubters (yes, us included) and have plenty of Bulldogs barking for the resumption of things in 2012. Few coaches ever regain control of a program when things look set to crumble. And that's why Richt's restoration after three straight underwhelming seasons is No. 3 on our list.

4. Area teams thrill in exciting marches through postseason

Just because you don't finish first doesn't mean you don't leave an indelible mark, and a number of area programs did so in 2011.

The area produced three runners-up in 2011 -- Buford boys basketball, Buford football and North Hall boys golf -- while Gainesville football, Habersham Central boys soccer and Franklin County boys basketball all made thrilling semifinal runs in the postseason.

There were some incredible moments for each of those teams during the playoffs, and -- with the exception of Buford football -- few of the above programs were supposed to make it quite so far into postseason play.

There's nothing like winning championships, but surprising everyone by knocking a off a No. 1 and ending the longest winning streak in the state -- like the Red Elephants football team did to Sandy Creek in order to reach the semifinals -- is plenty sweet in its own right and is why this is No. 4.

5. Braves collapse down the stretch

The first real sour note on the list, the Braves late summer swoon comes in at No. 5 simply because of its historic proportions. Atlanta held a 10 1/2-game lead on St. Louis in late August, and was still 8 1/2 games ahead in the first week of September. But, thanks to poor pitching and a non-existent offense, the stretch run went down as one of the worst ever and the Cardinals overtook the Braves en route to a World Series title. Atlanta posted a dismal 9-18 record in the final month capped by a five-game losing streak, ending with an excruciating 4-3 defeat to Philadelphia in 13 innings that sealed the postseason shutout. The Braves were certainly short-handed down the stretch as starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens (13-6) and Tommy Hanson (11-7), were sidelined by injuries. And the hitting totally shut down, averaging just over three runs a game the final month. It was a painful way for manager Fredi Gonzalez to end his first season in charge.

6. NFL lockout drags on but ends before games lost

Yes this was a national story too, but what local sports fan didn't worry about the prospective loss of NFL football for an entire season? And that's exactly the type of tough talk we were hearing from both sides at different points of what ended up being a 4 1/2-month lockout -- the longest work stoppage in league history. Thankfully, calmer (and smarter) heads prevailed, to prevent the loss of any real football. The lockout ended on July 25, meaning the first few games of the season were a little ugly (the lack of a real preseason dulled most teams' sharpness), but did we care? Did we heck. That's why this is No. 6.

7. Lee Shaw leaves Flowery Branch
After season
Shaw graduated from Rabun County High in 1985, coached White County football (1995-99) and was an assistant with the Wildcats before he accepted the job at Flowery Branch in 2002, where he built the Falcons into a perennial state playoff contender.

Shaw's record at the school is 79-41 -- 73-17 since 2005, including seven straight postseason berths and reaching the Class AAA championship game in 2008.

"Anytime you build something from scratch, it's hard to walk away from it. But I'm at a point in my life where I have a chance to go back home and be close to family and resurrect a program," said Shaw

8. Larry Munson passes away

Fans of opposing programs probably tired of the paeans thrown the way of the gravelly-voiced legend after the former Georgia play-by-play great passed away on Nov. 20 at age 89. But, be honest, if Munson had been in your corner, you would have loved him. In fact, plenty of opposing fans ended up doing so regardless of his affinity for all things red and black. For 43 years Munson was the voice of the Bulldogs -- it's fretting, pleading, cajoling and celebrating voice. He was they, saying things that just about every Georgia fan was screaming every Saturday afternoon but doing so with a flair that few could ever hope to match. His knack for a turn of phrase -- from "Sugar falling from the sky," to the odd "hobnailed boot" -- was the soundtrack that backed the Bulldog Nation.

9. Seth Vining nets 700th win
Tuesday, Jan 25,
"You strive to have competitive teams year-in, year-out; I think that's the ultimate mark of success, to have teams that compete for championships," said the Lakeview Academy boys basketball coach after Vining's Lions claimed the coach's 700th career win on Tuesday night in Gainesville, defeating Social Circle 67-45.
"I've been fortunate to have a lot of teams compete for titles," added Vining, who won four state titles with the boys and girls programs at East Hall (1979 and '80 with the girls and 2001 and '03 with the boys), along with numerous region and Lanierland crowns at both East Hall and Lakeview.

10. Manson Hill steps down after 23 seasons
Hill is stepping down as Gainesville girls coach with four state titles, 10 region titles and 15 state playoff appearances to his name -- not to mention two state titles in girls golf, six top four finishes and nine region titles.

Honorable Mention:

Atlanta Thrashers leave for Winnipeg
Atlanta has become the first city in the NHL's modern era to lose two hockey teams as the Thrashers' owners agreed Tuesday to sell the struggling franchise to a group that will move it to Winnipeg next season.

True North Sports and Entertainment announced the deal during a news conference at Winnipeg's MTS Centre, where the team will play.

Paul Hewitt fired
Georgia Tech has fired Paul Hewitt after his fourth losing season in the last six years.

Athletic director Dan Radakovich made the announcement Saturday and said that a national search for a replacement would begin immediately.

Radakovich says he and Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson "concur that this decision is in the best interest of Georgia Tech."

Hewitt had a 190-162 record in 11 seasons with the Yellow Jackets. However, Georgia Tech has had three losing seasons in the last four years.

Rory McIlroy falls apart at Master's; Charles Schwartzel wins
Schwartzel emerged from all this madness with a magical touch of his own. He became the first Masters champion in its 75-year history to finish with four straight birdies, giving him a 6-under 66 for the best final round by a winner in 22 years.
Rory McIlroy matched the greatest collapse in Masters history. Shot 80 in the final round might be remembered as much for the classy way he handled it all.

Still leading by one shot as he headed to the back nine, McIlroy hit a tee shot next to the cabins left of the 10th fairway and twice hit a tree to make triple bogey. He three-putted from 7 feet for bogey on the 11th, four-putted from about 12 feet on the next hole and buried his head into his forearm as the shock began to settle in.

McIlroy had the highest final round by a 54-hole leader since Ken Venturi in 1956. Not since Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie had someone lost at least a four-shot lead going into the last round of the major.

Woods closed with a 67, his best final round ever here. But he shot a 36 on the back nine, and that doesn't win the Masters, certainly not this one.
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