Sunday October 1st, 2023 7:02AM

A look back at 2019 reveals some pretty cool stories, shocking moments and a Cinderella Story

By Bo Wilson & Jeff Hart

How do you rank the stories of 2019?

It's not an easy task, so we decided to build the 2019 All-Access Storyboard. We began with the Cinderella Story of 2019, then filled out our team with MVPs, first-teamers and second-teamers.

We also included those stories that didn't exactly meet the criteria to be on the first or second teams but worthy of an honorable mention. But the team wouldn't be complete without finding the biggest shock moments in 2019, and there are several of those. 


The Union County boys soccer team makes the Class 2A title game ... 

Trying to find a true Cinderella story in 2019 was a tough task. The Buford girls basketball and Buford football teams both had a good argument as your classic ‘Cinderella Story.’ But what is the definition of a Cinderella Story? In the dictionary, it’s “one suddenly lifted from obscurity to honor or significance.” 

So our search continued past Buford, and what we found was a boys soccer team that calls Blairsville home. 

The Union County Panthers epitomize the traditional Cinderella Story. They were sitting at 3-4 overall, 1-2 in Region 8-2A play and battling injuries early in the season. Two months later, the Panthers had reeled off 10 straight wins and made the Class 2A playoffs as the No. 4 seed. 

But the No. 4 seed, oftentimes, is the kiss of death in the playoffs -- not the case for this determined Panther team. Along the way to the program’s first-ever title game appearance, the Panthers knocked off three top-10 teams to make the championship in Macon. Unfortunately, they didn’t capture the Class 2A title but the trip along the way is what makes the Union County boys soccer team this year’s AccessWDUN Sports Cinderella Story. 


The Buford girls basketball winning state with a new starting lineup ...

The Lady Wolves proved that “team” trumps superstars in capturing their fourth title in five seasons. Buford knocked off unbeaten Villa Rica 67-59 to win the Class 5A state title.

Ten different Lady Wolves scored, 10 had at least one rebound, seven had at least one steal, they took 13 more shots, forced 29 turnovers, and outrebounded a high-powered and taller Lady Wildcats squad 38-34 for the game. Just another typical effort from coach Gene Durden and his group, which has established themselves among the elite programs in Georgia.

The Buford football team wins first title since 2014 under first-year head coach Bryant Appling ...

Winning is in the blood of Buford athletics. It’s expected and when the Wolves didn’t make past the quarterfinals in 2018, the program called on one of its own to lead the way. Bryant Appling, a 15-year Buford assistant under coaching legends Dexter Wood and Jess Simpson, was hired to replace John Ford and reestablish the “Buford Way” … and he did just that.

The five-week playoff run -- the final four weeks on the road -- the Wolves traveled in the Class 5A playoffs was nothing but incredible. The Wolves logged almost 1,000 miles and took down No. 1’s Ware County, Carrollton, Jones County and Warner Robins on their way to the Class 5A title -- their first since 2014. And what made all of this even more remarkable was Appling’s gutsy calls in the playoffs that all paid off.  

Jefferson upsets North Hall to win Class 3A wrestling duals ...

It had been rare, if ever when the Dragons came into a match as an underdog. And why not. They had won 17 straight state Duals Titles and 18 straight state Traditional titles since the 2000 season.

But this time a favored North Hall squad, which had beaten Jefferson earlier in the season, seemed more than poised to become the first Dragons-slayer when it mattered most.

Instead, Jefferson showed why no one has been able to knock them off the top of the mountain, at least yet, in the Duals. The Dragons trailed early but won four of the final five matches, including the last one at 170-pounds with a major fall win by senior Ryan Hurd, to rally for a nail-biting 30-29 victory to capture their 18th straight Duals state title.


Tiger Woods rallies to win the Masters Tournament ...

Some had said he was finished and would never win again. In true Tiger fashion, he proved them all wrong -- again.

In an emotional finish, the 43-year-old Woods, for the first time in all of his 14 major wins, came from behind to win the 83rd Masters Tournament by just one shot and pass Arnold Palmer with his fifth green jacket. Woods entered the final round on Sunday two shots behind Italy’s Francesco Molinari. 

The Union County football team gets first-ever playoff win ...

The Panthers had been as consistent a winner as any program in northeast Georgia coming into the 2019 season with seven consecutive winning seasons and 53 wins in that span. However, they also had never won a playoff game in their history sitting at 0-6 all-time. That all changed with a come-from-behind 19-15 win over South Atlanta on a cold night in Blairsville. Longtime Union coach Brian Allison said it would be an “epic” celebration when it finally happened. We’re sure it was.

The Cherokee Bluff football team gets first-ever win ... 

The Bears were 0-10 heading into the program’s second season in 2019. A win would have gone a long way in reaffirming the building process was working. The Bears had a breakout game against Johnson on Sept. 6, earning their first win, 37-7. And three weeks later, they laced together back-to-back Region 7-3A wins over Lumpkin and East Hall. In all things, a new program has to start somewhere and the foundation laid in 2019 should be the strength of the Bears’ 2020 campaign. 

Doug Thurmond steps down as Jefferson wrestling coach ...

The long-time Jefferson wrestling coach stepped down at the end of the 2019 season after guiding the Dragons to 36 state titles in his 19 years running the powerhouse program. The Dragons, still, have won every Duals state title spanning four classifications -- 18 straight and counting -- since its creation in 2002. They had won 18 consecutive Traditionals titles going back to the 2001 season until Sonoraville ended that streak in 2019.

“I had been thinking about this for the last couple of years,” Thurmond said at the time. “We have tremendous coaches here and it was time for one of them to start their record and have their turn.”

Good luck following a legend.


The Johnson football team captures first region win in 15 years ...

The Knights had struggled for 15 years to get a region win, but they entered the 2019 season with renewed spirit under new head coach Stan Luttrell. Luttrell’s injection of faith and belief in the program erased that stat on Oct. 11 at The Dungeon in Oakwood. It took four overtimes, but the Knights beat Walnut Grove to win their first region game in 15 seasons.  

Gainesville boys hoops into quarters with a new coach and a revamped roster ...

Gone were guys like KJ Buffen, Bailey Minor, and the Rosser twins, not to mention first-time head coach Chuck Graham taking over for a team that had lost in the Class 6A championship game the previous season. Uncertainty surrounded the area’s flagship program.

But Graham and the Red Elephants, behind new stars like Rafael Rubel, Brent Kelly, and Julio Santana, didn’t miss much of a beat. They rolled into the quarterfinals, including knocking off state playoff nemesis Langston Hughes in the first round, before falling in a thriller on the road to eventual state runner-up Tucker.

Brian Shirley steps down as boys soccer coach at Johnson ...

Shirley built the Knights into one of the state’s biggest powerhouses. They won the 2018 Class 5A state title and finished as runners-up two others times (2014 and 2016 in 4A) and made the quarterfinals or better six times in a seven-year span under his watch.

He stepped down just before the start of the 2019-20 season for personal reasons but leaves the program in great shape after advancing to the 2019 semifinals in what he described as “a rebuilding year.”

Dawson County boys basketball make first-ever semifinals and beat GAC for the region title ...

Thanks to a solid group of transfers in 2018, the Tigers went from rebuilding to reloading the roster in less than two months. Coach Chad Pittman was a happy man, saying several times throughout the season that God had blessed me. The talent made the Tigers an instant contender in Class 3A and when the season was over, the Tigers turned in an unprecedented season that included an impressive upset win over No. 1-ranked GAC in the Region 7-3A title game and the program’s first-ever trip to the state basketball semifinals.

Gainesville boys soccer team makes the Class 6A title game ...

The Red Elephants had been highly-ranked most of the season and were rolling after winning a tough Region 8-6A that swept into the second round of the playoffs. They were flying even higher after notching a thrilling PK win over Cambridge in the Class 6A semifinals. It was their second trip to the Class 6A championship match in three seasons. But injuries to four key players against Cambridge doomed them from the start as they fell to national-powerhouse Dalton, 4-1, in the finals.


Braves win second straight National League East Division title ...

While the Braves did watch fellow National League East foe Washington Nationals win the World Series, they defied many pundits, who picked them to finish as low as fourth in the East coming into the season, by winning their second straight division title. A high-powered offense was the catalyst most of the season but injuries down the stretch to the lineup and a disastrous inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs derailed what many fans thought was a possible World Series contender.

The University of Georgia football team wins three straight division titles ... 

When the Bulldogs clinched the SEC East in November, they became the only team in the SEC to win three straight division titles.

The Habersham Central baseball team turns in a season-best performance...

It was a meteoric rise for the Raiders, who recorded their best-ever season in 2019 and advanced to their first playoffs since 2006. They fell in the first round in Class 6A in a pair of tight games to South Paulding but showed they may be ready to put a consistent winner on the diamond behind long-time coach Chris Akridge. 

The Flowery Branch girls soccer team advanced to the Class 4A title game ... 

The third time was the charm for the Lady Falcons in 2019, who advanced to their first-ever state championship match after losing the two previous seasons in the semifinals. They didn’t finish the way they wanted with a 6-0 loss to powerhouse St. Pius in the Class 4A finals but coach Anel Lilic has put them on the map as annual contenders.

The North Hall girls golf team has its best season ever ... 

The Lady Trojans capped their best-ever season with a second-place finish behind Pierce County in the Class 3A state tournament. They finished just three shots back after a Day 2 rally and sophomore Mikayla Dubnik took second in the individual meet.

Matthew Gruhn steps down as football coach at Lakeview Academy ...

The coach that helped start Lakeview football, stepped down in December. Gruhn was the only coach to lead the Lions in its 13-year history. 

The cool thing about sports is the shocking moments and thrilling endings. The 2019 season served up plenty of shocking and thrilling moments right down to the end of the year. We have compiled our top shocking moments of 2019. 

Lakeview, a huge underdog, beats Riverside in football

The Lions were 0-5 at the time and had lost six straight and 20 of their last 21 overall going back to the start of the 2017 season. The Eagles had won 4 of their last 5 and were expected to be in the middle of a second consecutive playoff chase. The Lions stunned RMA, 21-20, with a blocked field goal at the end, starting the Eagles on a three-game losing streak which eventually cost them a playoff spot.

Buford converts 2-point try to beat Class 7A Archer 29-28 in overtime ...

The Wolves already had beaten defending Class 7A champion Milton earlier in the season. But this would turn out to be a signature win. Treyton Rank hauled in a Jarvis Evans 2-point conversion pass in the first overtime for the game-winner. That came after the Wolves converted two 4th-and-1 plays, including just moments before from the 1 when Elijah Turner slammed through a Tigers defensive wall to set up the game-winning play.

Dawson County boys beat GAC to win Region 7-3A title in basketball ...

You could say the No. 3-ranked Tigers were the favorites to knock off No. 1-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian in the 2019 Region 7-3A tournament, but no one expected how it would go. After star player Luke Chism went out of the game in foul trouble, junior guard Jasper Gibson took charge, turning in a 39-point performance -- 18 from the 3-point line -- to lift the Tigers to their first region title since 2012. 

Flowery Branch losing to Blessed Trinity in overtime, again ... 

It’s no secret that Blessed Trinity has been a pain in the backside for the Flowery Branch Falcons for the past two seasons. Two games, two losses, both in overtime for the Falcons. The 2019 version was much like 2018, but in this one, the Falcons faced a decision to either kick the go-ahead field goal in regulation or take their chances on converting the 4th-and-inches situation. BT stopped the Falcons shy of a first down on the next play, sending the game to overtime, again. In overtime, the Falcons booted a field goal to go ahead, 17-14, but BT scored a touchdown two plays into their OT possession to beat the Falcons. BT went on to win the Class 4A title. 

No. 4 seed Lakeview baseball loses in the second round biggest upset in Class A Private playoffs

The Lions had already beaten fellow Region 8-A foe Hebron 7-3 during the regular season. They came in as one of the overall top seeds in the Class A Private playoffs and had received a first-round bye. But Lakeview’s first playoff appearance in a decade did not go as planned as Hebron swept them out in two games at home, 8-6 and 7-5, in the biggest playoff upset in the classification.

North Hall beats Appling to get to semifinals

On the other end of the baseball spectrum was the Trojans, who despite a near-full rebuild coming into the season, managed a second-place finish in a tough Region 7-3A. However, they were virtual underdogs coming into the playoffs but took down Coahulla Creek and Westminster before dispatching Region 1-3A champion Appling County in an impressive two-game sweep on the road to advance to the semifinals. But they were eventually swept out in the semifinals by state runner-up Pace Academy.

Atlanta United getting stunned at home in MLS semifinals

The Five Stripes, after a coaching change and a slow start to begin the year, got rolling down the stretch and secured a semifinal home game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they had never lost in the playoffs. But they dropped a 2-1 shocker against Toronto in a wild game they led 1-0 early and where Josef Martinez missed a PK that would have given them a two-goal lead.

South Carolina stuns Georgia at home 

If you can imagine how bad it might hurt to have salt poured into a wound, that’s how bad it felt watching the Georgia vs. South Carolina game on Oct. 12, 2019. The Bulldogs turned the ball over four times. This game was ugly from both sides and, still, the Gamecocks gave the Bulldogs every opportunity to win it, down to the last missed field goal in overtime. There are several more words that we could string together about this game, but let’s just say it was bad, really bad. The end. 

Braves give up a record-setting first inning in Game 5 loss to Cardinals 

Atlanta sports teams know how to set records, just not the ones fans are proud of. That’s exactly what the Braves did on Oct. 9. The MLB postseason record 10 runs scored by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning of Game 5 of NLDS set cellphone alert tones on fire. And when the Cardinals scored their 10th run in the opening inning, those tones quickly turned from sighs to sobbing, to just plain old angry alerts. But if you’re an Atlanta sports fan, you’ve become accustomed to the implosions. On this day, the implosion -- a 13-1 loss in the elimination game -- dashed the hopes of an extremely hungry Atlanta Braves fanbase. It hurt, even more, when the Washington Nationals won the World Series -- a team the Braves dominated in the regular season. Sorry, not sorry.

Seth Vining returned to coach the Vikings, then resigned in December. 

It sounded good at the time. Seth Vining, the coach that guided the East Hall Vikings basketball team to seven semifinal appearances, twice finished as state runners-up, and won the 2001 Class 2A and the 2003 Class 3A state titles and 11 Lanierland titles from 1990 to 2004, jumped out of retirement to take the reins of the program for a second time. It sent shock waves through the area in March. But in a shocking turn of events on Friday, Dec. 27th, minutes after the Vikings lost to West Hall in overtime in the 60th Lanierland Tournament, Vining hung his whistle up for good, leaving a program with almost as much, if not more, fanfare as when he came back in March. 


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