Local high school sports ended for the summer last week, and it was a year unlike any other Baldwin County has seen. There have been state championships interspersed throughout this county’s history, but never before in such a concentrated effort with all schools pitching in.
I hope you like numbers, because here comes the proof.
Six athletic state championships were won among our three local schools in the 2020-21 year. That’s never happened before. Three of those titles were won in undefeated fashion as John Milledge football, Baldwin boys basketball and GMC Prep rifle completed perfect seasons on the way to their trophies. Two programs accomplished repeats as JMA football completely plowed over its competition for a second straight year while GMC Prep boys soccer was able to cement back-to-back status after COVID shoved them off the field in 2020. This was also a year of firsts. GMC rifle as well as JMA boys basketball and track won it all for the first time ever.
So what brought us here? Nothing short of the perfect storm. You need coaches who care, not just about getting a paycheck but about showing young men and women how to play the game the right way. I cannot say enough about the coaches we have here in these schools. They care about their kids both on and off the field. (And almost all of them pick up the phone the first time I call.)
You need student-athletes who are willing to accept the direction their coaches give them, and you need players that are athletically gifted. I’m not going to get into a philosophical debate about which is more important — good coaches or good players — because you need both. A good general is nothing if his soldiers are undisciplined, and great soldiers under bad leadership can be overwhelmed by a smart battle strategy. Good coaches with bad teams or a talented team with bad coaching — I've seen all the scenarios play out. Having only one ingredient is going to make that final dish a flop.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem locally. I’ll use GMC Prep boys soccer as an example. The Bulldogs lost to ACE twice during the regular season, and neither game was particularly close. As fate would have it, the two teams matched up a third time with the state title on the line. The ‘Dogs could have played the state championship game with the same strategy as those first two meetings and been embarrassed on high school soccer’s biggest stage. Instead, adjustments were made by chief strategist/coach Bobby Jaworski, and the players took those changes to heart on their way to what really should have been a third consecutive state championship.
What about the Baldwin boys basketball team? All too often in these last five years I’ve seen promising seasons ended when one of our local squads runs into an Atlanta area school in the state playoffs. The Braves weren’t going to let that happen though. They beat Miller Grove (DeKalb County) in the Elite Eight, knocked out McDonough in the Final Four then bested Fayette County in the final seconds for the state title. Head coach Anthony Webb believed his guys when they said they could take the man who was guarding them. He called players’ numbers in clutch situations when they had been off the mark all game long, and what did the Braves end up with? Just the program’s first state championship in 40 years.
John Milledge boys basketball was another incredible example of what belief and trust between players and coaches can do for a team. Many had counted the Trojans out when they advanced to the GISA AAA state championship game against Creekside Christian. But to quote JMA Class of 2021 graduate and basketball post player Patrick McDonel: “There wasn’t anybody in that gym who knew we could do it other than the 10 people on our bench. We knew deep down in our hearts that we had it.” The culture instilled in that program by head coach David Gallagher will keep it successful as long as he’s here.
And I don’t know what else I can say about John Milledge’s 2020 football team other than it was the most dominant in school — and likely even GISA — history. The Trojans on their way to a third state championship in the last five years won their 11 games by an average margin of victory of 40 points. Head coach JT Wall has created a monster that cannot be ignored no matter what league you play in.
The 2020-21 academic year was all sorts of fun for your local sports editor. Now that we’re here, let’s never leave. The view from the top is pretty nice.