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2016 in review: A look back at the year in local sports

This past year has been an exciting one for local sports fans. 2016 has seen several high school athletes from Sumter County and the surrounding areas accomplish some pretty impressive things and, in many cases, set the stage for even greater things to come. At the same time, many of the community’s older, more experienced athletes have hit some pretty incredible milestones as well.
In the past 365 days, residents of Sumter and Schley counties have seen members of the community win state championships, earn college scholarships, participate in national sporting events, and return home from their successful athletic careers to encourage the next generation of local sportsmen and women.
The Americus Times-Recorder has been there to help keep the community informed of these accomplishments every step of the way.
Now, as we prepare to enter 2017, the Times-Recorder would like to share some of our favorite athletic moments from 2016.
The year 2016 started like any other, with Americus-Sumter High School (ASHS), Southland Academy, and Schley County High School (SCHS), Georgia Southwestern (GSW), and South Georgia Tech deep in the throes of their respective basketball seasons.
The ASHS Lady Panthers were clearly standing out from the pack by New Year’s Day 2016, having amassed an 11-1 record after suffering what would turn out to be their only loss of the season to a very strong team from Elizabethtown, Ky. The Lady Panthers would continue their domination of the courts throughout the state of Georgia for the next three months, eventually earning a spot in the state championship after defeating Spalding High School, Woodward Academy, Marist, and Buford in the playoffs. On March 3, the Lady Panthers hit the court at the Macon Coliseum for the state championship match-up against the Veterans High School Lady Warhawks. In the teams’ final showdown, ASHS point guard, A’tyanna Gaulden, helped lead the ASHS ladies to a 56-38 victory and a state title.
In the fall of 2016, Gaulden went on to attend Florida State University and join the Division One school’s Ladies basketball team. Her opposing point guard in the championship match, Kya Cochran, went on to sign a scholarship agreement with GSW and is currently playing basketball for the Lady Hurricanes.
That certainly wasn’t the only exciting news at the beginning of 2016 to come out of ASHS. In the days before the turn of the year, the ASHS gridiron team’s defensive tackle, Tyler Clark, had attracted the attention of several Division-One coaches with his performance in the Offense-Defense Diamonds in the Rough Bowl, in Daytona, Fl.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:   ASHS defensive tackle, Tyler Clark, prepares to sign on with the University of Georgia Bulldogs in this photo from the Feb. 6, 2016 edition of the Americus Times-Recorder. Seated with Clark are family members.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:
ASHS defensive tackle, Tyler Clark, prepares to sign on with the University of Georgia Bulldogs in this photo from the Feb. 6, 2016 edition of the Americus Times-Recorder. Seated with Clark are family members.

Just over a month later, Clark would join his teammate, Mekall Yancie, in signing national letters of intent to continue their gridiron careers at the collegiate level. Clark signed on with the University of Georgia Bulldogs while Yancie agreed to play for Arkansas Tech.
Meanwhile, at Southland, senior defensive end, Parker Weldon, was preparing to take his gridiron career to the next level as well. On Feb. 8, Weldon signed his national letter intent to attend Columbia University and play football for the Lions.

SUBMITTED BY SOUTHLAND ACADEMY:   Shown above, in a pfoto from the Feb. 13 edition of the Times-Recorder, Southland defensive end, Taylor Weldon, prepares to sign a national letter of intent to play football at Columbia University as his family members and Raider head coach, Rod Murray (at right) look on.

SUBMITTED BY SOUTHLAND ACADEMY:
Shown above, in a pfoto from the Feb. 13 edition of the Times-Recorder, Southland defensive end, Taylor Weldon, prepares to sign a national letter of intent to play football at Columbia University as his family members and Raider head coach, Rod Murray (at right) look on.

The following week, the Schley County Wildcats’ baseball team celebrated the decisions of three baseball team members, each of whom had helped propel the team to a state championship win the previous year, to continue playing on the diamond after graduation. In a ceremony at SCHS, student-athletes, Brett Usry and Blake Howell, signed on with Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College alongside Michael Leeder, who agreed to play baseball for Emory University in the 2016-17 season. In their final season with the Wildcats in spring of 2016, Usry, Howell, and Leeder (who ended up pitching a no-hitter later in his senior season) helped push the Schley team into the third round of the state playoffs, where their dreams of a repeat championship win were brought to a halt after amassing an impressive 26-4 record.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:   This photo, from the Feb. 24, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder, shows Schley County baseball players, (seated, from left) Brett Usry, Michael Leeder, and Blake Howell, moments before signing national letters of intent to continue their baseball careers on the collegiate level in front of members of the Wildcats’ coaching staff.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:
This photo, from the Feb. 24, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder, shows Schley County baseball players, (seated, from left) Brett Usry, Michael Leeder, and Blake Howell, moments before signing national letters of intent to continue their baseball careers on the collegiate level in front of members of the Wildcats’ coaching staff.

Late in February, ASHS was treated to a very special visit from a trio of local icons. Former Super Bowl participants and Americus natives, Dan Reeves, Kent Hill, and Leonard Pope traveled to their old stomping grounds to address the current students of their Alma Mater as part of the NFL’s High School Honor Roll initiative. The three former Panthers discussed the importance of hard work and determination to overcome adversity with the students before presenting the school with three golden footballs, commemorating the school’s contributions to NFL Super Bowl history.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:   In this photo, from the Feb. 20, 2016 edition of the Tiimes-Recorder, former NFL players (holding footballs from left) Dan Reeves, Kent Hill, and Leonard Pope, are shown with members of the Sumter County School System staff after presenting the awards to the school for its role in producing three Super Bowl participants.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:
In this photo, from the Feb. 20, 2016 edition of the Tiimes-Recorder, former NFL players (holding footballs from left) Dan Reeves, Kent Hill, and Leonard Pope, are shown with members of the Sumter County School System staff after presenting the awards to the school for its role in producing three Super Bowl participants.

ASHS saw even more excitement two weeks later, when students gathered to congratulate Panther offensive lineman, Ben Walters, as he signed a national letter of intent to play football with the University of West Georgia Wolves following graduation.
A pair of Southland athletes soon saw their opportunity to make their mark on the local area’s history of sporting excellence. Southland seniors, Amber Jones and Emily Brown both signed on with Point University, in West Point, Ga., accepting scholarships for soccer and cheerleading, respectively.
In April, ASHS offensive lineman, Donald McCook, joined his teammates in agreeing to continue to put his gridiron training to good use after graduation when he signed a letter of intent to play for the Middle Georgia State University Knights in the fall.
The Southland track team, meanwhile, had 19 athletes participate in the state track and field meet in which distance runner, Wright Calhoun, earned runner-up honors in the 1600-meter race.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:   In this photo, from the April 9, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder shows Southland pole vaulter, Brody Shattles, taking a powerful leap over the bar during the GISA Region 3-IAAA meet in Albany. Southland went on to send 19 track and field athletes to the state meet several weeks later.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:
In this photo, from the April 9, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder shows Southland pole vaulter, Brody Shattles, taking a powerful leap over the bar during the GISA Region 3-IAAA meet in Albany. Southland went on to send 19 track and field athletes to the state meet several weeks later.

At South Georgia Technical College (SGTC), athletic director and Lady Jets head coach, James Frey, earned the 100th win of his career in February. The Lady Jets would go on to earn a 27-6 overall record on the season under Frey’s tutelage.
Early in the year, the Sumter County Middle School Panthers and Lady Panthers proved that the future looks bright for local basketball fans as they swept the Deep South Conference championships. On the other side of town, Southland Academy’s C-team basketball squad showed their future potential by earning their own region crown.
Southland’s wrestling team was on a roll as well, earning runner-up honors at the state tournament in Americus in February. Southland’s Cole Landreth led the pack with a first-place finish in the tourney, cinching the state title.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:   In this photo from the Feb. 10 edition of the Times-Recorder, Southland Academy’s Cole Landreth grapples with an opponent at the state wrestling meet held at the GSW Storm Dome in Americus. Landreth went on to win the state title in the 106-pound division at the tournament.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:
In this photo from the Feb. 10 edition of the Times-Recorder, Southland Academy’s Cole Landreth grapples with an opponent at the state wrestling meet held at the GSW Storm Dome in Americus. Landreth went on to win the state title in the 106-pound division at the tournament.

Towards the end of the 2015-16 school year, SCHS hit another benchmark when both the school’s men’s and women’s golf teams earned second-place honors at the state tournament.
High school and college students certainly weren’t the only local athletes making waves this year.
In May, local distance runner, Charlene Pennymon, spoke with the Times-Recorder about her fourth appearance in the prestigious Boston Marathon. Pennymon stated that she finished the race in 305th place among the 1,254 racers in her division.
In June, Americus native, Cathy Chambliss Saylor, sat down with the Times-Recorder to discuss her impressive 2016 milestone; having completed a marathon in each of the 50 states. Saylor, who began her quest to accomplish this task 18 years ago, had recently logged the final leg of her journey in the New Hampshire Marathon.
In May, 94 local altruists gathered in Americus to participate in the second annual Caleb’s Cause 5K and Fun run, raising over $7,000 to benefit the Scott Rigsby foundation. The money will be used to help individuals all over Georgia with medical expenses incurred from a variety of devastating ailments.
A short while later, many of these same charitable athletes put their running shoes back on and hit the streets for the fourth Annual Home Run 10k, 5k, and one-mile Fun Run to benefit the Methodist Home for Children and Youth in Americus. This event raised over $10,000 for the local cause.
More recently, in October, SGTC’s Sparky Reeves Golf Classic tournament saw over thirty teams converge on the Griffin Bell Golf Links in Americus to help raise money for the SGTC Jets Booster Club.
Sumter Cycling was very busy this year as well. Throughout 2016, the local cycling advocacy group took part in a number of projects, including the annual “Find Your Park” century ride in conjunction with the National Park Service and the River Valley Regional Commission; the annual “Prison to Peanuts Bicycling Adventure”; the annual “Tour de Farm”; and the adoption of the town’s “Complete Streets” policy, including a local bike ride with Americus mayor, Barry Blount.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:   In this photo, from the May 28, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder, Americus mayor, Barry Blount (center) is seen taking a bike ride with members of Sumter Cycling and other local residents after declaring Americus a “complete streets” town.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:
In this photo, from the May 28, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder, Americus mayor, Barry Blount (center) is seen taking a bike ride with members of Sumter Cycling and other local residents after declaring Americus a “complete streets” town.

Back on the gridiron this fall, the ASHS Panthers were devastated by the tragic loss of teammate, Jamorrian Johnson. The team kept their spirit alive in spite of their mourning, and made their way into the first round of the state playoffs.
Back in Ellaville, the Schley County Wildcats’ football team saw a resurgence this fall under the guidance of new head coach, Darren Alford. Though the Wildcats still had a bumpy season, the team made great strides towards building a team that will likely become a fierce competitor in Region 4A in the future.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:   Schley County head football coach, Darren Alford (center), addresses his team in this photo from the Oct. 26, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder.

MICHAEL MURRAY I ATR:
Schley County head football coach, Darren Alford (center), addresses his team in this photo from the Oct. 26, 2016 edition of the Times-Recorder.

On the basketball court, the Wildcats have made some improvements this year as well. The Schley boys’ team won their first four contests of the season before taking their first defeat of 2016 at the hands of the Central (Talbotton) Hawks. The Wildcats have continued to improve past their 2015-16 record and are enjoying a 6-3 record as of this writing. The Wildcats participated in two tournament games before the end of the year. The results of these contests were not available at press time.
To cap off the year, the ASHS Panthers and Lady Panthers basketball teams were invited to Philips Arena in Atlanta to take on Tift County’s Class AAAAAAA basketball teams. The Lady Panthers kicked off the action with a 51-40 rout of the Lady Blue Devils before the Panthers took the court to test their skills on the stage shared with the Atlanta Hawks and dozens of other professional basketball teams. Unfortunately for the local fans, the Panthers were overcome by their much-larger team of opponents and suffered their second defeat of the season (71-55) to the Blue Devils. Both teams returned to the court the following day for the Discovery High tournament. The Lady Panthers opened the action with another win, a 53-16 thrashing of   Meadowcreek High School, of Norcross. The Panthers then took on Northview High School, of Johns Creek, taking a narrow 66-61 loss in the tilt.
Playoff hopes for both teams are still very much alive, however, as the Panthers and Lady Panthers will each enter the new year with 10-3 and 11-2 overall records, respectively.
All told, it’s been a very productive year for local sportsmen and women. It certainly looks like 2017 will shape up to be an exciting year as well.