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The Year in Review: Local area sports teams experience year like no other

AMERICUS – For many high school and college student-athletes in Sumter and Schley County, 2020 will be a year they will never forget, but one that most of them will want to forget. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the local sports world totally upside down and destroyed the dreams that many of our area’s high school student-athletes had of competing for a state championship, or just playing sports for the love of it. Those who were supposed to shine on the baseball diamond, the track and the soccer pitch were especially hit hard, as all of those high school sports, which are played in the spring, were cancelled due to the pandemic.

Fortunately, in spite of the disappointment and loss the pandemic caused, there were teams and individuals who were able to accomplish great things in 2020.

In this sports year in review, we will look at and highlight those accomplishments, as they were achieved under the toughest of circumstances.

 

The Americus-Sumter girls’ basketball team wins the 2020 Class AAAA State Championship

 In 2018, the Americus-Sumter Lady Panthers made it all the way to the GHSA Class AAAA Final Four and they did it with just seven players. However, two years later, some of the members of that team, such as Brianna Pope, Devine White and DeAsia Ford, would grow up to be senior leaders. Those leaders, along with the addition of transfer seniors Jelissa Reese and Trinity Jones, would lead the Lady Panthers to their first state championship since 2015. The Lady Panthers (29-2) defeated Burke County, Marist and Spalding in the first three rounds of the state playoffs before defeating Luella 56-51 in overtime in the semifinals. In their state championship game against Troup County at the Macon Centerplex, the Lady Panthers, led by the high soring of Reese (21 points) and Jones (19 points) defeated Troup County 66-52 to win the state title. Ironically, this took place on Friday, March 6, 2020. Just eight days later, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp would issue his first executive order concerning what was then called the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. On that day, Governor Kemp declared a Public Health State of Emergency throughout Georgia.  Two days later on March 16, 2020, the governor issued an executive order closing all public elementary, middle and high schools from March 18 to March 31.

Americus-Sumter guard Tiffani Goodman scored six points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out two assists to help the Lady Panthers defeat Troup County to win the 2020 GHSA Class AAAA State Title.
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Then on April 2, 2020, the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) decided to cancel all spring sports for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. The Lady Panthers were able to win their state title just in time, as other high school and college tournaments around the country were being canceled. The biggest basketball tournaments to be canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 were the NCAA Division 1 men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, known more commonly as March Madness. Fortunately for the Lady Panthers, they were able to complete their magical season just before things hit the fan.

 

Americus-Sumter boys’ basketball team finishes fantastic season at 29-1

The Americus-Sumter High School boys’ basketball team was on its way to doing something unprecedented for any Sumter County high school team in 2020. Winning a state title in basketball would not have been unprecedented for a team from Sumter Counthy, but doing it with an undefeated record would have been.

Having lost the GHSA Class AAAA State Championship Game to Carver-Columbus the year before, the Panthers came back for the 2019-2020 season poised and ready to make another run for the state title. Even though they had lost nine seniors, including most notably Joshua Lusane, David Sumlin, Sam Crumbley and Jakobe McCuller, ASHS had a strong corps of returning players that had the talent to push the Panthers a long way. While there was enough returning talent for ASHS to make a run for a state championship, no one could have thought that they would stay undefeated for as long as they did.

Americus-Sumter senior shooting guard Trae Brown (#4) scored eight points in the Panthers’ 73-70 double-overtime loss at St. Pius X in the quarterfinals of the 2020 GHSA Class AAAA State Tournament.
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While they were able to dominate several teams on the scoreboard, the Panthers won eight games by five points or less, including a 62-59 overtime victory over Blessed Trinity in the second round of the state playoffs. Unfortunately for ASHS, their run towards a state championship and a perfect record fell short in Atlanta on February 25, 2020. The Panthers lost to the Lions of St. Pius X 73-70 in a double overtime thriller in the state quarterfinals. It was their only loss of the season, but sadly, it would also be their final loss.

Despite that heartbreaking loss to end the season, the 2019-2020 ASHS Panthers (29-1) finished the 2019-2020 season with one of the best records of any high school basketball team in Sumter County history. Only the 2015-2016 Americus-Sumter Lady Panthers had a better record (31-1) and that team won a state title.

 

Southland’s Chase Ledger breaks 49-year-old school record

 The COVID-19 pandemic, like it has everything else, wreaked havoc on football summer workouts in Georgia. There was even consideration to postpone football till the spring of 2021, like some other states have done. Fortunately, high school football in Georgia was able to be played this fall and while the 2020 Southland Academy Raiders missed out on making the GISA Class AAA State Playoffs, one of the members of that team accomplished something that had not been done in nearly 50 years.

Southland Academy sophomore Chase Ledger (left) broke a school record that has lasted for almost 50 years. On Friday, November 6, 2020, Ledger punted the ball 75 yards against Valwood, breaking the SAR school record for the longest punt in a game. The record was previously held by former SAR punter Donnie Price (right), who set the record when he punted the ball 70 yards against Terrell Academy in 1971. SAR Head Coach Rod Murray is standing in between Ledger and Price.
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Sophomore Chase Ledger, who among other things, served as the Raiders’ punter, broke a school record that has stood since 1971. On Friday, November 6, 2020, the Raiders were taking on Valwood at Harvey-Simpson Stadium. During that game, Ledger boomed a punt that sailed 75 yards, which was a new school record. The previous record was held by former Southland punter Donnie Price, who sent a punt 70 yards against Terrell Academy back in 1971.

The Raiders fell to Valwood 22-20 that night, but that game will always be remembered for Ledger’s record-setting punt. It may be another 50 years before that record is broken. Then again, it may never be broken at all.

 

 Schley County Defensive End Zykevious Walker signs with Auburn

 Perhaps no other high school athlete to come out of this area has garnered as much national attention as current Auburn Defensive End and former Schley County standout Zykevious Walker. On the morning of December 18, 2020, this four-star 6’4, 267-lb. phenom from Ellaville signed his Letter of Intent to play for the Tigers.

Former Schley County Defensive End and current Auburn Defensive End Zykevious Walker is seen here sacking Arkansas Quarterback Filipe Franks. Walker signed a Letter of Intent on December 16, 2020.
Photo by Auburn University Athletics

Walker, who was ranked as the nation’s seventh best high school defensive end in the country by 247sports.com, had his pick of the litter when it came to top-notch programs to choose from, but he decided to take his talents to the Plains. According to Walker, Auburn was the best fit for him and his family.

So far, the marriage appears to be working out. During his freshman season, Walker played in all of the Tigers’ nine SEC games and tallied a total of 11 tackles, with seven of them being solo. He also had one sack, which took place against Arkansas on October 10, 2020.

 

Pope and Jones continue their basketball careers and camaraderie at Clark Atlanta University

 Americus-Sumter High School (ASHS) girls’ basketball standouts Brianna Pope and Trinity Jones were two key contributors who helped lead the Lady Panthers to the 2020 GHSA Class AAAA State Championship on March 6, 2020. Two months later on Friday, May 15, the two players each signed Letters of Intent to take their basketball skills and camaraderie with each other to Atlanta to play for the Lady Panthers of Clark Atlanta University.

“First of all, I want to thank God because without Him, none of this would have been possible,” Jones told the crowd assembled that day. “I would like to thank my teammates, my family members for pushing me to be great and to never settle for less.”

Americus-Sumter senior forward Brianna Pope (left) and her teammate, senior point guard Trinity Jones (right) signed their letters of intent to continue their education and play basketball at Clark Atlanta University on May 18, 2020.
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Jones, who transferred to ASHS from Fitzgerald High School, averaged 15.2 points per game, four rebounds per game, 4.5 assists per game and three steals per game during her senior year playing for the Lady Panthers.

As for Pope, she spent all four of her high school years in the blue, white and gold and has been part of Head Coach Sherri Harris’s summer program since she was in sixth grade. During her senior year at ASHS, Pope Averaged 5.9 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game.

“First of all, I just want to thank God because without Him, this wouldn’t be possible,” Pope told the crowd on the day of her signing. “It’s been a long process so I want to thank my mom and my brother for being with me throughout the whole process.”

 

 Southland Academy football star Clay Owens signs with Charleston Southern University

 On Wednesday, February 5, 2020, one of the best football players to ever come out of Southland Academy (SAR) signed a Letter of Intent to continue his education and play football at Charleston Southern University (CSU).

Running Back Clay Owens had a tremendous career for the Raiders. During his senior year in 2019, Owens broke three SAR school records. He broke the record for most rushing yards in a career (5,035), most touchdowns in a career (68) and most yards in total offense (6,121).

On February 5, 2020, Southland Academy running back Clay Owens signs his National Letter of Intent to continue his education and play football at Charleston Southern University.
Seated left to right are April Owens (Mother), Clay Owens, Joel Owens (Father).
Standing left to right are Bob Massey (Grandfather), Paula Massey (Grandmother), Gayle Henningfield (Grandmother), Edd Berkoben (Step Grandfather), Wanda Owens (Grandmother), Joe Owens (Grandfather), Brent Owens (Uncle).
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Owens originally enrolled at CSU and was taking part in pre-season workouts with the Buccaneers. However, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, CSU, along with all other schools who compete in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) of NCAA College Football, decided to postpone its fall season and play in the spring of 2021.

As a result of this decision, among other factors, Owens has decided to forego college football and came back to Americus to attend Georgia Southwestern State University.

Though his football career may be over, Owens worked extremely hard over the past four years to get himself to the point of signing a college scholarship.

 

Schley County and Furlow Charter XC teams finish Strong at 2020 state meet

Schley County senior David Williams (#2594) tries to push his way past another runner at the GHSA Class A-Public State Meet in Carrollton, GA. Williams closed out his high school XC career with a top-10 finish, crossing the finish line in seventh place in a time of 18:35.06.
Photo by Gabe Theiss

As the 2020 school year was about to begin, there was great trepidation and uncertainty as to whether or not high school sports in Georgia would be able to continue, and that included boys and girls cross country. Fortunately, the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) was able to make it work. As a result, both the Schley County (SC) and Furlow Charter (FCS) boys and girls cross country teams were able to turn in strong seasons in 2020 and they all finished strong at the GHSA Class A-Public State Meet on Saturday, November 7, in Carrollton, GA.

As a team, the Wildcats finished in eighth place out of 25 teams at the state meet, while the Lady Wildcats finished 17th out of 22 teams competing.

Individually, SC senior David Williams closed out his stellar high school career by finishing in seventh place out of 167 competitors and completed his top-10 finish in a time of 18:35.06.

Furlow Charter senior cross country runner Maya Wynn closed out her brilliant high school career by finishing in fifth place at the 2020 GHSA Class A-Public State Meet.
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As for FCS, the Lady Falcons turned in an eight-place finish, with senior sensation Maya Wynn leading the way. Wynn was able to cross the finish line in fifth place in a time of 22:41.13. The FCS boys’ team also turned in a strong performance in the state meet, finishing in 17th place. Their top individual finisher was sophomore Edwin Gonzalez, who crossed the finish line in 29th place out of 167 competitors in a time of 20:01.47.

 

Southland Academy Boys and Girls’ XC teams turn in strong 2020 seasons

The Schley County and Furlow Charter cross country teams weren’t the only local area teams to have solid seasons in 2020. Both the Southland Academy boys and girls’ teams turned in strong seasons as well. On Saturday, November 7, 2020, both teams competed in the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) Class AAA State Meet in Macon. As a team, the Raiders turned in an eighth-place finish, while the Lady Raiders finished in 10th place.

Southland Academy junior Jadie Burrell finished in ninth place out of 75 competitors at the GISA Class AAA State Meet back on Saturday, November 7, in Macon. Burrell crossed the finish line in a time of 22:53.90.
Photo by Carol Burrell

Individually, junior Jadie Burrell turned in a top-10 finish for the Lady Raiders. Burrell crossed the finish line of the 3.1-mile course in a time 22:53.90, which was good enough for ninth place out of 75 competitors. On the boys’ side, freshman Noah Sheff turned in a top-10 finish, finishing in 10th place out of 81 competitors in a time of 19:28.20.

 

Schley County Lady Wildcats’ softball team wins region championship

The Schley County Lady Wildcats’ softball team turned in another outstanding season in 2020. The Lady Wildcats (16-12) won the Class A-Public Region 5 Championship and advanced to the quarterfinals of the GHSA Class A-Public State Playoffs.

Schley County senior Ashlynn Childs was one of several Lady Wildcats who were instrumental in leading the SCHS Softball Team to a region championship in 2020 and to the state quarterfinals of the GHSA Class A-Public State Playoffs.
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The Lady Wildcats will miss the senior leadership provided by seniors Perri DeVane, Jade Sellars, Darden Campbell, Renee Rix, Jo Dee Howard and Ashlynn Childs, but will have proven returners coming back in 2021, such as Zoe Molina, Landry Whaley and Hannah Crawford just to name a few.

 

South Georgia Tech Lady Jets qualify for another national tournament in 2020

 The 2019-2020 South Georgia Tech Lady Jets basketball team (30-2) worked extremely hard during the regular season and were having arguably their best year in the history of the program. They won the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association (GCAA) conference tournament and, once again, had qualified for a berth in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division 1 National Tournament in Lubbock, TX. However, in an effort to follow CDC guidelines concerning the coronavirus, the NJCAA decided to cancel the national tournament.

This was an extremely tough pill to swallow for the SGTC Head Coach James Frey and his squad. We are really disappointed we won’t have the opportunity to represent the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association (GCAA) at the national tournament,” said Frey. “Of all the teams I have been able to take out there, this was the team I thought had a legitimate opportunity to advance in the tournament with a few breaks. My heart is broken for the young ladies who bought into everything we asked them to do on and off the court and did so with fantastic attitudes. They always trusted what I told them. They believed that if they did the things we asked, they would be in Lubbock in March and they earned that. I can’t thank them enough for their faithfulness and dedication. This is a special group, including my new assistants, Demetrius Colson and Ciarra Edwards, who were new to our program and to me specifically. They had to learn how I operated and what my expectations were. They definitely did those things and I could not have imagined a better group to work with. I appreciate their efforts this year more than they know.”

The 2019 – 2020 South Georgia Technical College Lady Jets basketball team (30-2) captured the NJCAA District J Championship title in Spartanburg, SC, in an impressive win over Spartanburg Methodist for their fourth consecutive trip to the NJCAA National Tournament in Lubbock, TX. Unfortunately for SGTC, the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Su Ann Bird

Who knows what might have happened if the national tournament had been allowed to continue. Unfortunately for the Lady Jets, the answer to that question will never be known. Nevertheless, Frey and his staff are right back at it and are ready for another run to West Texas in March of 2021.

 

2020 Americus Travelers Baseball Team claims its second national championship in club history

Not only was 2020 a difficult, challenging year for high school and college sports in both Sumter and Schley County, it was also a tough year for youth and recreational sports as well. However, during the summer of 2020, one youth baseball team began to try to make the best of the situation and they made the absolute most of it.

The Americus Travelers Baseball Club, coached and founded by Sumter County Parks and Recreation Director Tim Estes, began play in June of 2020 and continued to play in tournaments throughout the summer. That courage and dedication to competing eventually led the Travelers to win their second national championship in club history. Back in July of 2020, the 15U Americus Travelers Baseball Club traveled to Myrtle Beach, SC to compete in the Top Gun Summer Nationals.

The 15U Americus Travelers Baseball Club poses for its team picture after winning the 2020 Top Gun Summer Nationals in Myrtle Beach, SC. It’s the club’s second national title in its history and its first since 2007.
Back row left to right: Head Coach Tim Estes, Chase Ledger, Thomas Willis, Owen Lamb, Caden King, Landon Kight, Assistant Coaches Reid Ragsdale and Jarrod Wall
Front row left to right: Thomas Ray, Peyton Tompkins, Dylan Davis, Gavin Lacey and Tripp Thomas.
Photo by Angel Lamb

However, the Travelers did more than just compete. They dominated their competition, going undefeated in their first four games of pool play and outscoring their opponents 47-8.

That put them into the semifinal round of the tournament. In their semifinal game, the Travelers shut out the Palmetto State Wolverines 9-0 and then won a hard-fought contest in the championship game over the 15U South Carolina Force by the score of 6-4. With that win, the Americus Travelers had secured the club’s second national title and its first since 2007.