The top sports stories for local fans in 2015 were quite easy to identify.
For only the second time, Hall County produced a Heisman trophy finalist. Also, the University of Georgia bid adieu to a faithful football coach of 15 years, completely dismantling a coaching staff that was designed with the hopes of winning championships.
In high school sports, the West Hall boys soccer program got over the hump on the pitch with a Class AAA state title in May.
In the professional ranks, the Atlanta Hawks exceeded all expectations with a 60-win regular season and trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, before falling in four games to the Cleveland Cavs.
To round out Georgia’s active football postseason, it hired a familiar face as its new coach for 2016.
These five headlines stood out among the rest last year.
The order of importance may vary depending on a fan’s perspective.
1. HOMETOWN HERO: 2015 was the year Deshaun Watson captivated the attention of local sports fans.
Clemson University’s amiable and ultra-talented sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is proud to call Gainesville home, went all the way to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist. On Dec. 31, the state’s all-time leading high school passer, proceeded to carry the top-ranked Tigers to a resounding 37-17 playoff seminal victory win against No. 4 Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl. Already a household name to sports fans nationwide for individual accolades, the 2014 Gainesville High graduate Watson took control with one rushing score and another passing for the Tigers (14-0) against the Sooners in Miami.
Looking for its first national championship in 34 years, Clemson will face No. 2 Alabama for the title on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
Despite trailing 17-16 at halftime in the Orange Bowl, Watson carried the team in the second half with his ability to confuse the defense with both his ability to run past tacklers and pass with great precision. His New Year’s Eve performance was just another example of greatness for the quarterback of the 2012 Class AAAAA state champion Red Elephants, as he finished with 322 yards of offense for the Tigers. Thanks to Watson’s rare athletic ability, Clemson averaged an eye-popping 52 points per game in 2015, with one more to go.
The Tigers have owned the nation’s top spot all season, but will face an Alabama (13-1) program that is fresh off a 38-0 steamrolling of No. 3 Michigan State in the other semifinal game at the Cotton Bowl.
Watson, who finished third in Heisman voting, finished the regular season with a remarkable 3,512 passing yards and 30 touchdowns through the air, while rushing for 977 yards. His 145-yard rushing effort set a new record for a quarterback in the Orange Bowl.
Watson’s other accolades during 2015 included winning the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top quarterback, along with ACC Player of the Year.
With his humble nature and close roots to Hall County, everyone across the country now knows where Gainesville is because Clemson’s personable quarterback.
When Watson took the stage at the Heisman presentation, he was decked out in a red suit to go with a black dress shirt and handkerchief, which was his homage to his hometown. And during the Orange Bowl, the announcers gave a shoutout to the Longstreet Cafe, a popular hometown restaurant, for its connection to where Deshaun was raised.
His sophomore season was even more phenomenal, considering Watson came into 2015 from off-season knee surgery.
Even with all of his talent, Watson still must return to Clemson for another season before he’s eligible to leave for the NFL.
2. TOP DOG GONE: On Nov. 28 Mark Richt guided Georgia to a 13-7 win against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The following day, he was let go as Bulldogs coach after leading the Bulldogs for 15 seasons, 145-51 overall record and a pair of SEC championships (2002 and 2005). The rub against Richt, for many, was his inability to win the big games. The shot-callers, including athletics director Greg McGarity, clearly fell in that camp.
In 2015, Georgia (9-3) was sloppy in losses to Alabama and Florida. The Bulldogs also let a 20-point lead slip away against Tennessee.
The other half felt Richt was a great role model, who was espousing Christian values, which trumped wins and titles.
On Dec. 1, an awkward press conference with Richt and McGarity ensued to address the decision in Athens. Richt appeared to be the good guy, who took the high road — and left with a hefty check for a contract buyout — to leave the school he was close to taking to the national championship game in 2012.
Sitting beside Richt in the presser, McGarity was clearly left looking uncomfortable since was forced to be the bearer of bad news just 48 hours earlier.
Richt’s termination in Athens really didn’t come as much of a surprise, even though he was loved dearly by fans. On his watch, the Bulldogs developed a reputation for not being able to win the big games. The most troubling stat for Georgia’s former coach was the 8-17 mark against ranked opponents since 2010.
Richt didn’t stay on the open market for coaches very long. He was introduced as the new coach of the Miami Hurricanes on Dec. 5, just two days after he decided he wouldn’t stick around to coach Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Penn State.
With Richt out, Bryan McClendon took the lead as interim head coach for the Bulldogs through the bowl game.
3. OAKWOOD’S CHAMPS: For years, Hall County has produced outstanding high school soccer programs. On May 16, West Hall capped off a marvelous season with a state championship in Class AAA.
Against Calhoun in the title game, West Hall (13-1-2) scored the pivotal go-ahead goal when Sammy Coto passed it to an open Isaac Castruita, his second of the match, in the 55th minute of the match on a very hot and muggy May afternoon in Macon. The Spartans won 3-1, also picking up a goal from Steve Rodriguez.
The winning goal was a bit of a blind shot from the 18-yard box, according to Coto after the game, but he kicked it right where Castruita could find the back of the net, bringing the school its first state championship in its history.
“I thought it was a perfect pass,” an overwhelmed Castruita said after the win at Mercer University.
In the championship match, West Hall managed to win, despite significant injuries to three key starters. During the 2015 postseason, the Spartans were unstoppable, outscoring the opposition by a combined 18-2 margin.
West Hall produced a shutout in postseason wins against East Jackson, Coahulla Creek and Oconee County.
Castriuta also had the momentum in the quarterfinals for West Hall with three goals, sending it to the semifinals for the second consecutive season. Once in the semifinals, the Spartans eliminated Oconee County with a 2-0 decision.
4. HIGH-FLYING HAWKS: The Atlanta Hawks put together the best finish in franchise history, compiling a 60-22 regular season mark. Led in the front court by Paul Milsap and Kyle Korver, the Hawks knocked out the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets in the first two rounds of the postseason, both in a six-game series.
Milsap was the headliner for the Hawks from beginning to end, averaging 17 points and eight rebounds a game.
The Hawks made the 60-win mark possible after reeling off a franchise-record, 19-game winning streak during the regular season. It came to an end with a 115-100 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 3.
During the 2014-15 season, Atlanta captured its first division title since finishing first in the Central division during the 1993-94 season.
5. WELCOME HOME, KIRBY: Kirby Smart has been on the radar for vacant head coaching positions for quite a while, but as the 39-year-old Smart told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution back in 2013, “It’s got to be the right place, the right opportunity.” It took an opening at Smart’s alma mater to get the second-highest paid assistant coach in the country to finally take the plunge and join the ranks as a head coach.
One week after Richt was fired, Smart was announced as the 26th head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. Smart, a native of Bainbridge, played safety for the Bulldogs from 1995-98 and served as a team captain his senior season.
Smart played a balancing act during the final month of the college football season. Immediately after being tabbed as Georgia’s new coach, Smart hit the recruiting trail for the Bulldogs, more specifically he locked up a solid commitment from the nation’s top quarterback, Jacob Eason, out of Lake Stevens, Washington.
At the same time, Smart stayed on with Alabama during the playoffs as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator. On Dec. 31, the Crimson Tide defense was dominant in a 38-0 blowout of No. 3 Michigan State in the semifinal round of the playoffs at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
With the win, Smart will walk the sideline with Alabama once more before moving to Athens. The Crimson Tide will face No. 1 Clemson (14-0) for the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
Colin Ochs contributed to this report