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The Times sports stories of the year
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As we turn the calendar to 2012, we can look back on all the local sports storylines that were on the radar prominently last year.

The biggest stories in the sports were the ones we didn't necessarily see coming. The drama and debate that surrounded the GHSA's two-year reclassification cycle and expansion to six classifications, and the ending of an era with former Flowery Branch football coach Lee Shaw heading back to his roots to take the job in Dec. as coach and athletic director at Rabun County High were the two biggest stories, as voted by members of The Times' sports staff.

And some of the biggest stories weren't even that unexpected.

Once again, Buford High put together a dominating run in its athletic programs and a state title in girls basketball, baseball and softball, and state runner-up finishes in boys basketball and football.

Here's a look at the entire Top 10 list.

1. RECLASSIFICATION SHAKES UP GHSA: From the initial debate of the 4/8 plan vs. the eventually adopted six-class plan, to recent region realignment, GHSA reclassification was the dominant story throughout 2011 for fans of high school sports.

It's the first change from the current five-class plan in a decade, and it will mean big changes for local schools - most notably Gainesville, which will jump two classes to Class AAAAA and won't play primary rival North Hall for at least two years.

Other big changes for local schools include Buford moving up to Class AAA to play in a region with many Hall County schools, instead of playing mostly Atlanta-area teams.

And Habersham Central will rise to the new highest classification, Class AAAAAA, which means that now all six classifications are represented by at least one area team.

The new region alignments also caused Lakeview Academy to consider going back to a region schedule, which would make the Lions eligible for the state playoffs.

Johnson High, which moved up to Class AAAA from AAA where the Knights went 0-10 last season, decided that the football team would not play a region schedule for the following two seasons.

And just when the new classifications and regions had been set, nearly three dozen Class A public schools, mostly in South Georgia but including Washington-Wilkes and Social Circle, voted to break away from the GHSA and set up a new league, the Georgia Public Schools Association.

The schools were upset over the private school dominance of Class A championships.

Local Class A public schools Commerce and Towns County had no part in the plans to break away, but could be affected because of schools in the same region leaving and Class A now being under the 22 percent of total member schools agreed upon by the GHSA reclassification committee.

The new reclassification arrangement for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years is scheduled to be ratified on Jan. 10 in Macon.

2. LEE SHAW LEAVES THE BRANCH: The only football coach Flowery Branch has ever had begins his tenure as the Rabun County head football coach and athletic director in the spring. The Shaw family name, thanks to father Lee's success, and the records set by his quarterback sons Jaybo and Connor, will be synonymous with Falcons football for the foreseeable future.

Former Flowery Branch defensive coordinator Chris Griffin has been named Shaw's successor.

Shaw finished 79-41 in 10 years as the Falcons coach, including seven straight trips to the postseason, a trip to the Georgia Dome for the state championship game in 2008 (lost to Cairo 28-14), and a run to the semifinals in 2009.

Last season, Flowery Branch made history by winning a Co-Region 8-AAAA championship, its first region title of any kind, after three teams finished 9-0 in the region. The Falcons were the region's best in the postseason, advancing all the way to the third round as a No. 3 seed before falling to eventual state champion Tucker 42-34.

Shaw will be taking his third head coaching job in his career when he starts at Rabun County, which finished 3-7 last year under former coach Danny Durham. Shaw is 92-78 overall as a head coach, including a stint at White County from 1995-1999.

3. GAINESVILLE FOOTBALL RETURNS TO THE STATE SEMIFINALS: The Red Elephants entered the 2011 season with plenty of uncertainty at key positions and a nasty loss at Buford. After that, Gainesville went on a 12-game winning streak all the way to the state semifinals and picked up plenty of momentum for its big jump into Class AAAAA in 2012. Now that the season is over, the Red Elephants don't have nearly the same question marks with Class AAA Offensive Player of the Year Deshaun Watson returning at quarterback, and a slew of talented wide receivers and defensive standouts all coming back next season.

The highlight of the season for the Big Red was a 35-21 win against Class AAA's then-No. 1 Sandy Creek in Nov. at City Park Stadium, giving Gainesville coach Bruce Miller his second appearance in the state semifinals in just three years. Gainesville's upset win snapped the Patriots' 41-game winning streak and shot at a third consecutive state championship.

Along the way this season, Watson solidified his status as a high-level Division I prospect. He finished the season with 4,324 yards of offense and 57 touchdowns (both new single-season Hall County records). The Red Elephants also return four of their top five wide receivers next season, including Caleb Hayman, who had a pair of touchdown catches in the Sandy Creek game and state semifinals loss to the eventual state champions, Burke County.

4. BUFORD DOMINATES: Even for a school as perennially successful in athletics as Buford High, 2011 would be considered an overwhelming success.

Despite ending the calendar year on a down note (a 27-24 overtime loss to Calhoun in the Class AA football state championship), Wolves teams brought home state titles in girls basketball, baseball and softball. It was the state-record fifth state championship in a row for the softball team.

And, despite falling a game short, neither the boys basketball team nor the football team can be lost in the success.

For all but the 2011 finale, the Wolves football team dominated opponents, winning 14 in a row to start the season and advancing to the state championship. A win would have given them their fifth consecutive title, which would have set a record for the state of Georgia.

The girls basketball team won its championship going away, losing just three games the entire season. The baseball team was equally impressive, winning 31 games en route to its title.

5. LANIER NATIONAL SPEEDWAY CLOSING ITS DOORS: The once popular hub for short-track racing in South Hall announced in 2011 that it was closing its doors after two races set for Jan.: The Ice Cold Shriners Bowl and then Speedfest at the end of this month. Lanier National owner Donnie Clack announced that the 30-year old track would be sold in 2011 due mainly to the state of the economy.

The final Saturday night races were held on Sept. 23 and drew hundreds of fans to see past and present drivers run around the track for possibly the final time. Over the years, Lanier National drew some of the biggest names in the sport to the Braselton track, including Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and David Ragan, among others.

6. MCCORMACK TAKES STATE'S TOP SPOT AT PEACHTREE: North Hall High grad Ty McCormack turned a typically slow news day for sports into a big headline when he ran a blistering time of 31 minutes, 3 seconds to place first out of 37,000 runners from the state on Independence Day at the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. His time was good enough for 47th overall out of a field of approximately 60,000 runners in the 6.2-mile race that weaves through the streets of downtown Atlanta. For his accomplishment, McCormack received a crystal peach in the mail from the Atlanta Track Club, the race sponsor. The Clemson University two-sport athlete finished almost a minute ahead of his nearest competitor from Georgia. However, McCormack's accomplishments didn't stop there. He finished eighth overall at the Atlantic Coast Conference cross country championship this fall and 18th overall at the Southeast Regional.

7. BIG YEAR FOR LOCAL PRODUCTS: With Flowery Branch product Connor Shaw taking over as the starting quarterback for a top-10 team (South Carolina), his older brother Jaybo leading Georgia Southern to the FCS semifinals, and former Gainesville football standout A.J. Johnson starring as a freshman at middle linebacker for the University Tennessee, it was a good year for Northeast Georgia products.

Other stars that have succeeded at the next level in 2011: Habersham Central grad Tavarres King (500 yards and seven touchdowns receiving for the University of Georgia), Gainesville grad Tai-ler Jones (359 yards and three touchdowns receiving at Notre Dame), East Hall's Sada Wheeler (leading scorer and rebounder for Piedmont College) and Gainesville's Jaymee Carnes (27 points per game at North Georgia College & State University).

8. BRENDA HILL-GILMORE RETURNS: One of the best girls players in Hall County history, who won multiple state titles at East Hall in the late 70s and early 80s, returned to Gainesville where she had helped the Lady Red Elephants win state titles as an assistant coach in the early 2000s. She took over as head coach for longtime Gainesville leader Manson Hill, who retired after the 2011 season.

9. BRAVES COLLAPSE: By late August, the Braves held a 9 ½-game lead over San Francisco in the wild-card race. The lead was 8 ½ on Sept. 5. But, when faced with injuries to the pitching staff and silent bats at the plate, the Braves collapsed, watching their lead disappear down the stretch and the team that passed them, the Cardinals, winning the World Series.

10. DOGS BOUNCE BACK: After losing its first two games of the season to Boise State and South Carolina, Georgia football looked primed for a repeat of its disappointing 2010 season, which ended with a 10-6 loss to Central Florida for a 6-7 record to clinch its first losing season since 1995-96. Then, the Bulldogs reeled off 10 straight wins and returned to the SEC title game for the first time since 2005. On Monday, Georgia faces Michigan State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.


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