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The top 5 stories of 2008
Flowery Branch's trip to the Class AAA football finals is the top story of 2008. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Honorable mentions

Region 7-AAA dominates cross country: The Flowery Branch boys claimed the school’s first team title with a win at the 2008 state cross country meet in Carrollton. North Hall finished second, giving the region the top two teams on the podium.

Buford repeats in softball and football: After winning the first girls team title in school history in 2007, the Lady Wolves defended their title with a 5-1 win over Calhoun in this year’s softball tournament. Ironically, the Yellow Jackets were the opponents of Buford’s football team in the state championship game, as well. Led by Cody Getz’s 232 yards and three touchdowns, the Wolves rolled to a 45-21 win and their second straight state title.

Flowery Branch wins first region basketball title: Talk about your remarkable turnarounds. In 2006-07 the Falcons won four games and in 2007-2008 they won 26 and their first Region 7-AAA title. But they didn’t stop there. Flowery Branch advanced all the way to the quarterfinals, where it lost to Dunwoody.

Jefferson wrestling remains unstoppable: Since 2001, the Jefferson Dragons have owned the world of wrestling in Class A. They have won eight consecutive traditional state titles and seven straight duals championships, including the two they won in 2008.

Lakeview boys basketball win playoff game: After reaching the playoffs for five straight seasons, the Lakeview Academy boys basketball team finally won a playoff game this year with an 80-62 win over Bremen. The Lions finished the year 21-9.

East Hall boys shock South Atlanta: The Vikings held off highly-touted 2009 prospect Derrick Favors and South Atlanta for a win in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs 63-60 at Valhalla.

Jefferson wins first region football title since 1977: After competing in Class A for years, the Dragons moved up to Class AA this year and made a statement by winning their first region title in more than 30 years. Jefferson beat North Oconee in the Region 8-A title game 17-16 and finished the regular season undefeated.

Bulldogs fail to live up to the hype: Ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press at the start of the 2008 season, the Georgia football team lost to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech to finish the year 9-3. What started as a season with BCS Championship hopes, ended with a berth in the Capital One Bowl.

Lions play varsity, win a game: With a 35-6 rout of Hebron Christian Academy on Sept. 12, the Lakeview Academy Lions won their first varsity football game in school history. The win was the only one on Lakeview’s 2008 season.

Morgan House nearly becomes an Olympian: Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club member Morgan House came within one second of making the 2008 Olympic team in the one-man sprint kayak (K1) 500 meters.

Braves move to Gwinnett County: In January, the Atlanta Braves announced that they will be relocating their AAA affiliate from Richmond, Va. to Gwinnett County. The team is scheduled to begin play in 2009 in a stadium on Buford Drive in Lawrenceville.

What a year it was in the world of sports.

From the Giants’ Eli Manning leading an improbable fourth-quarter charge to take down the undefeated Patriots and winning the Super Bowl, to the small-market Tampa Bay Rays shedding the “Devil” in their name and in their history by upending the super-powered New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox en route to their first World Series appearance.

From Mario Chalmers’ heroically clutch 3-pointer to give Kansas a men’s basketball title to the Boston Celtics finally getting that 17th championship after years of mediocrity.

But those are hardly the biggest stories on the local front.

This year in Georgia, especially in Northeast Georgia, we’ve seen many great accomplishments in sports.
Flowery Branch won its first team state title, in boys cross country, Lakeview Academy played its first varsity football game, and the East Hall Vikings shocked the state by taking down a Derrick Favors-led South Atlanta team in the first round of the Class AAA basketball playoffs.

The Atlanta Braves announced that they were moving their Class AAA affiliate to Gwinnett County, Flowery Branch won its first region basketball title, and Jefferson won its first region football title in 30-plus years.

It’s been a busy year for sports, and while those accomplishments above should certainly be commended, they fall short of the Times Top Five Sports Stories of 2008.

5. Gainesville bids farewell to two legends

This year saw two coaching careers come to an end at Gainesville High. Longtime basketball coach Jerry Davis and baseball coach Wayne Vickery stepped down from their respective positions in 2008, leaving Gainesville with a combined 1,171 wins (701 from Davis and 470 from Vickery) and seven state titles.

Vickery was inducted to the Georgia Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 and finished his career with 20-win seasons 17 times.

“There are so many great memories,” Vickery said of his coaching career. “Coaching here brought tremendous thrills to me and my family.”

At the time of his retirement in March, Davis finished his coaching career as the second winningest coach in Georgia among active coaches and won state championships in 1983 and 1984.

“I’ll miss working with the kids,” Davis said when he retired. “There’s always been great camaraderie here.”

4. Georgia men’s basketball team shock the SEC

After winning seven of their first eight games, the Bulldogs looked as if they were going to easily make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. But two five-game losing streaks in the middle of the season, combined with a host of players being suspended or kicked off the team left not only the 2007-08 season in shambles, but the entire program as well.

But then came the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta. A tournament that was sidetracked by a tornado, and impacted by a group of Bulldogs that won four straight games (including two in overtime) to claim the SEC title and obtain a berth in the field of 64.

Georgia was ousted by Xavier in the first round, but its improbable run to the NCAA Tournament made everyone in Bulldog Nation forget about the troubles of the past and believe for the future.

3. Jackets swarm in first year under Johnson

For seven years Georgia Tech was the joke at the end of the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry. The Yellow Jackets failed to beat their intrastate rivals for seven consecutive seasons, losing games and bragging rights to their foes in Athens. But all that’s in the past now, as Georgia Tech capped off its season with a 45-42 win over the Bulldogs in Sanford Stadium.

The win was just one of many big wins for the Jackets in their first year under head coach Paul Johnson, who brought his unique triple-option (or “spread option” as he calls it) with him from Navy.

Tech thrived in this new system, winning nine games and coming one tiebreaker shy of playing for the ACC championship. Leading the way for the Jackets was sophomore “B” back Jonathan Dwyer, who finished the year averaging 110.7 yards per game.

Dwyer, Johnson and the rest of the Yellow Jackets will finish the year Wednesday when they play LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.

2. The Atlanta Falcons fly high

In 2007, the Falcons were the laughingstock of the National Football League. Their star quarterback, Michael Vick, was indicted on federal dogfighting charges, their head coach Bobby Petrino left them after 13 games to return to the college ranks, and their team finished the year with just four wins. The franchise appeared to be have set back 10 years.

Enter a trio of saviors.

First-time GM Thomas Dimitroff hired first-time head coach Mike Smith, who in turn handed over the starting quarterback job to a rookie, Matt Ryan. Most pundits thought that the Falcons would struggle to win one game, let alone be competitive in the NFC.

Boy were those pundits wrong.

The Falcons are 10-5 and with their win over Minnesota last Sunday, have clinched a berth in the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2004, when Vick guided his team to the NFC Championship Game.
Ryan, who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards, and free agent running back Michael Turner (second in the NFL with 1,491 yards rushing) have made the city of Atlanta and Falcons fans everywhere forget about the lost season of ‘07, and have given the franchise a renewed exuberance it hasn’t seen since Vick was first drafted.

Not lost on the team is wide receiver Roddy White, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl, and John Abraham, who is third in the NFL with 16.5 sacks.

No one thought the Falcons would be this good, not only are they good, but with a win today and a Carolina loss, Atlanta will be NFC South champions.

1. Flowery Branch soars to the Dome

Their regular season began and ended with a loss. In fact, like all but one team in the Class AAA playoffs, their season ended with a loss, as well. But ask anyone at Flowery Branch High if they were happy with their 2008 season, you’d get a resounding “Yes.” That’s because the Falcons were the talk of Class AAA by winning four playoff games on the road and finished their season on the turf of the Georgia Dome against the top-ranked Cairo Syrupmakers.

Sure the Falcons lost 28-14, but their trip to Atlanta was something straight from a movie. They played four games in four different towns totaling more than 1,000 miles traveled. The beat Stephens County, Ridgeland, No. 2 Baldwin and LaGrange and for the first half of the state title game, looked as if they were going to beat the top-ranked Syrupmakers too.

Behind first-year starting quarterback Connor Shaw, and the powerful running back tandem of Daniel Drummond and Imani Cross, the Falcons reeled off seven consecutive wins in the regular season before losing the region championship to Gainesville.

But while that loss may have hampered most teams’ pursuit of a state title, the Falcons thrived on the road. Each week in the playoffs, they entered their opponents’ stadiums as a team on a mission. No home crowd was too loud to overcome, and no ranking next to a team’s name was too intimidating.

Their mission was to play for a state title, and they did just that.

The loss at the end of the year hurt, but their season overall was one big victory.

“I am so proud of this team, our community and the wonderful support we had all season in general,” Falcons coach Lee Shaw said after the loss to Cairo. “It’s been an awesome ride.”

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