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The top of the line in 2009
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The Gainesville High Red Elephants football team waits to take the field for the class AAA state championship game with Peach County inside the Georgia Dome in December.

There was no shortage of headline stories in sports during 2009. But which one was the biggest?

In the high school scene, the Gainesville High football team played for a state title, Buford won three state titles in one calendar year and Flowery Branch’s football program came out of nowhere to make the final four. Meanwhile, the buzz around the college sports arena this fall was a disappointing season at the University of Georgia and the firing of three assistant coaches, and the rise of Georgia Tech, which won the ACC title and will play in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 5.

And who could forget the biggest move the Atlanta Braves made: Tom Glavine was cut by the franchise on June 3 just as he completed a rehab assignment in the minors.

The Times’ sports department took a vote and here’s a look at the top five local sports stories for 2009.

1. The Gainesville High football team’s run to the Class AAA state title game captivated an entire county.

This program was projected for greatness and didn’t disappoint with a team that was populated with future Division I football players.

The Red Elephants ran through the regular season undefeated and with a head of steam, won their first three playoff games with ease, and marched into the state semifinals against Flowery Branch. Despite trailing 14-0 at halftime the Red Elephants rallied for a 29-21 win and their first berth in the state title game since 1982.

Unfortunately for the Red Elephants, this year’s state title game was decided in similar fashion to the game that was decided by a missed extra point 27 years ago.

In this year’s state title game, Gainesville rallied from a 13-6 deficit with a thrilling 25-yard touchdown pass from Blake Sims to Michael Lorentz on the game’s final play. However, the Red Elephants’ two-point conversion failed and a 13-12 loss was the result.

Despite the loss in the state title game, Gainesville set a new school record with 14 wins in one season and now have back-to-back undefeated regular seasons under their belts.

2. Buford came, they played and they conquered during 2009.

No school in the state could probably claim a list of accomplishments as stout as that of the Wolves’ athletic department. Consider what happened for Buford this year: The Wolves won a state title in girls basketball in March, then the Lady Wolves’ softball program won in all in Class AA in softball in October, and in the final month of the year, the Buford football program also won a state title.

On March 14, the Lady Wolves claimed the Class AA state basketball title by clobbering Model, 66-35. All year long, Buford was a favorite to win with their senior leadership, including 6-foot-3 Blanche Alverson, now at Auburn, Jocelyn Danley, and Michelle Godwin. And they didn’t disappoint. Following a loss to Class AAAA’s Marist early in the season, the Lady Wolves went on the win their next 31-straight games to claim the Region 6-AA and state title.

Then Buford’s softball team won their third consecutive state title this fall with a dominating performance against schools in its own classification. Aside from a pair of losses during the regular season to Class AAAA’s Marist, and a pair of Class AAAAA opponents, their only loss was in the state finals against Rockmart. However, Buford got it done in the championship game with a resounding 9-0 win to keep the state bragging rights in their own program.

Speaking of a three-peat, the same applies for Buford’s football program. The Wolves battled to the Class AA state title on Dec. 11 against Calhoun by holding on for a 13-10 win, their second consecutive state title won against the Yellow Jackets.

With its third consecutive state title and sixth in the decade, the Wolves’ football program certainly stayed in the forefront of teams with claims of being the most dominant in the state during the decade. Buford’s football program finished the decade with 139 victories (average 13.9 per season).

3. The University of Georgia’s football program didn’t live up to even the most modest expectations this season. 

Five regular season losses, including a devastating second-half meltdown against Kentucky in Athens, left head coach Mark Richt’s hands tied to make major overhauls to the coaching staff.

As a result, much maligned defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, along with defensive ends coach Jon Fabris, and linebackers coach John Jancek were all fired following the end of the regular season.

The season started ominously enough with a loss to Oklahoma State on the road. However, a loss to Louisiana State in the final minute of the game, due to major lapses by the Bulldogs’ defense, really generated speculation that changes were needed — and bad. The next week, things only got worse when Georgia layed down and fell victim to a University of Tennessee team that was able to pass at will the entire game will no repercussions.

Following a win against Vanderbilt, Georgia looked completely lifeless against Florida — except for the emergence of freshman running back Washaun Ealey.

As a result of a topsy-turvy season, the Bulldogs landed in the Independence Bowl and defeated Texas A&M 44-20. 

Richt is expected to fill the coaching vacancies soon, hoping not to look vulnerable to the upcoming recruiting class and to set the tempo for spring football.

4. Flowery Branch football does it again

For the second consecutive season, the Falcons rolled out a No. 4 seed to the playoffs and went on a winning streak, rightly earning the nickname of ‘Road Warriors.’ Just like last year, Flowery Branch appeared to be primed for a one-and-done in the playoffs: The Falcons opened the playoffs at No. 1 seed and Class AAA’s 10th-ranked Ridgeland, in Chattanooga.

That win in the first round set the stage for Flowery Branch’s wins against Grady in the second round in Atlanta, and then at Carver-Columbus in the third round.

If that wasn’t enough, it set the state for a Class AAA state semifinal game against Gainesville at City Park.

Despite leading by two touchdowns at halftime, the Falcons let the lead slip away and lost in the final minute on a touchdown pass from Gainesville’s Blake Sims to Tyson Smith.

Still, this season left Hall County with a lasting impression of Flowery Branch’s rise to prominence in Class AAA, following the Falcons’ trip to the state title game in 2008. Next year, Flowery Branch will move up to Region 8-AAAA, joining Habersham Central and a host of Athens-area schools.

5. The Gainesville boys basketball team pieced together a pretty impressive season in 2009. 

After an 0-3 start to the season, the Red Elephants finished with 21 wins, won all 11 home games, and during a stretch late in the season won 16 out of 17 games to earn their first trip to Macon for the final four since 2002.

Once the playoffs began, Gainesville played incredible defense, holding their first three opponents (Eastside, Druid Hills and Cedartown) to less that 47 points per game.

The reason why Gainesville was so successful in 2009 was that every player was comfortable in their own role on the team. Senior George Manomano and junior Blake Sims were the main scorers, Nick Johnson was the biggest defensive force, and sophomore A.J. Johnson was one of the better rebounders, and the team had the luxury of about six or seven players that continually came off the bench and made significant contributions.

Honorable mentions

  • Jefferson High’s wrestling program carried home two more state titles in 2009. Since 2001, the Dragons earned nine traditional state titles and eight in the duals format. They were also crowned the team of the decade during induction ceremonies at the Northeast Georgia Sports Hall of Fame on Aug. 29.
  • Jackson County has battled a reputation as a pushover in football for many years. However, that’s all started to change under third-year coach Billy Kirk. Jackson County shot out of the gates this season winning three consecutive games, against Our Lady of Mercy, Sonoraville and Prince Avenue Christian. Despite losing the next six games, all against Region 8-AAA opponents, the Panthers finished the season off with a win against region opponent Stephens County. Jackson County’s four wins on the season matched its best finish since 1997. More importantly, it gives the program hope for the future.
  • While the University of Georgia struggled this season, the same can’t be said for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Despite losing to the Bulldogs in the final game of the regular season, Georgia Tech won the ACC title the following week and closed out the season with 11 wins. The reward for winning the ACC title is a game against Iowa in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 5 in Miami. In just two years at the helm, Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson has turned their program into a national contender, and almost as important, a force in recruiting the top players from Georgia.
  • Tom Glavine looked like he was gearing up for a return with the Atlanta Braves in 2009. On May 28, he pitched five scoreless innings with a pair of strikeouts for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves in Lawrenceville. A couple days later, he looked solid in an abbreviated appearance with the Single-A Rome Braves. Most thought he was about to get the call-up back to the majors. Then, just like that, Glavine was released from the Braves on June 3, making room for the promotion of sizzling-hot rookie pitcher Tommy Hanson from the G-Braves. The end of Glavine’s career with the Braves, and possible as a player, was questioned at the time, however Hanson finished the season with an 11-4 record and is now one of the leaders for Atlanta’s pitching staff.
  • High school soccer hit a fever pitch in Hall County during the playoffs. In May, the West Hall boys and North Hall girls both advanced to the state finals. One of the most memorable moment came when West Hall senior Juan Arbelaez returned from what was presumed to be a season-ending knee injury suffered in the second round, scored a second-half goal against Oconee County in the semifinals and led the team to a 2-0 victory. North Hall’s run to the finals was just as memorable. The Lady Trojans won in PK’s against Eagle’s Landing in the state quarterfinals and trampled over Spalding in the state semifinals. However, the season for both the North Hall girls and West Hall boys ended in the same way — a loss to St. Pius X.
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