When he was named the Thomasville Bulldogs’ 14th head coach in February, Leroy Ryals believed he had the recipe for success.
One year into his tenure at THS and Ryals’ cooking has produced favorable results as his hiring and the Bulldogs’ quick turnaround rank as the Times-Enterprise’s top sports story of 2013.
“I think I have the recipe to get it done,” Ryals said following his introduction as the school’s new coach Feb. 15. “My recipe is to simply be the best you can be every single day. Everyday you either get better or you get worse. That’s what Nick Saban told me. When you get out of bed, when your feet hit the ground, you have to have the confidence and mindset that you need to get better today.”
Ryals, a former Saban assistant at LSU for one year, and the Bulldogs certainly got better in 2013. After finishing 3-7 in 2012 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1998, Ryals guided Thomasville to an 8-4 mark and the second round of the Class AA playoffs.
That turnaround also helped mark Thomasville’s celebration of its 100th season of football. THS, which was known as the Cyclones from 1913-1922 before J.K. Harper brought the Bulldogs moniker with him from the University of Georgia in 1923, has gone 686-321-46 all-time.
No. 2) Record-breaker
It wasn’t the way Adam Choice wanted to break Thomas County Central’s career rushing record, but the Yellow Jackets’ star reached the milestone in his final career game.
Entering Central’s regular-season finale needing 173 yards to surpass his cousin Joe Burns atop the Central rushing mark. Choice needed just one half to reach that as he finished the Harris County game with 262 yards in three quarters before leaving with a dislocated shoulder that ended his Central career. The Jackets also lost that game and their first-round playoff game a week later.
“It would mean a lot if I was able to do it but it would mean a lot more if I did it in a win,” Choice said prior to the Nov. 8 game at Hamilton. “But wither way, that’s not my main concern right now. I’m just trying to get a win Friday night, and if I do it, great; and if I don’t, oh well.”
He did it as he finished his four-year career with 5,095 yards rushing to top Burns’ total of 5,006 that was set in 1997. Not only did Choice pass Burns this year, but also former Central greats Debrale Smiley and Johnny Cooksey, too, as he scaled the list of all-time Jacket greats.
“I think about it every once in a while that I did do something here,” Choice, the all-area MVP, said following the season. “But at the same time, it wasn’t my main goal. I’m proud of it, but it wasn’t what I really wanted. I really want to still be playing right now.
“But I am proud that I accomplished something. It’s something to be proud of.”
No. 3) Playoff success
The last time Thomasville High School had won a baseball playoff series, the Bulldogs won the state championship in 1999.
The fact that THS only won a first-round series May 4 didn’t dull the celebration at all.
Thomasville, which entered the Class AA playoffs as the second seed, needed a pair of comebacks to finally taste some playoff success against visiting Crawford County. THS rallied from a 6-1 hole before losing 11-10 in eight innings of the best-of-3 series. The Bulldogs promptly rebounded to win 8-2 to force the third game.
In the third game, Thomasville fell behind 4-1 before bouncing back to win 7-6.
“It hasn’t set in yet,” THS coach Erik McDougald said after the Bulldogs won their first playoff series since 1999, when THS won the Class AA state championship. McDougald was an assistant coach on that team. “That’s why it hasn’t set in yet. We’ve been close at times, and things just didn’t work out for us.
“To be a two seed and to win a home series, it’s awesome for these seniors but it’s also awesome for these underclassmen. To get a tase of that, and hopefully success breeds success.”
No. 4) Conference champs
One year after joining The Sun Conference, Thomas University got its first conference championship Nov. 16.
The TU men’s soccer team defeated SCAD 6-3 in the conference tournament in Daytona Beach, Fla., to win the championship and secure the program’s first appearance in the NAIA national tournament.
The Night Hawks fell behind SCAD 1-0 just 14 minutes into the title game but rebounded for a 3-1 halftime lead. After the Bees cut the deficit to 3-2, TU quickly added three more goals to grab the crown with conference Player of the Year Rowan Liburd adding two of those.
A week later in the national opener, the Night Hawks dropped a heartbreaker 7-6 on penalty kicks to host Auburn-Montgomery.
No. 5) He’s back
Sometimes you can go home again.
Four years after leaving Brookwood to coach at Taylor County in Florida, Shane Boggs returned to the GISA school in January following a pair of two-year stints in Florida and Tennessee.
Boggs, who led the Warriors to an undefeated GISA Class AA state championship in 2008, was clear as to why he returned to his former gig.
“Once the job was open, I had great interest,” Boggs said Jan. 7 after being hired back at Brookwood. “I don't want to deny my interest because it was high. I had six great years there. I would expect the experience to be even better now that I've got three kids that can enjoy Brookwood.
“I just felt like Brookwood was a great place. It was a great place to work. I just had a great experience, not just with the players, but with the parents, the community, the co-workers. It's a great place to live, Thomasville is.
“My wife (Christa) had taught at four schools. Brookwood was certainly the best experience she had. I can say the same.”
Boggs and Brookwood enjoyed the first year of his second tenure as the Warriors went 6-6 and won a playoff game for the first time since that state championship year. Brookwood also returns its entire offense in 2014.
No. 6) Deep run
In four seasons, the Thomasville girls basketball team won 85 games, three Region 1-AA titles and a region runner-up finish. But the Bulldogs’ senior class saved their best for last.
In March, THS advanced to the state Final Four for the first time since 2004. That was an accomplishment that not even the painful 83-34 to perennial power Wesleyan, could erase.
“We can build from it,” Thomasville coach Thomas McAboy said. “We’ve got girls that can play, and they’ve experienced it and gotten to see what it’s like. Hopefully, they will be hungry going into the offseason.”
It was an offseason of change for the Bulldogs, though, as McAboy accepted the Coffee head coaching job in June with Antonio Wade being named the new THS coach a month later.
No. 7) Milestone win
Cairo High School didn’t win the region football title for the first time in four years.
However, the Syrupmakers got a major win Oct. 25 when it routed visiting Americus-Sumter 35-7. With that victory, Cairo became the 17th program in the state to win 600 games.
“Our program is everything to us,” Cairo coach Tom Fallaw said following that game. “A lot of people came here because of the program. I came here 14 years ago because of it, and I don’t know that I ever want to leave. It’s a good place to coach football. It’s a good place to be with the fans. The school environment is exactly what you’d want it to be. The band, everything about it is just special. The 600 wins is more about the community than it is about us.
“We say it all the time. We’re thankful to be here. It’s a great place to coach. You get lost sometimes, and get mad at certain things. You forget that this is where you want to be. I’ve never disputed that. This is where I want to be, and I make no bones about that.”
The Syrupmakers, who began playing in 1922, have totaled a 602-319-37 record.
No. 8) Program starters
A new era in Thomas University athletics began Oct. 27.
That day, the Night Hawks fielded a men’s basketball team for the first time since 2000. Three days later, TU’s first women’s basketball team also took to the court.
One year after TU joined The Sun Conference, the launching of the basketball programs showed the growth of the Night Hawks’ athletic program. It also led to some enthusiasm and optimism.
“There’s a lot of excitement going on and we’re looking forward to filling this place up,” TU men’s coach Stephen Cox said before the Night Hawks’ first game at the renovated TU gymnasium. “I just want us to compete.
“We have a chance to put Thomas University on the map. We play Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama State. It’ll be on the Bottom Line and that gives Thomas University national media attention it may or may not have had before.”
Added TU women’s coach Coretta Brown: “There’s not too many coaches my age that can say they got to start their own program. I take a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of pride in being the first women’s coach here and I want to make sure that I’m doing it right, and make sure that I’m doing the city of Thomasville justice.”
So far the TU teams are doing just that. With both fixing to resume TSC play Saturday when St. Thomas visits Thomasville, the TU men are 8-4 and 1-1 in the conference, while the TU women are 6-7 and 2-0 in the conference.
No. 9) Tour breakthrough
Midway through his second season on the PGA Tour, Thomasville native Harris English got the finish he had been waiting for.
Firing a final-round one-under 71, English finished 12-under at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn., on June 9 for his first Tour win.
“You dream about it,” English said following the breakthrough performance. “I’ve dreamed about it since I was 11 or 12 years old and to actually live it out and standing on (the 18th hole) with a two-shot lead in a PGA Tour event, it’s unbelievable. It surpasses anything I’ve ever dreamed about.”
The win also means English will realize another dream. Come April, he will get to tee off in the Masters in Augusta.
“It’s unbelievable to be playing in the Masters,” English said. “That’s the one tournament that growing up in Moultrie and Thomasville, that I always watched as a kid. I went up there a couple times to the tournament and it’s one of the greatest golf tournaments in the world.”
No. 10) Cairo’s Cowboy
Another dream came true April 26 when the Dallas Cowboys selected a safety out of Georgia Southern with the 80th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.
With that third-round pick, Cairo product J.J. Wilcox got his wish of a shot in the NFL.
“It doesn’t matter,” Wilcox said early that next week. “Just as long as you get your shot, it doesn’t matter who picked you. All that matters is what you do when you get there. That was my mindset that I had for any organization that I went to.
“Luckily it was the Dallas Cowboys, the Dream Team, America’s Team. They have a lot of great tradition, just like Georgia Southern. So we have a lot of similarity going into it. I think Dallas is a great fit. I was at Georgia Southern where we’re blue and white and the Cowboys are the same way. It’s just perfect. God works in mysterious ways and got me to a team that has a tradition similar to my college team.”