One team celebrated its first state championship. Another team enjoyed the excitement of its first year back in action after a half-century absence.
Two of the top local stories of 2013 involved football. Aquinas became the first Augusta team to win a state title in 18 years, and Paine College restarted its football program from scratch.
Here are the top local sports stories from the past year:
1 AQUINAS WINS IT ALL: The Irish went 14-0 and knocked off Calvary Day, 27-7, in the championship tilt to claim the Class A private school championship at the Georgia Dome.
Despite enduring 41 losing campaigns in the past 57 years, Aquinas began its turnaround under coach Matt LeZotte in 2009.
Two years later, the Irish advanced to the state quarterfinals for the first time. After LeZotte left to take an assistant coaching position at Wayne County and standout running back/linebacker Brendan Douglas graduated, some thought the Irish would take a step back.
Instead, Aquinas posted 52 points in a season-opening win over East Laurens. Two weeks later, the Irish knocked off George Walton in overtime. Then Aquinas defeated Lincoln County 42-14 on Oct. 11 for the first time since 1972.
In the regular-season finale, the Irish edged First Presbyterian Day, 33-32, to go 10-0 and win their first Region 7-A title. In the playoffs, Aquinas handled Savannah Christian before holding off Mount Paran Christian in the quarterfinals. In a rainy semifinal matchup at Mt. Pisgah Christian, the Irish trailed by six with 5:32 left in the game. With 19 seconds remaining, John Morris hauled in a 5-yard touchdown pass from Liam Welch. Then, Justin Thompson nailed the extra point for the win.
In the state championship, Aquinas got off to a slow start, but the defense stepped up with five sacks and three interceptions. With the Irish up seven in the third quarter, Antonio Clark made a juggling interception. On the next play, Welch threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Lindsey. The sequence of events pushed the margin to 14 points as the Irish pulled away for the victory.
2 PAINE FOOTBALL RETURNS: After a 51-year absence, it was a busy year for the Lions, who announced the hiring of Greg Ruffin as its head coach in March. Afterward, he brought in a coaching staff, recruited 161 players, added a locker room, converted an old building into a weight room and added coaches offices. And Ruffin fielded a team that went 3-1 in its club season.
“I’d give it an ‘A’,” Ruffin said of his third rebuilding job in his coaching tenure. “I have far more resources than I’ve had in the past. I think the community is behind it, even though I think the perception was ‘Can they pull it off’? I think everybody knows now we more than pulled it off. It’s here.”
Paine will start its first season in Division II in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2014.
3 ADAM SCOTT WINS THE MASTERS: Scott made history in April when he became the first Australian to claim the year’s first major.
Scott trailed by one entering the final round, but closed with three birdies on the final six holes. He rolled in a 25-foot putt on the 72nd hole to give him a one-shot lead before 2009 Masters Tournament champion Angel Cabrera forced a sudden-death playoff with a seven-foot birdie putt of his own.
In the playoff, Cabrera almost won when his chip shot narrowly missed the cup at No. 18. On the second hole – the par-4 10th – Scott seized the opportunity. After Cabrera missed his long birdie attempt, Scott rolled in his 15-foot birdie putt, lifting his arms to the heavens as the ball fell in the hole.
4 PALACE MALICE WINS BELMONT: It was a year to remember for Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable. After finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby and then not competing in the Preakness, the 3-year-old colt claimed the final leg of the Triple Crown in June.
After rain soaked the Elmont, N.Y., track the day before, the Todd Pletcher-trained Palace Malice ran the 1½ miles in 2:30.70. He surged past Oxbow with a quarter-mile to go and stormed to the Belmont Stakes victory.
One month later, Mike Smith rode Palace Malice to victory at the Jim Dandy Stakes in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
5 THE RIVERHAWKS GO DORMANT: Augusta’s second minor-league hockey team played the final eight home games of the 2012-13 season at the Augusta Ice Sports Center after a broken ice system at James Brown Arena forced the move.
The RiverHawks announced in May they would not play the 2013-14 season, taking a one-year leave of absence from the Southern Professional Hockey League.