Athletes for all seasons
Multi-sport standouts choose to make a difference
by Doug Gorman and Chris Goltermann
At a time when bears are hibernating and the birds are headed south … well, farther south than here … winter can bring a bit of a lull - even when it comes to high school athletes in Coweta County.
Compared to fall and spring under the warm Georgia sun, sports sometimes can't measure up as far as participation through the year's coldest months.
The bright lights of football Fridays and the offerings provided by youth leagues and club programs locally in football, softball, volleyball, baseball, soccer and lacrosse have succeeded in producing college-level athletes.
Meanwhile, the national trend toward specialization along with independence for teenagers in an age of iPhones and social media are among the driving forces in the decline of multi-sport athletes.
But they certainly are making their contributions known this winter, even if what they do on the field of play in the fall and spring leads them to greater achievements in college.
It may also make them better athletes.
'From a teaching standpoint, kids who are in sports are usually not in trouble,' said Northgate girls head basketball coach Matt Trucks, whose lineup is littered with players that star during softball, soccer and track seasons.
'Their grades are fine, they learn how to manage their time. You find that rare student who plays three sports and is also taking AP classes. What they are learning is something they can take on after college, when they get into the real world when they have kids and a regular job. They are learning to manage their time.'
Scan the county and there's a host of star athletes from fall and spring choosing to stay active during the winter. Lady Vikings Ebonee Echols (softball) and Katie Mitchell (soccer) have verbally committed to schools in respective sports.
But playing basketball provides its rewards as well - namely fellowship.
'I am a softball player first,' Echols said 'I just like being out here on the basketball floor with my friends and teammates.'
Both of Northgate's leading scorers in basketball - Echols and Viking junior Wendell Watson - play multiple sports.
A year ago, Mitchell was part of Northgate's Class AAAAA girls soccer championship as a sophomore starter. On Sunday, she made a verbal commitment to play at the University of West Georgia, where last year's title game was played.
'I love the game of basketball, but I have more experience in soccer,' she said. 'I guess I am better with my feet, but basketball is a lot of fun.'
The dedication of a twosport athlete can produce exhausting nights that, at times, often end well after midnight. Among private schools in the GISA, where enrollment is much lower than Coweta's public schools, multi-sport athletes are essential to keeping programs on course.
At The Heritage School, well over half of girls and boys basketball teams are involved in at least one other sport. They include four-time GISA crosscountry champion Ruthie Powell.
'I've probably played every sport possible. I've always like them since I was little,' Powell said. 'I enjoy playing basketball as much as I do cross-country.'
Trinity Christian basketball teams equally follow the same pattern. Lady Lions standout Ashley Caldwell showcased her versatility in the fall as a key contributor off the bench during the program's third consecutive GISA state volleyball championship in an undefeated season.
Yet whether within the GISA or GHSA, taking on a second or third sport can be a juggling act.
'It's hectic because your are trying to juggle school and practice, but it can also be rewarding,' said senior basketball and track athlete Quianna LeBlanc, who is aiming on continuing her track career at Kennesaw State while focusing on the 400 meters as well as the 400 and 1,600 relays for the Lady Vikings. 'If you really love a sport, it makes you feel good about yourself and you can get everything done.'
At Newnan, softball standout Chaycie Goggins has been a team leader on the basketball floor, highlighted by her game-winning basket last Friday against rival East Coweta. An intense game featured Lady Indians Shemiah Sanchez and Mekhia Freeman, both of whom battled Goggins in the fall for first place in Region 3-AAAAAA.
Sanchez also knows softball will be her chance to earn a college scholarship, verbally committing to LSU after competing internationally last summer as a member of the Puerto Rico junior national team. The squad played against other nations in the ISF World Championships in Canada.
Sanchez has been balancing her athletic and academic life for many years, but she admits she thrives because of her busy lifestyle.
'I stay up late a lot of nights to get my work done, but I really don't mind it,' she said.
She has no plans on slowing down because of all the success that has come her way.
'I am not there yet,' she said. 'I have to keep working.'
One of the biggest skills athletes have to learn when playing more than one sports has nothing to do with accumulating stats on the field or on the court.
Much deals with time management- a way to balance academics and athletics, and succeed in both.
'School always comes first.,' Freeman said. 'If I don't get good grades, I can't play sports.'
By contributing outside their primary sport, they've also been able to strengthen the program of their secondary sport.
Softball teammates Courteney Darrow and Lindsay Stewart, this year's Newnan Times-Herald Player of the Year, have been major contributors to the Lady Cougars swim program without having any previous experience when they started in their first two years of high school.
Darrow, a starting first baseman in the fall, is closing in on a state-qualifying time in the 100-yard backstroke.
'Lindsay came because her older sister swam and told her how much fun it was. Courteney just blindly followed Lindsay,' said swim coach Courtney Stillwell while addressing her seniors at Tuesday's county trimeet. 'Four years later, they are seniors and leaving together after making this team stronger and bringing swimming to new heights at NHS.'
Which isn't to say winter doesn't stack up. Basketball programs, including boys teams at Newnan High and The Heritage School, have thrived because their athletes play at the AAU level outside of varsity play while also including multiple-sport standouts like Cougar senior Tonarius Portress and Hawks sophomore Cole Jones.
Meanwhile, youth wrestling programs like the Coweta Cobras and the East Coweta Elite have experienced surges in participation for arguably the most evenly-matched of any high school sport pitting individuals against one another on the same field of play.
East Coweta juniors Kevin Lashley and Dawson Ellis have made the commitment to the sport, as has Newnan junior Christian Shellabarger, in a school year dominated by football, which outside of a grueling regular season, also includes conditioning and two weeks of spring practice.
All three athletes were selected to the Times-Herald's All-County Football team last month.
Staying in shape was as much a draw for Lashley to connect football season in the fall with track season in the spring while as much a standout in all three sports.
'What I found was that wrestling really helps keep up my conditioning,' said Lashley, who was a county champion at 182 pounds in December after taking to the mat for the first time as a sophomore last year.
'It really makes a difference.
The thing about wrestling is that anybody can do it and it's more of an individual sport.
Everyone's matched up at the same level [with weight].'
Lashley was selected to the Second Team All-Region 3-AAAAAA Football team and reached the GHSA State Track Championships in both the 300-hurdles and as a member of the Indians' qualifying 400relay team.
Both Lashley and Ellis -who won a county championship as a heavyweight last month - have made an impact according to East Coweta head wrestling coach Josh Herring.
'Having him in the wrestling room gives us a leader in the upper middle weights after not having much leadership in those spots for a couple of years,' Herring said. 'Kevin and Dawson are both 'yes, sir' guys. When I ask them to do something it gets done … and quickly.
As far those who believe the positives outweigh the negatives for those athletes who don't limit themselves to just one season to success beyond high school, Trucks is near the top of the list.
'I think it is great to see kids playing more than one sport, ' Trucks said. 'In the day where it's all about AAU and clubs, a lot of kids are told they have to concentrate on one sport if they want to go to college. I think that is bogus. If you're [a Division I athlete] and are that high of a level, to some extent, that might be true. But I know kids who played multiple sports who are playing in the WNBA.
So you can't tell me playing more than one sport hurts kids. If kids are good enough, schools will find them.'