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Callaway graduates enjoying the ride

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

He took a few seconds just to soak it in, to reflect on a moment that’s been so long in the making.

Last week, the Callaway Cavaliers beat Rabun County 41-17 to reach the state-championship game for the first time in the history of the program, and amidst the chaos of the celebration, assistant coach Joe Cameron squatted in the end zone, a smile on his face as the realization of what had just happened struck him.

For Cameron, and three other coaches at the school who also played football at Callaway High, the occasion held a special meaning.

“I tell the kids, I know it means a lot to them, but they don’t realize the magnitude of it,” said Cameron, a 2005 Callaway graduate who helps coach the wide receivers. “There are people like us that have been trying to get that ring for 15, 18 years. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to a lot of people.”

The other Callaway graduates on the coaching staff are Tharius Tigner (linebackers), Jamal Bruce (defensive line), and Andrew Caraway (recruiting and social-media coordinator).

All four men are thrilled to see a program that means so much to them get this opportunity.

Bruce, who graduated in 2010, was a sophomore when Wiggins became head coach, and he was a part of the team that won the program’s first state-playoff game in 2008.

Bruce helped Callaway reach the third round of the playoffs for the first time in 2009, and that season came to an end with a loss to Fitzgerald, next week’s opponent in the championship game.

“When I came here, we were just trying to get there (to state),” said Bruce, who was a standout player at Duke University before returning to his alma mater to begin his coaching career. “Now, we’ve been here knocking on the door and we got over the hump, and now we’re playing to win. It means a lot.”

Tigner was a senior on the 2008 team that went 10-2 and won the program’s first-ever playoff game, and he was a fullback and defensive end.

Tigner has joined the coaching staff this season and has worked with the linebackers, and he has enjoyed the ride.

“It’s been real fun,” Tigner said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, to be a part of this (program).”

When Tigner arrived at Callaway as a freshman in 2005, he was a part of the first team led by Wiggins, who was an assistant coach for three seasons before earning the head-coaching job when Claude Giddens stepped down.

Wiggins, who has a 149-48 career record, had previously led Callaway to the semifinals four times, and now he’s getting his first chance to coach in a championship game.

“He deserves it,” Tigner said. “He’s been doing it for a long time, and it’s good to see him in that game. I’ll be more happy if we win.”

Tigner remembers what it was like as a high-school player, to develop and improve, and he has enjoyed seeing the players he leads do the same thing.

“It makes you feel real good, just to be out here helping out and seeing the guys grow,” Tigner said.

Caraway, who graduated in 2007, played football and baseball at Callaway, and he joined the staff this season to be the recruiting coordinator while handling social media for the team.

When Caraway was at Callaway, he helped the baseball team reach the state semifinals in 2007, and he was a part of the 2006 football team that lost a close one to Washington Wilkes in the first round of the playoffs.

Both the baseball and football programs have thrived over the years, and now one of those teams is finally getting a championship shot.

“We’ve come close,” said Caraway, who also does the play-by-play broadcasts for Callaway. “I was on the ’07 baseball team that was in the semis. We fell short of going to state. We’ve had a couple of opportunities in football, and to see this team and this group of kids make it means a lot. These kids play so well together, and it’s a great group, and I really hope they can win a state championship, because this group deserves it.”

Caraway played for Wiggins, and he has gotten to know him well over the years through his affiliation with the program.

“He’s touched so many people’s lives in a positive way,” Caraway said. “I’d love to see coach Pete Wiggins win state. He deserves it. He’s been through a lot, and he’s built something special here.”

As the clock neared zero last week and Callaway’s win over Rabun County was secured, Cameron made sure to take note of Wiggins’ reaction.

“He was one of the first people I looked at when we were in that victory formation,” Cameron said. “I looked for him, because I know he feels it. You really want him to enjoy it.”

While getting past the semifinals is a big deal after coming up short so many times before, there is still one more game to play.

If Callaway beats Fitzgerald on Tuesday, it will be the first team state championship for any program at the school.

“For me, and probably the kids, too, you’ve been trying to get over the hump so long, when you finally do it’s a great feeling,” said Cameron, who is also a member of the baseball coaching staff at Callaway. “About halfway through, you have to come back down to reality and realize, we’ve got to come win one more. It’s such a big deal to get there. It blows your mind for a few days, and then it’s like, we’ve got to go back to work.”