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Callaway’s championship team celebrated

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

It was a championship celebration years in the making.

Less than a week after the Callaway Cavaliers beat Fitzgerald 22-17 for the program’s first state title, coaches and players on the team, as well as community leaders, gathered at Your Pie Pizza in downtown LaGrange for the final Eagle 102.3 Coach’s Show of the year.

Usually, the only guest is Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins, but the show was extended to include a number of other guests as well, including a handful of players who were proudly wearing their jerseys.

Andrew Caraway, a member of the Callaway coaching staff and the play-by-play announcer for the radio broadcast, was the host for the event.

“It feels great,” said a smiling Wiggins, who led the Cavaliers to the state title in his 16th season as the team’s head coach. “So much work went into getting to this point. I’m really proud of our players. Day in and day out, the ups and

downs of the season, and just to keep believing in what we do, believing in one another, it’s such a special group, and it’s such a tribute to the character of our football team.”

The Cavaliers have flirted with championships numerous times before.

The Cavaliers have been one of the state’s most successful programs for a decade, and before this season, they’d reached the state semifinals four times since 2013.

After so many close calls, the Cavaliers broke through in a big way last year, and they completed their magical season with a victory over the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.

“I’m really proud of those guys. They’re tough. They’re just darn good football players,” Wiggins said. “I’m really proud of our coaching staff. They put in many hours, and they just keep believing in what we do. It’s a long season. It’s our community, the families that supported us, the businesses. So much goes into playing at a high level. So many people contribute to our program, to get it to where it’s at. All the former Cavaliers that came before that have been out there on the field and in the weight room over the years, to elevate the expectation of when we do out on the field, regardless of what opponent it is, that we’re going to win the ballgame. There are so many people that this state championship affects, and there are so many people that contributed, that made a huge effort to make us better.”

One of the players who helped Callaway win that state title is quarterback Demetrius Coleman, who was so instrumental during the championship run.

Coleman was the starting quarterback in 2018 and 2019 when the Cavaliers lost two heart-breaking games in the state semifinals, and he was thrilled to be able to close his high-school career with a title.

“It meant everything,” Coleman said. “From the ninth grade, really coming up in the eighth grade, and putting in the work every day, running gassers every day. We had long practices. We got out what we put in.”

Senior running back Charlie Dixon, who ran for nearly 800 yards in four playoff games, was wearing a wide grin as he talked about what the state title meant to him.

“It’s a moment that you’ll never forget,” Dixon said. “It’s a moment that you dream of as a kid, running through your house, telling your mom, hey mom, one day I’m going to be playing in the state-championship game. One day I’m going to be in the Super Bowl. It’s a moment that makes you smile, and it warms your heart.”

Like Coleman and Dixon, wide receiver and defensive back Jalin Shephard was a key member of those 2018 and 2019 teams, and he well remembers the bitter disappointment of coming so close, only to fall agonizingly short.

In last week’s championship game, Shephard ended the suspense with an interception close to the goal-line as time expired.

“We were in the fourth round two straight years and we came up short,” Shephard said. “So, to make that last play and end my high-school career (like that), it meant a lot.”

Senior defensive lineman Caden Prather has been on the team since he was a freshman, and he’s still struggling to come to terms with the reality of what he and his teammates accomplished.

“I played all four years. Each year before this, we lost, and it ended in a heart-breaking defeat,” Prather said. “For our last year to finally win it all and end on a good note, it’s pretty insane. It’s kind of unbelievable. It’s like a movie that we’re in.”

Senior linebacker Austin Thomas missed the first two playoff games with an injury, but he was able to return for a semifinal victory over Rabun County, and he was on the turf at Georgia State’s stadium as Callaway won it all.

“It means a lot,” Thomas said. “The years before we haven’t been able to make it, and just to even go to the state championship was amazing. And then to win it, knowing everybody put in so much work to get there, and in a year like this, it meant a lot to us.”

Two of the coaches who led the way throughout the season were also on hand for Monday’s celebration.

Dusty Hubbard has been Callaway’s defensive coordinator since 2005, the same year Wiggins took over as head coach.

Hubbard has also enjoyed an ultra-successful tenure as Callaway’s baseball coach, and he has led that team to numerous deep playoff runs.

“First of all, you feel really blessed. God’s blessed us in so many ways,” Hubbard said. “You get an appreciation for how hard it is. It was difficult to do this. I’ve been to the semifinals now seven or eight times when you count football and baseball. That’s so difficult to take it a step further and get to the state-championship game, and then to win the state-championship game.”

It is, Hubbard added, “an accumulation of a lot of hard work. I feel really happy for coach Wiggins, having been with him for 16 years. I’ve seen the work he’s put in, day in and day out. And also the whole coaching staff did an unbelievable job. They came to work every day, and our young guys just did a really good job. I’m proud for all those guys.”

While Hubbard is a veteran on the coaching staff, Zach Giddens is a new-comer.

In his first season as offensive coordinator, Giddens helped Callaway break through and win that elusive title.

“It was amazing,” said Giddens, whose father Claude Giddens was Callaway’s head coach from 2002 to 2004. “So much hard work was put in by our athletes, and our coaching staff, starting all the way back when Covid hit through the Zoom meetings, and the summer program with limited number of kids, going through fall camp, just the hard work put in through the whole season. It was really special.”

One of the team’s top supporters is principal Jonathan Laney, who commiserated with the players and coaches following the close losses in 2018 and 2019.

When the Cavaliers won it all last week, Laney was on the field, smiling, and hugging anyone he came into contact with.

“First and foremost, I am the principal, but I’m also a huge fan,” Laney said. “Being able to watch these boys go out there and compete every week, and seeing how hard they work at practice, I’m proud of them win, lose or draw. I’m proud of the hard work they’ve put in.”

As he relished this championship, Laney recalled the painful losses the players had in earlier years.

“Each year as principal, with the boys, I’ve had to endure that heartache at the end of the season,” Laney said. “We’ve gotten so close so many times. To watch that heartache in the eyes of our coaches and the eyes of our boys, and to endure that as a fan has been difficult.”

The feelings, obviously, were drastically different last week.

“As a fan, it was so exciting,” Laney said. “As a school, this is huge for our program. I’m so proud of coach Pete Wiggins. He’s put in 16 years of hard work as head coach at Callaway High School. I can’t think of a more deserving individual to win a state championship. He’s a humble, hard-working guy that just impressed me every day. His coaching had to work so hard, and these seniors, my lord, the things they’ve been through. They just deserve it so much. It means the world to us.”

Hogansville mayor Bill Stankiewicz, who was a part of the celebration, said “I can’t tell you how exciting it was for the city.”

“It’s not only the winning, it’s great to win a state championship, but it’s what it means to these young men, and how the coaches provided them with an opportunity that they may not normally have had,” Stankiewicz added. “The effort that they put in, you can’t say enough about them. They’re doing their school work, and they’re doing all of this of it. It’s phenomenal.”

LaGrange mayor Jim Thornton called it “a great accomplishment.”

“That is a big deal for any school,” Thornton added. “I know it’s something that Callaway has been working toward and has been close to. This was a team of destiny this year. We are so incredibly proud of the players, the parents, the coaches, the teachers, everybody who made it happen.”

As Wiggins reflected on the Cavaliers’ championship season, he remembered those days in the spring and summer when there was doubt as to whether the team would even get an opportunity to compete.

“We really didn’t know if we were going to get to play,” Wiggins said. “We lost our preseason scrimmages, we lost a couple of games on the schedule, big high-profile games, too, that I know the kids were looking forward to playing in. And then we’re dealing with quarantines, and injuries, and just the ups and downs of every season that everybody deals with. To have the opportunity to go out on the field and play, what a special season.”

After Callaway went 7-1 and won a region championship in the shortened regular season, it beat Lovett, Thomasville, Rabun County and Fitzgerald to capture the state title.

“We went on a run in the playoffs that was very special,” Wiggins said. “I know the kids appreciate the teams we played against, and the teams that we beat. I think down the road they’ll value that even more. It was really special programs that we competed against, and that we beat in the playoffs, teams that have very good players, and very good coaches, and a lot of tradition. And to go head-to-head with Lovett, and Rabun County, Fitzgerald, Thomasville, those are the elite program, and they were tough ballgames each week. I think it’s a great testimony to the character of our football team, and their work ethic each day at practice.”