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Champion Cavaliers get their rings

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

A day they’d been anxiously anticipating for nearly four months finally arrived.

In late December, the Callaway Cavaliers broke through and beat Fitzgerald 22-17 to capture the football program’s long-awaited first state championship.

Not long after that breakthrough win, plans were put in place to provide members of the Callaway football family with championship rings.

A lot went into that effort, from the design aspect, to figuring out a way to fund a project that was not inexpensive.

Finally, everything came together, and with the money and design in place, the rings were created.

Last Sunday during a banquet in the school’s gymnasium, the big day arrived, and the players, coaches, and others associated with the program received their championship rings.

The ring ceremony came at the close of the banquet, more than two hours after it began, and head coach Pete Wiggins stepped to the podium, and with his voice rising, let the players know what was about to happen.

“All that time, all that work men, it’s here,” said Wiggins, Callaway’s head coach since 2005. “I’ve heard it 1,000 times, coach when are we going to get those rings? Get ready, wake up.”

One by one, beginning with senior quarterback Demetrius Coleman, the players walked to the front, received their rings, and proudly posed for photos with teammates, coaches and family members.

“What an incredible journey the 2020 season was,” Wiggins said. “I appreciate every one of you, players, coaches, parents, administrators, community members, that were all a piece of the 2020 state-championship team.”

For the players, who’d seen their season end in the state semifinals the previous two years, putting the ring on, and seeing the word champion inscribed on it, brought it home.

“It really just set in today,” said senior linebacker LaQuize Gilbert, who was named the Class AA defensive player of the year. “During the ceremony, and seeing the rings, and getting them, it’s a feeling like, it’s real.”

Gilbert is a part of a senior class that overcame so much to reach the promised land.

In 2018 and 2019, Callaway made it the state semifinals before falling short, and both losses were excruciating.

For two straight years in the semifinals, the Cavaliers had the ball inside the opponent’s 10-yard-line in the closing moments with a chance to score the winning touchdown, only to come up agonizingly short.

Callaway lost to Rockmart 28-22 in 2018, and it fell to Brooks County 39-35 the following year.

Coleman was the starting quarterback in the Rockmart and Brooks County games, and he felt that hurt as much as anyone, but he came back and enjoyed an exceptional senior season and delivered a big-time performance in the championship game against Fitzgerald.

Since Coleman wears the number one, he was the first player to get his ring, and his smile lit up the gym.

“It means a lot. It’s hard to describe,” Coleman said. “All the adversity, all the hard times we went through, all the knocking on the door and getting so close, to finally get here means a lot. It’s good to be here one last time with my brothers.”

Jalin Shephard, like Coleman a three-year starter, said it was “special” to share the ring ceremony with a group of teammates who mean so much to him.

“At the beginning of the season, I never thought we’d be here, especially dealing with COVID,” Shephard said. “To be here and to have this ceremony with our guys, and to be with them for the last time, it’s a special moment.”

No player made a bigger impact on the team than Shephard, who was a wide receiver, defensive back and punter.

Like so many of his teammates, Shephard earned a bunch of postseason honors, and he was named the Region 5-AA player of the year.

“Winning a state championship doesn’t just come every day,” Shephard said. “So, to win a state championship and receive a ring like this, it’s like a dream come true.”

Senior defensive lineman Caden Prather, who suffered through the losses in previous years, was able to experience the ultimate high in his final season as a high-school player.

“To go on this long journey, and to finally be able to do it and celebrate with guys I love so much, it’s kind of surreal,” Prather said. “It’s crazy. I never thought this was going to happen. It’s amazing.”

One of the team’s number one fans is Jonathan Laney, the former principal at Callaway High who was there every step of the way.

Laney was there through the painful losses in 2018 and 2019, and he was on the sideline at CenterParc Stadium in Atlanta when the Cavaliers won it all.

“These seniors, I’ve watched them every day, and I’ve watched them overcome so many obstacles,” Laney said. “I watched them come so close, and not give up. I’ve seen you re-double your commitment to excellence at every practice. Every time we had one of those failures, I did not see you hang your head. I saw you recommit, and get back at it, and that’s why you’re here today.”

It’s possible Callaway had more talented rosters from top to bottom in previous years, but it was the 2020 team that put it all together.

“It was a team that some said may not be as talented as some teams we’ve had but you had a want-to, and a work ethic,” Wiggins said. “You had a belief that regardless of what happened to you, you could not lose, and I can’t say enough how much respect I have for this group of men right here, and the folks that went in to make that happen.”

Wiggins also has no doubt that what happened before helped pave the way for the team that ultimately knocked the door down.

“The guys that came before you, your brothers, your cousins, your family members, people you know, they put forth so much time and effort,” Wiggins said. “All that work for so many years that created the environment. When so many things went wrong, we made it right.”

Callaway began its season with an impressive 27-7 win over Troup, and it followed that up with victories over Hardaway, Douglass-Atlanta, Thomas County Central and Bremen before losing at Haralson County.

Callaway shrugged off that Haralson setback and finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak to win the Region 5-AA title.

After a first-round bye in the playoffs, Callaway outlasted Lovett 16-9 in a hard-fought game to reach the state quarterfinals.

A 34-21 win over Thomasville powered Callaway into the semifinals, and it beat Rabun County 41-27 to reach its first-ever state-championship game.

Facing a formidable Fitzgerald team that many picked to win the championship coming into the year, Callaway won 22-17 to deliver that long-awaited state title.

Charlie Dixon, who ran for nearly 800 yards in four playoff games, rushed for 237 yards and had a 69-yard scoring run in the championship game.

Coleman did his part by running for 100 yards with a critical touchdown run as the first half expired and he had a touchdown pass to Carlos Billingslea.

Shephard, putting the finishing touches on his spectacular senior season, not only had the game-clinching interception, but his ability to flip the field with his punts was critical.

Gilbert, the physical and emotional leader of the defense, had 14 tackles, and he had a tackle in the end zone in the first half for a safety.

Shephard, who wears the number three and was the third Callaway player to receive his ring, knows how much it means to have that ultimate accomplishment.

“Winning a state championship doesn’t just come every day,” Shephard said. “So, to win a state championship and receive a ring like this, it’s like a dream come true.”

Before the rings were presented, the postseason accolades were handed out.

All of the players who were a part of the all-state and all-region teams were recognized, and also the team awards were given out.

Also, Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard was recognized for being named the assistant coach of the year by Georgia High School Football Daily.

Hubbard, who has enjoyed a stellar tenure as Callaway’s baseball coach, has been the defensive coordinator since 2005, the same year Wiggins became the head coach.

The banquet and ring ceremony lasted for more than three hours, but no one was complaining.

It was a championship celebration a long time coming, and the players and coaches enjoyed every moment of it.

“These are guys that I’ve worked out with, cried with, laughed with, joked with, and to come to this day, it’s amazing,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert and many of his fellow seniors will get the opportunity to play college football.

Gilbert, Shephard, Dixon, Coleman, Austin Thomas, Lathan Patterson, Eli Freeman, Osiris Rivas, Keshawn Suggs and Taylor Smith will all play college football.

While they’re excited about what’s to come, those players will no doubt always look back fondly on their championship season.

“This was our breakthrough year,” Coleman said. “It means a lot. We had two straight years where we lost heart-breakers, and to finally overcome that obstacle, it means a lot.”