Decatur High athletes chased championships throughout 2018Awarded the "Rookie of the Year" for an outstanding freshman performance, Adeline Carlton, pictured above, anchored the Lady Bulldogs' back line. Under Carlton and co-center defender, senior Violet Garcia, the Bulldogs secured their best ever regular season record, losing only once, and beating local rivals St. Pius X 2-0 and Westminster 1-0. The program is graduating 10 seniors this year.
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By Max Tirouvanziam, contributor
For the hundreds of athletes in blue and gold, preparation begins months before they face their first opponents. Some wait three years before finally cracking varsity lineups, while others are staples of their programs from freshman year onwards.
High school sports competition in Georgia, which is separated by school size in categories from 1A to 7A, is typically organized with two levels of play.
First, regular season competition, which sometimes includes a final tournament, determines a team’s placement within the eight-team region; generally, a top-four finish at this level qualifies a team for state-level competition.
The ultimate goal for teams in each of Decatur’s sixteen sports, of course, is to claim the state title. In the 2017-18 season, no Bulldog varsity squad was crowned the best of 5A’s 64 teams.
However, for some teams in competitive sports, playoff qualification itself is a major achievement to be celebrated, while other sports focus attention on individual feats.
Some teams underwent major offseason changes and had to adapt. Other teams had seasons that followed a similar path through a familiar school rival.
A season of change: fall and winter sports
Former Assistant Coach Cody Cory took the reins of Decatur’s football program this season, trying to improve on 2016’s 1-win showing. And that they did: The Bulldogs were competitive again in 2017, finishing with a 4-6 record that put them on the cusp of state playoff qualification.
Aside from changes in game schemes on both sides of the ball, lineman Aiden Prejean noticed a change in the atmosphere around the team under their new coach.
“He’s about the team being together, as a family, more than anything else,” Prejean said. “And he’s more about teaching us life lessons instead of just football.”
The team’s togetherness showed during a critical stretch in late September and October, during which they won three of four games, including a 23-7 win over Lithia Springs on homecoming. They then needed to pick up one more win in their last two games to ensure playoff qualification. The Bulldogs came up short in this last pair of showdowns, against the eventual region champions, Carver High School, and runners-up, Maynard Jackson.
Despite not meeting this major goal, Prejean is hopeful for the Bulldogs chances to make the playoffs for the first time this decade, heading into his senior year.
“[Cory] did good in his first season and the team could’ve done better, but there’s always room to improve,” he said. “It’s going in the right direction.”
Every high school team enters each season with the positions of now-graduated seniors needing to be filled. When a program’s star leaves, though, filling these big shoes often defines a team’s season and requires the efforts of several younger athletes.
Decatur’s top runner in 2016, Sam Ellis, graduated after placing first among 5A runners at the statewide meet. He holds the school record for the fastest 5k time, and now attends Princeton on an athletic scholarship. His absence was felt this season, according to junior runner Graham Cattanach.
“Last year, we could rely on him to carry our team and consistently get top five finishes,” Cattanach said. “Now, we needed a more solid team effort.”
In cross country, teams of seven varsity runners compete in meets throughout the fall, aiming, of course, to finish high on the leaderboard and add the least number of points to their team’s total (lowest cumulative score wins).
A trio of freshmen cracked the varsity lineup on the boys’ side and contributed to good finishes throughout the season.
On the girls’ side, sophomore Haley Rose continued last season’s hot streak, which saw her set the record for Decatur’s best ever female 5K time. She placed first individually in four races this season including the region championships.
After a disappointing loss to Grady at the region meet, the girls and boys teams looked to the state meet in Carrollton, seeking to improve on last year’s respective sixth and seventh-place ranks. The girls team finished 14th at the state meet in Carrollton, with Rose leading the way with a fourth-place overall finish. Freshman Eoin McNally stepped up for injured and ill teammates, placing 15th as his team finished 10th.
“We didn’t have the best performance at state, but it’s always fun to run there,” Cattanach, who represented Decatur at Carrollton, said. “It’s a really cool atmosphere since there’s so many more people than at other races.”
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In other fall and winter sports
After a solid regular season, the Bulldogs only dropped one game on their way to the region championship, beating North Springs in two games. They swept Southwest DeKalb in the first state playoff round, but then the Lady Bulldogs fell to Walnut Grove in the Round of 16.
A strong senior class led the volleyball team to state playoffs, winning in the first round against Flowery Branch. They fell in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, losing in straight sets to Chamblee.
The class of 2018 has had members on the varsity for all four years, who showed out at the Chuck Miller Classic tournament in December. However, a 3-11 record in region play forced the team to play-in for a spot in the state tournament. After upsetting rivals Grady, Decatur lost in the second round of these region playoffs to Banneker.
The Lady Bulldogs started off their season strong, with three wins in three games at the Tip-Off Classic. They dropped in only two games in region play all year, leading to a three seed entering state playoffs. Once there, however, they suffered a heavy loss in the first round to a strong Arabia Mountain team.
Five wrestlers qualified for the state competition, where the team finished in 27th place. Senior Kaden Spann reached the podium with a 5th place finish in the sub-132 category.
A year after missing out on all but one state race due to a clerical error, the Swim Dawgs qualified for dozens of events at the state meet at Georgia Tech on Feb. 3. The girls ranked 11th collectively, while the boys got 14th place.
Grady emerges as Decatur’s new rival for spring sports
After transitioning from 3A to 5A entering the 2016-17 year, Decatur found itself in a new region with less familiar opponents. Gone were the days of annual showdowns in every sport with Blessed Trinity, Westminster, and Marist; instead, the Bulldogs found themselves playing bigger, public schools, mostly inside-the-perimeter.
Entering their second 5A seasons, Bulldog teams each had different games marked as rivalry showdowns. In February and March, Decatur’s soccer and lacrosse programs found themselves in direct competition with Grady’s team for region championships and playoff spots. The Bulldogs won all four of their showdowns with the Knights, but the heated games between the teams ensured that this matchup will be on the minds of Decatur athletes in seasons to come.
Girls lacrosse midfielder Sophia Deluca scored three goals in her team’s away game at Grady.
“It was an intense game,” she said. “There were a ton of Grady kids who came out and were yelling at us.”
The 14-6 win proved crucial for the Lady Bulldogs, as did the boys team’s 19-3 home win over the Knights. Both teams qualified for state playoffs for the first time in any of the players’ careers, taking third and fourth-place region standings spots that Grady had secured for years prior. Though their appearances in the state tournaments were short-lived, just playing in a postseason game was a major goal the Lax Dogs had been working towards for a while.
“It was exciting to make the playoffs,” Deluca, a junior, said. “We had to beat teams we’d consistently lost to in the past … to get there.”
Decatur’s soccer programs, in contrast, have consistently been making playoffs and entered their respective seasons with high hopes.
“Our main goal was to win every game, play hard, and try to make state finals,” senior forward Josh Sumo said.
Their games against Grady essentially served as region championship games. In March, the boys team played Grady away in one of Decatur’s most intense athletic contests of the season.
After entering overtime tied 1-1, Decatur scored early and led for most of the extra period, but a last second goal by the Knights forced the game into a penalty shootout. It took 15 tense rounds of kicks for the teams to be separated.
Sumo scored two penalty kicks in the shootout, and remembered it as one of the season’s best performances.
“When we went to PK’s, it felt nervous,” Sumo said. “But everybody who had the chance to step up took great PK’s, and that helped out a lot.”
The girls team dispatched Grady 2-0 at home to claim their region title, and turned to the state playoffs with their eyes on the prize.
Both soccer teams cruised through the first two rounds of state play, getting the elusive achievement of double quarterfinal qualification.
The girls team dominated possession in their home game against Whitewater, but two goals conceded off of corner kicks eliminated them, 2-1. Decatur’s goal in the opening minutes was one of only two against Whitewater all postseason, as the Wildcats went on to beat McIntosh in the tournament final.
The boys team, in contrast, beat Whitewater 2-0 and waited to see which rival they would face in the semis: Grady or McIntosh. The latter prevailed and moved on to Decatur Stadium on May 8.
The Bulldogs’ only loss of the regular season had come at the hands of McIntosh in early February. A large crowd, rivaling that of football games, watched on as McIntosh held Decatur scoreless through regulation, and then Decatur had two solid chances at goal miss during extra time. In penalties, each team scored their first four shots, before a McIntosh save gave the Chiefs the opportunity they needed to reach the final. Disappointed fans filed out of the stadium after applauding the Bulldogs’ effort, as Decatur lost its last chance at a ring for this sports season.
“We played a hell of a game and everybody worked hard,” Sumo said of his last high school game with the senior-packed team. “Throughout the season, we were like a big family: everyone was supporting each other and working hard for each other.”
In other spring sports
A senior class with multiple college commits led the Bulldogs to a 15-1 record and a corresponding region championship. They then beat Lithonia 2-0 in their first playoff series before falling to Buford in two close home games.
Track and Field
Athletes including both 4×100 relay team and girls 400-meter runners had strong showings throughout the season, and two long distance runners qualified for state competition.
The team, Decatur’s smallest, missed the cut for state qualification by 15 shots (a small margin for overall team scores).
Only one senior, Adam Lagyak, played for either team this year. The girls team lost in the first round of state playoffs to Chamblee. After seeming poised for a deep run in the tournament, an injury to a top player on the boys team led to them falling to Carrollton, 3-2, in the second round.
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