Two Decatur High sports teams reached new heights in the 2018-2019 school yearThe Decatur High girls lacrosse team had a historic run this year. Photo by Keson Graham
By Max Tirouvan, contributor
Sports at Decatur High School are divided into three distinct seasons— fall, winter and spring— which allows for some students to participate in several sports. But it also allows for support to be shared among programs: a soccer player can lead chants at basketball games, baseball players can hype up football games, and so on. When energy gets going around a certain team, it can push them further and create memorable moments for everyone.
Two teams, the baseball and girls lacrosse teams, made historic runs this year.
Fall and Winter Sports
Football: Over the summer, the field at Decatur Stadium flooded, forcing the athletic department to re-turf the whole thing. As a result, the football team only had three real home games in the 2018 season, the first one being in October. They didn’t make playoffs but it was a hell of a season. The team lost crucial starters early on: seniors quarterback R.J. Walker and two-way player Antonio Kilgore, among others.Their teammates, notably quarterback James Swank and running back Martize Smith, stepped up, and kept the team in contention for a state playoff berth throughout the season. Walker returned in a big win over Grady but went down again just one game later, against Riverwood. Decatur stayed in the running for the fourth region spot until the very last game, a crushing one-possession home loss against Carver, which meant that they finished in fifth, one spot away from qualifying.
The team has a big contingent of graduated seniors heading to the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky, featuring Kilgore, Smith, defensive back Chris Stephens, wide receiver Andre Carter, and defensive lineman Marcus Hood. Walker will play quarterback at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, and defensive back Hunter Harris will attend Georgia Preparatory Sports Academy.
Cross country: Cross country’s season consists of a handful of 5k meets, and based off those results and practice performance, coaches select 7 girls and boys runners to compete at the state meet in Carrollton and earn points for their team overall. At state this year, the boys finished third and the girls got eighth. Sophomore Eoin McNally, freshman Christian Gonzalez, and senior Sam Amick finished 7th, 8th, and 12th on the boys side, while junior Haley Rose led the girls with a time of 20:27, finishing 12th.
Softball: The most compact sport in terms of scheduling, softball was a high scoring affair at Decatur in the 2018 season. Regularly reaching double digit runs, the Bulldogs finished qualified for the state playoffs, beating out North Springs for third place in the region. They lost away in the first round to Carrollton in two games.
Volleyball: Former JV coach Yvett Battles joined Kim Buckley in charge of the volleyball team in 2018. A loss against Riverwood kept the Bulldogs from the region title, but they secured second place by winning every other region game. When state playoffs came around, they beat Kell 3 sets to none at home before losing 3-0 against Chamblee. Senior Annalisa Mendoza is playing at the University of South Carolina– Upstate next year.
Boys Basketball: In their first year under head coach Luke Cross, the team faced roster adversity, with only three seniors staying on the varsity squad the whole season. An early home win against Grady was a high point of region play, as the Bulldogs lost to Banneker in region playoffs and thereby missed out on the state 5A tournament.
Girls Basketball: The girls team was also shorthanded for much of the year. A handful of close region games shaped their season, including competitive games with Riverwood, which they split 1-1, and an overtime win over Lithia Springs in the region tournament which gave Decatur a 3-seed in the state tournament. They lost away to Carrollton in first round by 11 points.
Wrestling: For the first time, the Bulldogs had a girls wrestling team, with six members, which sent two wrestlers to the state meet, sophomore Sam Gagnon and freshman Hannah Choi. Five boys wrestlers also qualified, and in the boys team wrestling tournament, the Bulldogs lost in first round to Harris County.
Swimming: The team’s goal at each meet is essentially to qualify individual and team events for the state meet by making times, and the Swim Dawgs started off fast towards this goal. They qualified in all six relay events, and at State in February, at Georgia Tech, seniors Nadine Abrahamse and Jane Pfeufer, and sophomores Hally Laney and Annie Pfeufer achieved first place in the 400-yard freestyle. Jane will swim at Ithaca College in New York.
Historic runs for spring sports teams
All five of the spring season’s school-sponsored team sports made playoff appearances after success in region play, but two stood out in particular for the impact and history their runs made.
Girls lacrosse: The girls lacrosse program has been steadily improving over the past four years, and to keep this up, Coach Jessica Mayer scheduled tough opponents for the early, non-region part of her team’s season. At one point in the early stretch, the team was on a four-game losing streak against private schools and big, 7A public schools.
“It was kinda demoralizing,” senior midfielder Sophia Deluca said, “but we knew we were doing it to get better.”
Some of Decatur’s region games, by contrast, were ones they knew they’d win by double digit margins. Deluca, a captain who’d been on the team since eighth grade, and her teammates recognized the high variation in the level of different opposition throughout the season. It made more sense to measure success by evaluating their own performance rather than strictly looking at the results of games. The Bulldogs decided to approach regular season games with the mindset that, “we play first to better ourselves, and second to win.”
The girls lacrosse team had another signature win right before spring break, only this one was historic. St. Pius on March 28 at home was a big point of emphasis all season long. With the largest crowd of the season thus far in attendance, the Bulldogs got off to a fast start and beat St. Pius for the first time in program history, 18-9.
“We knew something was different [when we beat St. Pius],” Deluca said. “It pretty much cemented having a home playoff game.”
That was also a feat they’d never accomplished before. Teams need to finish first or second in their region to have a state-level game on their home field, and as the Bulldogs had never beaten St. Pius or Marist before 2019, they’d always finish below the top two.
Leading up to the playoff game against North Oconee, the Bulldogs prepared for their opponent with a new sense of “owing it” to the home crowd that they hadn’t had in past years with only away playoff games. Decatur blew them out, 15-4, setting up a matchup at a powerhouse Westminster team.
“We carried the high energy into that game,” Deluca said. “Instead of just trying not to lose badly, we felt like we could win this.”
They lost the game 10-5, having made it further than any other Decatur girls lacrosse team.
Deluca expressed pride in her time as a Bulldog, especially after a season that she characterized as a “turning point” for the program.
“There’s been a huge change in the skill level [of the team], as well as the legitimacy of girls lacrosse as a sport at Decatur,” she said. “And we were infinitely closer than we’d ever been as a team. I’m confident in the future of the program, but also proud that we [graduating seniors] made our mark.”
Two girls lacrosse players, goalie Kristina Jones and field player Maddie Myers, are continuing their careers at Berry College.
Baseball: After losing several Division I-bound seniors last year, expectations for the Decatur baseball team weren’t as high as they’d been in 2018. The Bulldogs were working to prove something though, and early on, they built excitement and a tight team chemistry that carried them deeper than any Decatur team since the 1940s.
“Our mindset was to ‘do it for each other,’” senior first baseman John Griffin Stanford said.
The power of their chemistry and roster showed itself against adversity in a big win in early March. Late to their game at Grayson because of a bus issue, the Bulldogs went out into the cold against the 7A powerhouse without warming up, and mercy ruled them, 10-0.
“It showed that we had the playmakers, and we could bring the energy when we needed it against a super deep program,” Stanford said.
The Decatur Bulldogs would go undefeated in region play, as did the Grayson Rams, on their way to a third consecutive region title.
For Stanford, the playoff run in late April and May was “heaven on earth for a high school baseball player.” Each round featured a best-of-3 series played at the higher seed’s field, and, by virtue of their region title and luck in a virtual coin flip, Decatur had home field advantage through the semifinals.
Series were about a week apart. Decatur dispatched Rome in the first round (mercy ruling them in the second game), Walnut Grove in the second round, and Harris County in the quarters.
On Tuesday, May 14, hundreds of fans, including a contingent from the opposing Ola High School of Henry County, piled into the stands and set up lawn chairs around the fences for Decatur’s biggest home game in years. The Bulldogs came back from four runs down to force extra innings in Game 1, where they lost 11-10. It started to get dark, and Decatur fell behind early in the second, must-win game.
“Towards the end, when it was looking kinda bleak for us, I was standing on first base and I looked up and I thought, ‘This is so cool,’” Stanford said. “The entire Decatur community had showed up. It was the most people I’d ever seen at McKoy [Park], and I’ve seen some packed games there.”
Ola took Game 2 by a score of 6-4 to advance to the 5A state final games at SunTrust Park, where they lost to Loganville.
Stanford, who’s played the game his whole life, counts his baseball experiences as formative, and some of the best of high school.
“Playing at McKoy Park is something I’ll never be able to forget,” he said. “It’s helped shape me.”
Senior pitcher Tucker Jones committed to play at Brevard College in North Carolina.
In other spring sports:
Golf: A relatively new group on the boys team was joined by the biggest girls golf team in Decatur history. The team missed qualifying for state by a small margin, while having every member from both the boys and girls advance to the second round of the area tournament.
Boys Lacrosse: Under new coach Randall Archer, the boys lacrosse team competed in what’s maybe the toughest region in all of Decatur sports, featuring Marist and St. Pius. Back-to-back close wins against North Springs and Grady put the Bulldogs through to state playoffs as a 3-seed for the region. They lost to Greater Atlanta Christian in the first round.
Boys Soccer: The Bulldogs went undefeated through region play, securing the region championship again after a win over rivals Grady on March 22. The team experienced a downturn after spring break and the corresponding end of region play, losing three straight to Blessed Trinity, McIntosh, and Woodward. They were shocked in the first round of playoffs by a strong four-seed team of Rome, losing 2-0. Senior and four-year varsity forward Sebastian Allowitz led the team with 21 goals.
Girls Soccer: A loss to Grady kept the Bulldogs from securing another region title, but they rounded out the regular season with a win over tough opponent Woodward. They kept a clean sheet through the first two games of state, beating 1-seed Chamblee in the second round. The team was down several key players however, including the injured Cece Rose and questionably disqualified Grace Williams, resulting in a 4-1 loss to eventual champions McIntosh. Madison Myles is playing soccer at Howard University next year.
Boys Tennis: In what senior Connor Hettinger described as a “transition year” under a new coach, the boys team qualified for state playoffs, losing in the first round to Carrollton. The program is looking forward to the arrival of a group of rising freshmen, who competed on the JV team for the 2019 season.
Girls Tennis: With big wins over region opponents Riverwood and North Springs, the girls team secured second place in the region and the corresponding state playoff spot. After beating Hiram 3-0 in the first round of playoffs, they fell to 1-seed Chamblee in the second round by a score of 4-1.
Track and Field: Five individuals qualified for Sectionals in track, and based on their performances there, three qualified for the state meet: junior Layla Senter for discus and shotput, and sophomore Eoin McNally and freshman Christian Gonzalez running middle and long distance races. Eli Prejean committed to run track at Culver-Stockton College in Missouri.
Ultimate Frisbee: Ultimate Frisbee operates as a club at Decatur, but competes in tournaments and regular season games against many of the same schools as school-sponsored sports teams do. A senior-heavy boys team made strong runs at the two biggest tournaments of their season. At the Terminus Tournament in March, the Bulldogs upset a team from Charlotte before losing to Lakeside. At the state tournament in May, a loss to Lakeside eliminated them from the winners’ bracket again. The girls team, in only its second year, was very young, featuring a handful of middle schoolers. They made it to the semifinals of the state tournament, losing to Grady.