This week brought to an end the high school sports calendar for the 2021-22 school year.
I’m sure the girls teams around Cobb County are sad to see it go.
There have always been quality girls teams across the county. Walton’s tennis team has won 18 of the last 22 state titles, while the school’s volleyball team has won 10 of the last 12. Marietta cross country has claimed four of the last five titles, and McEachern basketball has five state titles over the last decade.
That’s just to name a few. This year, however, girl power seriously upped the ante.
Heading into the spring playoffs, Cobb County had a chance to claim at least one state championship in every sport in which the majority of schools field a team. While the effort fell just a smidgen short of perfection, girls teams claimed 11 state titles in eight different sports, as well as cheerleading.
That in itself is impressive, but considering the county also had 17 other teams finish as state runners-up, third place or in the final four, it proved to be a year unlike any other.
Let’s face it. Cobb County has solidified itself as the girls high school sports capital of Georgia, especially in the state’s top two classifications.
Lassiter girls soccer coach Robbie Galvin said one of the main reasons the area has become a boon for girls sports is support on every level.
“It starts from the top,” Galvin said. “From the leadership of the school administration to the coaching staff and the community, they all support our programs to make them what they are.”
He also said the players help the leadership and community buy in with their performance.
“The girls are driven,” said Galvin, who led his team to an undefeated regular season and the Class AAAAAA state championship this spring. “Their attitude is good and they show a certain grit.”
Before becoming Pope’s baseball coach, Chris Turco spent the previous 14 seasons as softball coach and helped lead the Lady Greyhounds to two state titles in that span. He said one of the biggest differences is in the conditioning of the athletes, which has allowed them the ability to not only thrive in their main sport, but in others as well. There are more and more two- and three-sport athletes in the county than ever before.
“Literally, the weight room,” Turco said. “Ten years ago, it didn’t happen. There’s been a shift where it’s cool to play a girls sport.”
Since arriving at the MDJ 16 years ago, I have seen many girls stand out in their respective sports.
Kell track star Kendell Williams went on to win a combined seven NCAA championships in the heptathlon and indoor pentathlon at Georgia, then went on to be a two-time Olympian in the heptathlon. Pope’s Kelly Barnhill went to Florida and became one of the most dominant pitchers in NCAA history, which included winning an ESPY Award for Best Female College Athlete in 2017. And Te’a Cooper helped lead McEachern to three state titles in four years before playing college basketball at Tennessee, South Carolina and Baylor, then reaching the WNBA.
While all three were the most dominant players I have seen in their respective sports, there are two graduating seniors who dominated multiple sports this season.
Lauren Render helped Hillgrove’s flag football team win the Class AAAAAAA state championship in the sport’s second year.
“Miss Render is the best,” Hillgrove coach Daniel Pinckney said after winning the title last December. “She is the best flag football player in the state of Georgia, and today, she proved it, hands down.”
Pinckney was not wrong. It was obvious every time Render played that she was the best player on the field by far, but that was only the start of her senior season.
Render led Hillgrove’s girls basketball team to the second round of the playoffs, then starred on the lacrosse team this spring, taking it to the state quarterfinals. Render will continue her athletic career at Virginia Tech, where she will play lacrosse.
The other player I saw dominate this year was Mount Paran Christian’s Kara Dunn.
The 6-foot forward scored 30 points and pulled down six rebounds in the title game to help the Lady Eagles complete the climb to the basketball program’s first state championship. Dunn also led the Mount Paran volleyball team to a state title in the fall. She will be playing college basketball at Georgia Tech.
A bonus entry in the dominant category — someone I expect to be fun to watch and grow over the next three years — is Lassiter’s Malia Loadwick. The freshman goalkeeper blocked four penalty kicks to help lift the Lady Trojans past Cambridge in the state title game and shut down the Lady Bears’ star player Jordynn Dudley, a Florida State commit.
Loadwick was not lacking confidence.
“I knew I was in her head,” she said after the title game. “Being a freshman, and her being an FSU commit, you could see the frustration grow.”
Loadwick also averaged eight points and five rebounds on the basketball team. Maybe not dominant numbers on the hardwood yet, but a strong foundation, and with her level of self confidence, it likely won’t be long until they are.
The flag football state championship game featured an all-Cobb County matchup between Hillgrove and Marietta. While it was the only Cobb-Cobb matchup, we were close to many others.
The Pope girls were one game away from making an all-Cobb softball final with Lassiter, and we almost got Pope and Lassiter to face one another for the volleyball championship as both made the final four.
If that wasn’t enough for the fall, Hillgrove and Harrison finished second and third behind Marietta in the state cross country championship.
During the winter months, the Campbell girls basketball team reached the final four and came within a game of making an all-Cobb final alongside Harrison in Class AAAAAAA.
This spring, Walton and Lassiter each made the final four in lacrosse and, with one more win, would have faced one another for the state title. Hillgrove and McEachern nearly had a 1-2 finish in track and field, settling for second and third, respectively.
All the girls teams deserve to be congratulated, and the way they continue to progress, this year wasn’t an aberration. It’s not even a trend. It’s the new normal.