Streamers hung from the street posts, banners hung in store windows, and Main Street was blocked off in downtown Hinesville Saturday as people lined up for a parade honoring not one, but three state championship basketball teams and a state runner-up.
Of all the basketball teams across southeast Georgia who made it to the state playoffs, Liberty County produced three champions.
Liberty County High School upset two-time winner Jonesboro to earn the Class AAAA state title.
First Presbyterian Christian Academy finally got the win for Ernie Walthour, its former head coach, who was killed in 2012, bringing home the Highlanders’ fourth state title since 2009.
And the Liberty County Recreation Department’s Senior All-Stars boys won the state title in their division of the Georgia Recreation and Parks Association. The LCRD girls’ All-Stars Mite Team won the GRPA state runner-up title.
“The parade was an amazing and humbling experience for the FPCA basketball players and coaches,” FPCA Principal Shannon Hickey said. “I believe everyone really enjoyed this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I know all of the players felt honored to be a part of the celebration.
“Personally, I truly loved watching their faces throughout the parade. Their expressions of joy and honor were priceless. All too often, we fail to recognize the positive achievements and accomplishments of our youth and the parade was a great way of saying congratulations and job well-done to all of them.
“I would like to say thank you to all of those who worked many hours to ensure that the parade was a success.”
The FPCA boys were guided by Walthour’s longtime friends coach Shane Smith and assistant David Linderman. FPCA kept winning region titles after Walthour’s death, but fell short of honoring him and the school with another state title until this year.
Smith thanked the community.
“It was great, not just for us but for all the teams and the community. We really appreciated everyone who took the time to put it together,” he said.
The LCRD Senior All-Stars were led by Cedric Robertson. He was chosen coach after posting a winning record during the regular season. He said the parade was unexpected.
“It felt good, unbelievable,” he said. “I feel like I’m famous now. … It was a great experience to have the community come together and show some love and support. At the end of the day, all I can say is ‘wow’.”
The crowd went wild when the LCHS Panthers rolled by the grandstand. Folks scurried to take photos of the school’s first state title-winning team since it was reconstituted in the early 1990s.
For the Panthers, the festivities continued after the parade with a team celebration at the school’s gym.
Coach Julian Stokes said his team posted the best season ever recorded at the school.
They were 28-1 overall and undefeated in Region 3-AAAA at 10-0.
“Wow, this is amazing, and all I can say is thank you,” Stokes said to the crowd at the gym. He thanked Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee for giving him the opportunity to coach and teach, and mold young minds, as his was at LCHS. He also thanked Principal Stephanie Woods and her staff for hiring him, despite being young.
“To everyone who contributed to our season with support, food, advice and money, thank you. … We couldn’t have made it without you guys.
“To my team …” Stokes continued. “I love you guys, man. … This is a very special group. … These guys grew up together, and they’ve worked hard at practice and came ready to work every game.”
Stokes added that several juniors and sophomores are expected to return for another state title run next year.
“Back-to-back region champions and the 2016 Class AAAA state champions … We love you, and we will be back next year,” he told the crowd.
Lee said the kids are more than athletes.
“I want to say how very proud that I am of these young men. ... They are not only ballers, but they are gentleman and scholars,” she said.
“Most of these young men go all the way back to the Liberty County rec center, so we thank even their beginning coaches who laid the foundation,” Lee said.
The players received life-sized photos and signed photographs and paraphernalia for fans.