Cheers rose from the crowd as one by one, the players filed out of their charter bus, stepped through the gate, and walked along the pathway to the staircase that led up to the Ridgeland fieldhouse.
Despite the disappointment still very apparent on their faces, some players were able to manage to smile and nod to the crowd, thanking them for their support throughout the events of the day.
About two dozen or more players were trudging toward the staircase, when senior linebacker Daniel Johnson suddenly made an abrupt left turn and peeled off toward the well-lit turf of the field.
Johnson stood alone at midfield for a couple of minutes, soaking it all in. Others eventually joined him and soon the crowd formed a circle around their heroes standing on the black and while Ridgeland panther logo.
The scene lasted for more than a half-hour. Hugs were given. Pictures were taken. Tears were shed. Fans offered congratulations. Girls kissed their boyfriends. Parents doled out advice to their kids in hushed tones. No one wanted to leave. No one wanted to close the final chapter on the most remarkable season in Ridgeland football history. It took a steady rain shortly after midnight to finally put an end to the night.
“This is the last time I’ll ever walk on this field as a Ridgeland Panther football player,” Johnson said solemnly. “I have a lot of great memories on this field. I was part of the first game ever played on this turf, so it’s tough to leave it. But all good things must come to an end at some point. That’s just part of it.”
For the Panthers and their fans, some of those good things came to an end on the turf of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome with a 45-10 loss to top-ranked and unbeaten Sandy Creek, who may just be the best team in the state this season, regardless of classification.
However, time will eventually heal all wounds. And when the stories are retold years from now, people in this little corner of Walker County will never forget the good things about these Ridgeland Panthers.
A fourth region championship in five years. A seventh straight state playoff berth. A school-record 13-game winning streak. A first-ever state finals appearance. And all of it fueled by one of the most devastating running games to ever be released on the state.
Ridgeland averaged nearly 40 points a game for 15 games, racking up over 5,400 rushing yards, an average of 339 per contest against some of the best defenses in the state. And of Ridgeland’s school-record 89 total touchdowns, a remarkable 73 came on the ground.
Years from now, folks will sit around and talk about this team. They’ll rehash old games and debate about who the best players were. They’ll ask if the current group of Panthers would be good enough to hang with the boys back in ’12.
“We challenge our kids every year to do things no other team has ever done before,” head coach Mark Mariakis said. “And these guys set the bar extremely high this year.”
But as impressive as the scores and the numbers are and will be years from now, it will only play a small part in the legacy of the 2012 Ridgeland Panthers.
You see, while the Panthers were tearing people apart on the field, they were bringing folks together off of it.
“We’ve had two communities, Chattanooga Valley and Rossville, that had been kind of fragmented since 1989 when Ridgeland High School began,” Johnson explained. “This season, they both came together behind us and we’ve kind of created a Ridgeland community. That’s definitely something to be proud of.”
“You can’t hardly put it into words, but the influence this team has had on our school and our community is immeasurable,” said Ridgeland Athletic Director Craig Parrott. “The character this team has shown this year has just been incredible and so positive, and this community is going to reap the rewards of that for years to come.”
“They changed lives this year,” Mariakis said. “They’ve changed this community and they’ve changed themselves. They may never truly understand the impact that they’ve had on this school and this community, but I know a lot of people are proud of them.”
While Ridgeland made it look easy on the field at times, the 2012 season was certainly no cakewalk.
Just days before the season opener against Calhoun, an anonymous complaint put the program in the center of a controversy involving the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. However, the team and its coaches refused to let it become an on-field distraction.
Instead, the program rallied around itself as support from the student body and the surrounding community grew. They shook off a heartbreaking last-second loss to the Jackets to run the table in the regular season.
Then came the postseason and more doubters from around the state chimed in, pointing out Ridgeland’s past failures in never advancing past the second round of the state playoffs.
But once more, the Panthers circled the wagons and silenced their critics, taking down a who’s who list of perennial playoff powers in Booker T. Washington, LaGrange and Mary Persons before an epic, come-from-behind 28-27 semifinal home win over Marist that will likely go down as the greatest game in Ridgeland history.
“They’ve gone through adversity all year long, even from the beginning of the year, but they’ve always come back,” Mariakis said. “All year long, this team has showed guts and perseverance. When you’re a family, you’re always a family and you never go back on your family, and you don’t hurt your family’s feelings. You fight for your family.”
Senior Vonn Bell called the season a special one for the community and the team.
“This team was blessed this year, and it’s been a really great experience,” he said. “We met our goals. We may have come up short at the end, but it really meant something just to be (in the state finals). We made history for this community. We brought everybody together as a family and made the whole community better. We made a statement this year and we’re proud of that.”
Back in the locker room following Saturday night’s championship game, as has been customary since Mariakis took over the program, players and coaches lined up single file for one final hug for each member of the senior class.
“It was really emotional to have to give my coaches one last hug and know this was the last time I’ll be playing ball for them,” said senior quarterback Trevor Long. “We’re all a family. We all love each other, and we’re all going to stay in touch long after we’ve put the pads away and everyone’s gone off to college. It’s tough now because it’s over, but it’s been one great ride.”
Parrott added that he hoped this season would only be a foretaste of what might be to come for the Ridgeland program.
“You never know how many chances you get like this, playing for a state championship,” he said. “But these are special players and they have layed a solid foundation for what we hope will be many successful years to come.”
And while Mariakis shared those same sentiments, he readily admitted that the 2012 version of the Panthers would always hold a special place in his heart.
“In my 28 years of coaching, I’ve never seen a team like this one,” he added. “This is a bunch of very mature young men that truly love each other and never quit. I don’t know if this will ever be topped.”
Scott Herpst is Sports Editor of the Walker County Messenger.