It didn’t take long for two area high schools to take advantage of the new Rural Classification for smaller public schools.
Long dominated by private school powerhouses from large metropolitan areas, Ponce de Leon and Chipley each took home a 1A state title in basketball, the PDL girls edging Newberry 55-52 and Chipley’s boys overpowering Hawthorne 71-48.
Their combined effort was good enough for No. 8 on The News Herald sports department’s list of Top 10 stories of 2012.
Ponce de Leon, 28-2, built a 23-point lead early in the second half against Newberry on Feb. 23 in Lakeland, but had to hang on to survive. Pirates coach Tim Alford lauded the new playoff system put in place by the Florida High School Athletics Association.
“For me as a coach, I honestly feel like my kids work hard, too, as do Newberry’s kids,” Alford said of the new 1A class. “All the games here were competitive, it (Rural classification) was a great opportunity for kids.
“I noticed in one of the other classifications the region final score was like 73-6. We didn’t have that down here.”
Ponce de Leon didn’t secure the championship until 2 seconds remaining when Lasharrah Nattiel, who led Newberry with 19 points, missed two free throws. One second later, JoJo Carlson made the first of two free throws to clinch the crown for the Pirates.
Slightly more than a minute into the third quarter PDL led 32-9, and still was in control at 41-21 about 4 minutes later. That’s when Newberry, 27-3, regrouped for a final charge.
Chipley didn’t have a similar scare as the Tigers, 26-3, romped to their 24th straight triumph of the season a week later in Lakeland.
Cameron Dozier led the way with 23 points and six assists as Chipley won its first state title after having finished as runner-up three times, the last in 1989.
“You realize you’re in a state championship game when you see the level of intensity these guys played at,” Chipley coach Joel Orlando said. “They put everything on the line, both offensively and defensively.”
In doing so, the Tigers overcame a 2-3 start to their season, the early schedule dotted with larger classification schools.
“When you play against good teams and you’re fortunate to win, it builds confidence,” Orlando said. “When you have confidence in young men it makes them play beyond their potential.”