Joe Medley: Preps 2013 marked by final rides of greats Thomas, West and Simpson
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Dec 26, 2013 | 2896 views |  0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Oxford’s Jordan Simpson holds up four fingers, signifying to his four state championships. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
Oxford’s Jordan Simpson holds up four fingers, signifying to his four state championships. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
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One of the joys of sports is the sense of watching that generational player.

It’s felt most keenly on the high school level, because that special player sprouting greatness before our eyes is one of us. We can all enjoy those knew-them-when moments.

When the special ones are seniors, the excitement of watching them play their sports comes with a sense of finality. Enjoy their final acts as high school standouts, because, well, this is the final act.

That feeling was a constant on the area high school scene in 2013. From winter through fall, we enjoyed the bittersweet final prep acts of three of the most dominant athletes in their sports.

We can all enjoy watching former Oxford running back and Auburn commitment Racean Thomas play out his college career. He’ll run in spaces that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s system provides, and Thomas will do it on our television sets.

We can drive up to Jacksonville State to watch former Saks pitcher Taylor West wind and whip batters on the Ohio Valley Conference softball scene.

South Carolina’s Newberry College is farther away, and college wrestling doesn’t get the same attention as other sports, but it’s hard to argue against Oxford standout Jordan Simpson’s place among the area prep scene’s generational greats.

All three finished off high school careers in a year that gave us lots of highlights.

Woodland’s girls’ basketball team brought home a Class 2A title, the school’s first state championship after years of deep postseason runs.

Piedmont’s boys’ track team won it all in 3A, and the girls finished third.

Jacksonville’s volleyball team returned to the top in 4A after a dramatic comeback in the state final, and dominant Donoho added a runner-up finish after winning consecutive 1A titles.

The area had no state finalists in baseball, but Oxford’s Trent Simpson unleashed a late-season home-run tear that powered the rebuilt Yellow Jackets to within an at-bat of the quarterfinals a year after they won a state championship.

Area football surged in 2013 after a short postseason in 2012, with 15 teams making the playoffs, nine winning at least one round and Saks and Munford driving into the semifinals in their classifications.

It’s been a memorable year, for sure.

It’s also been a year to say, thanks for the memories.

Well-worn statistics have told part of the story, but memories of Thomas, West and Simpson on the high school level turn to scenes of dominance. Those scenes didn’t come in mere flashes. They came more often than not.

Only early season injuries could slow Thomas, and it didn’t matter that Oxford had an all-new, smallish offensive line in 2013.

It helped that wide receiver Tredarian Gamble transferred in to give the Yellow Jackets that big-play threat in the passing game, but Thomas was the top target for every defense they played.

At times, he could make nearly every defender miss. He kept his powerful legs churning and knees high, and many high school defenders couldn’t keep him wrapped.

When we think of Thomas in Oxford black and gold, we’ll think of him spinning, stiff-arming, shoulder-booming and juking as many as nine defenders on remarkable touchdown runs.

West was that dominant presence in a sport where a great one at her position can truly dominate. She was also the rise ball for a team that typically didn’t score many runs but played great defense behind her … when it had to.

Who can forget West’s striking out 24 Geneva batters over 11 innings in the 2012 3A winners’ bracket final, then hurling a perfect game against Pisgah in the title round? Largely because West struck out 58 batters in 32 innings, Saks won the title with a total of nine runs in four state-tourney games.

She came back as a senior and pitched the Wildcats to a fourth-place finish in 3A.

When we remember West as a high schooler, we’ll remember her long-limbed windup and our own impulse to mime an umpire’s strike call before the pitch popped the catcher’s mitt.

As for Simpson, the four-time state champion struggled with his own dominance almost as much as his opponents did. He didn’t lose a high school match in two years, and anything less than quick work prompted regular watchers to wonder if something was wrong.

Winning became almost no fun. After 9 to 10 months a year of it over 13 years, he considered giving up wrestling and resisted college offers tied to the sport.

He finally took a full ride to Newberry, currently Division II’s fourth-ranked team. He will start in January, after sitting out of school in the fall semester. Initially, he might even discover some joy in losing … or at least struggling a little.

We’ll remember how Simpson earned a place among Calhoun County prep wrestling legends like Weaver’s Michael Sutton, Wellborn’s Dalton Carroll and Piedmont’s Clay Dent.

Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, jmedley@annistonstar.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.
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