Oconee County High School has two state championship banners hanging from the balcony of the field house overlooking Warrior Stadium.
One of those came following the 1999 football team won the Class 3A state championship game. That team celebrated their 20th anniversary during the 2019 football season.
Many still remember the season as if it happened the night before. Though many had lost touch, the bonds were rekindled immediately and picked up as if they’d never been lost. The other banner is newer.
The second banner belongs to the 2019 boys soccer team. The Warriors defeated Upson Lee High School 1-0 on May 19 2019 to mark their place in immortality and crown themselves Class 4A state champions.
Tuesday marks a year since that triumphant night in Macon. There won’t be any soccer this week in Macon to replace the Warriors as state champions. The 2020 season came to a halt on March 12 before ultimately being scrapped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s given life to the memory of the magical run of last spring. OCHS head coach Chris Romano caught himself thinking about the Warriors’ comeback win against Woodward Academy in state quarterfinals. The Warriors got behind early and climbed their way back into the game.
Even a year later the heart rate races despite the knowledge of how it all ends.
“It’s still very much fresh in my mind,” Romano said. “It’s a fond memory. I hope we can replicate it. Not many coaches get to do that once let alone more than once. It was a great night and it was culmination of a lot of hard work that season... I was sitting there running through the Woodward Academy game and I almost wanted to turn it on again. Even watching it on film you get excited and nervous just watching it. There’s almost a nervous anticipation because you’re watching it and you’re feeling the same emotions you had, except watching it a year later you know what’s going to happen.”
Winning a state title doesn’t go in a regular category. It sticks for a long time. For Owen Hallauer, his name will always be connected with the victory. He scored the game’s only goal.
Last season still sits high on his list of things he’s accomplished. Hallauer has moved on to play college soccer at Emory University.
“It was the peak of my high school soccer career,” Hallauer said. “I enjoyed every moment of it. It’s great looking back on it.”
It almost didn’t happen. The thing about state championship victories and the banners that come with them is the context.
The whys, hows and the small details lose their luster as the years past.
In the case of the 2019 Warriors the whys, hows and small details make the story. It explains why the run to the title brought so much raw emotion at the tail’s end.
The Warriors in 2019 were very different from the Warriors of 2018. Much of the roster walked across the stage at Stegman Coliseum and into college or the work force at graduation. The Warriors needed a new lead scorer and were counting on a lot of new faces and had a new head coach in Romano.
The Warriors didn’t win Region 8-4A. They were behind St. Pius X Catholic who had beaten them 1-0 in March. The Lions were the Warriors’ one of two top-10 ranked opponents on their regular seasons schedule.
The Warriors were the underdogs at the beginning of the playoffs. They took the hard road to Macon. The Warriors endured three road games to reach the state championship game. Each of the games they met a team that on paper, the team awaiting them would have preferred to face the Warriors.
The Warriors trailed in every game following their first round win. They found a way.
“We had a tough road to the final,” Romano said. “We had a largely new team quite honestly. We had a lot of guys that came up together through the program, but to piece it together at the varsity level was really a new team. You go into and I don’t know how many teams were considering us a threat. You get into the second round and go on the road to Chestatee and they probably thought they were going to win the game. We had to come from behind to win that one. That’s another thing, in every one of those games we had to come from behind... It made it a little extra sweet I suppose.”
The banner doesn’t sell those details. Kobe Bryant once said, ‘Winning takes precedence over all. There’s no gray area. No almosts.’
The Warriors are champions. That comes with a price. In the eight-game 2020 season the Warriors learned that their banner was not only a celebration of the accomplishment of the season prior, but a bull’s-eye.
Following a loss to Habersham Central High School during a handshake Romano could see what it now meant for teams to beat the Warriors.
After the typical ‘good game’ handshake HCHS’ head coach paused and congratulated Romano on the championship. Romano preached to his team that last year was over. He wanted them to forget it. The 2020 team hadn’t accomplished anything yet.
The banner didn’t belong to this new group. Other teams felt otherwise and they gave the extra that the Warriors were giving on their way to the title last spring.
“You get that something extra from everybody because they know who they’re playing against,” Romano said. “Even though it’s a new team, they still see you as the defending champions and they want to be able to say they beat that. It’s something that you have the team ready for. You’ve got to remind them that they’re going to come for you. They’re not going to bow down because you won the state championship. They’re going to give you more because they want to beat the state champions... Last year, we were probably the team everybody hoped would win so that they had an easier chance to win and then they got the extra from us.”
For future generations of Warriors entering the program the standard won’t be based on the underdog mentality or future playoff runs may not include the magic that was needed to win the 2019 title.
They will simply be reminded of the hard work that was put in to make it possible. Romano hopes that work ethic and pride will be the standard that sticks from the residue of the 2019 team.
“The further you get away from it, people will forget at least what went into it,” Romano said. “I suppose that I want to let that legacy of their hard work and what it took for them to get there to carry on from team to team.”