Winning a state championship, whether expected or unlikely, proved to be the baseline for becoming a finalist for this year's Best of Preps Scrappy Moore Coach of the Year award.
The winner will be announced during Wednesday's Best of Preps banquet, which returns to an in-person format at the Chattanooga Convention Center after two years as an online event due to the coronavirus pandemic. Doors will open at 6 p.m., dinner begins at 6:30 and the guest speaker will be University of Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who this past season guided the program to its first national championship since 1980.
Tickets can be purchased at bestofprepschatt.com. All athletes and coaches who were named to a Best of Preps team during the past school year can claim their complimentary ticket to the event by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
The six finalists for this year's award are Dalton Academy boys' soccer coach Rury Alvarez, Trion wrestling coach Eric Brock, South Pittsburg football co-head coaches Heath Grider and Wes Stone, Baylor softball coach Kelli Smith, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe girls' basketball coach Dewayne Watkins and McCallie cross country and track and field coach Mike Wood.
Alvarez led Dalton Academy to a state title in the school's first year of existence. The Pumas overcame a perceived lack of individual talent by forming a strong team that built momentum late in the regular season, then shut out their first three playoff opponents before a 5-1 semifinal victory and a 4-2 win in the GHSA Class A public school championship match to finish 18-2 overall.
In his 15th season with the program, Brock helped Trion sweep through every postseason tournament, including winning both the dual and traditional state championships in Georgia's ultracompetitive Class A. It was the Bulldogs' second state title in each of those categories; they won their first traditional title in 1994 and their first duals title in 2020.
When the Tennessee high school football season began, Chris Jones was South Pittsburg's head coach. But after just one game, he resigned to return to the Canadian Football League, leaving his alma mater in dire straits. Grider, who had moved into an administrative role at the school and was no longer on the coaching staff, and Stone, who was the special teams coordinator, took over as co-head coaches.
With Grider overseeing the defense and Stone calling the offensive plays, and against a challenging schedule that included eventual Class 6A state champion Murfreesboro Oakland and Alabama 4A power North Jackson, the Pirates faced numerous obstacles — including two other assistants who were either let go from the staff or chose to quit before the second round of the playoffs.
The Pirates rallied to score two late touchdowns for a dramatic road win in the semifinals, then finished off an unlikely 12-2 season with another dramatic second-half rally, coming back from a 14-0 deficit to win the program's sixth Class 1A state title.
Baylor's Smith guided the Lady Red Raiders to a Tennessee-record seventh consecutive softball state title as they outscored their three opponents in the Division II-AA tournament 27-5, including an 8-2 championship win over rival GPS. Smith has been a part of each of the program's 15 total titles — two as a player and 13 as coach. Baylor has also won 14 straight state tournament games and 10 of the past 11 titles.
LFO's Watkins oversaw one of the greatest turnarounds in Georgia prep basketball last season as the Lady Warriors improved from a winless 2020-21 season to 28 victories and a berth in the Class AAA quarterfinals, where a narrow loss ended their run. Watkins built the breakthrough season with a young roster and plenty of tough defense, and along the way, LFO won the annual Best of Preps tournament.
McCallie's Wood nearly guided two programs to state titles as the Blue Tornado cross country team won the DII-AA crown in the fall and the track team finished runner-up at the annual Spring Fling state meet.
The cross country championship was the program's third straight as its top five runners finished fourth, ninth, 11th, 13th and 17th overall for a team score that was 15 points better than the runner-up. It was the ninth overall title for McCallie, which returns its entire roster next season.
In track, McCallie had athletes score in 24 of the 25 events — including seven who placed among the top three finishers — to finish just behind state champion Christian Brothers.