By Gabriel Stovall
TYRONE, Ga. — Chip Walker calls it Sandy Creek speed.
It’s the moniker the veteran Sandy Creek football coach gave to Ian Barnes, Korey Banks, Marvin Hubbard and Eric Swinney, the members of Sandy Creek’s 2015 Class AAAA champion 4×100 relay team.
The foursome’s second straight state gold medal in this past spring’s state track and field meet was integral to pushing Sandy Creek to winning an outright state championship. And Banks will be the first to tell you that getting the chance to dominate the track was a satisfying experience.
“It was big for us to go back to back, you know,” Banks said. “It was cool for us to defend our title. I mean, what can I say? It’s truly a blessing. We worked for it all season and I feel like we got what we deserve.”
When asked which was harder, the initial championship or the title defense, Hubbard spoke up quickly.
“The second one,” he said, triggering laughter from Banks and Barnes.
That’s because in 2014, Sandy Creek — and Hubbard specifically — had to deny Banneker’s star sprinter and Florida-bound athlete Ryan Clark in order to claim the podium’s top spot.
“Ryan Clark is a 10.2 guy in the 100 and he usually hawks everybody in,” Hubbard said. “He was on my leg, and I had to hold him off. I had a 15 meter lead when Korey (Banks) gave me the baton, and all I heard was ‘He’s coming! He’s coming!'”
So although this year’s relay win wasn’t as dramatic, it was just as sweet — almost as sweet as that state football championship the Patriots won back in 2012 when Banks and Barnes were freshmen.
“Both the track and football championships are truly blessings because with so many high schools in Georgia, not a lot of people get to say they won state in one sport, let alone two,” Banks said. “Both were big accomplishments for Sandy Creek School. But here at Sandy Creek, state championships are an expectation, and we go out each year to try to accomplish meeting that expectation.”
As Banks kept talking about championships, you could sort of sense the gradual mentality shift away from the track to the gridiron.
Perhaps it was because Banks, Hubbard and Barnes — Swinney, a 2015 graduate, is on his way to Ole Miss for football — were standing on the semi-soggy football practice fields at Sandy Creek, just a few hundred feet away from the Patriots football stadium.
Maybe it was the fact of it being the third week of summer workouts, with Friday’s Corky Kell 7-on-7 competition looming on Friday. Whatever it was, it quickly became obvious that it was time to talk football state crowns now, not track.
“You can call it Sandy Creek speed, but we’re just competitors who want to compete at the highest level,” said Banks who, at last count has 25 Division I football offers, including ones from Michigan and Arizona. “We’re football players who happen to run track.”
“Now, we’re kind of transferring that approach we had winning a state championship in track, to football,” Barnes said. “We’re really thinking about how when we were freshmen, the seniors really set an example on how to go about your business and win a state football championship. We really want to set that example for the young guys coming up, and we want to win one going out in our senior year just like they did.”
The confidence is strong. And a lot of it has to do with coming up short of Sandy Creek standards in 2014. That version of Sandy Creek football finished 11-2, sure enough. But it, in essence, surrendered the Region 5-AAAA crown to Woodward Academy with a 28-7 regular season loss, and then missed the state semifinals by less than a touchdown for the second straight season in a loss to Cartersville.
Those two quarterfinals losses in two consecutive years is such a stick in Banks’ craw, that it put him in prediction mode.
“We’re true champions,” Banks said. “True champions bounce back. We didn’t win region last year, but this year we will win region. I’m not scared to say it. We’re competitors, and sometimes it just is what it is. We’re going to take it game by game. We’re in a strong region, but we fully expect to win region and state this year.”
Tall task, it would seem, given the magnitude of a couple of key pieces lost from the 2014 team — Swinney being the biggest void needing to be filled.
The soon-to-be Ole Miss freshman tailback churned out 1,842 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns last year. But a three-headed monster of juniors, including Hubbard along with Jaelen Greene and Drezyn Parson seemed poised and ready to provide comparable production, according to senior safety Javon Jackson.
“We lose a talented running back, definitely, but we’ve got three of them now, so I think we’ll be fine there,” Jackson said. “And we’ve got a transfer quarterback who’s looking really good. We hardly lost anybody on defense, so that shouldn’t be a problem at all.”
That’s attributed to the way Sandy Creek football is set up, says Banks.
“Sandy Creek is a program,” he said. “We produce players every year, if you just look at what history says. When certain playmakers leave, it’s just time for others to come up and replace them. That’s not saying we’ll have another Swinney, necessarily, but we’ll definitely have guys stepping up and players making plays.”
About the Patriots not having another Swinney? Yeah. Hubbard begs to differ.
“I feel like we will have another Swinney,” he said, almost in a whisper. When his fellow teammates heartily acknowledged Hubbard’s quiet confidence, it seemed to embolden him.
Hubbard raised his voice. “I feel like he’s right here,” he said. “Me, Marvin Hubbard.”
To be sure, Hubbard means no disrespect to Swinney, a 2014 all-state performer. It’s just the kind of confidence that sort of rubs off on you, the more you’re a part of the Sandy Creek program.
“I had a brother that played here before me, so I knew from the first day how serious things are at Sandy Creek,” Hubbard said. “Ever since 2009 when we won state, people have been saying that the next year was going to be a down year. But every year we keep coming back stronger in a way, because we have people who step up that love to work hard and lead by example.”
Jackson said its the increased leadership quotient that he’s already seeing in summer workouts that he believes will be the difference between being another very good Sandy Creek squad and being great.
“Last year, people were timid to say anything or to get on to a player who wasn’t always doing their job,” Jackson said. “This year, you can see that’s not the case. People have learned to take criticism from teammates. Leadership last year was coach driven, not player driven. It’s going to be player driven this year.”
That’s the way Barnes likes it. Such team-led chemistry is exactly what he remembers about the 2012 season. Banks said he loves the return of the mentality that says, “I’m gonna get mine after we get ours.”
And Hubbard believes it’s that selfless mindset that makes playing with this group of Patriots fun and rewarding.
“Last year, we played for ourselves first and not the team,” he said. “This year, after losing, we’ve come back to that team aspect that causes us to put ourselves second. Our seniors are doing the best job of that than any others I’ve seen since I’ve been here, and I’m just happy to be a part of this program.”