State champs

Gary Davis waves to the team, while holding an autographed football, and wishes the Bears good luck as they roll out of town.

Pierce County residents, business owners and organizations rallied around the Bears last week as they headed to Atlanta where they secured the school’s first-ever football state championship Wednesday afternoon.

Locals lined U.S. Highway 84, Georgia Highway 121 and County Farm Road to cheer the team on as they left and hundreds more did the same to congratulate them as they returned home with their state trophy late Wednesday night. Fireworks flashed over the high school as the buses pulled in and a cheering crowd roared with air horns, clappers and good ‘ole fashioned, ‘attaboys.’

An impressive crowd of faithful Bear fans made the trek to Atlanta, too, filling the stands to watch our boys’ finest performance yet. The community’s united front was a snapshot of the support the team has received all season and one of the driving forces behind the Bears’ big win.

Bears Head Coach Ryan Herring was humble in the after glow of the state championship win.

“As has been our motto all year, first things first, we Give God Glory (G3),” he said.

While Herring admitted the year had many challenges with COVID-19 and delays in the season and tough games on the schedule, he said he is proud of his team.

“We are blessed. This was a total community effort. Winning the championship is just a testament to our kids and how they are raised. We kept working and we had a remarkable season and (winning the championship) is the best feeling in the world.”

Athletic director Brandon “Rock” Jernigan offered his thanks to all of “PC Nation” for their support throughout the season, but especially in Atlanta last week.

“I’d like to thank all of the PC Nation for their love and support of the PCHS band, cheerleaders, coaches, and football team,” he said. “I think there might have been seven people left back home and they were all glued to their televisions watching us there.”

Jernigan called the championship season an amazing journey.

“We’ve all had to adapt and adjust to COVID issues and I think the Bears and the coaching staff did a tremendous job by staying focused on the end goal. It all started back in March with the shutdown. Coach Herring’s would not allow this group to go without lifting weights. He orchestrated a way to get weights to the players and they responded by following his workout plan. We were able to bring them back on campus June 8. So it’s been a very long and challenging year, but it’s all been worth it.”

The athletic director said he is thankful to be a part of the Pierce County community.

“This group of young men is very special. The majority of the teams we played had more individuals that looked the part, but didn’t have the same type chemistry, heart and grit that our guys had,” he said. “I’m extremely proud to be a PC Bear and I thank God that he gave me and my family a chance to come back home back in 2008. It was definitely a family decision, but Angela and I knew that we couldn’t raise our boys up anywhere other than Pierce County! - Go Bears!”

W.D. “Papa Bear” Strickland, the Bears’ first head coach (1981-1983), is beaming for the Bears.

“I am extremely proud of this team,” said Strickland. “They have accomplished something no one else has and it is something they can be proud of, not only now, but for the rest of their lives.”

Strickland led the first Bears team following the consolidation of the Blackshear and Patterson High Schools.

Strickland also praised Herring for his leadership in mentoring his players.

“He says Pierce County is Jesus first, family second and football third. I’ve been impressed with him since he was here before. I wanted him to have this opportunity and I am glad he finally got it and got it in Pierce County.”

The First Lady of Bears’ football, Susan Strickland, says she  was touched by the team’s tribute to their granddaughter, Lanie Alex Williamson, that appeared on the Bears’ helmets during the championship game.

The tribute honored Williamson’s ongoing fight against cancer.

“I had to go and have a good cry about that and then I came back and watched the game and yelled my head off for my Bears,” she said.

“I’m proud to be a Bear, but not just because we won the state championship. I’m proud of the way we won the championship,” says PCHS principal Kelly Murray.

“Our parents and community are unmatched in their support of the program – the daily feeding program after practices and the Friday afternoon meals provided by our local churches are just a couple of examples of that,” Murray says. “This title is the culmination of more than a decade of hard work and sacrifice by our players and their families, dozens of recreation departments and PCMS/PCHS coaches and community members. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of our BOE, the Touchdown Club, local businesses and many other individuals who help provide PCHS athletes with the tools they need to be successful.”

Murray was quick to credit the hard work and sacrifices of the coaches and student athletes, too.

“Our coaching staff does an outstanding job of building the most prepared, disciplined, hard-hitting, relentless team in AAA. Nobody outworks our coaches or players,” Murray boasts.

“Finally, I’m thankful for God’s protection on this team and on our school as a whole.  We didn’t experience major COVID-related problems, and player injuries were minimal this season,” he said.

Chamber of Commerce Director Angela Manders hopes the Bears’ success will serve as a lesson, a reminder, of how the whole community can benefit from a strong, united front.

“If 2020 has taught us anything, it has taught us the importance of community. We have seen our small business owners, healthcare providers, educators, essential workers, government leaders and young people struggle. Here in Pierce County, where excellence is standard, we know about discipline, hard work and determination. However, cohesiveness, on occasion, has been lacking in 2020,” Manders said reflectively. “The Pierce County Bears are not state champions because of luck or coincidence. They are champions because they work as a team. They have embodied the years of lessons and standards set forth by their coaches, teachers, mentors, parents and community leaders.”

“As we neared the end of a most difficult year, these players and coaches reminded us of who we are as a community and what it takes to overcome adversity. They have shown us what true teamwork looks like and have become our beacons of hope and encouragement for a new year full of promise and unity,” Manders continued.