SPORTS COLUMN: 'Do you believe in miracles?' Trinity's incredible upset
to win state basketball title proves they don't just happen in movies
The Courier Herald, "Slices of Sports" – March 7, 2023
MACON – It didn't feel too plagiaristic to borrow the iconic line of Al Michaels from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" as the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Olympics, late in Saturday's GIAA state final.
It came with a setup, of course, in a pregame open to the broadcast that called on some of the most memorable upsets in sports history, cinema and literature. From The Avengers' defeat of Thanos to Shiloh Christian Academy's Eagles, in hit Sherwood Pictures film "Facing the Giants," all were outstanding feats against slim-to-none odds.
Trinity was in a nearly identical position going into its title game, and I said as much to a few who asked for my realistic assessment of the Crusaders' chances in a third rematch with Central Fellowship. I'll spare you the numbers, which are quoted at length in other parts of today's edition. But suffice it to say, there were few teams at this level of Georgia basketball that felt more indomitable than the Lancers.
As I replied: If they win, it'd be a movie.
Whether it was one in four, or one in however many, Trinity had its one game in the 57-49 shocker, which – put together with three other state championship appearances in program history – would likely have been the most improbable matchup of all. We witnessed a real, live miracle.
"It was awesome," senior Jim Coleman said. "Just having to play them three times already this year, and it not coming out the way we wanted to. It's just sweet, man."
I had the privilege of getting to call it, as I have the Crusaders' games all season, on the radio. And while this was the first state title game I've ever done for a hometown team, I wasn't expecting it to also be the first state championship win.
I, like most who'd watched the first three games of the series, figured the Lancers were just too tough. Trinity had made some progress in repeated chances, but nothing seemed enough to shake a CFCA team that was always just a little better, faster and stronger.
Best case, it'd be a game where Trinity was within striking distance late, but the Lancers would pull away like they did each time before. The script felt the same for most of the early going, with nearly identical scores to the teams' most recent region title matchup at the end of the first and second quarters, and a near double-digit gap early in the third as CFCA plotted its usual run to pull away.
But, along with the sinking sense that this game was headed in the same direction, there was also something that felt a little different this time, as well.
The Lancers, who weren't knocking the power out with their shooting as they often do, seemed a bit taken aback by how well, and how hard, Trinity had played to that point in the ballgame. And CFCA, in the last 12 or so minutes, would get way more than it bargained for.
The long third-quarter stoppage, some heated exchanges of words between sides in the heat of battle and the fateful Jaylun Goodrum meltdown that would come later in the third were key pieces of the momentum swing. But only if this Trinity team truly expected to win as much as its play had suggested so far.
"We just never stopped believing," Coleman said. "We had preached it all week long, that we've gotta believe to win. We knew we had had strong third quarters every other game, so we just wanted to keep that going. And that's how it happened." Taking nothing away from the Crusaders' effort and resolve down the stretch, their comeback, and the game's stunning reversal, probably wouldn't have been possible without Goodrum – the leading CFCA scorer – fouling out.
The co-region player of the year, in all three prior matchups, had been equal parts transcendent playmaker on offense and pesky guard on D. Goodrum, in addition to the team lead of 21 points per game, owned almost a third of his team's more than 300 steals on the year. He was one of a number of shooting weapons for the Lancers, whose long-range ability (with seven players shooting 30 percent or better from deep, and eight or more triples in all three previous run-ins with the Crusaders) was overwhelming enough.
But the true unbeatable aspect – and also nearly impossible to gameplan around – was their defense, and not just the length they used to obstruct passing lanes and close on shots, but Goodrum's agility to take the ball away. He comes out of nowhere, with the agility and quickness of a hummingbird, to prey on passes, and inevitably turn them into wide-open baskets.
But nobody anticipated he'd wind up on the bench for the final 10 minutes.
"We knew that was a huge part of their team," Coleman said. "He's a ballplayer. We said, we're gonna be able to run our sets now, 'cause he's not gonna be there to harass Henry."
All of a sudden, the matchup became winnable. And as the momentum turned swiftly, Trinity began to smell blood, and moved in for the kill.
CFCA was able to tread water with a few baskets, from Deven Nelson and Jeb Walls, and got some foul calls to get to the line. But their snakebit fourth-quarter confidence ended up being zero match for the resolve Trinity had displayed all afternoon long. That was seen primarily in Henry Williams, who with cold blood put up 27 points in both quarterfinal and semifinal games, before dropping 25 Saturday.
He was on a different level for the entire playoffs, and like his fellow senior in Coleman, seemed to play with a chip and a refusal to be denied in his plans of going out on top.
Coleman found his touch from mid-range, Trinity locked down the inside with the help of some emboldened big men down low – Hayden Clay and Anthony Frank Woji with perhaps as outstanding a couple of games in the Final Four as they've had all season – and got multiple other critical plays down the stretch from Will George and Ben Castro-Paveda.
As in the playoff games leading up, eveybody was on the same page, and the Crusaders were clicking.
"We knew it was the fourth time, and we knew the odds were stacked against us," Trinity head coach John Williams said. "(Friday), we had a great practice. The guys were loose. And we tried to get 'em to be loose today. We said, 'Look, guys, we've never won it, we've got nothing to lose. They're the No. 1 ranked team, all the pressure's on them. Get out there and have a good time.'"
But in the end, the Crusaders' sense of belief was more than a hopeful optimism. Though the opportunities were abundant to count themselves out, they didn't do it.
Trinity was not just disappointed, but humbled, in its three previous losses by a Central Fellowship team that had a knack for ruining your day. Still, the Crusaders maintained the expectation that the fourth go-round would break their way. And it did.
Winning any end-of-season championship is, if you'll pardon the cliche, what dreams are made of. But how many teams actually get to live out the kind of fairytale ending to a season that this one was?
As I mentioned to a colleague from a separate paper who was seated beside us at the media table Saturday, there's something different about a program like Trinity's (and several he'd been covering in other classifications) who have scarcely sniffed this level of success in their history.
Plenty of teams at each year's Final Fours are used to being there. But not as many are truly reaching that first-in-forever mountaintop that Trinity scaled in a giant leap on Saturday.
The emotion was palpable, matched – in what I've witnessed and also identified with – only by what I know Georgia fans in Indianapolis (and myself from here at home) were feeling when the Dawgs conquered Alabama to win it all the first time around just a year ago, well before any sense of having arrived.
Trinity's overjoyed players, on Saturday, had their moment on the court, and in an area behind the back bleachers reserved for fans and players to celebrate and take photos while clearing the court for the next game.
Coach Williams, it would turn out, never made it back there. As he toted the trophy from the bench down the court, he was all but mobbed by dozens of folks out of the stands offering congratulations, even more, as those same fans and students clearing the celebration area on their way back up, passed by with fist-bumps, hugs and handshakes as he finally worked his way down to the other baseline for some postgame media availability, and another of those congratulatory embraces from your humble broadcaster.
"We've never done it," Coach Williams said in describing the postgame exuberance. "Everybody's wanted to do it. We've talked about it. We've talked about this for a long time. It's a lot of pent-up emotions that came out because it's been so long."
You could sense just from the sheer number of people making a point of offering a personal pat on the back how beloved a coach and friend he is to many. And he and his family, in my own opinion, are the type of folks you can only feel good about getting to see enjoy this accomplishment.
"It's awesome, being able to share what we both love to do together," Henry Williams said of the chance to play for his dad. "Everybody loves him, everybody loves the energy he brings. Everybody loves how he keeps Christ first, and it's awesome, him being my dad, being able to play for him."
For coach and team, the belief never wavered. We'd also spoken about the tall odds in the pregame interview. But in acknowledging the significant obstacles, Coach Williams unequivocally reasserted his team's opportunity to get it done, echoing the same words uttered down the stretch of Thursday's overtime win over Furtah in the semis.
For this team, "Believe" wasn't just a T-shirt slogan. It was real, genuine conviction that this was their moment. And they did everything possible to be ready for it.
"This group is so special," John Williams said. "I love these boys, and I told them that whether it be on the court or on the field or in life, God's got a great plan for them. And I was so excited for them to have this success to translate into other areas of their life, and I told them at halftime, I said 'Guys, I want this for you. I want you guys to get confident in what the Lord's doing in your life, so it will translate into other areas of your life.' I was so excited about what the Lord was going to do today, just like he did, and what he's going to do in the future with these guys."
The postgame scene wasn't one too much different from a Hollywood ending for a team that had overcome huge odds to lift the trophy at the end of it all.
Trinity's players, coaches and fans got to live it out in full color on Saturday.
And for me, getting to tell the story of such an improbable victory will go down as one of my coolest and most memorable moments as a sportscaster.
And it might also provide some valuable experience, if at any point far in the future there's ever a storybook game to end a season (and I'm not sure I'll ever see one quite like that), that even with the surest underdog or most impossible challenge, it'd be unwise to not think at least twice before saying never.
"These guys kept believing all the way through the season, ups and downs," Coach Williams said. "We just said, 'Look, guys, if God calls you to do something, he's going to complete the task. He's going to enable you and help you to finish.' And that's what he did today. We're so proud of the guys. We're thankful to the Lord, we love the Trinity faithful, and we're so excited to represent and be able to take it home back to Dublin."