FLEMING ISLAND - With the Clay Today sports pages proudly following as much of the area sports action as possible, there are handfuls of young athletes that do what they do with success, energy and enthusiasm but little fanfare. The Clay Today Unsung Heroes of 2019 takes a look at 10 of the top stories of the fall 2019 high school seasons and the "other" athletes that moved the needle of intensity with their contribution.
Glen Miller, WR, Senior, RHS
40 catches, 8 TDs, 6 INTs, 856 Yds
Ridgeview High wide receiver and safety Glen Miller had a preseason pairing with one of the more dynamic players for the Panthers in senior Denali Lindo, a standout wide receiver also who would have given Panthers new head coach Matthew Knauss an unstoppable 1-2 threat in the air. Lindo, unfortunately, injured a knee and was lost for the season.
"You could tell Glen missed have Denali around, but being a leader did not let it effect his role on the team," said Knauss. "Denali is a huge talent to miss and Glen did everything he could to pick up the slack."
Not only did Miller pick up the ball and run with it, but the team pushed Miller into a leadership role that he aptly displayed on the field and on the sideline.
"Glen Miller was a booming force for the Panthers this season," said Knauss. "He was the backbone of the Ridgeview football team on both sides of the ball."
Miller is a Clay Today Unsung Hero for 2019 for fulfilling the 'next man up' credo of sports excellence.
St. Johns Country Day School sophomore cross country runner Matthew Stratton put it out in August that his mission for 2019 was "to run hard and create as much damage as possible."
Lofty words for a young athlete, but Stratton, who had two sub-16 minute times; 15:33 and 15:33 as top 10 times statewide, not only ran hard, but put together a final three weeks of looking at the big picture with a scintillating final mile of his season that rendered him a second place finish by just six seconds at the Class 1A championship race. What made the final surge impressive was that a runner in the pack that Stratton extended from included Tallahassee Maclay senior Junious Brown, who recently committed to Florida State University for his cross country and track excellence, who had also beaten Stratton twice in the previous two weekends; the district race and the region race.
"All of the training over the summer and races during the season all culminated with his best ever State meet," said St. Johns coach and Stratton dad, Greg Stratton. "This was a breakout season for Matthew, who had four season victories and never finished worse than third all season."
As a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019, Stratton persevered through two losses that could have discouraged his efforts in the third race, the state championship, but instead chose to rise above the finishes and create his own success.
Keystone Heights High School girls golf has had arguably the best golfer in the county in Camille Jackson who has been to five straight state tournaments.
Also on the Lady Indians roster is younger sister Candace Jackson, a sophomore golfer, who nonchalantly competed through the season as a second through fourth finisher for the team through the season.
Candace Jackson, who verbally "and jokingly" challenged her sister during the season as her driving force to become number one, put together a final two rounds of golf that will inevitably put her on the golf map for next year. Jackson, who had had inconsistency as a trait through the season, stayed on course for two of her toughest rounds of golf to emerge right behind sister Camille at the Class 1A championship as the number two finisher for the team.
"Candace really stepped up her game this year and she knew it could not come at a better time," said Keystone Heights golf coach Billy Jackson, also uniquely the dad to both Camille and Candace. "I guess some people are just wired with steel nerves, and Candace is one of these athletes."
The Jacksons and the Lady Indians were thrilled to have an entire team make the Class 1A tournament, but dad Billy was ecstatic for Candace's finish.
"In the biggest tournament of her life, she was steady as a rock shooting just below her yearly average on a course she had never played before that week," said Jackson. "She was steady all year bouncing between No.2 and No.4 each week."
Jackson's "nerves of steel" were evident, according to Billy Jackson, on a treacherous fifth hole at the state tournament; an 18 hole hill monster in Howey-in-the-Hill's Mission Inn Resort.
"She actually hit the best shot I've ever seen from her on the par-five, fifth hole that has a pond in front of the green," recollected Billy Jackson. "She had 140 yards to carry the water into a slight breeze and I would have told her hands down to lay up short of the pond- if she would have asked me. But, when I pulled up, she matter-of-factly told me she was going for it. "She hit it sweet with a wonderful swing and I knew it was going to be close. It landed safely over the water by six inches! She made par. I have never been more proud of one of my players, or my daughter."
For taking the risk of competition and succeeding, Candace Jackson is a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019.
In Keystone Heights High football, where passing is held to a minimum (50 passes in 2019), the philosophy of coach Chuck Dickinson is simple.
Of course, with that credo comes with the unique production of running backs that can stay the course.
In 2019, a first year guy, junior Colby Townsend became that "guy."
"Colby has only played football for two years," said Dickinson, of his burly, 6'-2", 230 pound wrecking machine running back that finished with a hard-gotten 946 yards with 11 touchdowns for the playoff finishing Indians. "It is safe to say most of Colby's yards came in the third and fourth quarter of games because of his physical style of running."
Townsend, a state ranked weightlifter, "strongest guy on our team with a bench press of 370 pounds", and an unwillingness to go down on first contact, smashed ahead for four 100-plus yard games with just one fumble with a best game of 257 yards on just 16 carries against Taylor High School.
"He could be even more dominating next year now that he knows what a varsity game feels like," said Dickinson.
Impressively, Townsend had just one fumble for the season while also having 48 tackles on the defensive line. Townsend also was kickoff kicker.
"At Keystone Heights, everyone plays both ways," said Dickinson. "That makes Colby's number more impressive. He never left the field."
For his Iron Will, Townsend is a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019.
Ridgeview High volleyball made a turn to prominence in the past five years under coach Destiny Brightman with four straight district titles in one district then a fifth in a newer, bigger district that included Middleburg High School from up Blanding Boulevard.
"Since her sophomore year, our libero Ashlyn Halford has been an intrical player to our starting lineup," said Brightman. "She digs balls that would save the team many times in situations where you would just be amazed."
Two performances in 2019 solidified Halford as a Clay Today Hero of 2019; one a stunning five-game loss to Fleming Island High School and, the second, a first-time in a way long time win over Middleburg High in regular season play that coupled with a district title win over the Broncos later in the season.
"Specifically, in our five game match against Fleming Island this year, it was a point for point the first four sets with there only being a two point differential each set," said Brightman. "We lost the game but won a lot in that game against them. Ashlyn walked away with a career high of 33 digs."
Against Middleburg, in game one, Halford dominated with four service aces, 25 digs and 27 successful service receives.
"She made some key saves to lead us to winning this match against middleburg as well as beating them in our district championship," said Brightman, noting Halford had just 85 dig errors in 373 digs for 2019. "Defensively, she is our rock and keeps up solid in the back row."
For her never-dying attitude to keep Ridgeview at the top of their game amongst past giants, Halford is a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019.
"Carlton Waiguru did not speak one word of English six years ago when he arrived in the United States (more specifically, Clay High School)," said Clay High cross country coach Frank Wickes.
Waiguru, a junior Blue Devil cross country runner, overcame the language boundary quickly to become a Clay honors student, but, athletically, Waiguru climbed the ladder of cross country runner to become the first Blue Devil to go to the state meet since maybe Corey Mundy 10-12 years ago, though Mundy was a track state meet athlete primarily before finding success at Flagler College with a national NCAA Div II invite for cross country.
Last year, Waiguru's classic style and his bold sunglasses look blossomed, but only got him a 32nd in his Bolles-heavy district race in 18:59.57.
"He set a goal to reach the State Finals and he did," said Wickes, who escorted Waiguru to the Class 2A championship race in Tallahassee for a first time Clay runner in nearly 15 years. "He also led the boys as a team to qualify for Regionals."
Waiguru never wavered in his quest to overcome not only English and one of the toughest regions in Florida, but also time as he finished 90th in Class 2A with an improved time of 17:44.48.
For his undeniable focus on achieving his goal, Waiguru is a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019.
Fleming Island High swimmer Emma Grimm made a bold switch in the middle of the high school swim season, much to the encouraging of Fleming Island High coach Jordan Bright, and answered the move with resounding results at the Class 3A swim championships with an explosive breaststroke leg in the 200 medley relay that fueled a gold medal finish for the Lady Golden Eagles.
"In the first half of the season, we were still focused on her generating points and covering a critical team need in the 200 Individual Medley," said Bright. "As the second half approached, we shifted gears to allow her to focus on the 50 Free and the 100 breaststroke. Her splits tell the story as she was consistently in the 24 second range in the 50 Free."
Grimm, a junior, won her district gold in the 50 free, placed third in the region 50 free and finished fifth in 3A with a best of 24.23 seconds.
Prior to her state championship 50 free final, Grimm was poised on the starter's block as the second leg of the 200 medley relay, the meet's first event, that was bringing her the baton in third place before she blasted the field with her fastest 50 breaststroke leg of the year to put Fleming Island in first place that held to the gold medal podium.
"Regarding the 200 Medley State Championship, you can see where each member of the team did their job with phenomenal splits," said Bright. "But when you look and see what Emma did to the opposing breaststroker in the second leg, you can see where the lead was solidified for good."
Grimm's split for the region champion 200 medley relay was 31.22 while her district split was 30.85.
At the state meet, she clocked a best of 30.48 for her medley relay split.
"Tapering towards the state meet worked wonderfully and she peaked at the right time," said Bright. "As did her teammates with their gold finish in the Medley relay and silver in the 200 Free Relay."
For her championship timing in bringing home the relay gold, Grimm is a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019.
Middleburg High senior linebacker Brody Senn got thrown into the mix as a sophomore because of a slew of injuries to the football roster.
"He never complained once and always gave it everything he had," said Bronco coach Karl Smeltzer. "As a sophomore, he was thrown into the fire sooner than we had hoped, but since, he has been instrumental to Bronco football for three years."
Senn, who doubled as a fullback as well for the Broncos, caught passes and even returned a kickoff.
In his Bronco stay, Senn offered a tough sideline-to-sideline chaser with 47 tackles; 31 solos, with a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, a one tackle for loss and three quarterback hurries. Senn also had two touchdown plunges for the Broncos.
For his unforgiving enthusiasm for strong play in tough times, Senn is a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019.
In one of the more stunning finishes of a season, Keystone Heights High junior cross country runner Camryn Williams took a 21-plus minute district fourth place finish to a fastest-of-season 19:32.05 fourth place finish at her region race before finishing in 19:44.58 for a top clocking for county runners and a 34th place finish overall at the Class 1A cross country championships.
"Camryn is fiercely committed to her training regiment in and out of season," said Capper. "She broke the Keystone Heights High School girls' cross country record and set her own personal record with her 19:32 performance at the Class 2A Region Championship."
In her state race, Williams squashed all but two of six runners that had beaten her at her district and region races.
For summoning her best efforts to correct her racing for a top state finish, Williams is a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019.
On a team that most times fielded opponents twice as big size-wise and roster numbers wise, St. Johns Country Day School's Swiss Army Knife Max Arnold, a junior, gets the final nod as a Clay Today Unsung Hero of 2019 for accruing impressive statistics on both sides of the ball; 28 catches, nine touchdowns, 24 yards per catch; 171 yards rushing with one game over 100 yards; 72 tackles/50 solos, six tackles for losses, one interception.
And, Arnold weighs just 145 pounds.