Basketball didn't pay for Jonathan Norton's education, but it paved the way for his future.
Back in the early 1990s, Norton was a student at Columbus State, a transfer from Georgia Perimeter who loved basketball. Longtime CSU men's coach Herbert Green didn't have a roster spot, but he gave the eager youngster a chance as a student trainer and equipment manager.
"(Green) gave me a chance, he knew I wanted to coach," said Norton, a 1991 Berkmar grad. "I was a sponge. And the good Lord took over from there."
Norton's path took him back to Columbus State this week. Berry's women's basketball coach for the past four seasons, he was announced Monday as the head women's coach at his alma mater, replacing Jay Sparks.
It's a homecoming of sorts for Norton and his wife, Michelle, a 1994 Berkmar grad and a former Columbus State runner.
Norton was a women's basketball assistant for seven seasons with the Cougars, in addition to serving as head cross country coach. Now he's back as head coach of a NCAA Division II women's team that returns Peach Belt Conference player of the year Phebe Smith, the younger sister of Atlanta Hawks star Josh Smith.
"It is kind of going home," said Norton, who was 81-49 at Berry and took three teams to the NAIA Tournament. "You spend nine years at a place, you really put some roots in the ground. And you build a lot of close friendships. Not many people get a chance to come back and coach at their alma mater."
One of those good friends is also on the Columbus State coaching staff. Evan Isaac, another 1991 Berkmar grad, is the Cougars' tennis coach.
Haney named first-team All-SEC
Already one of the most decorated tennis players in Auburn history, Alex Haney got another honor on Tuesday when she was named first-team All-SEC.
The Grayson grad is the Tigers' all-time winningest tennis player with a career record of 202-87 (114-40 in singles, 88-47 in doubles). She was an All-American last season in doubles.
Haney is 17-2 in singles this season (9-1 in SEC play), including a 9-1 record against nationally ranked players. She already has defeated two top-25 ranked players this season.
Long gets conference honor
In 29 years of softball, Tennessee-Martin had not defeated a top-25 program. That changed last week, with some help from Brookwood grad Greer Long.
Long hit a first-inning grand slam and added solo shot in the third inning, powering UT-Martin to a 10-4 win over 24th-ranked Southern Illinois. The senior also hit a home run in the following game against SIU-Edwardsville, earning Ohio Valley Conference player of the week accolades.
Long, who hit .500 for the week with the three homers and six RBIs, then had a another big game on Thursday, ripping a game-winning, three-run homer for a 4-3 win over Austin Peay.
Long will work next season as an Ole Miss graduate assistant while working in the biology department and pursuing a master's degree.
Thompson named all-conference
Columbus State second baseman Christie thompson, a North Gwinnett grad, was named to the All-Peach Belt Conference first team. The junior hit .323 with 20 RBIs this season.
McGuire named to All-PBC first team
North Georgia's Courtney McGuire was named Peach Belt Conference First-Team All-Conference after hitting .375 with a league-leading 11 home runs during the 2009 season.
The Central Gwinnett grad scored a Peach Belt Conference best 52 runs, while adding 41 RBIs, which was second in the conference.
McGuire has an on base percentage of .471 and a slugging percentage of .750 for North Georgia, ranked No. 2 in the nation with a record 43-3. The Saints are waiting on their seeding and location for the 2009 NCAA tournament.
Rahm helps team to conference title
North Gwinnett grad Justin Rahm had a huge USA South Conference Tournament, powering North Carolina Wesleyan to next month's regionals in Maryland.
Rahm, the all-tourney shortstop, hit .360 with two home runs, nine RBIs and three doubles for the Battling Bishops, who swept Shenandoah in a two-of-three championship series.
Locals power GPC to top
Behind a high number of Gwinnett grads, Georgia Perimeter College's baseball team swept nationally ranked Young Harris for the first time in 11 years recently, claiming first place in the Georgia Junior College Athletic Association rankings.
GPC's roster includes South Gwinnett's Jason Dodson and Zac Bui, Brookwood's Brent Hendrick, Shiloh's Alex Mahncke and Vince Wood, Duluth's Jesse Richeson and Mill Creek's Matt Tunnell, Brandon Bast, Hunter Pope, Tyler Akins and Denver Stovall.
Hendrick is the team's top pitcher, sporting a 7-0 record with three saves. The right-hander also has a 1.04 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings.
Young Harris, still ranked fifth nationally, is led by Collins Hill grad Daniel Warzon, who ranks second in the state with a .444 batting average and 65 RBIs.
Cunningham gets academic honor
Norcross grad Brooks Cunningham, a football player at Tulane, was named to the Conference USA Commissioner's Honor Roll on Monday. The honor goes to athletes with a 3.0 GPA or higher.
Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting the achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via e-mail to email@example.com or via fax to 770-339-8081.