The turnaround wasn't going to happen overnight, something Randy Sides knew when he signed with a struggling West Georgia football team back in 2008.
The program with a proud past had just hired head coach Daryl Dickey, who inherited a team coming off back-to-back 1-9 and 2-9 seasons. The new coach, with Sides as a true freshman starter at tight end, went winless in 2008 and won a single game in 2009.
The Wolves fought back to a 3-7 record last season and finally turned the corner this year.
With Sides making two key catches on the game-winning drive, West Georgia finished off a 6-4 season (its first winning record since 2005) last weekend with a 39-35 upset of the nation's No. 1 Division II team, previously undefeated Delta State.
"It was awesome," said Sides, a Grayson grad and one of only 12 seniors who stuck around from Dickey's first signing class. "It was a great note to go out on for us seniors. For all we've been through the last four years and coming up from the bottom with Coach Dickey, being his first senior class.
"To beat the No. 1 team in the nation, you can't get better than that. It's a huge thrill. It's a memory I'll take with me forever."
The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder started 36 of a possible 40 games in his career, losing way more games than he won. But the low points were washed away by the Wolves' breakout 2011 season, which Sides said featured more differences than just winning more games.
"Coach Dickey had to come in and clean up a lot of stuff," Sides said of the four-year changes. "When we came in as freshmen -- we had a lot of freshmen -- the attitude of the team then for each game was that we were already defeated. Coming from a winning program like Grayson, that just ripped me apart, just being happy with where they were.
"Me and the other freshmen working on getting that winning mentality back at West Georgia. Now we go into every game believing we're going to win."
That belief helped in the season finale.
West Georgia trailed Delta State 35-24 after three quarters before a stunning comeback. The game-winning drive was a 68-yarder with 1:35 left that included two catches by Sides, more of a powerful run blocker than a receiver, who earned second-team All-Gulf South Conference honors this past week.
The Wolves' defense then held with a late defensive stand to secure a winning record, instead of being satisfied with 5-5.
"It's definitely great to leave these underclassmen with a winning record and something to build their careers on at West Georgia," said Sides, who finishes a biology/pre-med degree in April with a goal of attending medical school. "Being the ones who turned the program around is great. I believe West Georgia is on the way to being a Division II powerhouse."
Three other Gwinnett products also were seniors on West Georgia's winning team after transferring in from other colleges.
That group includes Central Gwinnett's Manny Rodriguez and Yusuf Holloway, who had 292 rushing yards this season. Rodriguez was second on the team with 53 tackles. Fellow senior Brandon McEachern of Buford had 32 tackles.
Underclassmen Cornelius Winters of Central Gwinnett (47 tackles), Seth Hinsley of Norcross (109 rushing yards at fullback) and Darien Lane of Dacula also contributed to the breakthrough season.
Buford grad Domonique Swope was named the Southern Conference freshman of the week after carrying 27 times for a career-high 165 yards in Georgia Southern's 31-10 win over Wofford to clinch the conference title. ... Although Wofford lost to GSU, North Gwinnett's Eric Eberhardt had a huge game from his nosetackle position. He made 12 tackles, all solos, and four were for losses. He also had a sack.
Collins Hill's Taylor Heinicke, a freshman at Old Dominion, completed 30 of 39 passes for 273 yards last Saturday in the Monarchs' (9-2) 35-31 win over William and Mary. ... Greater Atlanta Christian's Lee Chapple, who earned All-Gulf South second-team honors this week, completed 26 of 38 passes for 247 yards and threw the game-winning TD with 57 seconds left (capping a 12-play, 79-yard drive) as No. 13 North Alabama beat Valdosta State 30-23. Shiloh's Eugene Glenn carried 18 times for 98 yards for VSU. Blazers offensive guard Edmund Kugbila, a 6-4, 368-pound senior, was a unanimous first-team All-Gulf South pick.
Collins Hill grad Jordan Jones had 14 points and two steals Thursday night as Florida upset 21st-ranked rival Florida State, 72-58. Jones also had 21 points and five 3-pointers in the Gators' previous game, a 69-66 loss to Michigan. ... GAC's Trent Wiedeman had 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots in the College of Charleston's season opener vs. Holy Cross. He followed that up with seven points and 11 boards Tuesday against Morehead State.
Jeremy Lamb scored a career-high 30 points in Connecticut's 70-57 win over Columbia last weekend. The Norcross grad is averaging a team-best 22 points in three games this season. ... Buford grad Blanche Alverson led Auburn's 77-43 win over Mercer last weekend with 12 points on 5 of 6 shooting. ... Parkview's Sczeny Hartry scored 14 in Valdosta State's season-opening, 53-48 win over Nova Southeastern.
SEC honors two locals
Two Gwinnett grads, Parkview's Ashley Baker and Buford's Maria Petroni, were selected to the SEC Community Service Team for women's soccer this week.
Baker, a junior goalkeeper at Georgia, has participated in several clinics, coached a recreational soccer team in Watkinsville and volunteered at the Taste of Athens 10K benefit, the Special Olympics and an Athens Humane Society event. She also is a regular visitor to the Athens Boys and Girls Club and St. Mary's Hospital.
Petroni, a senior forward at South Carolina, has logged more than 54 hours of community service work in the Columbia area. She has participated in a cancer awareness walk the past two years, has worked with two local elementary schools outside of the soccer season and volunteers with several youth soccer leagues.
Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.