Mill Creek grad drowns in Florida river

LIVE OAK, FLA. — A recent Mill Creek High School graduate and Valdosta State cross-country runner drowned Wednesday after officials said he was swimming with teammates in a murky Florida river.

According to a news release sent out Thursday evening by Valdosta State University, officials located the body of Tajay Hoppines, 18, after searching the river for nearly 24 hours.

Suwannee County Sheriff Tony Cameron said Hoppines and several Valdosta State University cross country runners were training Wednesday at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Fla., when the tragedy occurred.

“They had been there at the park running all during the day,” Cameron said. “They were hanging out late in the afternoon, and some of the team decided to swim across the river. When they were halfway across, (Hoppines) started swimming toward them. He didn’t get far. The river has a strong current, and he got caught up in it.”

Cameron said the search for Hoppines’ body was problematic due to the treacherous waters in the area where the young man went under.

“The river is very, very dark here,” said Cameron, adding that dive teams and rescue workers from several surrounding counties had been assisting in the efforts since Wednesday.

According to the sheriff, there was a drowning in the same location a few weeks prior. “There’s some dangerous areas in the river here, and we have to be really careful even with our divers who are working in it right now,” Cameron said.

Those at Mill Creek who knew Hoppines when he attended the school said he was a popular young man.

“He was a very personable person and very well-liked by his peers,” said Mill Creek athletic director Gary Long.

Mill Creek cross country coach Andy Christie agreed.

“He was just a great guy,” Christie said. “Everyone who knew him knew that. You couldn’t ask for a nicer person.”

Mill Creek soccer coach Sean Garnett said Hoppines “was an awesome kid. He was a great person, a fantastic athlete, and every friend knew that if they ever needed anything Tajay would do whatever he could for them.”

Added Garnett: “I loved him as a coach, and I loved him as a person. I can’t believe this happened, but I know that God has a plan, even though we don’t always understand it.”

Long said the news hit Mill Creek hard.

“It’s awful,” Long said. “When somebody this young is struck down like this, it’s a hard thing to cope with for those who knew him ... and the community as a whole. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family.”