Portal stands out among 8 first-time GHSA champions

Portal’s state championship in girls golf was not the most celebrated GHSA championship of the 2015-16 academic year. There are only so many necks to hug and hands to shake in a high school of 230 students and a town of 600 residents.

But if measured by historical significance and mere coolness, it ranks right up there among the year’s 133 team championships.

The golf team, which took home the trophy this month in Augusta, is Portal’s first state champion. Portal opened in 1913.

‘’We are extremely excited and proud of our girls golf team for creating a historical mark within our athletic program,’’ Portal athletics director Penny Oglesby said Tuesday. “Our team is small [with only three players] but has made a big statement in our community, as well as our school district. We love our Girl Power.’’

Portal was one of eight schools to win first-ever GHSA championships in the 2015-16 sports calendar, which ended Tuesday when Houston County won the final championship, the Class AAAAA baseball title.

(See chart showing year and sport of every GHSA school's first state championship)

Eight sounds like a lot, but it’s only slightly more than in other recent years. The expansion in the number of schools, classifications and championships is off-set by a shrinking number of contenders. Once you’ve won one, you’re off the clock.

The glory days of first-time champions was the 1960s and 1970s. It peaked in 1960 and 1971 with 14 apiece. The average has been only six since the GHSA went to six classifications in 2012.

There are still about 90 schools in the GHSA membership of 455 that have never won state championships. Groves, Union County and Glascock County, which date to the 1950s and perhaps beyond, are now believed to be the oldest continuous GHSA members without one.

Portal’s achievement represents the longest drought-breaker in GHSA history, but others this year had been forced to be patient, as well.

Liberty County, opened in 1993, won the Class AAAA boys basketball title behind a junior named Richard LeCounte, perhaps the state’s best all-around athlete.

Fellowship Christian, the Class A private-school girls soccer champion, also opened its high school in 1993.

Americus-Sumter, the AAAA girls basketball champion, won for the first time since Americus and Sumter consolidated in 2004. Americus had won 23 state championships. Sumter County won none.

Tattnall Square Academy, the Class A private-school baseball champ, had won 32 state titles in the Georgia Independent School Association, but this was the first in the GHSA, which Tattnall joined in 2014.

Savannah Arts Academy won its first-ever championship in the strangest manner – by appeal.

Westminster had won the AAA girls tennis final 3-2, but Savannah Arts protested successfully that Westminster inadvertently had made illegal lineup change. That put Savannah Arts, a public school opened in 1998 in the old Savannah High building, in the record books.

Drew Charter, Class A private boys cross country winners, is the baby of the group. The Atlanta public school opened in 2014.

Then there was Locust Grove, a Henry County school that had become a baseball power the past few years. Locust Grove unseated Buford in AAAA this month. The school opened in 2009.

‘’People used to ask me where Locust Grove is; now they know,’’ baseball coach Stephen Phillips said. ‘’This whole thing has been so big for our players, students and community. To be the first team to win a title here at Locust Grove makes it even sweeter because no matter what happens from this point forward we will always be the first.’’

In Portal, a town best known for its Turpentine Festival in October, girls golf wasn’t offered as a sport until five years ago. The team has only three members – Faith Reddick, Caitlyn Girardeau and Layne Clark. They've won three region titles and now a state championship, one for the ages.

‘’I hope this will help shed some light on the small school with big hearts,’’ Oglesby said. “We are beyond proud of all of our boys and girls.’’