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Taking a blast to the past
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For one night last week, it was 1994 again.

That could be a good thing, since gas would be barely more than a dollar a gallon. “Seinfeld” would still be on the air. And we would still be two years away from everyone doing “The Macarena.”

In 1994, I was on my second full-time job since graduating from college, as sports editor for the Columbia County News-Times in Martinez, Ga. With no college athletics in Columbia County, my job consisted almost entirely of covering high school sports.

There is still a certain purity to high school sports – to fresh-faced teenagers, many of whom won’t participate in organized sports after they graduate, playing for the love of their game and representing their school. Even if you’re put off by the corruption of major-college athletics or the narcissism and materialism of pro sports, the most casual of fans can still appreciate high school sports.

The spring of 1994 was a fun time to cover high school baseball in Columbia County. Evans won its fifth state championship, Augusta Christian was the state runner-up in GISA, and Lakeside and Harlem both advanced to the state playoffs.

Covering high school baseball in Columbia County was akin to covering high school football in Valdosta. I was treated to a number of entertaining games that year, capped by Evans’ wild 5-4 win over Fayette County to clinch the state title.

The games I enjoyed most, thought, were the inter-county match-ups, particularly between Evans and Lakeside. One school had been around considerably longer than the other, but both were successful and were supported by passionate fans. (Does that bring any other county rivalry to mind?)

But even more special than the games themselves were the relationships I developed. Covering the same teams in the same county week after week, I became friends with a number or players and their families.

I would often talk with the players – not just about baseball, but about their lives off the field. I would visit before and after games with their parents, a group of whom threw a going-away party for me a year later when I took a sports writing job in Statesboro.

I even road-tripped with one of the families when a team of Columbia County all-stars played in the Dixie Baseball World Series in Lake Charles, La., over the summer. Their company helped pass the nearly 800-mile drive from Columbia County to the campus of McNeese State University for the tournament. Plus, they prevented me from having to take my own car, which I didn’t think would survive the trip.

Sure, I probably crossed a journalistic line of getting too close to the people I cover. But I justified it that I was just trying to be part of the community I covered. I also didn’t mind the occasional free meals that came my way while I survived on a reporter’s salary.

After shifting my career focus to TV news in 1996 and to public relations in 2005, I have found my way back to the newspaper business. Although I can’t imagine ever going back to the never-ending nights-and-weekends schedule of a sports writer, I do like to reminisce on those times.

Last week’s Effingham-South Effingham game took me right back to those days. Before the game I mingled with some of the people I have been able to meet so far in the community, then I spent the first half of the game in the Effingham dugout and the second half in the South Effingham dugout – which wasn’t a bad place to be for Spencer Harvey’s game-winning, three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh.

In one swing, I experienced the mixed emotions of a cross-town rivalry. You’re happy for the Mustangs as they celebrate their dramatic victory, but your heart goes out to the Rebels as they walk slowly off the field in defeat.

Afterward, Harvey said it best: “We’re enemies with Effingham on the field, but off the field we are the best of friends. When we’re not playing against each other, we pull for them to win and I know they do the same for us. I love those boys; I’ve grown up with them.”

Following the wild finish, I said to anyone who would listen (OK, that was two people, but who’s counting?) that I was already looking forward to my next Effingham County-South Effingham game. Unfortunately, that will have to wait until next season.

Unless …

How does an Effingham-South Effingham meeting in the state tournament sound?