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ECHS celebrates nine athletes heading to the next level
ECHS Signing Day
Nine Effingham County seniors -- (front row, left to right) Dionna Rivers (South Carolina Beaufort, track), Dayanara Figueroa (South Georgia State College, soccer), Aniya Mercier (Mercer, cheerleading), (back row, left to right) Caden Kessler (South Georgia State College, baseball), Antonio "AJ" Butts (Mercer, football), Gary Cooper (Peru State College, football), Jordan Goldwire (East Georgia State College, basketball), Caleb McElveen (Piedmont University, tennis), Shawn McKnight (Piedmont University, track) -- celebrated their recent college athletic signings during a school assembly May 17. (Donald Heath for the Effingham Herald.)

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

SPRINGFIELD – Middle distance runner Shawn McKnight took his place at a table in front of Effingham County High School logos Friday morning to get ready for his ceremonial college scholarship signing to Piedmont University.

Suddenly, a few friends were close by.

Many of McKnight’s track teammates came out of the bleachers to stand behind their team captain in an impromptu show of support.

It was a morning to celebrate with McKnight and eight other Rebel classmates who would be going off to college for athletics.

Aniya Mercier, who will be headed to Mercer University for cheer, led the parade of honored Rebels.

Girls’ soccer goalie Dayanara Figueroa (South Georgia State College), cornerback Gary Cooper (Peru State College), pitcher/infielder Caden Kessler (South Georgia State College), McKnight (Piedmont), tennis player Caleb McElveen (Piedmont University), girls track sprinter Dionna Rivers (USC-Beaufort), basketball forward Jordan Goldwire (East Georgia State College) and linebacker AJ Butts (Mercer University) followed.

Perhaps ECHS football coach John Ford’s words for Cooper expressed the sentiments of the day for any of the athletes.

“It’s been an honor to be a small part of your journey,” said Ford to end a flattering speech about Cooper, who unselfishly moved from wide receiver to cornerback in his senior season to help the Rebels win a region championship.

Students filled one side of the school gym for the one-hour presentation of Rebel representatives now headed to the next level of athletics.

Outside in the hallway, decorated tables, some filled with cakes, cookies and cupcakes, awaited those who wanted to party.

In a week, the seniors will graduate but their memories will last. Figueroa started all four years as the Rebels soccer goalie. Kessler also broke into the baseball pitching rotation as a freshman. He was unable to pitch as a senior because of an injury, but contributed as a designated hitter. He’ll have Tommy John surgery in the offseason.

Goldwire, a 6-foot-6 forward, was a big part of the Rebels’ basketball fortunes for his last three years. As a senior, he was named a captain by coach Tremaine Aaron before earning first-team all-region honors.

McElveen helped put ECHS boys’ tennis on the map, leading the team to consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances at state.

Rivers will leave a lasting impression after helping the 4 X 200 relay team set a school record during her junior season. This year, her 4 X 200 and 4 X 400 relay teams posted the second-best times in school history.

Mercier already has her new cheer down, “Go Bears!”

She’ll be cheering for a familiar face.

Butts, also headed to Mercer, spent only one year at Effingham County after three years at Calvary Day in Savannah. It was a memorable senior year. Butts won the Region 2-6A Football Player of Year and earned first-team all-state honors from the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association.

“It was time for a change. I had to prove myself that I could do this football thing and I can go far. Effingham County gave me that opportunity,” Butts said.