The ‘man’ just got beat by ‘the man’ — Wooooooo!!!

The Covington News - - SPORTS & LIVING - Gabriel Sto­vall is the Sports Ed­i­tor at The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at gsto­vall@cov­news.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GabrielS­to­vall1 as well as our sports Twit­ter page @ CovNewsS­ports.

Where is Ric Flair when you need him?

If he was court­side this past Thurs­day at the New­ton High School gym­na­sium, or bet­ter yet, if he were the one giv­ing the pre-game pep talk to the New­ton Rams boys bas­ket­ball team, the leg­endary pro wrestler (If you were born af­ter 1990, you may have to YouTube or Google him) may have reached back for one of his most oft-quoted say­ings to sum­ma­rize the task at hand last Thurs­day.

“To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man.”

As an 80s kid who was a huge pro wrestling fan, I re­mem­ber vividly watch­ing the Ric Flair in­ter­view on when he spouted this nine-word piece of lin­guis­tic gold. He was go­ing for his fifth cham­pi­onship, hav­ing to de­feat Ricky Steam­boat in Nashville to do it. But Flair had al­ready carved out his rep­u­ta­tion as a wrestling icon, whereas Steam­boat, de­spite his belt, was try­ing to be what Flair al­ready was, as it per­tained to wrestling. He was try­ing to be “the man.” That quote rushed to my head Thurs­day as I looked around at the pre-game at­mos­phere when the de­fend­ing state cham­pion West­lake Lions came to town in the se­cond round of the GHSA Class AAAAAAA state tour­na­ment.

It came to mind as I saw the Lions strut­ting out con­fi­dently onto the court, wear­ing their 2015-16 sea­son Class AAAAAA Cham­pi­onship t-shirts dur­ing warm-ups.

It came to mind as I looked over at the sharply dressed West­lake head coach Dar­ron Rogers, who was wear­ing a per­fectly tai­lored dark col­ored suit and tie. He stood watch­ing his team get the kinks out be­fore tip-off, arms crossed with the bling of what looked like his state cham­pi­onship ring on his fin­ger, ef­fort­lessly draw­ing at­ten­tion to it­self.

All of this caused me to think back to last year. Iron­i­cally, I saw a por­tion of New­ton’s 64-59 semi­fi­nal loss to West­lake at the Ma­con Coli­seum be­cause I was in Ma­con cov­er­ing other teams who were also vy­ing for a state ti­tle. Lit­tle did I know that day, where I’d be this past Thurs­day – watch­ing a much an­tic­i­pated re­match be­tween the Rams and the Lions.

Watch­ing a high school bas­ket­ball clas­sic un­fold right be­fore my eyes.

To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man. That re­frain kept pul­sat­ing my con­science as I saw West­lake’s 6-foot-8 phe­nom Chuma Okeke pre­par­ing for the game. It caused me to re­mem­ber one of the first in­ter­views I did with New­ton coach Rick Ras­mussen since com­ing to The Covington News.

We were in his of­fice, and he was brief­ing me on the suc­cess of the New­ton pro­gram, both be­fore and since he’d been pac­ing the side­lines. I re­mem­ber him say­ing the only kind of player he’d never re­ally had is that big 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 post player who could jump out of the gym.

On Thurs­day, I found my­self won­der­ing if Okeke was who he was think­ing of when he was say­ing that.

And for all of the suc­cess New­ton had in the sea­son prior to this game – the na­tional rank­ings, the na­tional at­ten­tion, Isa­iah Miller up­stag­ing Spar­tan­burg Day’s Zion Wil­liamson on the high­light reel.

De­spite the re­gion cham­pi­onship, and beat­ing ev­ery­one they played on its sched­ule at least once, the fact was, West­lake en­tered Thurs­day night’s game as, “the man.” Not only were the Lions de­fend­ing champs, but they also rep­re­sented New­ton heart­break. As if the phys­i­cal chal­lenge of beat­ing West­lake wasn’t enough, New­ton would also have to get past the men­tal hur­dles in­volved with try­ing to de­throne the team that de­throned you last year.

I love what Rams se­nior J.D. No­tae said af­ter the game.

“We were sup­posed to beat them last year,” No­tae said. The 6-foot3 Jack­sonville signee was al­ready back in the locker room while most of his team­mates and coaches were still out on the gym floor slap­ping hands, hug­ging and enjoying the mo­ments that fol­lowed the three over­time thriller. It looked as if he’d been in a war. And he ba­si­cally ad­mit­ted as much. “It was a real dog fight,” he said. One of the images that has stayed with me since Thurs­day was a pic­ture of No­tae and sopho­more point guard Ash­ton Ha­gans. They were stand­ing in a side-by-side em­brace. Ha­gans had a mile-wide smile on his face. No­tae, on the other hand, looked spent. Hold­ing a mouth­piece in his mouth, he looked like he just stepped out of the ring with the heavy­weight champ.

And in a sense, that’s ex­actly what New­ton did. They jumped out fast, put the champs on the ropes early. When the lead swelled to 19 points be­fore half­time, it seemed as if the hay­mak­ers were hit­ting their de­sired tar­gets and the champs would soon fall. But Ras­mussen knew bet­ter. “I told them at half­time that those guys are cham­pi­ons,” he said. “I knew they weren’t go­ing away.”

There’s no equiv­a­lent of “over­time” in box­ing or wrestling. In box­ing, once you’ve reached the fi­nal round, that’s it. But in wrestling, you just keep go­ing un­til some­one is pinned or some­one sub­mits. And you knew West­lake wasn’t go­ing to sub­mit.

In­ter­est­ingly enough, it was a sixth (and some­times sev­enth)man sopho­more, Colby Rogers, who lev­eled the fi­nal knock­out blows. His drain­ing four free throws to seal the win in the fi­nal 30 sec­onds of the third over­time was the equiv­a­lent of pin­ning the op­po­nent and get­ting that three­count. And then the cel­e­bra­tion be­gan.

In some ways it felt like a cham­pi­onship cel­e­bra­tion, but th­ese Rams know bet­ter – es­pe­cially the ones who knew first-hand what that last West­lake bout felt like. Es­pe­cially the griz­zled vet­eran, No­tae, who is typ­i­cally a young man of few words any­way.

I had to ask around to lo­cate him for an in­ter­view. When I saw him in the locker room, he seemed more re­lieved than ex­cited. His team had just beaten “the man,” but he also knew New­ton had more work to do be­fore it could take on that ti­tle for it­self.

“Cel­e­brate to­day. Get ready to work to­mor­row,” No­tae said with a straight face.

Now it’s on to Tift County, who will make the trek to Covington Wed­nes­day. Get past the Blue Devils, and per­haps a pos­si­ble Fi­nal Four matchup with fa­mil­iar re­gion foe Grayson awaits, de­pend­ing on what Grayson does in its Elite Eight matchup with Brook­wood.

But in this con­text, be­ing the man means not over­look­ing the next op­po­nent. It means bring­ing your emo­tions back down to earth and not star­ing too far down the road. It means un­der­stand­ing that you’ve gotta win three more games be­fore any­one will call you the man.

West­lake is no longer the man, and as of now, New­ton isn’t ei­ther. But it’s a much more plau­si­ble pos­si­bil­ity, now that they’ve de­throned the champs.

Can th­ese Rams con­tinue to push through the gaunt­let for the ul­ti­mate prize? It re­mains to be seen. They don’t have a state cham­pi­onship tro­phy yet. But based on what we saw Thurs­day, we now know one thing for sure – New­ton’s got a cham­pi­onship heart.

GABRIEL STO­VALL SPORTS ED­I­TOR

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