They arrived on a Newberry Fire Department engine with sirens blaring and then made their way onto the Newberry High School football field under an archway with NHS cheerleaders flanking both sides.
Parents, teachers, principals from Archer and Newberry schools, members of the Newberry and Archer commissions, Alachua County School District personnel and players from the 1979 NHS baseball team clapped and cheered on the FHSAA Class 1A state champion Newberry Panthers baseball team.
The giant flags spelling out N-H-S streamed across the field as cheerleaders holding them circled just as they do on Friday nights when a touchdown is scored. The Panther marching band played on.
NHS principal James Sheppard thanked local Newberry business owners and churches for donating the funds to make the celebration happen. It was RPM Auto, Country Way Town Center, Chris Torrence Electric, Country Way MiniStorage and Bounds Heating and Air that Sheppard said raised enough money in 20 minutes of phone calls to pay for championship rings for the players and coaches.
He praised the donors such as the Floor Store and volunteers who made the free hot dogs, hamburgers, drinks and popcorn possible. And the crowd of more than 300 people thanked the donors with applause and cheers.
Senior pastor at Jonesville Baptist Church Corey Cheramie got kudos for painting the field for the special celebration, as did Archer Elementary Dean Trey Whiddon, who served as the voice of the Panthers as he volunteered to announce the games all season.
Members of the 1979 semifinalists baseball team—the last Newberry baseball team to reach the state tournament— were welcomed to the celebration and sat on the field along with the 2021 team. Attending team members included: Harold Roland, Keith Barnes, Keith Ross, Mike Nattiel, Mike Wright and Marvin Boykin.
Superintendent for Alachua County Public Schools Carlee Simon congratulated the team on a positive ending to a stressful year.
“We care about each other, and we care about the kids, and it shows tonight,” said NHS athletic director Bryan Roundtree.
Roundtree played and coached baseball at NHS and said celebrating the championship is a highlight of his career.
He reminded the crowd of the Panther mantra, “Never lose faith, never back down and never give up.” And he reminisced about coaching current NHS baseball coach Mike Spina.
“Everybody talked about this kid Mike Spina, Mike Spina, this kid can play. I thought to myself, come on, a freshman?” he said. “First practice, he hits three home runs.”
Roundtree acknowledged how hard the coaches worked and thanked the players for the championship year.
“This team deserves to be here,” he said.
Spina addressed the team and crowd: “These kids have worked very hard all year long whether it be in the classroom and on the field.”
He also thanked his assistants, hitting coach Shedrick Honeycutt and pitching coach Blaine Rhea, who tipped his hat to reveal the bald head earned as a bet with the team for winning.
Spina then named each player who stood one by one wearing the championship medal.
Principal Sheppard acknowledged parents in the crowd and rallied for one big final round of applause before inviting families and fans onto the field for photo ops.
One of the 1979 players, Keith Barnes, joined the 2021 team in a huddle and passed on words of wisdom.
“Cherish it,” he told the players. “You can only win your first championship one time.”
He added that he told the players they will always have a special bond: “Years will go by, and time will pass, but it will always be special.”
As graduating player for the 2021 team Makai Johnson was leaving the field he said what he takes with him from the title run is, “Keep going, never quit.”