Ticket to Ride

A quarter of a century has passed since the 1999 Newton High School baseball team set out on a remarkable journey to the state semifinals, galvanized a community and made Riverside Park the site of destination viewing. Enduring memories and firsthand accounts of that dream season still warm the hearts of those who were lucky enough to witness it.

by Brian Knapp

Because of my ongoing decades-long love affair with the game of baseball, I often mark milestones through my experiences with the sport. No dot on my timeline stands out more than the four months I spent covering the 1999 Newton High School baseball team. Those kids, their parents and their coach changed my life in ways I never could have imagined and altered the trajectory of my career forever. The fact that 25 years—yes, a quarter of a century—have now passed blows my mind. 

I had not yet completed my first year as sports editor of The Covington News at the start of that historic season. Still very green and unsure of myself, I had heard rumblings that something truly special was afoot at Newton. The Rams were returning eight seniors and looked to be a perfect storm of talent, guile, character and experience under second-year head coach Michael Davis, a former Cleveland Indians farmhand who once roomed with future hall of famer Jim Thome in the minor leagues. 

richard stahl

Though there were other main characters, the season revolved around those eight seniors: Bradley Dobbs, Joey Smith, Kerry Gilstrap, Brad Herring, Nick Stanford, Richard Stahl, Brian Owens and Dustin Peck. When spring sprung, however, the Rams sputtered out of the gate, losing four of their first nine games. They soon righted the ship, pieced together a dizzying 24-game winning streak, captured a region championship and entered the state tournament as one of the odds-on favorites. Their magical run ended in the semifinals, where they lost a best-of-three series to Greenbrier. I can vividly remember Stahl’s three-run homer—his sixth in seven state tournament games—sailing over the left center field fence and Jimmy Stanford blaring Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” over the loudspeaker, as he had done countless times before. Stahl’s blast highlighted a six-run first inning for Newton, which raced out to a 6–2 lead in the winner-take-all third game with Greenbrier. The Rams could not hold the fort, surrendered nine unanswered runs and lost 11–6. Greenbrier won its second straight state championship the following week.

“Those kids, their parents and their coach changed my life in ways I never could have imagined and altered the trajectory of my career forever.”

Brian Knapp

I had never been so hurt for a team. I approached a teary-eyed Davis afterward. Overcome by emotion, I was unable to interview him. “I just want to shake your hand,” I said. Standing next to me was Sam Mann, who I had hired as a sports writer a few months earlier. That season spurred a lifelong friendship between us. As I looked Davis in the eye and shook his hand, Sam burst into tears. I followed suit and broke down myself, overwhelmed by an odd combination of sadness and gratitude. In hindsight, the reality that Newton’s march toward its first state championship since 1979 ended short of the mark was perhaps fitting in some respects. Baseball has a way of stealing your heart and breaking it over and over and over again. 

In terms of individuals, two stood out for me.

Gilstrap was a true multi-sport phenom and one of the best athletes Newton County has ever produced. He played shortstop and batted leadoff for the baseball team, rewrote the record book as a dual-threat quarterback for the football team and anchored one of the state’s premier backcourts as a dynamic two-way guard for the basketball team. His talents were simply breathtaking, and the fact that Davis penciled him in at the top of the lineup tells you everything you need to know about what he could do on a baseball field.

Richard Stahl and Bradley Dobbs

Stahl, a 6-foot-7 left-handed pitcher with a mid-90s fastball who had committed to Georgia Tech, was the axis on which everything spun. One of the top prospects in the country and a projected first-round pick in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, he was greeted by 48 scouts when he made his first start. Stahl went 11–0, broke a 37-year-old school record for wins in a season and recorded 148 strikeouts in 79 innings pitched. He was drafted 18th overall by the Baltimore Orioles. His parents invited me into their home and allowed me to be there to witness the moment when the Orioles called. I could never repay their graciousness. Stahl made it to Double-A before injuries cut his professional career short. 

kerry gilstrap
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The memories from that season are too many to recount. The streak. The game-winning squeeze bunt from Herring to beat Lithonia in the first round of the state playoffs. The post-game fried pies from Owens’ grandmother. Smith’s grand slam and 14-strikeout complete game in the quarterfinals against Ridgeland. Hours-long talks with Davis as he oversaw his P.E. classes. Chris Hays’ story of rebirth, from troubled teen to key run producer. Ron Manson’s world-class photography. Gameday runs to Captain D’s for jalapeno poppers so spicy they burned the taste buds off your tongue. A community unified. Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at Riverside Park. Heather Miller’s national anthems. A coach’s superstition-fueled obsession with Minute Maid orange soda. What a time it was.

head coach Michael Davis

My last story on the team appeared in the pages of The Covington News mere days after the Rams were eliminated. It highlighted the eight seniors that made it all possible. After the photo shoot, I asked them if they would sign a baseball for me. All eight graciously agreed. The ball still sits in a prominent place on a shelf in my office, their signatures frozen in time as a constant reminder of the magic they created during those four months in the spring of 1999. Thank you, gentlemen, from the bottom of my heart, for giving me a ticket to ride. 


Click here to read more stories by Brian Knapp.

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1 comment

  1. Working with Brian Knapp was a top highlight of my photojournalism adventures…even after covering the 1961 World Series as a very young photographer. Ron Manson

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