Thomson is getting a taste of Terry Holder's magic -- and learning that sports don't necessarily begin and end in the Brickyard during the fall.
Holder, the former dean of Columbia County baseball with eight state championships at Evans and Greenbrier, took over a sputtering Thomson program four years ago after repeatedly turning the job offer down.
Now, with his first set of seasoned seniors and a wealth of young talent, Holder's Bulldogs won the school's first region baseball title in 40 years. On Wednesday, Thomson split a doubleheader with Northside High out of Columbus in the second round of the Class AAA playoffs.
The Bulldogs faithful have embraced a team that's given them something to cheer for and talk about in the months before football practices start in August.
"They hunger for a winner here in baseball, I really think," Holder said. "You come out and the crowds last weekend during the first round were great and during the regular season were good. I think people really, really want to have a successful program and I think this will foster more interest in getting some of the things that need to be in place in place."
Nobody knows better what it takes to sustain a successful baseball program than Holder. For 28 years he was one of the leading forces that made Columbia County the baseball hotbed that it is today.
At Evans and Greenbrier, Holder became the first baseball coach in Georgia history to amass more than 500 career wins. In his final 12 seasons at the helm, his teams collected eight state titles in Class AAAA and AAA. Six times he was named Georgia Coach of the Year and twice national coach of the year. In 1994, he won a gold medal as coach of the United States junior team at the U.S. Olympic Festival in St. Louis.
So to say he was the right person to fix the problems at Thomson would be an understatement.
"He's got an excellent record and he just continued on here at Thomson and knew how to go about doing it," said Luther Welsh, Thomson's athletic director and legendary football coach. "He started the right way and continued to get better each year and here we are."
Holder has built a program from scratch before -- if that's what you want to call his experience at Greenbrier. He took over the brand new school's program in 1997, and with the same homegrown Columbia County talent immediately led the Wolfpack to state titles in each of its first three seasons. He then retired in 1999 at age 52 to give some younger guys a chance to lead.
"I had no intentions of getting back in baseball," Holder said. "I thought I was through with that. I just kind of got bored doing stuff around the house."
With his lake house built in Lincolnton, Ga., friends from Thomson coaxed Holder into starting a weight program at Thomson Middle School. A year later, after repeated refusals from Holder, those same friends and school superintendent Mark Petersen convinced him to take over the struggling Bulldogs baseball program.
"I realized after (retiring) that I was a little too young to get out of it and really should have continued to work," Holder said. "It's been good and I'm glad I did it. I tell a lot of people it probably saved my life."
That claim goes to his discovery of some clogged arteries after physically struggling while prepping the baseball field with his assistants in 2005. That led to bypass surgery 31/2 years ago and he's been healthy ever since.
Now almost 63, Holder says coaching baseball helps keep him young. And the challenge of rebuilding Thomson rekindled everything he loves about the game and coaching kids.
"I didn't come and take the job to start winning state championships," he said. "I just felt like I needed to try to help lay a foundation for our baseball program. Building a program is fun. To see the program blossom and grow and get better is what it's all about."
Where it goes from here is the key. Thomson had a few decent teams in the intervening 40 years between region titles, but baseball always had a hard time gaining any traction in the community. Like nearby counties Wilkes and Lincoln, football is the centerpiece sport in McDuffie County and it commands the lion's share of attention and support.
"It's such a big football town and so much emphasis is put on football and they play good basketball, I just don't think the emphasis of the community starting at a young age has been applied to baseball where you can constantly have those kids coming every year," Holder said. "I think in the long run, that's what's going to have to happen to get the numbers up of kids playing ball when they're young to build it up."
Holder may be the critical key to that happening. His work ethic and enthusiasm are contagious and have lit a spark in the community. He's gotten his players to buy into summer programs and camps to continue building skills year-round.
"Any time you've got someone who's won eight state championships, certainly people are more apt to listen and take his opinions," said Aaron Hall, a former Thomson player who is one of Holder's assistants. "You can't dispute someone who's won eight championships. His vision for the program has made a big difference."
Hall says you can feel it at the games. His senior season in 1994, the Bulldogs were lucky to get 30 people in the bleachers for games. Last week in the first round of the playoffs against Rutland, there were more than 300.
"It's completely different," Hall said. "It's exciting. It's something the community can really be proud of considering that we're a football town. The hard work we've put in the past four years and the commitment from the parents, the kids and the community all together is special. It's something we can build on for a long time to come."
With such a young squad this season, Holder knows the Bulldogs can remain competitive for the next couple of years. Beyond that will take commitment.
"The key is going to be what kind of interest is built up in those lower grades," he said.
Welsh, who knows a little something about sustaining excellence, says Holder is on the right track.
"More and more kids will get involved," Welsh said. "When you're winning, young people today want to join the bandwagon."
With Holder driving it, there's no telling how far it might go.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.