Senior Kailya Jackson starred on basketball court and track and field, taking P.K Yonge to its fourth straight regional final in hoops and placing at state in the hurdles; senior Cory Durden was a dominating defensive lineman for Newberry and a force also on basketball court, leading Panthers to state playoffs in both.
As a member of P.K. Yonge’s last girls basketball state championship team when she was in seventh grade, Kailya Jackson certainly thought the Blue Wave would be back at state before she graduated.
Instead, over the next five years P.K. Yonge fell in the regional finals four straight years with the 2013 team falling by two points to Class 3A state champion Father Lopez in the regional semifinals.
The girls basketball player of the year, Jackson also starred on the track, taking fifth in the 100-meter hurdles (16.07) and ninth in the 300 hurdles (47.98) at the Class 1A state meet.
Losing by a point in an epic football playoff game down in Pahokee wasn’t in Cory Durden’s plans either. Although the FHSAA forced the Blue Devils to give up their Class 1A state title for using an ineligible player, that 35-34 overtime loss ended what could had been a very special season for Newberry.
A dominating defensive lineman, who is heading to Florida State, Durden also was first all-area in basketball which he still calls his favorite sport.
Because of their outstanding achievements during the 2016-17 season, Jackson and Durden are The Sun’s Small School Athletes of the Year.
“My senior year actually went better than I thought it would,” said Jackson, daughter of former Gator standout receiver and P.K. Yonge great Willie Jackson. “But it would have been nice to go to state again (in basketball), but other than that it was a good year.
“I really thought we would make it four of my last years there but we came up short. We always made it to the regional finals but I didn’t think it would be so long before we would make it to state again.”
In her senior season, in which she averaged 10.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 4.0 steals per game, Jackson led the Blue Wave to a 21-5 record, losing at Jacksonville Providence in the regional finals 63-56.
Soon after basketball season ended, in mid-February, Jackson was back on the track, getting ready another sports season which had already started.
“I actually don’t think I ever really got back to great track shape, with playing basketball and stuff,” she said. “It is really hard to get back to track. But it comes back, the hurdling and stuff does come back.
“You can’t be scared. You just have to jump over them. I really think it is really a mental thing.”
Growing up at P.K. Yonge and heading to Charleston Southern, Jackson said she will miss much about her Blue Wave experience.
“All the great people I was able to meet and being on some really great teams, playing with a lot of talented people,” she said. “I think I’m ready.
“I still have a lot of work to do, but I think I will be fine.”
Durden can’t wait to get to Tallahassee and get his Florida State experience started. Determined to make his mark early, the 6-foot-4, 316-pound defender is working hard to build up his muscles before leaving June 16.
“I feel like I’m there as far as athletic ability,” Durden said. “I’ve lost a lot of muscle because of basketball season. The workouts they gave me are really tough.
“Basketball there is a lot more running and a lot more jumping and using your body. It was a lot harder for me, but once I got into it I really got into it.”
In football, Durden had 52 total tackles, 41 solo with 18 tackles for loss, six sacks, with one blocked field goal, three fumble recoveries and two caused fumbles. He also played tight end on offense, with 29 receptions for 222 yards and three touchdowns.
Playing with his cousin Ja’len Parks along the defensive front, Durden was the emotional leader of 8-2 football team in Richard Vester’s first season as coach.
A first team all-area basketball player as well, and enforcer inside, he averaged 17.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game for the 13-16 Panthers, which reached the state playoffs for the second straight season.
“I am trying to go there (in Tallahassee) and get on the field,” Durden said. ” I don’t want to waste my time.
“I feel like coach Vester is building something special at Newberry. Something that we haven’t had in a couple of years. I feel he has a lot to work with.”
The Seminoles, which are likely to begin the season ranked No. 2, opens the season against likely No. 1 Alabama in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta on Sept. 2. Durden intends on making a play in the game.
“I am a scholarship player, we start off with a big game,” he said. “This might be the biggest first game in college football history because we are No. 2 and they are No. 1. First time top two teams met.
“I just want to get on the field and play. I’m not going to sit behind anyone as a freshman, I not going to let anyone outwork me up there.”
Bell: Clay Hutto (Sr., basketball, baseball), Melina Kalandyk (Sr., cross country, girls weightlifting, track and field); Newberry: Areona Hamilton (Sr., basketball, track and field); Oak Hall: Chance Mayo (Sr., football, basketball, weightlifting, track and field), Grace Blair (cross country, track and field); P.K. Yonge: Thomas Llinas (football, soccer, lacrosse); Trenton: Michael Smith (Sr., football, baseball), Jaycee Thomas (volleyball, basketball, softball); Union County: Devin Lewis (Sr., softball).