The Albany Herald's 2010-11 Players of the Year for swimming and wrestling, from left, are Taylor Withers of Deerfield (boys swimming), Caroline Hawkins of Deerfield (girls swimming) and Zach Thompson of Lee County (wrestling).
ALBANY -- Deerfield-Windsor boys and girls swim coach Lorraine Withers makes no secret about the fact she wants to bring more visibility and recognition to the sport in Southwest Georgia after its long-standing domination by North Georgia programs.
And thanks to swimmers like Caroline Hawkins, accomplishing that goal has never been closer.
"There's no way," Withers responded when asked if the Lady Knights would've ever had a season as successful as the one it finished in late February without Hawkins. "The team relied on her. She was such a solid performer and she placed in all her events in state. As a coach, you need someone like that to lead your team, and Caroline was it for us. She was our go-to girl."
Hawkins is more modest about her feats in the pool, and admitted she was surprised to be honored as The Herald's 2010-11 Player of the Year for girls swimming.
"(Winning this award) wasn't a goal of mine when the season started or anything, I just wanted to have a great final year and help the team," she said.
Well, mission accomplished -- and then some.
She didn't just "help the team," she helped it make school history, leading the Lady Knights to their highest finish ever -- third place -- at the GISA state meet at Georgia Tech since the swim program was founded in 1991.
And while Hawkins fell just short of her goal of winning a state title in Atlanta, she was DWS' high-point swimmer for the meet and swam on two relay teams which broke school records that dated back to 2000.
She was the muscle behind both the 200 medley and 200 freestyle relay teams that set those new school records, anchoring the third-place 200 free squad -- the highest any girls relay team has ever finished at Deerfield -- while the 200 medley team took fifth with Hawkins swimming the butterfly.
In her individual events, meanwhile, Hawkins was consistent, placing sixth at state in the 200 free, 100 butterfly and 500 free. And while she leaves DWS as the school record holder in the 100 butterfly -- a record she set as a junior -- Hawkins said the personal accolades mean less to her than what she helped the program accomplish as a whole.
"What we did as a team was more important," she said. "I came into this year wanting to break my fly record, and I did, so I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do. But helping the team meant more than anything."
Withers, who first met Hawkins as a new swimmer when Hawkins was a freshman, said she could tell early on in Hawkins' final season it was going to be a special year for her senior.
"She's always been so quiet the past three years -- kind of a silent leader, in a way -- but her personality just changed this year and I saw it right away in our first meet," Withers said. "She just had this don't-get-in-my-way look in her eyes when she was in the pool all season."
A multi-sport star at DWS, Hawkins was also a state qualifier in cross country and is an accomplished equestrian -- a sport she's been doing longer than any of the others.
"I started when I was four and it's something I'll probably do the rest of my life," said Hawkins, who placed second in a regional riding event just last year and went on to finish 10th at nationals. "It's my first love."
Swimming isn't in Hawkins' future, which is taking her to Furman next year for college. She says she'll miss competing alongside her teammates, but leaves knowing the future of the program is bright.
"I'm just glad we were able to have such a good season and accomplish more than any other team in school history has," Hawkins said. "I leave with some great memories."