Cherokee County athletes were recognized for more than just their in-competition performances last week at the Positive Athlete Georgia banquet at the College Football Hall of Fame.
After more than 3,000 athletes were nominated, one was chosen in each sport, along with two overall winners at the state level. Etowah’s Matt Lane won for basketball, while Cherokee’s Sean Witmer won for cross country after both overcame adversity.
Lane’s hardships began his sophomore year when he was diagnosed with jaw cancer. The cancer could be removed in a single surgery, but it would require removing a bone from his ankle, putting his basketball career in jeopardy.
“Something Like that was devastating,” Lane said. “I got good news, though. They were going to be able to remove it with one surgery without any chemotherapy or anything like that. Joy starts to arise again, and your realize some things aren’t as bad as they seem. I thought I would never play again, but I was ready to work at it.”
After the operation, Lane began working to get back in playing shape.
Five months later, he was back on the court, and a few months after that, he was back on track to becoming the high-flying player who averaged 8.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game this year as a senior.
“I remember almost throwing up before our first summer league game,” Lane said. “I was so nervous to get back on the court. It changed my perspective on life. Anything can happen to anyone and can take away something you love. It’s a different perspective on everything.”
Lane, who also earned the Wellstar Wellness Counselors Award scholarship, said his family was the driving force behind his positivity throughout the ordeal, but he has begun to pass that lesson along himself now.
Since returning to the court, Lane has spoken to groups of young students about the importance of a positive attitude when dealing with adversity.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “A lot of the kids look up to be, so I try to be a good role model for them. You want to tell them to have a good spirit about everything, but you have to actually do it and show them. You can’t just say it.”
Witmer’s journey took a turn when he was 13 years old and placed into foster care at the Goshen Valley Boys Ranch.
Witmer spent five years at the Goshen Valley Boys Ranch and currently lives in its independent living program, and he said its support has been invaluable.
“I have learned and experienced a lot in the time I’ve been with Goshen,” Witmer said. “But one of the biggest things that I’ve experienced is having support for the things I love.”
One of the ways Witmer found support was in the option to participate in after-school activities.
The Goshen Valley Boys Ranch allowed its residents to join athletic teams and other clubs, and Witmer quickly found the spot for him on the cross country team.
“Most youth aren’t able to stay after school and engage in extracurricular activities,” he said. “I happen to be in one that allows me to be able to. I have been blessed by the ability to, and because of that, when I joined cross country this year, I loved it and I dug in.”
Witmer may not have known many of his teammates initially, but as the year went on, he became more involved.
He eventually improved enough to finish 17th in the county championship, but the relationships he built with his teammates had the biggest impact.
“I opened up about my personal interests, and others theirs,” he said. “Most of it was about the sport we were in. Some loved it, and others just wanted to stay fit, but at the end of the day, we were a team, and I just wanted to support my team just like my God supported me.”
The county also had a pair of athletes win scholarships, with Etowah’s Tori Ridgeway winning the Leadership Award, and Woodstock’s Kayla Mann winning the Community Impact Award.