The Georgia Northwestern Bobcat Athletic Department recently inducted what will be its final Hall of Fame class during its year-ending banquet in Calhoun. Five new members, including three coaches and two former student-athletes, gave the Bobcats its biggest-ever group of inductees for a single year.

Former Bobcat cheerleader Selena Dupree, former men’s basketball player Tavish Reynolds, Bobcat head cheer coach Karen Stoker, Bobcat men’s basketball assistant Mark Wiedenbenner and Bobcat men’s and women’s basketball coach David Stephenson, who was also the program’s only athletic director, made up the class.

For Stephenson, his induction was a secret that wasn’t revealed until the end of the ceremony.

“I was totally surprised,” he said. “I didn’t see that one coming at all, but I’m honored to be included with everybody else on the wall. I’m saddened because no one else will be going into (the Hall of Fame) because I know within a year or two we would have had more student-athletes that would be worthy and we always have honorary people showing up every year that are worthy.”

Stephenson, who had previously coached high school ball in the Chattanooga area, was hired to be the college’s first athletic director and men’s basketball coach in 2007, less than three months before the team — then known as the Northwestern Technical College Mustangs — took the floor for the very first time.

The Mustangs went 11-0 in their inaugural season, playing against other technical college school programs in the state. Stephenson took over both the men’s and women’s program when Northwestern merged with Coosa Valley Tech to become Georgia Northwestern and both teams had their bases moved to the Rossville Athletic Center.

Stephenson oversaw the additions of intercollegiate women’s volleyball, men’s golf and competition cheerleading to the athletic department, led GNTC into membership with Region XVII of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) and later into the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA).

In 12 years, the Bobcat athletic department helped 570 student-athletes, competed in 530 total basketball games, 140 volleyball matches and 50 golf tournaments, while conducting over 60 community service projects.

“It was a great thing and I hate that it had to end, but I’m very honored and flattered to have been a part of it,” he added. “As long as I’ve been here, it’s always been about the kids, but I’m really going to miss the staff. The kids would come for a year or two and they would be gone, but a lot of the staff were here for as long as 8-10 years. We had a lot of camaraderie and that’s probably what I’ll miss most about anything.”

Wiedenbenner came to Georgia Northwestern as a coach in 2010, but first met Stephenson while playing basketball for him at Unity Christian School in East Ridge, Tenn. (now closed), where he graduated in 1989. In addition to his coaching duties, Wiedenbenner took photos, made team posters and designed and produced the yearly media guides for the athletic department.

“It’s an honor to go in with all those other people who have been influential parts of this program,” he said. “It’s a little bittersweet because it’s the last (Hall of Fame class), but it’s been a lot of fun. I have a lot of great memories and I met a lot of great people and students. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously.”

He said he will miss the people he worked with the most of all.

“I’ll miss being around basketball and being a part of everything that went on, but mainly, I’ll miss the staff,” he added.

A high school cheer coach for years, Stoker came to Georgia Northwestern in 2012 and immediately began a crash course in learning how to run a collegiate program.

“I spent that first year learning about (collegiate cheerleading) and getting myself acclimated to it and to recruiting,” she said. “We had our first team the following year.”

The Cheer Cats performed at all home basketball games, some away games and even made an appearance or two at volleyball matches. They hosted as many as 400 cheer athletes each year at the Bobcats Cheerleading Extravaganza and were involved with many community service groups and organizations, including area Special Olympics.

After one year as solely a sideline squad, the Cheer Cats began the process of adding competition cheerleading. It paid off with three appearances at national competitions. The Cheer Cats finished in the top 10 of their division — both co-ed and all-girl — three times, culminating in a championship at the Eastern Cheer and Dance Nationals in Myrtle Beach, S.C. in April 2016.

“That was really exciting,” said Stoker, who was assisted by Kristi Thomas and former Bobcat cheerleader Rhys Turner in that championship season. “We went to nationals three times, which was exciting for a school of our size. The athletes were always willing to put in whatever it took to do the best they could, whether it was on the sidelines or it was on the mats.”

Stoker called going into the Bobcat Hall of Fame “humbling”.

“I can think of so many more folks that were so much more deserving, but I am excited and honored and, yes, it is nice to be right there alongside Ken (her husband was elected in 2018 for his contributions to the program). I’m going to miss the relationships with the new kids. I’ll always have the relationships I’ve already formed and I’ll miss all the hustle and bustle.

“This was really the first summer I didn’t have to plan for cheer camp and all of the things that go with it. I’m really going to miss that.”

Dupree joined the Cheer Cats after graduating from Ridgeland. She cheered for the Bobcats during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons and was a member of the national championship squad. Dupree left to study at UTC for a year, but returned to Georgia Northwestern and the squad for the 2017-2018 season once the school had joined the USCAA and began granting student-athletes a third year of eligibility.

She was the first and only three-year cheerleader in the program’s history and served for a time as team captain.

“She brought such leadership and skills to be the ultimate Bobcat cheerleader,” Stoker said. “She didn’t miss a single practice or game and she was just super dedicated. She was everything you would want in an athlete and a cheerleader and we sure did miss her when her three years were up.

“She was a great person too. She was just dedicated in everything that she did, not just cheerleading. She got her Associate’s degree at GNTC in two years, went to UTC for a year and came back here and got another certificate on top of it.”

Also going in with the Class of 2019 was Sonoraville High alum Tavish Reynolds. The 6-foot-2 guard signed with the Bobcats out of high school and played from 2012-2014 before transferring to Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Ga. While at Emmanuel, Reynolds earned a National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) national championship in his senior season.

“Tavish is one of nicest, hardest-working and most consistent kids we ever had play here in the 12 years I was (at GNTC),” Stephenson explained. “He always had a smile on his face and he was always willing to do whatever he needed to do to be successful on the court and in the classroom. He comes from a great family and now he’s graduated (college) and ready to move on. He’s just a great kid and I think the world of him.”

Stephenson called Reynolds “a smooth player” on the floor.

“One of things I remember about him was that he wasn’t a guy that was going to score 30 one game and 10 the next,” the coach added. “You always knew about what he was going to get each night. He was also a very unselfish player. There were even times when we were begging him to shoot more, but he was a very good team player.”

The college made the decision to end athletics at the school and the athletic department closed its doors for the final time on June 30 after 12 years of operation.

Scott Herpst is sports editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.