Just take a moment and think about this statement, “A pair of teenagers from Phenix City is among the top stories in sports both nationally and internationally in 2019.” Yes, Phenix City is the home of a National Champion and an International Champion. They are Justyn Ross and Mason Hargrove.
Ross played and starred for Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers and Hargrove, who is home schooled, won the ICF Freestyle Junior World Kayaking Championship in Sort, Spain. Ross is 19 and Hargrove is 16. And both accomplished incredible feats in their sports last year.
Ross signed a letter of intent to play for the Clemson Tigers during his senior season at Central High. He was considered the top player in Alabama – no one else was even close. He made a slow, but steady start at Clemson. When the first season ended, Ross had put up elite numbers – nine touchdowns, 1,000 yards and an average of 21.7 yards per catch – besting the likes of Sammy Watkins, Deirdre Hopkins and Mike Williams. His 21.7 yards per catch was nine yards better than Hopkins’ freshman season. It was seven yards better than Watkins’ and six yards better than Williams’s.
The Phenix City youngster helped lead the Clemson Tigers to a perfect 13-0 regular season record and to a spot in the college football playoffs. The Tigers opened up the playoffs against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Ross was at his best on the national stage – national television. He had six catches for 148 yards with two touchdowns as Clemson ran its record to 14-0 and earned a spot in the National Championship Game.
In the National Championship Game, Clemson and Ross faced an unbeaten University of Alabama – the defending National Champions of college football. It was also a team that recruited Ross hard. Ross was at his very best before a packed stadium of fans and the 11th largest television audience to watch a sporting event and the largest to watch a college sports event in 2019. The true freshman wide receiver caught six passes for 153 yards with another touchdown as Clemson defeated Alabama 44-16 to win the National title. Ross was the talk of the game by the announcers. They were amazed to see the youngster make the catches he made – especially the one-handed ones against the Alabama defenders. It could be argued that Ross should have been the game’s Most Valuable Player. He wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Just a side note, you can buy a replica of that cover on the SI website.) But in the end, a teenager from Phenix City – and a proud Central High Red Devil alumnus – was a National Champion. Because of an early deadline this week, I do not know as I write this column if Ross will be playing for a second national title this season. I certainly hope he does.
Moving on to Hargrove, the other Phenix City youngster to put a spotlight on this community in 2019, the member of Team USA won the ICF Canoe Freestyle Junior World Kayaking Championship in Sort, Spain this past summer. He had his best run of the final on his first run – 960 points. It was 150 points better than the second place competitor scored in two runs. It has been a rapid rise for the 16-year-old who only began in the sport four years ago. The World Junior event was his first international competition.
Earlier this year, Hargrove won the National Junior title.
Hargrove scored a two-run total of 1,167 points in the preliminaries to stand in second place heading to the semifinal qualifying round Friday morning. In the semis, kayakers made three 45-second runs and only the highest score counted. Five kayakers qualified for the finals where once more the competitors had three runs of 45 seconds each with only the high score counting toward earning a medal.
Hargrove scored his winning total of 960 points on his first run, which included a pair of McNasty moves, a 360 pirouette, and a Phoenix Monkey – a high task and high reward trick that was only performed by him at the World Junior Championship. I bet you never thought you would read such words as “a pair of McNasty moves, a 360 pirouette, and a Phoenix Monkey” in a sports story in the Citizen. You might want to see them and more strange terms relating to the sport as Hargrove continues to compete. As a 16-year old, Hargrove has a lot of tournaments in his future.
Team USA had three competitors in the field of 33 kayakers in Sort and all three qualified for the finals. All three finished in the top four. Hargrove collected the Gold Medal as the winner and new champion.
The youngster trains on the whitewater rapids course on the Chattahoochee River between Phenix City and Columbus, Ga.
So there you have it – two teenagers who put Phenix City on the national and international sports scene in 2019. What will 2020 bring? It only seems to get better and better each year for this small, but growing, East Alabama city.
Mark Clark is a local sports writer for The Citizen of East Alabama.