Fast Five: I Was There

I have been to plenty of sporting events, but some stand out more than others in my memory bank as the best events I’ve ever seen.  Each has their own unique story from my individual perspective.

October 4th marked the release of the new book I Was There, in which 65 of the biggest names in sports media share the five greatest sporting events they have witnessed in person.  The book was compiled by self-described “sports industry lifer” Eric Mirlis.

The criteria for the book is intentionally vague, meaning each contributor to the book can have their own interpretation of what their “greatest events” are.  As a result, in addition to the obvious examples of classic Super Bowls and championship games or series, there are some very outside-the-box events listed by the book’s participants.  Some of the events listed are all-time classics, while others have a deeper personal meaning.

The five events listed by each contributor are listed in chronological order, allowing the writers and broadcasters participating to not have to rank any of their five events over another.

I have seen 14 NASCAR races (10 Cup Series, 3 XFinity Series, 1 Truck Series), 11 MLB games, six ACC men’s basketball games, five PGA Tour events (but nine rounds), 2 FBS college football games, one NBA game, and too many Division II college games, Minor League Baseball games, collegiate summer league baseball games, and high school games to count.

But like anyone else, some of mine stand out, for different reasons.  And while I have not seen a Super Bowl or a World Series game, I have still seen some amazing events.

Here are the five greatest events I have witnessed, plus the five best I have covered:

Five Best Events I’ve Witnessed

Wake Forest at Clemson, Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C., January 24, 2015

I attend school at Anderson University, about 30 minutes away from Clemson’s campus, but having grown up in the Triad of North Carolina, I am a Wake Forest fan.  For Christmas a month before, I was given two tickets to Wake Forest’s game at Clemson.  I took my friend Garrett, a Clemson fan, and our seats were in the very last row, near the location of the TV cameras.

Wake Forest was in their first year under coach Danny Manning, after a 2-32 ACC road record under previous coach Jeff Bzdelik, and came in at 9-10 and 1-5 in the ACC, while Clemson entered at 10-8 and 2-4, so this was still a game between two bottom-half teams, but it was still an ACC men’s basketball game.

The Demon Deacons led over 39 minutes of the game, before Clemson took the lead with 0:58 left, and Wake Forest tied the game with a Devin Thomas free throw with 0:35.  Thomas missed the second free throw, but the Deacs got the rebound and looked like they would have the ability to set up the last shot and try to win.  But after Codi Miller-McIntyre turned the ball over with 0:25 left, and after Rod Hall drove inside but missed his shot, little-used reserve Josh Smith, who had just 14 baskets his last 19 games, got an offensive rebound and putback to put Clemson up 59-57 with 0.5 seconds left.  The play was essentially a buzzer-beater, and gave Wake Forest (another) heartbreaking loss on the road in ACC play.

Garrett could not have been more grateful for the free ticket to the game, so when the shot fell in, this was his reaction:  “Yeaaah! Yeaaah! (turns to me) Sorry. (turns back to the court) Yeaaah!”

Wyndham Championship, First Round, Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro, N.C., August 18, 2015

Growing up in the Piedmont Triad, I attended the Wyndham Championship each year from 2007-09.  I saw the first PGA Tour wins of Brandt Snedeker (2007) and Ryan Moore (2009), as well as hometown favorite Carl Petterson’s lights-out round of 61 on his way to victory (2008).  We moved to South Carolina in late 2009, so I had not been back to Sedgefield since.

The week before the 2015 edition, with the Wyndham marking the last event of the PGA Tour’s “regular season” before the FedEx Cup Playoffs, I wondered if Tiger Woods, who was 187th in points, well below the playoff cutoff, may come to Greensboro for the first time in his career.  It seemed like a long shot, as under similar circumstances in 2011 he did not play in Greensboro and accepted his fate of his season being over.

And yet, the Friday night before the Wyndham, Woods committed to the event.  With one of the greatest athletes of all time coming to the Wyndham, which I still considered my “home event” on the PGA Tour, I bought a ticket for Thursday’s opening round within minutes of the announcement he was coming.  My non-golfing aunt, Terri, also decided to go and take in history–I don’t think she knew who any of the other 155 players in the field were, but she wanted to see Tiger Woods too.

We arrived at Sedgefield early enough to see Tiger warm up, then began following his group when he teed off.  I had seen Tiger at Quail Hollow in Charlotte in 2009, but this day would be much better.  Tiger teed off at 7:50 am, meaning Tiger’s gallery was smaller that day than any other day of the tournament, and seeing him in the Wyndham for the first time was a dream come true.  It became even more amazing when he played very well.

Tiger holed an incredible pitch shot for birdie on the 10th hole (his first hole), then bogeyed 11, leading me to think he had shown a glimmer of his old self before fading back into his struggles.  I was wrong, as he would birdie the 13th, 15th, and 18th holes for a 3-under-par 32 on the back nine, before birdieing the first, fourth, and fifth in a bogey-free front nine to shoot a round of 64.

This was (and still is) Tiger’s lowest round in competition since 2013.  Playing with Tiger were Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 65, and Brooks Koepka (who would eventually be a big part of last week’s U.S. Ryder Cup victory), who shot 67, but this was Tiger’s day.

Tiger, who needed to finish at least second to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs, would shoot a 65 the following day, and entered the weekend tied for the lead, and played well again on Saturday, entering the final round in a tie for second, before a triple-bogey on the 11th on Sunday ended his shot at victory and advancement.

Two weeks later, Tiger announced he had undergone more back surgery, and was out indefinitely.  Throughout 2016 he hinted at a comeback, but the 2015 Wyndham Championship is still his last start on the PGA Tour to date.

*Editor’s note:  to read more on my day following Tiger Woods at the Wyndham Championship, click here.


Bojangles’ Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C., September 6, 2015

Early in the 2015 NASCAR season, my friend Kevin told me he would very likely be able to get pit passes to Darlington for Southern 500 weekend.  I made sure he got us a third pit pass so Terri, the reason I am a racing fan to begin with, could come along.  She had never been to Darlington, but now would now, through the pit passes, get the greatest access in all of sports.

Kevin came in on Friday night, and him and I spent Saturday at the track for Cup Series qualifying and the XFinity Series event.  Kevin is friends with Harrison Rhodes, an NC State student by week and racecar driver by weekend, who was driving in the event.  As a result, we sat on his pit box for the entire time that he was in the race (he parked after 80 laps for his team’s financial reasons).  Denny Hamlin, Kevin’s favorite driver, won that Saturday event.

My favorite driver is Jeff Gordon, who was in his last season and was making what was supposed to be his final start at one of his best tracks (he ended up running Darlington again in 2016, filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.).  The pit passes allowed me to get his autograph on Sunday, as well as many other drivers.  We watched cars go through technical inspection up close, then made our way to pit road for the race itself.

This was the first year Darlington hosted a “throwback weekend,” so many of the paint schemes were throwbacks to the legends of years past.  The track played 70’s music over the speakers in the hours leading up to the race, and Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem.

Multiple MRN Radio announcers called this the “race of the year,” as there were 24 lead changes among 11 drivers, and 18 caution flags over the 367 laps that make up 500 miles around the venerable egg-shaped oval.  As the race got late, Brad Keselowski appeared to have a strong grip on the race lead, as he led every lap from lap 304 to 356 (except during pit stops) before a late caution bunched up the field.

On the final restart, Carl Edwards took the lead away, and led the remaining laps to win his first Southern 500.  During the “cool-down lap,” as Edwards came back around to the frontstretch, Kevin and I took off running towards the center of pit road to get a view of Edwards’ famous backflip celebration, which was cool to see in person.

One takeaway from this race is how much I found it ironic that with pit passes, the best access a fan can get in any sport, you still ended up essentially watching the race on TV, as we watched the monitors on the back of each team’s pit box.


Racing Electronics 100, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C., August 5, 2016

Bowman Gray Stadium is a bull-ring short track in eastern Winston-Salem, in a stadium that doubles as the home of Winston-Salem State University football.  The track is one of the longest-running short tracks in the country, and is known as “The Madhouse” after many of the wild events which have unfolded on the quarter-mile circuit.

I lived about 20 minutes from Bowman Gray Stadium growing up, but only went to a race there once before we moved to South Carolina.  This summer I lived in the area again, while interning for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, so one of the things I wanted to do during the summer was to go to a Bowman Gray race with Terri.  The schedule made it difficult, as the Asheboro Copperheads had a game nearly every Saturday night, but we looked at Bowman Gray’s schedule and saw a Friday night in early August when the Copperheads were away.

We got to the track early enough to see the famous modifieds make their qualifying runs, followed by preliminary races featuring cars called Bandoleros.  These were short races featuring pre-teen up-and-coming drivers in cars that were not very powerful, but could still put on a decent show.

The modifieds then came out for their 100-lapper, and were led to the green by local legend Burt Myers.  Tim Brown, another longtime Bowman Gray driver and multi-time track champion, started at the back after his engine misfired in qualifying.  While I watched the action at the front, I also kept an eye on Brown at the back, and early in the race he struggled to make headway trying to get through the field.

Cautions and restarts helped aide Brown, and eventually on a restart with about 25 to go he was second, on the outside of Myers, who had led from the outset.  On the restart, Brown passed Myers off of turn two on the outside, a hard feat in short-track racing, to take the lead for the first time.

Two laps later, while Myers was trying to chase Brown back down, the skies opened up and a heavy rainstorm hit Bowman Gray.  Brown was awarded the win in the rain-shortened race, a victory that was likely among his finest, considering how hard he had to work to get through the field.

Terri and I got back to my grandparents’ house, where I was spending the summer, in time to watch most of the parade of nations at the Rio Olympics.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last race I attended with Terri before she unexpectedly passed away a month later.

 

Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field, Atlanta, Ga., October 2, 2016

Emotions are always higher when you are seeing something happen that will never happen again, and the same is true in sports.  Every MLB game I have ever attended was at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, and on this day I was fortunate enough to attend the final game in the venue’s history.  I got upper deck tickets for my dad and I for his birthday, knowing how much of an affection both of us have for the stadium.

Dad left home in Mullins before 5 a.m., and was in Anderson before 9, and we were on our way.  We took the MARTA train and bus to the stadium, and arrived shortly after the gates opened.

The Braves Museum and Hall of Fame was open to the public for free, so we walked through and explored the history of the Braves franchise through its years in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.  It was the first time since 2005 either of us had seen the museum.

We got to our seat about 45 minutes before the 3:10 p.m. first pitch, and took in the pregame ceremony, in which Braves legends including Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez all took the field as part of the All-Turner Field Team.  That team also included “The Big Three” of Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who threw out ceremonial first pitches after being delivered baseballs by Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox.

The opponent for the final game was the Detroit Tigers, who were still playing for the possibility of a postseason bid, and needed a win over the Braves and some help to stay alive.  Given those circumstances, the Tigers sent ace Justin Verlander, one of the game’s best pitchers, to the mound, a nice parallel to my first game at Turner Field in 2001 when I saw Maddux pitch.  Julio Teheran, a solid pitcher in his own right, pitched for the Braves.

After Teheran struck out the side in the top of the first, Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia led off the bottom half with singles, before Freddie Freeman got his 91st and final RBI of a career year with a sacrifice fly to center, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead.

After the first, it was the pitcher’s duel you would expect from Teheran and Verlander, as the two pitchers put up matching zeros, including many 1-2-3 innings.  Each starter went seven innings, before Jose Ramirez (ATL) and Bruce Rondon (DET) each pitched a scoreless eighth.

Jim Johnson, whose two-year contract extension with the Braves had been announced that morning, came in to close it in the ninth.  After a 1-out single by Miguel Cabrera, Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez and former Brave Justin Upton for the final two outs at Turner Field.

After the game, Hank Aaron threw a ceremonial final pitch to Cox, before Aaron and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk transferred home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park, the Braves home starting in 2017, via police escort.  The closing ceremony also featured a “parade of Braves Country states,” a nod to Turner Field’s history as Centennial Olympic Stadium and the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony, before remarks from broadcaster Don Sutton, Cox, Smoltz, and Braves vice-chairman John Schuerholz, who led the crowd in one final rendition of the famous “tomahawk chop” chant.

No, this wasn’t the closing of Yankee Stadium, but this was the final game at a place where we watched our favorite team play for 20 years, and for my entire span of memory (I’m 21).  So many memories were made at Turner Field, and the final game there is one I won’t forget.

Five Best Events I’ve Covered

Coastal Plain League West Division Championship Series, Gastonia Grizzlies vs. Florence RedWolves, August 10-12, 2014

I interned for the Florence RedWolves, a collegiate summer baseball team, in the summers of 2014-15, staying at home and commuting 30 minutes to Sparrow Stadium on the campus of Francis Marion University.  In 2014, the RedWolves won the Coastal Plain League’s West Division in both the first and second half of the season, and had a good shot at winning the franchise’s first Petitt Cup title in the playoffs.

After dispatching the High Point-Thomasville HiToms in an opening round sweep, the West Division Championship Series featured the two teams who had clearly been the division’s best all season, the RedWolves and the Gastonia Grizzlies.  The three games that ensued are collectively on this list, as the drama of playoff baseball and the budding rivalry of the two teams produced the best back-to-back-to-back games I have ever seen, which can be included as events I “covered” as I wrote the postgame press releases for the final two games.

Game 1 at Gastonia:
Several of us interns drove up to the suberb west of Charlotte and Sims Legion Park, the Grizzlies’ home.  Gastonia took a 1-0 lead in the first, but the RedWolves had a 3-1 lead by the seventh inning stretch.  The Grizzlies tied it in the 7th on a 2-RBI single by Weston Lawing, but after that both bullpens were absolutely phenomenal as an extra-inning game ensued late into the night.

RedWolves reliever Jacob Condra-Bogan allowed two runs in the seventh, but none for four innings after, and CPL Pitcher of the Year, closer Michael Morrison (a 2016 College World Series hero at Coastal Carolina), was scoreless in 5.1 innings.  Gastonia hurlers Robert Lawhon and Jared Cheek were just as impressive.

The RedWolves finally took the lead in the 16th on an RBI single by Joe Bialkowski and an RBI double by Brandon Rawe, and got three outs to win 5-3 and take a 1-0 series lead, winning the longest playoff game in CPL history.

Game 2 at Florence:
Back at home, the RedWolves were trying to clinch the best-of-three series in what would be a back-and-forth affair with a lot of “small ball” in the notoriously large Sparrow Stadium.  The RedWolves led 1-0 after the second, trailed 2-1 in the third, and led 3-2 after the third.  Each side scored in the fourth, making it 4-3, before Gastonia tied it 4-4 in the fifth, and Florence retook the lead at 5-4 in the sixth.

The RedWolves kept the one-run lead until the ninth, before Gastonia exploded (and Florence imploded) in the ninth:  double, sacrifice bunt, RBI single, error, RBI single, RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), strikeout, RBI single, 2-RBI triple, walk, flyout.  This may be the worst inning I have ever sat through, as the RedWolves went from two outs from winning the series to down 11-5 in a matter of minutes.  I didn’t bore you by listing each Gastonia player’s role in the inning, but I will add that Victor Zecca had the leadoff double and the 2-RBI triple.

But there was still a bottom of the ninth.  The RedWolves got the bases loaded with one out, before a Brandon Rawe sacrifice fly made it 11-6, and a wild pitch made it 11-7.  After loading the bases again, team RBI leader Conor Sullivan came to the plate representing the potential tying run.  It seemed like the potential perfect scenario for Florence, but Sullivan flied out to the warning track in straightaway center, the deepest part of a big ballpark, for the final out.

Game 3 at Florence:
The winner-take-all finale was more low-scoring than the first two games, but was just as entertaining.  The RedWolves took a 1-0 lead in the first, after CPL Hitter of the Year Gene Cone walked, was bunted to second, and scored when he stole third and the catcher threw the ball away.

Travis Burnette (FLO) and Sam Theole (GAS) were fantastic for both sides, matching zeroes and enduring a nearly one-hour rain delay mid-game.  Gastonia never had more than one baserunner in an inning through the first eight, meaning the 1-0 Florence lead had been as comfortable as such a lead can be in an elimination game.

In the ninth, Lawing was hit with a pitch, and Chris Robinson doubled with one out.  Morrison, running on fumes after his outing two nights before, came in and intentionally walked Sammy Taormina to load the bases with one out.  I was having flashbacks to the night before, but Morrison struck out Tyler Farmer and got Joe Koehler to ground out to second base, ending the threat and the game, giving the RedWolves a 1-0 win and a 2-1 series victory.

The emotional release of the final out led to me, as public address announcer, borrowing Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling’s line of “Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees wwwwwwin!” and exclaiming “RedWolves win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa RedWolves wwwwwwin!”

The RedWolves moved on to the Petitt Cup Finals, where they won the opener over the Peninsula Pilots in Florence, before losing two heartbreaking games at Peninsula’s home in Hampton, Va.

(Box score and play-by-play for:  Game 1    Game 2    Game 3)

 

Westside at T.L. Hanna, T.L. Hanna Gymnasium, Anderson, S.C., January 16, 2015

I began covering high school sports for the Anderson Independent-Mail on a freelance basis in the fall of 2014, under prep editor Adam Regan.  He left at the end of the year, taking another job in Florida, leaving me to cover the lead games in the area while the paper looked for a replacement, leading to my best assignment to that point when I got to cover a basketball game between crosstown rivals T.L. Hanna and Westside.

For someone covering high school sports in Anderson County, T.L. Hanna and Westside games might as well be the Super Bowl.  The entire town turns out for these games, and it is loud as everyone cheers boisterously for their chosen team.

After the Westside girls team defeated T.L. Hanna 49-33, attention turned to the boys game.  There was honestly more tension in the building as the boys warmed up then there had been at any time during the girls game.

After an even first quarter, T.L. Hanna led 18-14, and they stretched that lead to 30-21 at halftime.  Hanna led by as many as 11 in the third, at 48-37, before Westside started to come back, using seven points in the final 52 seconds of the period to cut it to 53-46.

Westside’s momentum continued in the fourth, as a 10-2 run gave them a 56-55 lead, their first since 3-1.  Hanna tied it again at 57-57, but did not score again, with Westside leading 59-57 in the final minute before an Austin Walker driving shot with 0:31 left make it 61-57 Westside, and two free throws further sealed the win, as the Rams stunned the Yellow Jackets, 63-57.

I have seen a football game and a basketball game between the two schools since as a spectator (and both went to overtime), but this remains the only game in either of the two big high school sports that I have covered between the two (although I have covered many games featuring one or the other, as well as two softball games between the two).  Sitting courtside, and being a part of the game (at least in the sense of covering it) was a treat.

(Independent-Mail:  Westside boys, girls defeat T.L. Hanna)

 

Clemson at Anderson, Abney Athletic Center, Anderson, S.C., November 8, 2015

As an Anderson University student, this game had been circled on my calendar for months.  The Trojan women had won the regular-season conference title the year before, and were, even as a Division II team, getting the chance to host Division I Clemson from the ACC in a preseason exhibition.  A week or so before the game, Scott Adamson, who was Independent-Mail sports editor at the time, approached me about covering the game.  The writers who normally covered Clemson were focusing on the undefeated football team, and Scott, who normally covered Anderson games, would be busy working a Clemson soccer game, giving me the opportunity to cover a game I could literally have walked to.

The Anderson men had played Clemson 52 weeks before at Littlejohn Coliseum, and I had attended that game as a fan, but this game was even cooler to me because I thought Anderson had a shot to win.  The Trojan women were preseason favorites in the South Atlantic Conference, while Clemson was picked to finished last in the ACC.

A record crowd of 1,027 packed the Abney Athletic Center on a Sunday afternoon, with the student section doing a “blackout” of the section of seats across from the two benches.

The first half was back-and-forth throughout, with Anderson leading 34-31 at the break.  A 22-9 Trojans run gave Anderson a 54-40 in the third, before Clemson fought back to make it 56-48 at the end of the third, but from that point it was all Trojans, closing the game on a 23-7 run to win 79-55.

The game was better than the final score would indicate, but beyond that, this was the first (and so far only) collegiate game I covered for Independent-Mail, and featured my school beating our ACC neighbors.  I was thrilled with the outcome, although I was there in a professional capacity, so I did no cheering and probably did not even smile during the game.  I was there covering the game, not as a fan or student.

I kept that poker face through postgame interviews, and through the 90-second car ride back to my room, until I walked through the door.  Once I was in the privacy of my room, I finally let out a huge fist pump in celebration of the Trojans’ big win.

Anderson would win the SAC regular season title for the second straight year, while Clemson went winless in conference play to finish last in the ACC, with the results for both teams reflecting what had been foreshadowed in November at the Abney Athletic Center.

(Independent-Mail:  AU women demolish Clemson)


Florence RedWolves at Asheboro Copperheads, McCrary Park, Asheboro, N.C., July 16, 2016

For the summer of 2016, I interned with the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro.  My role was originally to cover American Legion baseball games and the Asheboro Copperheads, a team in the same league as the RedWolves, for the paper.  However, once sports editor Dennis Garcia, who was also the play-by-play broadcaster for the Copperheads on CPL Webpass, found out I had called a few games on Webpass for the RedWolves two years before, he invited me to do some games with him on Webpass.  I would end up broadcasting every Copperheads home game except one on Webpass, even doing some games solo when Dennis was stuck at the office finishing the layout of the sports section of the paper, including this one.

It was weird when the RedWolves, who I had spent the previous two summers interning for, came to Asheboro for games.  Before the July 16 contest, the two teams had already played in Asheboro on June 13 and July 13, and five times in all, but this game stands out as not just the best these two teams played that season, but the best game overall that I covered that season.

It didn’t look that way at first, as Florence scored six runs in the top of the first, on just three hits with two Asheboro errors, and two more in the second to make it 8-0.  In the bottom of the second, Connor Lind showed a small sign of the offensive onslaught that was to come for Asheboro with a solo homer, although at the time it just made the score 8-1.

In the fourth, T.J. Nichting singled, and Lind homered again, making it 8-3.  Colin Rosenbaum then walked, and Vito Friscia homered, making it 8-5.  Later in the inning, Zach Duff joined the home run party with a solo shot to make it 8-6.

After a Ryan Kent sacrifice fly for Florence in the fifth made it 9-6, Nichting led off the bottom half with a homer, before Rosenbaum singled and Friscia homered again, tying the game at 9-9.  Asheboro would then take a 10-9 lead in the sixth when Rosenbaum doubled to score Lind, before holding that lead until the ninth.

Bryan Blanton, who had been a CPL All-Star but was beginning a set of struggles that would haunt both he and the Copperheads in the second half, came in in the ninth, and even after three walks in the inning was an out away from getting out of the jam, before CPL All-Star Zach Files singled, scoring two to give the RedWolves an 11-10 lead.  The Copperheads threatened in the ninth when RedWolves closer Tom Colletti walked a pair, but could not score, and the RedWolves had a wild 11-10 victory.

The Copperheads, who had won the CPL West first half title, continued to struggle through the rest of the second half after this game, and eventually lost at Savannah in the first round of the playoffs on a walkoff hit.  Florence, who had finished seventh out of eight in the first half, had a much better second half and missed the second half title, and therefore the playoffs, by one game.

(Box score and play-by-play)

 

Greenwood at T.L. Hanna, Jim Fraser Field, Anderson, S.C., September 23, 2016

This was my first trip to T.L. Hanna in the 2016 season, and it seemed like just a run-of-the-mill game at first.  It was homecoming for the Yellow Jackets, who had lost to Greenwood 18 straight seasons before ending the streak last year.  What seemed like an ordinary game would become the greatest football game I’ve ever covered.

After a scoreless first quarter, Greenwood and Hanna both scored on long touchdown passes, then both kicked field goals in the final 1:04 of the half, making it 10-10 at the break.

Greenwood started the second half with a 15-play scoring drive of 65 yards, before Hanna went 65 yards themselves in one play, an Alex Meredith-to-A.J. Bryant connection to tie the score at 17-17.  This remained the score into the early stages of the fourth, before Greenwood scored on another lengthy drive on a Dre Yarbough touchdown pass to highly touted receiver Sam Pinckney, but the Eagles missed the extra point, keeping it 23-17.

Braylon Peterson returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, as Hanna provided another answer and took a 24-23 lead.  Greenwood had their own answer, an 11-play scoring drive culminating in another Yarbough-to-Pinckney touchdown, and a two-point conversion to make it 31-24 with 2:03 to play.

Hanna calmly marched down the field in five plays, scoring to tie the game at 31-31 with 1:06 to go when Meredith found Reel Wise from 35 yards, sending the game to overtime.

In the extra session, Greenwood scored when Yarbough found Pinckney again from 10 yards on the first play of overtime (high school overtime in South Carolina gives each team a possession from the 10-yard line).  The Yellow Jackets answered again, when Meredith turned a broken play into a 9-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 38-38.

In double overtime, Hanna went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, as Jaydon McKinney scored for the 45-38 lead.  On the first play of Greenwood’s possession, they ran the same play they scored on in the first overtime, and Hanna LB Shai Thomas jumped the route and intercepted Yarbough to end the game and give Hanna a 45-38 win.

I finished postgame interviews about 10:55, and the Independent-Mail has an 11:00 deadline, but one which is stretchable.  Prep editor Lake Morris said it could be stretched to 11:40 at the latest, and I finished writing about 11:35; I was glad to make sure the story of this crazy game got in the next morning’s paper.

(Independent-Mail:  Thomas INT leads Hanna over Eagles)

 

Honorable Mention:
Pickens at Belton-Honea Path,  April 22, 2016
The game itself was nothing spectacular, as B.H.P. took an early lead before putting the game away with a 8-run sixth inning to win 10-0, but it was historic as, on Senior Night, Bears coach Steve Williams won his 500th game.  His postgame interview is the only time an interview subject of mine was moved to the point of tears, as Williams was humbled and grateful for his accomplishment, and how many former players came back to witness the milestone game.  I got lucky on this one–I was scheduled to cover a different game until late that afternoon when weather changed the Independent-Mail‘s plans.

(Independent-Mail:  Williams wins No. 500 as Bears top Pickens)
***Editor’s Note:  This game was one of the five in the original draft of this post, which was written before the Greenwood-T.L. Hanna game occurred, so I felt it appropriate to include it as an honorable mention.

The Nasty Side of Recruiting

Matt Colburn is a senior in high school, and would fit most people’s definitions of a young adult.

But apparently not Bobby Petrino’s.  Actually, Petrino might have forgotten Colburn was a human being.

Petrino, the head coach at the University of Louisville, pulled Colburn’s scholarship offer on Monday, just 48 hours before national signing day for fall athletes, eight months after Colburn had verbally committed to the Cardinals in June of 2014.

Colburn, who attends Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, SC, is a three-star running back recruit, who has run for 5,637 career yards and 91 touchdowns.  He was named South Carolina’s Mr. Football for the 2014 season after 27 rushing touchdowns, although his best season in both yards and touchdowns came as a junior, when he ran for 2,289 yards and 36 touchdowns.

It was after that junior season that Colburn verbally committed to Louisville, essentially closing his recruitment eight months early, saying he did so so he “didn’t have to worry about it anymore”, according to reports.

He was considered a strong commitment to the university until Monday, when the Cardinals pulled his scholarship offer, instead requesting that Colburn grayshirt.

Grayshirting is a relatively new practice in the game of college football where the university and the student-athlete come to the agreement that the athlete will not enroll on the campus until the following January, so their eligibility clock of four years, or five in the event of a redshirt, doesn’t start until the following fall.  So, in this case, Louisville wanted Colburn to delay his enrollment until the spring semester of 2016, allowing them to use their allotted scholarships on other players.

In this case, according to a Louisville Courier-Journal report, due to the loss of their starting secondary, with two players graduating, and two more, Gerod Holliman and Charles Gaines, leaving early to turn pro, Louisville felt that their allotted scholarships would be better spent on defensive backs, so they asked Colburn to grayshirt.

Unfortunately, however, the decision was not made by the Louisville coaching staff until the last minute, just two days before National Signing Day.

The possibility of grayshirting had never been mentioned to Colburn at any time, not even when he made an official visit to Louisville’s campus two weeks ago, when he says he was well received by the coaching staff.  He says he had been told consistently that he would be in the rotation for playing time in the fall.

With Louisville wanting to delay his career a year, even after his long-standing commitment, Colburn had no interest in grayshirting, and suddenly had to re-open his recruiting process.

The timing was made even worse by the fact Monday was the first day of the 48-hour recruiting dead period just before signing day, meaning schools could not reach out to recruits.  Since recruits are allowed to initiate dialogue, however, Colburn was able to call coaches at schools which had shown interest in him earlier in his high school career to see if they were still interested.

Among these schools are Wake Forest, Marshall, and Georgia Southern.  According to a The State report, Colburn will not consider any offers that have come in this week just because of the situation, instead considering the schools he had talked to before last June.

In addition to that, Colburn’s high school coach, Tom Knotts, says he will not allow Petrino or his coaching staff to recruit any more players from Dutch Fork, and he expects the possibility of other high school coaches following his lead, according to multiple reports.

Many are stunned by Petrino’s betrayal of a young man who had committed to play for him so long ago.  Then again, this is a coach who once lost a job at Arkansas after crashing his motorcycle on which his mistress was riding with him, then lying to cover it up.  And that really wasn’t that long ago, in 2012.

As for Colburn, he did not sign anywhere on National Signing Day on Wednesday, opting to take some time to process what has happened and make his next decision.  As a current college student, my college decision wasn’t at all easy, and did not involve playing a sport at all.

That being said, Colburn says he hopes to sign a national letter of intent next Wednesday, listing Wake Forest, Marshall, and Georgia Southern as the finalists.

He told WLTX he plans to visit Wake Forest and Georgia Southern this week, having already visited Marshall very early in the recruiting process, as the Thundering Herd gave Colburn his first offer.

Each of the three schools would have its advantages if Colburn decided to attend.  Marshall and Georgia Southern are both coming off of conference championships in 2014, in Conference-USA and the Sun Belt, respectively, with Marshall nearly qualifying for the “New Year’s Six” bowl games.  Two of Colburn’s high school teammates signed letters of intent to play for Georgia Southern on Wednesday, so he could continue playing with them at the next level if he becomes an Eagle.

While Wake Forest hasn’t had the recent success of the other two schools, the Demon Deacons are in the ACC, one of the Power Five conferences, which as of last August have autonomy and are allowed to give certain perks to student-athletes that others outside the Power Five can’t give.  Also, the competition in the ACC includes the likes of Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Clemson, a team in Colburn’s home state.

That competition would also include Louisville.  Wake Forest and Louisville, in fact, are in the same division, so they play in football every year.  When asked by WLTX about the possibility of playing Louisville, Colburn added that Marshall also plays the Cardinals next year, but playing them every year and potentially competing against them for conference championships could be too good to pass up, particularly if Colburn is one for revenge.

In the recruiting class that signed on Wednesday, Wake Forest is ranked highest out of these three, at 53rd, according to 247sports.com, which is also the highest class ranking in school history.  Marshall’s class ranks 74th, while Georgia Southern is 95th.

The Crystal Ball feature on 247sports.com predicts the landing spot for recruits, as various contributors to the site vote on where they believe the player will commit.  Both writers who voted on Colburn predicted him to pick Wake Forest.

This story has fascinated me over the last few days, although not in a good way.  Louisville treating a student-athlete like this regarding the biggest decision of his life so far is absolutely mind-boggling, and is a hard story to watch.  Colburn was quoted by The State as saying “I felt lost and hopeless” after Louisville notified him of their decision, and rightfully so.

The entry of Wake Forest (a team I happen to pull for) into Colburn’s recruitment also piqued my interest, although getting a recruit to come play for my team, should he commit to Wake, would only be the personal silver lining for a horrible situation I will still wish had never happened.  I also have some level of interest in stories involving Dutch Fork, as I have a couple of friends who graduated from the school, including one who vaguely knows Colburn, and called him a “nice guy”.

Recruiting in college football is an extremely competitive business, as coaches understand a good recruiting job makes winning much easier, as getting better players to attend your school generally makes your team better.

That being said, there are sometimes crooked things that happen in recruiting, as schools violate NCAA rules, hoping not to get caught, or even do everything within the rules but bend the truth to make their school or program sound better than it really is.

Here, the case of a horribly timed recruiting decision by a perennially competitive program, which unexpectedly changed the course of a young man’s life, both on and off the football field, was more than crooked.

This case shows recruiting can be much worse than crooked.  Here, it was just nasty.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, February 11, Colburn signed with Wake Forest.

Editor’s Note: Keith Olbermann is one of the more polarizing figures at ESPN, and the SportsCenter anchor turned MSNBC political analyst turned ESPN2 talk show host has a segment on his show known as “World’s Worst Person in Sports” where he names someone who has, in his mind, acted negatively in the sports world.  For Thursday’s segment, he chose Bobby Petrino, based on his treatment of Colburn.  Here is the video, with the part about Petrino starting at about 1:50 (although the first part of the video is somewhat humorous regarding other topics).

Stanley Commits To South Carolina

Donell Stanley became a South Carolina Gamecock on Friday when he announced his decision inside Latta High School’s Ellis Performing Arts Center in front of his fellow students, family, friends, teachers, and about 15 members of the media.  The 6’5”, 340 pound offensive lineman chose the Gamecocks over Clemson, after previously eliminating Alabama and North Carolina.  He had narrowed the field to those final four schools over the summer after fielding offers from a total of 15 schools, everywhere in size from Marshall to South Carolina, and everywhere geographically from USC to Ohio State to LSU to Florida.Stanley became the 13th commitment to South Carolina for the class of 2014, and the 7th from South Carolina.

Until today, Stanley had been the state’s top uncommitted senior, as others around him in the recruiting rankings have already made their college choices.

Stanley announced his decision after a brief statement in which he thanked God, his parents, his uncle Chris German (who is also a Latta assistant coach and accompanied Stanley on his recruiting visits), his coaches, his teammates, his school, and even the media.

Stanley also said that he silently committed over a month ago, later implying it was on the day Gamecocks played North Carolina.  He talked about how Shawn Elliott, the offensive line coach for the Gamecocks, would be the right position coach for him, and said Elliott was very excited when he told him of his commitment, and wanted to put him on the field right then.  Stanley was also asked about position, since he plays both sides of the ball for Latta although he was recruited to play offensive line, and admitted the possibility of playing defense if necessary.

When asked why he chose South Carolina, he said, “South Carolina is not too far; it’s an SEC program and I just like it down there.  It took four years to make this decision between South Carolina and Clemson.  They’re both good schools, both in state.  I picked South Carolina and I told coach over a month ago, because I know there was only one more [offensive line] scholarship left, so I went ahead and silently committed.”  He also thanked the university for respecting the silence of the commitment and letting him announce the decision when he was ready.  He cannot officially sign until National Signing Day on February 5, but says he will not make any more visits.  I’m sure he’s glad the process is over.

After Stanley’s remarks, Vikings coach Kelly Williamson also thanked the community, and asked for continued support tonight when the Vikings head to Johnsonville for a big game against the Flashes, with a Region 8-A title (potentially) on the line.  He also commented on how Stanley is a “great kid” and a good leader for his team, also saying “Donell has done everything first class.”

Stanley will join Joe Blue from nearby Dillon amongst Carolina’s recruiting class, as well as former Dillon players Kwinton Smith, DJ Park, and Bryce King already on the Gamecock’s roster.

Stanley’s announcement wasn’t his only good news of the week.  Monday he was named as one of the participants in the US Army All-America Game, played each January as a showcase for the nation’s top seniors.  Yesterday, Stanley was also amongst the 40 players announced to represent the state of South Carolina in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas on December 21 at Wofford College.  The game matches up 40 of the best seniors from South Carolina against 40 counterparts from North Carolina.

Stanley may be a part of history with his high school team this year as well.  The Vikings are 4-2, and (as mentioned earlier) will play Johnsonville tonight.  Although many will favor the Flashes, Stanley and the Vikings were picked to win by 3 of the 5 panelists in the Florence Morning News game picks.  Latta has not made a playoff appearance since 2003, although they will likely do so this year, and has not had a winning season since a 9-3 mark in 2002, a year that saw the Vikings advance to the second round of the playoffs.  At that time, Stanley was 7 years old.  Also, if the Vikings beat the Flashes, they control their own destiny to win the region.  This is a team that was winless in 2010, and after hiring Coach Williamson have gone 2-8 and 3-7 the last 2 seasons.

When asked by WPDE’s Mark Haggard if he was focused on beating Johnsonville tonight, Stanley gave a very definitive “Yes sir,” and acknowledged the significance of the game within the region.

Should the Vikings find a way to beat Johnsonville, it would undoubtedly make this the greatest day/week in Latta sports history.

Stanley speaks with WMBF's Joe Murano.

Stanley speaks with WMBF’s Joe Murano.

Stanley with his family at the announcement.

Stanley with his family at the announcement.

 

Update to “Stanley to Announce Decision On Friday”

According to multiple media reports, Donell Stanley has eliminated North Carolina and Alabama from contention for his college commitment.  Therefore, his announcement of his decision on Friday will be between South Carolina and Clemson, the two football powerhouses in his home state of South Carolina.

The Latta High School senior will announce his decision on Friday at 1 PM in the school’s auditorium, before he and the Vikings travel to Johnsonville for a big game Friday night.

For more information, see my earlier post “Stanley to Announce Decision On Friday.”

Stanley To Announce Decision On Friday

Latta High School OG Donell Stanley has had a long couple of years.  Whether or not his Latta Vikings beat Johnsonville on Friday night, by the time he goes to bed he will surely have a huge sense of relief, because what is likely the toughest decision of his life will be over.

Stanley has been dealing with the decision of where he wants to play college football, and he will announce his decision on Friday at 1:00 PM, at the Latta High School auditorium.

Over the course of the last couple of years, Stanley has been recruited by a countless number of schools, receiving offers from (in alphabetical order) Alabama, Clemson, East Carolina, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Marshall, Mississippi State, North Carolina, NC State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, South Carolina, USC, and Virginia Tech.  Over this past summer, Stanley narrowed the list to Alabama, Clemson, North Carolina, and South Carolina (as he put it, these are “in no particular order.”)

247 Sports rates Stanley as the 3rd best offensive line recruit in the nation, and the 4th best overall recruit in South Carolina.  Stanley stands 6 feet, 4 inches, and is 330 pounds, and he had much of that incredible size before high school, as he was 6’3”, 280 pounds in his freshman year.  Stanley wears size 21 cleats (that’s the last I heard; his feet may have grown some more), which are ordered custom-made with some help from the Carolina Panthers of the NFL and Nike.

Out of 24 analysts on 247 Sports who have weighed in on the process and made their own personal predictions of his decision, all 24 believe he will commit to South Carolina.  Having known Stanley a couple of years now from our acquaintance during my time at Latta High School, I also believe he will pick South Carolina.  However, I would not be surprised if he picked any of these four schools.

If Stanley picks the Gamecocks, perhaps the head coach is a factor.  Steve Spurrier is one of two coaches amongst the “final four” schools, along with North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, to come to Latta to visit Stanley.  Much of the rest of the contact with other schools has been done on college campuses as Stanley and his uncle, Latta assistant coach Chris German, have traveled all over the country.

Also, Stanley has grown up a fan of both South Carolina and North Carolina.  If his boyhood allegiances are a factor, it would certainly be possible one of these two schools would be where he is playing on Saturdays next year.

Regardless, this is the biggest thing to happen for a Latta Vikings athlete since Raymond Felton, who graduated from Latta in 2002, chose to play for Matt Doherty (and later Roy Williams) at North Carolina, winning a national championship and leading to Felton’s current NBA career with the Bobcats, Nuggets, Blazers, and currently the Knicks.

According to one of Stanley’s post to Twitter, his decision is probably already made.  In response to a tweet from @GamecockGirl97 that commented on the people who may not be happy if he doesn’t pick their school, Stanley said “it’s fine and I understand that that’s y I prayed and prayed and asked God to show me the right way.”  Given the wording of the tweet, I feel he’s probably already made the decision.  Also, he probably wouldn’t announce a date and time for his announcement if the decision wasn’t already made.

So hopefully that feeling of relief I mentioned earlier is already starting to sink in some, even if nobody else knows yet what direction he’s headed.  My personal college decision was hard enough, and with it came a feeling of relief once it was made, and which team and coach I would go to school to play for wasn’t a factor.  In fact, the school I eventually chose, Anderson University, doesn’t even have a football team.  I can’t imagine what the recruiting process is like.  WPDE’s Rich Chrampanis reported in May that during one baseball game (keep reading to hear about Stanley’s other involvements) in May, Stanley had received 27 texts, emails, and phone calls from members of college coaching staffs, as well as the media, regarding his recruitment.

Through all of this, Stanley has played not only high school football, but also basketball and baseball.  He is the starting first baseman and cleanup hitter on that Vikings baseball team, a team that is the defending state runners-up.  During the state championship baseball series, South Carolina OL coach Shawn Elliott came to Latta to watch Stanley play, and he saw Stanley lay out for an over the shoulder catch on a pop-up behind the first base bag (It was honestly one of the ten greatest catches I’ve ever seen).  Stanley also enjoys hunting and fishing, as well as listening to country music.  He has also taken up tennis, in addition to his other sports, as an additional way to stay in shape.  All of these activities will likely come with a little more ease after Friday, as a large chapter of Stanley’s high school career that has taken a large chunk of his time will now be closed.