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Top 12 local sports stories for 2017

Joe Avento and Jeff Birchfield • Dec 30, 2017 at 3:43 PM

1. Tennessee coaching situation

It was obvious that Butch Jones would be gone as Tennessee’s football coach long before it actually happened.

Then when it did, it set off a chain of events that made national news for a couple of weeks.

Tennessee became a laughingstock around the country for the way it handled the coaching search to replace Jones, who left a program that has lost its last game against every team in the Southeastern Conference.

First, Athletic Director John Currie tried to hire Greg Schiano. It was a controversial pick from the start. Tennessee fans revolted immediately, using social media to create such a firestorm that Currie had no other choice but to pull the offer.

After several high profile rejections, Currie was fired. He was replaced by former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who eventually hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

“Six days ago, I mentioned several attributes that I sought to find in the next leader of our football program, and Coach Pruitt meets all criteria” Fulmer said. “I’m certain he appreciates the unique opportunity to lead a program of Tennessee’s caliber. He’s driven to win at the highest level. He will honor our university’s values, operate with integrity and be a role model for our student-athletes.

“I know Coach Pruitt will hit the ground running and go to work restoring our program to a championship level.”

2. ETSU’s football stadium opens

Sept. 2 was the date East Tennessee State’s new football facility officially opened, but William B. Greene Jr. Stadium had been on the minds of everybody connected with the program long before it was even named.

When it finally became a reality, it was as good as advertised.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said. “I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house. I think there’s a lot of things about this stadium that I really like.”

In the first game at the new stadium, played on a rainy night, ETSU quarterback Austin Herink completed his first 15 passes in a 31-10 victory over Limestone College.

“This is a special night,” Torbush said. “The fans, the stadium, the beauty of it all … I wish it had been a little bit better weather, but we still had a pretty full house.”

ETSU sold out three of its six home games in the $25 million stadium and ranked sixth among Football Championship Subdivision schools in percentage of stadium capacity, averaging more than 8,000 fans per game in the 7,600-seat facility.

3. ETSU basketball wins SoCon

It didn’t take Steve Forbes long to deliver on his promise.

In just his second season as ETSU’s basketball coach, Forbes got the Bucs to the NCAA tournament.

After guiding his team to a 27-7 regular season and a Southern Conference tournament championship, Forbes took the Bucs to the NCAA tournament, where they put up a fight before falling 80-65 to a Florida team that wound up in the Sweet 16.

The Bucs lost their regular-season finale at UNC Greensboro to finish in a tie for the SoCon’s regular-season championship. But they got their revenge a week later with a 79-74 victory over the same UNCG team in the conference tournament championship game.

That gave ETSU its 10th NCAA tournament berth and although the Bucs didn’t win against Florida, they got all kinds of national notoriety from a dunkathon they put on during practice in Orlando, Florida.

A.J. Merriweather was invited to the national college dunk contest thanks to that practice and he wowed the crowd in Phoenix before finishing second.

4. Buffalo Valley Golf Course closes

Johnson City finally decided one golf course was enough. The city commission voted to close Buffalo Valley in light of the financial burden it had become to keep open.

Pine Oaks remains as the only city-owned golf course.

Buffalo Valley had been the venue for college tournaments years ago and more recently was used by several area high schools as a practice facility in addition to being the site of high school tournaments.

5. Carl Torbush retires, Sanders hired

It was a changing of the guard for ETSU’s football team.

Carl Torbush, the man brought in to lead the program through it’s rebirth, retired shortly after his third season at the helm.

Randy Sanders, a former assistant at Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida State, was hired to take over.

Torbush went 11-22 in three seasons.

“It’s time,” Torbush said in front of a roomful of supporters during a news conference at Greene Stadium. “I’m sad for the fact I won’t be out there with the players, but the best thing I can say is it’s time. It’s time for somebody else to take it.”

Sanders, a Morristown native, came to ETSU after spending his last five seasons at Florida State, where he was quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator.

“I can’t wait to get to work,” Sanders said. “It is nice to be back home. But I can also tell you, if this job was 1,000 miles from where I grew up, I would still want to be here. I have that kind of excitement about it.”

6. Sensabaugh drama at Crockett

With much hoopla, David Crockett High School announced in January that former Dallas Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh had been hired as football coach. By the end of the 2017 season, Sensabaugh and athletic director Josh Kite had been suspended, and the Pioneers had gone through two other coaches.

On the field, Sensabaugh was a success. The Pioneers won at Seymour in his debut and ran their record to 5-2 when it all blew up. After an elementary school visit which he deemed the learning conditions unsatisfactory, the coach took to social media to air his concerns and criticize the school system.

It escalated from there with Sensabaugh accusing staff members of drug use and stolen funds, and Washington County officials countering that he was abusive and practiced an injured player. The coach was suspended, spurring on a series of protests by students, coaches and others in the school board’s parking lot.

Offensive coordinator Brandon Qualls served as coach for one game after which more controversy ensued. Baseball coach Nick Lingerfelt took over the final couple of weeks, trying to give some needed stability to the ever-changing situation.

Heading into the new year, former athletic director Scott Hagy is serving in his old role and David Crockett has yet to name a new coach. Sensabaugh has thrown his hat into the ring for Sullivan County Mayor.

7. Kyle Busch sweeps BMS again

Only one time before the August night race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a driver had swept NASCAR Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series races in the same weekend. That driver was Kyle Busch in 2010.

In August, Busch did it again with a series of driving performances that even amazed veteran racing observers. He overcame pit-road speeding penalties to win both the UNOH 200 for the Truck Series and the Food City 300 for the Xfinity Series.

He didn’t have to overcome a penalty in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race, but there were challenges coming from an 18th place starting position. He and Kyle Larson waged a back-and-forth battle for the lead in Stage 1 and Busch later had to hold off pole sitter Erik Jones for the race win.

Busch now holds the BMS record with 20 wins in the three series. His latest performance led Larson to comment, “Love him or hate him, I feel he’s the most all-around talented driver I will ever witness in my lifetime.”

8. Elizabethton Twins’ saga

The Elizabethton Twins continued its tradition of excellence on the baseball field with its sweep of the Pulaski Yankees for the Appalachian League championship. It was the eighth title for manager Ray Smith in 24 years and the Twins’ 11th championship overall.

It was a milestone season for Smith, who celebrated his 1,000th career managing victory just weeks earlier.

But, the real drama was off the field whether the Minnesota Twins would keep the team in Elizabethton, which had been the home for the rookie-level team since 1974. In September, both sides reached an agreement to stay put with a memorandum of understanding for $1.5 million in renovations to Joe O’Brien Field.

The groups have continued discussions since then with the city of Elizabethton and the Twins organization recently agreeing on clubhouse and stadium upgrade designs.

9. Johnson City Cardinals attendance record

The Johnson City Cardinals continued to improve the game-day experience for their fans and their fans continued to show up in record numbers.

The Cardinals broke their single-season attendance record for the second time, bringing 53,445 fans through the turnstiles.

Along the way, TVA Credit Union Ballpark was voted the best rookie level stadium in the minors.

On the field, the defending Appalachian League champions looked set to play in the postseason again before a season-ending seven-game losing streak left them one game out of the playoffs.

10. University High boys win state cross country

The University High boys’ cross country team capped off a dream season with the program’s second state championship in November.

With five runners in the top 25, coach Maggie Whitson’s Bucs won the TSSAA Smaller Schools Championship 62-101 over runner-up L&M Stem Academy. It came 10 years after the Bucs’ first state title and was the school’s seventh cross country championship overall with the UH girls winning five straight from 2005-09.

Porter Bradley led the way with a 17:40 to finish sixth in the individual standings. Pablo Rivas also earned All-State honors with an 18:02 to finish 10th. Others who scored were Caleb Strickler (18:47) in 18th, Blake Rogers (18:48) in 19th and Will Owen (19:10) in 23rd.

Bracken Burns and Luke Bader also ran at the state meet, where the UH girls finished third in the team standings.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final ride at BMS

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won NASCAR’s most popular driver award 15 times over his career, and the third-generation racer was easily the fan’s favorite at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In August, he finished off his BMS career with a 23rd-place finish, three laps down to race winner Kyle Busch in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. It wasn’t the ending he envisioned after fighting an ill-handling race car all night.

For his career, he had one win, eight top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 35 races at the high-banked short track. His greatest performance was no doubt in 2004, which Earnhardt became the first driver in track history to win Xfinity Series and Cup Series races in the same weekend. In an NBC Sports special, Earnhardt listed sweeping the Bristol weekend as his No. 1 accomplishment as a driver.

But, his legacy was as much the person, who off the track connected with fans on a level even greater that his father did. The race also marked the final BMS race for Matt Kenseth, who won four times at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” and Danica Patrick, who will retire after racing in the 2018 Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500.

12. Hannah Seagrave leaves Milligan as a four-time national champion

Hannah Seagrave finished her college career in May as the most decorator runner in Milligan history.

The Middlesborough, England, native won her fourth national title in the 800 meters at the 2017 NAIA outdoor track & field championships. She ran 2:06.96 and it came one year after she was named the meet’s most outstanding performer.

She repeated as 800 national champion at both the indoor meet in Johnson City and the outdoor meet. In addition, she was a three-time national championship runner-up (cross country in 2016, indoor 800 in 2015 and outdoor 800 in 2015).

Her accomplishments also include a seven-time All-American, nine Milligan College school records and a 16-time national championship qualifier. Just months after her graduation, she was inducted into the Milligan College Athletics Hall of Fame.

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