Old acquaintances were not forgotten in 2011.
Toronto Blue Jays bonus baby Daniel Norris might most notably exemplify a year of reconnecting on the local sports scene.
Some seven hours after his excruciating Major League Baseball draft experience had concluded in the second round on the second day, Norris showed up for an improvised reunion with fellow Science Hill alums Paul Hoilman and Matt Rice.
Hoilman and Rice, who made names for themselves in East Tennessee State’s and Western Kentucky’s respective record books, were also drafted high that day. So the trio met for a photo op at the cul-de-sac in front of Hoilman’s home where they’d often played baseball as children.
Norris then spent the summer playing with Will Carter for the East Cobb Yankees. Although they’re lifelong friends and were teammates in numerous sports, including when they helped the Johnson City Major League to a runner-up finish in the Little League 10-under state tournament, the summer in Georgia was a reconnection of sorts.
Carter and Norris had spent many springs and summers playing for the Junior Toppers travel team before Norris began playing in Georgia full-time in 2009. Now, Carter was playing there as well.
Norris and Carter, who will be a freshman pitcher for ETSU this season, both said it was gratifying to share a dugout for a final summer. It was somewhat of a risky move for Norris, who didn’t sign with Toronto until shortly before midnight on Aug. 15. He got a deal that included a $2-million bonus, which made the draft something he could laugh about — all the way to the bank.
The draft almost seemed destined for disappointment after hearing Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten briefly speak with Norris following Norris’ no-hitter against Murfreesboro Siegel at Cardinal Park in late April. While posing for pictures afterward, Witten, instinctively counseling Norris on the looming draft, said everything would work out for the best even if expectations weren’t initially met.
Witten was apparently referring to his emotionally grueling draft in 2003. Witten was told by pundits that he or Dallas Clark would be the first tight end drafted, but Clark and three others went ahead of him. It was a blessing in disguise, however, as Witten ended up with tight end-friendly Bill Parcells in football-crazy Dallas.
Another Cowboy, Dobyns-Bennett graduate Gerald Sensabaugh, reunited with former ETSU football players at the Bucs Football & Friends Foundation’s annual cookout in June. Sensabaugh was understandably worried about the NFL lockout, but now he could spring for the barbecue at the next cookout. Sensabaugh signed a five-year extension in December worth a reported $22.5 million.
It was a banner year for Tri-Cities NFL players. Science Hill graduate Aubrayo Franklin signed a one-year deal with the New Orleans Saints in August worth a reported $4 million, and most seemed to consider the run-stuffing defensive lineman a steal for the Saints at that price.
Another Science Hill Hall of Famer who’s played in the NFL, Van Williams, had a rewarding summer. Former Buffalo Bills teammate Perry Tuttle was in Johnson City speaking at Boone Trail Baptist’s South Roan campus, and when he found out Williams lived here, he got his number, called and insisted they meet immediately no matter how sweaty Williams might be from yard work.
So on a moment’s notice, Williams caught up with Tuttle as swiftly as if he was still returning kicks for Buffalo. Their time in Buffalo included being rookies together, and now, some 30 years later, their smiling, bear-hug of an embrace made time stand still.
Former Science Hill basketball coach George Pitts reconnected with Damon Johnson, who took a job as Pitts’ assistant at King College. Johnson was on Pitts’ state championship team in 1990 and a key cog on the state runner-up team in ’91.
Johnson went on to endure Kevin O’Neill while playing out of position at Tennessee and became a legend in Iceland during a decade-plus playing career in Europe, and says Pitts was invaluable preparation for all of it. Now, Johnson is preparing Pitts’ defenses at King while developing his coaching skills.
Aaron Dugger took over as head basketball coach at his alma mater, and his Unaka Rangers beat tournament-favorite Cherokee in the Hardee’s Classic. Cherokee was favored for a reason. In fact, the Chiefs beat defending Class AAA state champion Memphis Craigmont in the first round of the Arby’s Classic this week.
Dugger was fun to watch run and gun for Donald Ensor at Unaka at the beginning of last decade, and he scored 25 points in 23 minutes for Lees-McRae at VMI on Dec. 6, 2006.
Ned Smith is also officially home, having taken over at Hampton after assisting legendary Jerry White’s fitting swan song last spring. White, a key player on Buck Van Huss’ 1960 state-championship team at Hampton, directed the Nathanael Hughes-led Bulldogs to the state semifinals.
Hughes, a Class A Mr. Basketball finalist who’s now at King, scored 40 points in Hampton’s substate win against Harriman.
Len Dugger reunited with the Elizabethton boys basketball program. Dugger, who coached such players as James Henry, Elvin Browne and Leslie Brunn in his first go-round, left the Lady Cyclones job to take over for Tony Gordon in early December. Consequently, Mike Wilson returned to his former post as the Lady Cyclones head coach.
A most satisfying reunion came while watching Sammy “Dee Dee” Stewart and Harley “Skeeter” Swift touch base – or all the bases – during a couple of three-hour lunches at the Cottage.
Stewart was an all-state basketball player at Science Hill, and he and Percy Hairston guided Elvin Little’s Hilltoppers to a state runner-up finish in 1968 – the same year Swift was leading ETSU’s charge to the Sweet 16.
In fact, while researching a book on Swift, Stewart’s Hilltoppers were a constant distraction on microfilm. One day ETSU was beating Murray State and the next day Science Hill was beating Dobyns-Bennett.
It seemed like parallel universes, but the brash, flashy Swift had actually gotten acquainted with Stewart and Hairston.
Indeed, Stewart fondly recalled playing brutally physical pickup games with the likes of Swift and Tommy Woods, beginning when Stewart was probably 16 years old. He remembered Swift picking him for a game and even passing him the ball, although he quickly heard frantic shouts of, “Give it back! Give it back!”
Stewart said Swift’s “swagger” helped build a bridge between the African-American community and ETSU basketball.
Most importantly, Stewart and Swift spoke poignantly about the talented, happy-go-lucky, bubble-blowing Hairston, who died this summer.
Wrapping Up: Daniel Boone graduated what is arguably its most prolific class of seniors in 2011. The likes of Kevin Connell, Hayden Chandley, Travis Keever and Austin Reppart led the Trailblazers to historic victories in football (Dobyns-Bennett, Science Hill, Tennessee High) and basketball (Science Hill), and made Boone tough to deal with in baseball.
David Crockett’s 6-foot-11 Zack Garland helped the Pioneers to overdue success against Daniel Boone. Garland, a 1,000-point scorer who’s playing at Walters State, made a steal that led to Ty Shipley’s game-winning basket to seal a regular season sweep of Boone, which hadn’t lost to Crockett since 2006. Boone did bounce back with a win against Crockett in the district tournament consolation game despite Garland scoring 21 of the Pioneers’ 48 points. …
ETSU basketball players Mike Smith, Justin Tubbs and Micah Williams concluded productive careers, as did the Lady Bucs’ Latisha Belcher and Tara Davis.
Smith tallied 20 points and 20 rebounds in a January win against Florida Gulf Coast, and he’s believed to be the first Buc to record such a double-double since Tom Chilton (35 points, 25 rebounds) did it against Wofford on Feb. 14, 1959.
Smith was a 1,000-point scorer at ETSU, as were Williams, Belcher and Davis. Tubbs, who tried to follow in 1992 champion Calvin Talford’s footsteps after getting invited to the NCAA slam dunk contest, had the play of the day on ESPN’s SportsCenter thanks to a 360-degree dunk against Lipscomb. …
Science Hill went undefeated in the Big Eight Conference for the first time since 2002. The Hilltoppers won the district and regional tournaments too, but lost at home to Knox West in the substate. Big man Shannon Hale left the game for good after having some teeth knocked out while the ’Toppers were leading in the first quarter, and the Hilltoppers saw a state tournament berth dissolve.
Not long after that Hale and Jaylen Allen transferred to Christ School in Arden, N.C.
Senior guards Haley Hensley and Christy Goodman helped fuel the Lady Hilltoppers run to the state semifinals. Hensley finished her career with more than 1,000 points and 200 3-pointers, which are believed to be a school record.
Of course, Darrell Barnwell’s team has looked even better this season, which included a win against Bob Jones (Madison, Ala.) this week. Bob Jones, which has Tennessee signee Jasmine Jones, has won three of the past four Class 6A titles in Alabama and entered the game with a 14-1 record. …
Despite nothing resembling a can’t-miss prospect among position players, Johnson City Cardinals manager Mike Shildt steered his squad to its second straight Appalachian League pennant.
It was Cardinal Park’s first season without the steep bank in right field, and unfortunately, the final season with Shildt. He’s been promoted to manage at Double-A Springfield (Mo.) for the 2012 season. …
Science Hill quarterback Justin Snyder passed for 21 touchdowns and rushed for nine while tallying over 2,500 yards of total offense and helping the Hilltoppers to their first playoff victory since 2001. …
It’s hard to envision 2012 – or any year – being more disappointing than 2011 for Tennessee.
Classy icon Pat Summitt being diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, obviously trivialized everything else that occurred in Knoxville, but other than Summitt’s gutsy reaction about not succumbing to self-pity, it was hard to find silver linings beneath that dark cloud.
Bruce Pearl was fired after lying to the NCAA. Athletic director Mike Hamilton was fired after firing Pearl. Baseball coach Todd Raleigh was fired after going 4-for-4 on postseason whiffs.
Derek Dooley’s football team missed a bowl game after losing to Kentucky for the first time since 1984 despite the Wildcats using a wide receiver at quarterback.
Pearl’s successor, Cuonzo Martin, has seen his Vols lose to Austin Peay, College of Charleston and Oakland, and they easily could’ve lost to UNC Asheville and ETSU.
It’s not making it any easier for a not-so-old acquaintance like Pearl to be forgotten.
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at email@example.com