It was the top sports story in 2019 for the Johnson City Press.
The Cyclones opened with a 28-20 win over rival Science Hill and they met ever challenge after. They defeated Greeneville 24-21 on Oct. 18 and ascended to the state’s No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Class 4A poll.
Elizabethton survived a scare from Sullivan South 14-13 the following week and then completed the school’s first perfect regular season since 1951 with a 37-0 drubbing of Sullivan Central.
More history was to be made as the Cyclones crushed East Ridge and Sullivan South in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and beat Greeneville for a second time to reach the state semifinals.
From there, they defeated Nolensville 34-12 at home and routed Springfield 30-6 in the championship game.
It was the first 15-win season in school history and the first state title since 1938.
Bryson Rollins, who had a record-setting performance in the state championship, was recognized as the Johnson City Press Elite 11 player of the year and Shawn Witten was named the coach of the year.
2. ETSU basketball gets road win at LSU
It wasn’t the first time that ETSU had beaten an SEC school. In fact, it was the Bucs’ second win over an SEC opponent in the Steve Forbes era and the 17th time overall.
But the manner which the Bucs did it, throughly dominating LSU, came as somewhat of a shock. Patrick Good scored 19 points and ETSU cruised to a 74-63 win at Baton Rouge.
The Bucs led by as many as 23 points in the second half and they outrebounded the Tigers by a 40-29 margin.
It was ETSU’s first win over an SEC team since a 67-65 win over Mississippi State in 2016.
3. Cade Larkins finishes No. 2 on state passing list
David Crockett quarterback Cade Larkins ended his high school career with 11,042 passing yards, 80 yards shy of the all-time state record set by Trinity Christian’s Kyle Akin.
He also passed for 105 touchdowns to rank No. 6 on the all-time Tennessee list. He finished in the top 25 national after a career that saw him win the Johnson City Press Elite 11 player of the year in 2018.
Larkins ended his senior season with 2,859 yards and 34 touchdowns. He led the Pioneers to 28 wins over his high-school career.
4. Johnson City Cardinals win Appalachian League title
Johnson City established itself as the dominant team of the decade in the Appalachian League with its fifth title since 2010.
It didn’t come easy as the Cardinals had to rally to win 8-6 on the road at Burlington and take a 2-1 series victory.
Johnson City faced six elimination games over its final nine days of the season, and won both championship series games on the road.
The Cardinals also set a league-attendance record for a fourth year in a row, this time shattering it with 80,162 fans coming to games at TVA Credit Union Ballpark.
5. Proposal threatens Appy League future
The working agreement between Major League Baseball and MiLB, the group that oversees minor league baseball teams, expires after the 2020 season and as part of the negotiations for a new deal, MLB has proposed to eliminate as many as 42 minor league teams.
The proposal to trim the current 160 minor league teams puts the Appalachian League as well as the Pioneer League, the other Rookie Advanced league, in jeopardy.
The Appalachian League began in 1911 and lasted until 1914. It re-formed in 1921 and ran for five years. It started up again in 1937 and has been in operation every year since then, except 1956. The West division teams are located in Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Elizabethton and Greeneville.
6. Disappointing season for ETSU football
Coming off a share of the Southern Conference championship in 2018, the East Tennessee State football team was picked to contend with Furman and Wofford for the league title at the preseason media day.
Instead, the Bucs won just one conference game, a 38-33 win over Mercer in the home finale at Greene Stadium.
It was a milestone day for running back Quay Holmes, who rushed for a school-record 255 yards and surpassed 1,000 yards for the season.
Another of the Bucs’ wins came against Austin Peay, which advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs.
ETSU ended 3-9 after losing its season finale 38-0 at Vanderbilt.
7. Playoffs coming to Bristol Motor Speedway
When NASCAR released its 2020 schedule, the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race was moved from August to September and will now be part of the NASCAR playoffs.
Denny Hamlin won the 2019 version of the night race and it was the second win in the marquee event for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver.
It gave the Gibbs organization a sweep of Bristol Cup races with eventual series champion Kyle Busch winning the Food City 500 in April.
The best news for the speedway was the largest estimated crowd in a decade for the August race after the race in April was sparsely attended.
8. Hutchins shines on national stage
Science Hill sophomore Jenna Hutchins set a new Tennessee state record in the one mile, running 4:43.33 at the Music City Distance Carnival in early June. A little over a month before, she won two Large School individual titles at the TSSAA state track meet in the 800 and 1,600 meters.
Cross country season was even better as Hutchins set three course records — including the Daniel Boone course record at 17:12 in a win at the Region 1 championships. At the Desert Twilight XC Festival in Casa Grande, Arizona, she became the first girl to win the sweepstakes division East of the Mississippi River with a blazing time of 16:38.9.
She was a bit under the weather at the TSSAA state meet and finished third. However, she bounced back by winning the KYA Postseason 3,200-meter time trial in the second-fastest time in the state history at 10:15. She went on win the Foot Locker South Regional in Charlotte, and finished fifth in the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego, where she repeated as All-American — plus her time of 17:16.1 on the Balboa Park course beat the winner’s time in nine of 19 previous races.
9. Witten returns to Cowboys
Former Elizabethton High School and University of Tennessee tight end Jason Witten returned to the Dallas Cowboys for his 17th NFL season after spending one year in the broadcast booth of “Monday Night Football.”
Showing little rust, Witten caught a touchdown in his first game back, a 35-17 Cowboys win over the New York Giants. Going into Sunday’s season finale against the Washington Redskins, Witten has 59 catches for 505 yards and four touchdowns. He has 50 or more catches in 16 seasons with the Cowboys, only missing the mark his rookie year.
His 59 catches are six more than Dallas tight ends Blake Jarwin and Geoff Swaim managed to haul in the entire 2018 season. Witten’s best game of the season was the second time Dallas faced the Giants, when he had eight catches for 58 yards.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Cowboys still have an outside shot of winning the NFC East division. They must beat the Redskins again and have the Giants beat the Philadelphia Eagles.
10. Fred Warren retires as ETSU golf coach
Fred Warren served as East Tennessee State golf coach from 1986 until his retirement in June.
The 12-time conference coach of the year took his ETSU teams to 22 NCAA regionals and 14 NCAA finals, coaching 23 All-Americans along the way.
The highlight of his illustrious career came in 1996 when the Bucs were ranked the No. 1 team in the country. That season, they went on to beat a Stanford team led by Tiger Woods at the Honors Course in Chattanooga to finish third nationally.