The top sports story for the Johnson City Press in 2020 was an easy selection. The coronavirus pandemic dominated the headlines throughout the year and even when it wasn’t causing cancelations or rescheduling of events, the threat of games or seasons lost lurked beneath the surface.

1. Year of the coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic changed the world of sports like nothing ever has before. It changed the way we play games. It changed the way we watched sports. And it changed the way we covered them.

It certainly dominated — if not decimated — the local sports scene.

The entire spring sports calendar was canceled, forcing high school and college athletes into a holding pattern. High school basketball didn’t have state champions. The NCAA Tournament was canceled with an East Tennessee State team in the midst of its best season ever ready to rock n’ roll.

College football players, who usually train together all summer getting ready for preseason camp, were left home, having to work out however they could.

The entire minor league baseball season was canceled.

When the games began to come back, we learned how adaptable the world of athletics was. No schedule was set in stone. Games were postponed and canceled, sometimes at the last second, and teams continued to move on. Change was inevitable and they rolled with the punches.

Somehow, Tennessee got through a high school football season, although it seemed tenuous at times.

Attendance, if there was any at all, was limited. When we watched the games on television, the crowds were mostly gone, but in some cases fake noise was piped in. It was a weird situation.

For a long period, there were no live sports. Newspapers and television stations began to produce features about athletes, past and present. As long as there are athletes, there are stories to tell and we tried to tell them every day.

As teams were “paused” because of COVID-19 tests, suddenly the term “positive” had a negative connotation.

The vaccines have given us hope and maybe this year has just been a blip. Hopefully, by this time next year the stadiums will be full, all the athletes will be all back in action and the only thing they’ll have to worry about are the numbers on the scoreboard.

2. E

TSU basketball: unfinished business

Talk about highs and lows.

East Tennessee State’s men’s basketball season was one for the history books in so many ways. The Bucs won a school-record 30 games, beat LSU on its home court and won the Southern Conference tournament without much of a challenge.

The team was built for postseason success and was on a roll heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Then, as the pandemic began to get real, basketball almost became an afterthought.

First, word came that fans wouldn’t be allowed at the NCAA Tournament games. That was going to make a different- feeling event.

But then the hammer came down and the tournament was canceled. It was a crushing blow to a team with such high hopes.

Less than two months later, after he had signed a couple of big-time transfers, Bucs coach Steve Forbes got hired away by Wake Forest. Jason Shay is rebuilding the program that lost most of its players to graduation and transfer.

3. J

enna Hutchins runs to stardom

Science Hill junior star runner Jenna Hutchins had a year to remember in one that most want to forget.

Her year started off with a bang as she nabbed fourth in the high school mile at the prestigious Millrose Games in New York City, running a new indoor state best time of 4:45.12.

In the latter half of the year, Hutchins went on a tear like none other.

At the Music City Distance Carnival in August, she set a state record in the two-mile, turning the 8-lapper in 9:49.83 to set a national junior class record.

In the fall cross country season, she won all seven of her races by an average margin of a minute and a half, including her second Division I Large Class state individual title.

All of her times except one were under 17 minutes, which was second-most nationally.

At the RunningLane Cross Country Championships in November, she won the gold division by 58 seconds and became the first high school girl to break 16 minutes on a 5-kilometer cross country course. She blazed the John Hunt Running Park in 15:58.42.

Three weeks later, she pulled out another spectacular race, winning the 5,000 meters at the Five and Dime Athletics Meeting in Columbia, South Carolina, against several professional athletes.

Her time of 15:34.47 set the national high school absolute, American Youth (U18) and American Junior (U20) outdoor records.

4. P

rince Kollie has a senior season to remember

David Crockett’s Prince Kollie racked up the awards during his senior football season.

Moving from wide receiver to running back, he rushed for 1,562 yards and 26 touchdowns, and caught 13 passes for 290 yards.

It was the defensive side of the ball where he really shined. Playing linebacker, he racked up 109 tackles, including 11 for a loss, leading him to sign with Notre Dame.

He was the Johnson City Press Elite 11 player of the year for the area and the TSSAA Class 5A Mr. Football for the state, and he also earned national acclaim.

Kollie was named a Sports Illustrated High School All-American. His latest honor was receiving the Butkus Award as the nation’s best high school linebacker.

5. E

lizabethton repeats as state champs

There were 81 years between Elizabethton High School’s first state football championship in 1938 and its second in 2019.

There was only one year between the second and third as the Cyclones repeated as TSSAA Class 4A state champions in 2020. It was also a second straight undefeated season with Elizabethton the owners of a 30-game winning streak by year’s end.

It came with challenges as a blocked field goal by Parker Hughes, the Class 4A Mr. Football, helped the Cyclones preserve a 23-21 win over Daniel Boone.

In the playoffs, the Cyclones took a hard-fought 24-20 win over rival Greeneville. In fact, the two Northeast Tennessee schools have now combined to win the last four Class 4A state titles.

There was little suspense in the state title game as Elizabethton rolled to a 41-14 win over Haywood. Quarterback Bryson Rollins, another Mr. Football finalist, accounted for three touchdowns.

The Elizabethton football family was hit with the sad news of legendary coach Dave Rider’s death on Dec. 20. The grandfather of current Cyclones coach Shawn Witten was 82.

6. A

ppy League reinvented

The Appalachian League suffered a double-whammy in 2020. Not only was the entire season canceled because of the coronavirus, the league’s future was up in the air all year thanks to the negotiations between Minor League Baseball and MLB.

As it became more and more apparent that the Appy League wasn’t going to be part of the minor leagues moving forward, hope began to fade that we’d have baseball again in the 10 markets.

Instead, baseball will still live in the likes of Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Elizabethton and other like-minded towns. The new Appalachian League will be a wooden bat league for elite college players in their first and second years of school.

With the backing of USA Baseball and MLB, the baseball should be good and the fans will return — once they learn the names of their favorite team. Every Appalachian League team is going through a rebranding with new names and logos.

The season starts Thursday, June 3, and runs into August.

7. C

utlip breaks Pitts’ wins mark

Ken Cutlip became Science Hill’s all-time winningest basketball coach with the Hilltoppers’ 82-25 victory over Unaka on Dec. 15.

It was Cutlip’s 460th win at Science Hill, moving him one past George Pitts on the all-time list.

Cutlip, who took over as Science Hill coach in 2004, was humble about the accomplishment.

“I’m just fortunate to be in the position that I’m in. I have been surrounded by dedicated and supportive people,” Cutlip said. “You accomplish very little on your own. There are so many people who help you along the way.

“There are 16 assistant coaches that have been a part of that. Seventy-three seniors have graduated from the program, and it’s been a team accomplishment. That’s what we’re all about, working hard as a team and buying in as a team. This is a product of all that.”

8. B

MS has big crowds

Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the two of the largest crowds for any sporting events in America since the COVID-19 pandemic with the NASCAR All-Star Race in July and the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race in September.

There were an estimated 22,000 fans at the NASCAR All-Star Race with the number closer to 30,000 for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, which had limited capacity. Only the Dallas Cowboys have hosted more fans for home games with Pittsburgh and Washington.

It was the first time the NASCAR All-Star Race had been held outside of Charlotte since 1986. Chase Elliott, who would go on to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship, held off Kyle Busch for the victory.

Busch was runner-up again at the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, losing in a close finish to Kevin Harvick. It also marked the first time that Bristol had hosted a NASCAR playoff race.

9. L

andon Knack and Evan Carter drafted

Nobody knew what to expect when the Major League draft was about to be held. The process had been cut from 40 rounds to just five and two local payers, Johnson City’s Landon Knack and Elizabethton’s Evan Carter, had high hopes and big dreams.

Those dreams were filled on the second day of the draft when they both were drafted in the second round.

Carter went first, with the 50th pick, to the Texas Rangers. The outfielder had signed to play collegiately at Duke, but quickly signed a contract with a big signing bonus to turn professional.

Ten picks later, the Los Angeles Dodgers selected Knack, who had a dominating four starts for ETSU before the coronavirus ended the college season.

The right-handed pitcher had seen his velocity dramatically increase and his strikeout-to-walk ration of 51-1 was hard to imagine. He signed with the Dodgers a couple of weeks after the draft.


Local umpire works NLCS

Johnson City’s Will Little continued to excel at his craft during the abbreviated 2020 MLB season.

Little, who has consistently been one of the highest rated balls-and-strikes umpires during his eight years in the big leagues, reached the highest point of his career when he worked the NLCS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves.

The next step for the former Science Hill High School and Milligan University athlete will be the World Series.

“If I ever get a World Series, that’s a goal of everyone,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be fortunate to get one someday.”