As I began thinking about the area's most memorable prep stories of 2009, the ones I remembered most dealt far more with a kids' perseverance than any game statistic or final score. Here are the top prep stories from our area that made this year memorable for me:
1. Blevins finds a home: I have never received as much e-mail or as many phone calls about one story as the feature on South Pittsburg senior defensive lineman Jonathan Blevins.
In the story, which ran in early October, Blevins revealed that he had stayed in the Pirates' press box for several weeks because his home life was so bad. Rather than walk the eight miles from school to the hotel where he lived with his mother, who Blevins said was a drug addict, he began waiting until coaches and teammates left and would sleep in the Pirates' press box. He eventually was adopted by South Pittsburg resident Rance Castle, who has provided a steady home life.
The story was later linked by Rivals.com, which allowed Blevins' story to be picked up nationally. He has since been featured in a CNN Headline News segment and South Pittsburg principal Allen Pratt has been contacted by reporters from the New York Times and ESPN the magazine, each planning to do a feature on the teenager. I personally received one e-mail from a man in Australia.
"It's kind of overhwhelming," Blevins said. "Words can't really describe it. All my life I've wanted to do something big with my life, and it feels like maybe I'm finally getting my shot now."
Earlier this month Blevins was announced as one of 30 national semifinalists for the Rudy Ruettiger $10,000 scholarship, given to the nation's most inspiring high school football player. The winner of the scholarship will be announced Feb. 3.
"Jonathan is living the ultimate underdog story of life -- dealing with homelssness, no parents or income," Pratt said. "He is an example of how the kindness of a stranger and entire town turned the hand of fate.
"It's great to know that good news can travel so fast."
2. McKinney's tribute: In February, Baylor senior Tevin McKinney played the basketball game of his life just two days after his dad died from a stroke. For several years it had been just Tevin and his father, Archie, at home, and the two shared a lifelong love for basketball. That was why Tevin decided the best way to honor his dad's memory was to play in the game right after Archie's death.
Baylor trailed top-ranked Ensworth by 11 points in the second quarter when Tevin entered the game. His tenacious defense, constant hustle and 11 points helped bring the Red Raiders back for an upset win.
"It was like watching a Disney movie," Baylor coach Austin Clark said at the time. "It really was like he was playing with an angel on his shoulder."
3. Mariakis' return: Ridgeland football coach Mark Mariakis returned to the team in May, less than two months after brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. The rare tumor known as "acoustic neuroma" attached to a nerve connecting facial muscles to his right ear, and it affects about 10 in every one million people.
He suffered hearing loss in his right ear and there is a five-inch scar that traces from his jawbone halfway up the back of his head as a reminder, but Mariakis guided the Panthers to a 9-2 season and their fourth straight playoff berth in the fall.
"There reaches a point where you have just turn everything over to God and believe whatever happens is part of his plan," Mariakis said of the experience.
4. High reaches milestone: Brainerd High School basketball coach Robert High earned his 900th career victory in the first game of the current season. The Panthers opened this season with a 14-point win over Jack Hayward School in a Thanksgiving tournament at Freeport, Bahamas.
High, 65, is the nation's wins leader among active coaches, and his 905-260 current overall record makes him one of only 15 boys' prep coaches in the nation to have that many victories. High and only seven others have eclipsed the 900-win mark at one program. He is currently 13 wins behind former Memphis University School coach Jerry Peters for third place on the all-time list in Tennessee and 17 from moving into second place.
In 34 years with High as coach, the Panthers have won 17 state-tournament games, three state championships and finished runner-up twice. High has coached 11 All-Americans and 31 all-state players and won 19 district and 17 region titles. He has won at least 20 games 27 times and has nine 30-plus win seasons. The school has named the gym after High and girls' coach Carolyn Jackson.
5. Jackson sprints to recognition: Howard freshman sprinter LaQuisha Jackson made the most impressive varsity debut I have seen in 20-plus years of covering area sports. Some of the area's most respected track coaches already use the phrase, "future Olympian" when describing Jackson.
She announced her arrival statewide by winning four first-place medals at the Spring Fling, dominating the Class AA field in the 100 and 200 meters, then anchoring the championship 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams. Her 11.87 seconds in the 100 was the fastest time for all three classifications, but none of her wins was more dramatic than when she took the baton for the final leg of the 4x100 relay, trailing four other runners, then began picking off the competition one by one. She eventually pulled away from the field, beating the closest runner by more than a half second. Her performance vaulted Howard's girls to their first state championship in more than 25 years.
She added to her impressive credentials in August by breaking a 29-year-old AAU national record in the 400-meter dash. Running for the Chattanooga Jets at Drake University, Jackson turned in a time of 53.63 in the 15-16 age division, which was one-tenth of a second faster than the old record and more than a second ahead of the second-place finisher.
What made that performance more impressive was that it was her third race of the day, having finished second in the 200 and sixth in the 100 and only had a 10-minute rest before the 400 event.
"She has more potential than any sprinter I've seen," said former Brainerd sprinter Kendra Patton, who with her sister Kenya has been coaching Jackson for AAU meets. "She's running times that you normally only see seniors or maybe juniors in high school run."
6. TSSAA playoff fiasco: It's tough to steal the excitement of a day as anxiously anticipated as the release of the state football playoff brackets. But that's just what happened on Halloween morning when TSSAA officials announced the matchups for the six playoff brackets under its new postseason format. Shortly after the matchups were announced, the TSSAA took the brackets off its Web site because of numerous mistakes made.
Hours later, as coaches around the state fumed and many fans vented online over the perceived incompetence, the corrected brackets were posted. New TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress posted an apology on the Web site and admitted officials were frustrated about the errors.
The new format was supposed to do away with teams with losing records making the playoffs, but 23 teams with losing records made the postseason. There have been preliminary meetings to discuss potential changes to the playoff selection process for next season.
7. Temple's last stand: The Tennessee Temple boys' basketball program has won three Class A state titles and been to the state tournament eight times in the last 12 years. But what made the Crusaders' run to the state-title game last March so memorable was that it came after rumors had swirled the previous summer that dwindling enrollment would cause the school to close its doors.
There was a reduction in faculty, which forced Temple to combine its elementary classes, and several coaches and teachers took pay cuts to remain at the school. With fewer than 90 students in grades 9-12, the school had about 100 fewer students than the previous year. But led by seven seniors, including state Mr. Basketball finalist Jeremy Sexton, Temple won its first two games at the state tourney before falling to Manassas in the final. Head coach Caleb Marcum resigned after the season to become head coach at St. Benedict in Memphis and Mark Alexander, already the girls' coach, added boys' head coaching duties.
8. Foster continues to inspire: Two moments brought the sold-out crowd of more than 1,300 to its feet during the annual Best of Preps awards banquet in May. The first standing ovation was for Olympic swimming hero Michael Phelps. The second, and much longer one, was for Polk County athlete Serge Foster.
Foster, who had just finished his junior year, was the recipient of the Bobby Davis Award, given to an area athlete who displays extraordinary heart and desire. Foster suffered a broken left leg in a football scrimmage in August 2008, and after 14 surgeries his leg was amputated just below below the knee. He was fitted with a prosthesis in February and has become an inspiration to everyone involved in the Polk County community; the weight room was named in his honor.
Foster returned to the Wildcats' football program, kicking extra points, and helped the team finish the regular season 10-0 for the first time in school history. The Wildcats advanced to the second round of the 3A playoffs.
9. Baylor nears record: The Baylor girls' golf team won an incredible 15th straight state championship. That added to the program's state record for most consecutive team championships in any TSSAA sport. It also put them within one of tying a National Federation of High Schools record.
Baylor's 15-year stretch began with Class AAA titles in 1995 and '96 at Henry Horton State Park in Chapel Hill before the TSSAA's public-private split. Phoenix Xavier College Prep in Arizona owns the national record of 16 from 1980 through '95. The Lady Red Raiders have won state championships on nine courses.
Signal Mountain and Soddy-Daisy also won girls' golf state titles. It was the first state title of any kind for Signal Mountain, a two-year-old school.
10. Dade's miracle finish: The Dade County boys' basketball team rallied from 10 points down with 54 seconds remaining in regulation to tie Callaway, then win in double overtime in a GHSA Class AA second-round state-tournament game. After Dade's Travis Core was fouled by Callaway's David Rutledge, the game turned when Rutledge was given a technical foul for not leaving the court in a timely manner, leading to four made free throws and a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. Jake Bell then banked in a 3-pointer at the end of regulation to force the first overtime.
Dade pulled away for a four-point win in the second overtime but lost in the quarterfinals to Blessed Trinity.
* For the first time, two area prep football players earned All-America honors in the same season. Ooltewah defensive end Jacques Smith was named an All-American by USA Today and was selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American game. Calhoun receiver Da'Rick Rogers elevated himself to the No. 2 national ranking at his position, becoming the area's first five-star prospect since Red Bank's Gerald Riggs Jr. in 2001. Rogers finished with a state-record 1,680 receiving yards, helping the Yellow Jackets reach the Class AA state title game for a second straight year. Rogers, who will play in Saturday's Under Armour All-Star Game in Orlando, has committed to sign with the University of Georgia.
Smith, who became the first player to win back-to-back Tennessee Mr. Football Lineman of the Year awards, was named the state's top overall prospect by several recruiting services. He plans to enroll at the University of Tennessee in mid-January.
* Three local schools opened varsity football competition: Chattanooga Chrsitian, East Hamilton and Signal Mountain. Signal Mountain finished second in its district, qualified for the playoffs and finished the season 10-2. The Eagles averaged 37 points per game, losing only to South Pittsburg in the regular season, then winning six games in a row before losing a big lead and falling by one point at Cascade in the second round of the Class 2A playoffs.
* Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe 215-pound wrestler Derrick Laney capped a 46-0 season with his second consecutive individual state championship at the GHSA state tournament. The junior's 46 wins came via 44 pins, one technical fall and one decision, and he needed just 58 seconds to pin Woodward Academy's Scott Edelson in the Class AAAA state finals.
* Baylor freshman wrestler Zach Watson finished his second straight undefeated season with a second TSSAA Division II state title. After going 44-0 as a freshman, Watson has a two-year career record of 91-0, which is more than a third of the way to the state's all-time win record held by former Baylor wrestler Jordan Leen.
* Dalton High School's football team finished 7-4, the 50th consecutive winning season for the Catamounts. That's the longest streak in the nation.
* Baylor's football team finally ended its 11-year losing streak to rival McCallie with a 24-10 victory.
* In June, David Brainerd School announced it was closing its doors for good because of financial shortcomings.
* Bradley Central, Cleveland and Soddy-Daisy finished 1-2-3 in the Class AAA state wrestling duals, while Hixson and Notre Dame were 1-2 in Class A/AA. It was the fifth time Bradley had won back-to-back duals titles. The Bears then went on to win their 19th traditional team title as well.
* GPS won its third straight Division II-AA softball state title.
* The Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe girls' basketball team had never won a postseason game but advanced to the Georgia Class AAAA state championship game.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...