One of the universal feelings we share this time every year is the anticipation of infinite possibilities that might be in the months ahead. So as the 2012 high school sports year gets started, here are a half-dozen players, teams and issues that likely will steal many of the local sports headlines this year.
- Howard’s LaQuisha Jackson. When spring rolls around and track season begins, there won’t be a more anticipated single athlete competing than the record-setting senior sprinter. Most sports fans are obsessed with speed and Jackson is the fastest female sprinter in state history, never having lost an individual competition.
Rated the nation’s No. 2 prep sprinter, Jackson has narrowed her college choices to Tennessee, Florida and San Diego State and has made no secret that her main goal is to represent the United States in the Olympics, aiming mainly for the 2016 games. She already owns nine individual or team state championships and will be extremely motivated coming off a disappointing end to her junior season. She set state records in the 100 and 200 meters as a sophomore and was looking to better those marks last year, but while she won her third straight 100-meter state title, she narrowly missed setting a record and dehydration prevented her from even running in the 200.
As she left Murfreesboro last spring, a visibly upset Jackson vowed to make her senior season memorable.
- Signal Mountain’s Reese Phillips. There likely has never been a more highly recruited quarterback from the Chattanooga area, including Cleveland’s Chad Voytik and former McCallie signal-caller B.J. Coleman. Phillips has everything college scouts drool over — the size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and arm strength to make every throw necessary, the academics (3.68 grade point average), toughness (he played tight end before taking over as the starting quaterback), and even the bloodline (his uncle played at Georgia).
In his first season as the Eagles’ starter, he threw for nearly 2,000 yards with 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions and already has scholarship offers from 15 programs. Among the teams most heavily recruiting him as of now are Notre Dame, Georgia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Duke.
It also will be interesting to see just how focused Signal Mountain’s entire team is this year. After winning the Class 2A state title in 2010, the Eagles were ruled ineligible for the 2011 playoffs, a decision that likely will cause the returning players and coaches to enter the 2012 season with a mountainous chip on their shoulder and a point to prove every Friday night.
While fewer than five of this year’s area seniors have offers from FBS programs, Phillips is one of about 10 juniors who likely will earn big-time offers by next year’s signing day. That list includes Bradley Central offensive lineman Austin Sanders, a Tennessee commitment; Ridgeland safety Vonn Bell, who is expected to commit to Tennessee soon; North Jackson kicker Cesar Diaz, who already has an offer from Mississippi State; Howard lineman Brandon Walters; Calhoun quarterback Taylor Lamb; Bradley Central quarterback Bryce Copeland; and South Pittsburg athlete Demetric Johnson.
- Ringgold’s Matthew Crownover. It only seems like Crownover has played prep baseball for 10 years because most of us began hearing about his ability before he was even in middle school. He committed to Clemson as a sophomore, helped the 14-under USA team win a gold medal in the Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico and has been on 11 national championship teams while playing for the exclusive East Cobb Astros for five years. He was named pitcher of the year in a summer league that routinely turns out dozens of major league prospects every year.
The 6-foot, 195-pound left-hander has a fastball that is routinely clocked at 94 mph, and he is expected to be a first-round pro draft pick this summer. He’s a three-time All American who has pitched in three major league stadiums during all-star competition, was named Georgia’s state player of the year and is about 140 strikeouts from setting the state’s career record.
Baylor’s Zach Watson. Before last year no wrestler in Tennessee history had won five state championships. But after McCallie’s T.J. Duncan became the first to do so last year, Watson can become the second in as many years. Much like in softball, Chattanooga has such a rich history in wrestling that it is only fitting that two local wrestlers would take such an exalted place in state history. Watson came into the season with a career record of 147-3.
Will the city’s softball dominance continue? At least one Chattanooga team has won a softball state championship in the state’s toughest brackets — Class AAA and Division II — since 2002. Local teams have won a combined 14 state titles in those classifications during the last nine years, with Baylor, GPS and Soddy-Daisy each claiming four. Soddy-Daisy’s Lady Trojans could enter the season nationally ranked.
Can local boys’ basketball become relevant again at the big-time state level? While Chattanooga teams fare well in Class A boys’ basketball — eight teams have played in title games in the last 10 years — it’s a different story for schools with enrollments over 200. There hasn’t been a boys’ basketball team from Hamilton County win a state championship in Class AA or AAA since Brainerd did it 20 years ago. The Panthers also were the last team to reach a title game, finishing runners-up in 1997. Since then, only two local teams have even advanced to the semifinals in the state’s two larger classifications.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has 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. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...