From her living room, hundreds of miles away from her old Soddy-Daisy home, Amy Robertson Whitaker can still close her eyes and visualize the scene.
The humid early-summer days spent entirely on the dusty Warner Park softball fields, proudly wearing her sweat-soaked Baylor uniform and playing the game she loved with her closest friends. All of them with dirt-smudged faces, quick to exchange celebratory high-fives or a consoling pat on the back; laughing and crying together, sometimes going through all of those emotions in the same day.
"As far as a snapshot in time, that still gets me emotional," Whitaker said during a phone interview from her Jacksonville (Fla.) home. "I still call Tennessee home. Getting to play at Baylor was a really special thing for me, and especially because of the girls I played with. We were all very close, so getting to create and share memories with people I cared about is what I think about.
"I can still see my mama, my daddy and my mammaw all sitting behind the backstop in their fold-out chairs watching me. I lost my daddy and mammaw eight years ago. They passed away within two weeks of each other, and having kids of my own now I truly understand how much they loved me and supported me by being at every one of my games. Those memories stand out more than any single game to me."
This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the Spring Fling -- the TSSAA's five-sport, Olympic style tournament that was held in Chattanooga for the first nine years before a three-year stint in Memphis and eventually settling in nicely in Murfreesboro.
The event begins Monday with the girls' track and field pentathlon and first day of the boys' decathlon, and the other four sports begin action Tuesday with competition continuing through Saturday when the final state champions are crowned.
While the event generates nearly $5 million annually for the Rutherford County economy, the heart and soul of the tournament remain the teenagers who play the games and the memories they make each spring. TSSAA officials estimate that 4,200 athletes compete in baseball, soccer, softball, tennis and track and field, accompanied by their families and supporters.
There have been numerous other athletes from each of the sports who have brought fans to their feet, claimed state titles or put their names in the state record books, but Amy Robertson became the first bona fide star of the Fling in that inaugural year.
Before Twitter, immediate Internet updates or even a cell phone in the hand of practically everyone, she became a media darling and local folk hero when she outdueled Brentwood High's Amanda Fine in a game that lasted four hours and 33 minutes and ended in 16 innings at 2 a.m. Those two pitchers combined for what was a tournament-record 35 strikeouts.
"What in the world were we doing playing softball at 2 a.m.?" joked former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter. "There is such a uniqueness about softball that instead of the crowd getting smaller as it got later, more people would show up from other events as word spread, and it was still packed at the end of that game.
"That may be the greatest accomplishment in the history of the Spring Fling. It was the first year of the event, and it pretty much set the standard."
Robertson led Baylor to the title by pitching 48 innings in 36 hours, allowing just three total hits and striking out 63 batters. After beating Ooltewah in the first game of the championship series, Robertson came back Saturday afternoon -- hours after the commencement ceremony in which she wore her uniform under her graduation gown -- to pitch 12 innings in a 2-1 championship win.
"That marathon game was very memorable, and it was just so much fun to play in," Whitaker said. "I can still remember the look on people's faces, so many emotions throughout the game. I think the fans were more worn out than the players.
"With it being in Chattanooga, there was a lot of buzz and press coverage," she added. "I definitely remember feeling a different energy than we did for other in-town tournaments or even the state tournament before that year. You knew you had everyone in the state there in town to watch, so the city had a lot of excitement around it."
She signed with Georgia Tech but played her final three seasons at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she also met her husband. Ryan Whitaker was a UTC wrestler. The couple now have three children, all under the age of 6, and Amy is a stay-at-home mom.
Her former teammate, Kelli Howard Smith, played shortstop on Baylor's first two state championship teams and has been the coach on the Lady Red Raiders' other five.
"I've been fortunate to experience the Spring Fling as a player and a coach, and the thing that always stands out to me every year are the kids' faces," Smith said. "Seeing that excitement on their faces, that's what high school sports is all about."
Chattanooga always has been the state's softball epicenter. Even before the Spring Fling, the Scenic City hosted the softball state tournament, and only four times in the last 33 years has at least one classification not had a Chattanooga-area softball champion. Last year three local teams -- Baylor (Division II), Soddy-Daisy (AAA) and Grace Academy (A) -- won titles.
Carter credits former Greater Chattanooga Sports and Events Committee president Merrill Eckstein with giving him the idea of grouping all five spring sports' state championships in one city for an Olympic-style event. For such an overwhelming task, many hours of planning and a lot of luck were involved.
"Every school was struggling with ways to make the spring sports profitable," Carter said. "So from a business side, we were looking at ways to increase the public's interest and the exposure for the athletes. For the kids, those sports are just as big as football and basketball, so we wanted to create something special for them and also make it profitable for everyone. Once Merrill and I started talking and planning it, Chattanooga seemed like the perfect fit because there were two newspapers there and we knew there is a huge interest in prep sports in that area.
"When we announced the idea, I remember having a sportswriter outside of Chattanooga come up to me and say, 'Ya'll have gone crazy. This is going to fail because nobody is going to cover it.' The media coverage we knew we would get in Chattanoga was a main reason we decided to go with it. After that first year I knew we were onto something. Now that I've retired, it's at the top of the things I'm most proud of being a part of in my career."
For the nine years Chattanooga hosted the event, the Spring Fling ranked only behind the NCAA Division I-AAchampionship football game as the sporting event that brought in the most money to the city's economy. The business opportunity was the reason Memphis offered nearly double the up-front financial bid to gain the right to host the event from 2003 to '05. However, since Tennessee is such an elongated state, stretching more than 520 miles from Memphis to Johnson City, many fans did not make the trip and Memphis took a huge financial hit.
The TSSAA then settled on Murfreesboro, which offered the perfect combination of financial package, being the geographic center of the state and sparkling new venues for each sport. Those factors allowed the Spring Fling to expand the total number of baseball and softball teams to 32, with the baseball bracket played at eight fields.
Tennessee remains the only state in the nation to hold a five-sport high school state tournament.
Going into this year's Spring Fling, 88 area teams have won state championships in the various sports, and hundreds of individuals have taken home state titles before continuing their athletic careers collegiately. Individual sports such as track have allowed area athletes to pick up where Whitaker left off and stake their claim as the Spring Fling's biggest headline makers each year.
Brainerd's Chantel Yates claimed nine individual state championships in track, and Baylor's Willie Idlette won nearly every event he entered in track, almost singlehandedly leading the Red Raiders to team titles in 2000 and 2002.
McCallie's Michael Bingham, who won 10 of 16 track events in which he competed in 2004 -- including the grueling decathlon -- later ran in the Olympics, representing Great Britain, where his father was born.
Howard sprinter LaQuisha Jackson, who never lost an individual event and claimed nine state titles, is now working toward her goal to become an Olympian as well. A freshman at San Diego State University, where she recently won conference titles in the 100, 200 and 4x400 and will compete in the NCAA regionals next week, first gained recognition by blistering the field at the Spring Fling as a freshman and sophomore, setting state records in the 100 and 200.
"I feel like the Spring Fling is really where my career began," Jackson said. "It's where it took off and where I got used to running and performing in front of thousands of people. The crowds would push me, and I'm sure all the other athletes in any sport, to do our best. Those nerves I would feel right before a race, and learning to use that to push myself, that's something I still use today.
"I think getting there is the goal for every athlete because it's the championship level. And once you're there, you want people to remember you and you want to leave with a lot of great memories that you can look back on. That's why years later a lot of us still get emotional about it.
"It's just a really special event and a really special time in my life. I'm sure everyone who has played in it feels the same."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
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 ...