For any retrospective of the Chattanooga area's sports scene in 2020, the losses far outweigh the success.
Both in terms of the lives of irreplaceable people and, as trivial as it sounds by comparison, the games themselves, too often the year produced a somber tone, due mostly to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The high school sports year began with area wrestling programs continuing their dominance in Tennessee as Baylor (Division II) and Cleveland (Class AAA) both added state duals and traditional tournament championships to already impressive stacks.
Just three weeks later, concerns about the coronavirus in mid-March caused the TSSAA to postpone the basketball state tournaments for public schools, the private tournaments having already been completed. Those postponements later turned to cancellations as high school sports governing bodies in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama also were forced to cancel all spring sports before those seasons had really begun.
The pandemic's impact would continue to alter prep athletics throughout the year, and although fall sports were played, even those seasons were drastically different.
Here are a few of the lasting images from local sports during the past year:
One week before basketball was shut down, Tyner's boys earned a dramatic one-point region tournament win over Red Bank when Melique Hambrick banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer. In the locker room afterward, Rams coach E'Jay Ward was overcome by emotion as he bowed his head in prayer. He then explained how he believed his team had won.
"One of the first things I thought of after that shot was Javon (Craddock)," Ward said, referring to the late Tyner player who had tragically died from a heart condition during a pickup game in May 2018 after his sophomore season. "He would've been a huge part of this celebration. He's still a part of this team. A huge part of all of us. I believe Javon made sure that shot went in."
East Hamilton's Madison Hayes won every possible basketball award during her senior season, including becoming Hamilton County's first public school girls' player selected as a McDonald's All American. She was also named the Gatorade player of the year in Tennessee and Miss Basketball for TSSAA Class AAA before signing with Mississippi State.
Cleveland guard JaCobi Wood, who signed with Belmont, was selected Mr. Basketball in AAA after leading the Blue Raiders to a 33-1 season that included holding the classification's No. 1 state ranking all season.
Any flickering hopes that the Blue Raiders would be allowed to play in the state tournament, or that spring sports would be played at all, were extinguished April 16 when the TSSAA announced its decision to cancel athletics for the remainder of the school year. In addition to ending the high school playing careers of thousands of seniors across the state, it cost the TSSAA more than $1.1 million in lost revenue.
Sports at all levels remained dormant for much of the summer, and the pandemic threatened to take away high school football season as well. However, in late July the TSSAA, working with Gov. Bill Lee's office, announced a plan that would allow teams to begin working out and salvage the season, albeit with limited fans and the realization that games would be canceled along the way due to COVID-19.
Hamilton County athletic director Brad Jackson praised the decision when it was announced: "The hardest part of this situation is weighing the physical concerns with COVID-19 compared with the negative affects of kids not being able to have the security of their normal routine, and that includes playing sports."
After much fretting from prep sports supporters, the fall seasons did begin on time and, although some state qualifiers were forced to forfeit because of the virus, were even completed through championship rounds. More than 100 prep football games statewide wound up being canceled, including one of the state's oldest rivalries — Marion County versus South Pittsburg, which was not played for the first time since 1954.
South Pittsburg and Meigs County had impressive seasons that ended with state runner-up finishes in their respective classifications, and McCallie, which had to delay the start of its season due to 11 players testing positive for the coronavirus, put together an impressive playoff run that included a 44-0 win against Memphis University School for the Division II-AAA title.
Three area teams — Chattanooga Christian, Howard and McMinn County — had their seasons end unfortunately by having playoff games canceled due to the coronavirus.
The area also suffered through more than its share of losing legendary coaches and prominent sports figures.
It began in February with the death of longtime McCallie athletic director Bill Cherry, who was one of the most influential sports administrators in the state. Cherry began his career at McCallie in 1970 as a football assistant and became AD three years later, remaining in that role until 2008. He helped carry Division II schools through the public-private split in 1997, and the school's sports team meeting room is named in his honor.
Days later, a young man who was just beginning to make an impact on the youth sports community, Volonte Bell, was killed in a car crash. Bell, 29, was a 2009 Central High School graduate and the older brother of former Ridgeland star and current NFL safety Vonn Bell. He was in his third year of working on the Chattanooga State basketball coaching staff.
Award-winning former Chattanooga Times sports writer Buck Johnson passed away in June at the age of 94. He taught for 30 years in the Hamilton County school system and earned numerous coach of the year awards for baseball, football and girls' basketball. He worked at the Times for 43 years, and after retiring from education in 1979, he served as sports editor for 17 years.
We lost three hall of fame coaches in the span of a month, beginning in mid-November with the sudden death of Clifford Kirk, who built three Hamilton County softball programs (Hixson, Sale Creek and Soddy-Daisy) into state tournament regulars while winning more than 1,100 games and 10 state championships.
One week later, legendary former East Ridge High School coach and administrator Catherine Neely, known to the thousands of girls who played for her simply as "Mama Cat," died due to complications from the coronavirus.
Neely coached volleyball for 50 years and girls' basketball for 43, also serving as East Ridge's athletic director for 20 years, and the school's gym is named in her honor. In her remarkable career, Neely became the first female in Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. Her teams won nearly 1,400 volleyball matches and two state titles, and she also won more than 600 games as a basketball coach.
Days later, Tom Weathers, who coached Red Bank's football program for 29 years, also died after a lengthy illness. He won 222 games and guided the 2000 Lions to a 15-0 record and the Class 5A state championship.
"What a tremendous loss. Particularly for the Chattanooga area, but really for high school athletics in our entire state," former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter said after the loss of the three coaching legends.
As the year comes to an end, the Hamilton County school system and several surrounding counties have paused the winter prep sports season. Athletes and teams for basketball and wrestling are currently not allowed to practice or play games, a postponement that will be evaluated again on Monday, Jan. 4.
Whether those sports will resume locally depends, to use a phrase that would have seemed strange at the end of 2019, on where the coronavirus numbers are at that time.