Spring is recognized as a time of rejuvenation and this year's Spring Fling is the surest sign that high school sports are back in full bloom.
Although the TSSAA has managed to hold state championship events since last fall, the combination of the number of competitors and fans — which will reach tens of thousands descending on the Murfreesboro area — along with relaxed crowd restrictions and mask mandates gives this week's tournament the feeling of a return to normalcy after all of last year's spring sports were canceled due to the pandemic.
Tennessee remains the only state in the nation to have a seven-sport Olympic-style spring sports championship tournament held in one location. As this year's Spring Fling gets underway Tuesday morning with track and field and team tennis, here are a few Chattanooga-area storylines to watch for this week:
Another red wave rising
Spring Fling week can quickly become irritating for anyone who isn't a Baylor supporter, simply because of the level of success by the school's athletes and teams. The bad news for those folks is that the red wave is building once again.
Baylor has dominated baseball and softball recently as the Red Raiders baseball team is going for its third consecutive state title and the softball team will look to claim its sixth straight crown. Another title for the Lady Red Raiders would tie them with Ezell-Harding (1990-95) and Goodpasture (2003-08) for most consecutive softball championships.
Senior Cooper Kinney is one of the state's three finalists for the Division II Mr. Baseball award and an astonishing total of 11 Red Raiders have already signed or committed to play college baseball, making them prohibitive favorites once again.
Add in the Lady Raiders tennis program, which will be going for its 10th straight title, and Baylor's soccer team is one of four semifinalists — along with rival McCallie — and this could become another banner week for the school. Baylor's 2018 soccer title is what stands between McCallie owning three straight championships and those two could wind up meeting once again in Thursday's championship match.
One of the biggest reasons for Chattanooga becoming the original host of the Spring Fling was the support for the softball state tournament, which for many years was held at Warner Park. This area has long been recognized for its dominance in the sport and that isn't expected to change this year as six area teams — at least one in four of the five classifications — advanced to the state tournament. The D-II AA bracket's four teams include three locals — Baylor, Chattanooga Christian and GPS.
At least one Chattanooga-area softball team has won a championship for each of the past 17 seasons. Since 2002 — the last time an area team did not play for a title — there have been 28 state champions and 23 runner-up finishes among area programs and eight different programs have claimed titles during that span, led by Baylor with 11, followed by GPS and Soddy-Daisy with five each.
Baseball's been barren
Aside from Baylor's recent D-II dominance, area baseball teams have not fared well at the state tournament. The Red Raiders own four titles since 2003 and McCallie (2014) is the only other local team with a baseball title this century. The last area public school to win a title was South Pittsburg in Class A in 1996, although Bradley Central did finish as AAA runner-up in 2019.
The Pirates are one of three local public-school teams to reach this year's state tournament, joined in AA by Signal Mountain, which has eight seniors on the roster, and McMinn County in AAA. Baylor and McCallie make up two of the four teams in the D-II AA bracket.
Off and running
Both Brainerd and McCallie got off to impressive starts in track's team standings after last week's state decathlon, which helped each take an early lead in their respective classification's points standings. Brainerd's Montez Deloney won the Small School decathlon and teammate Jaylyn Dupree finished third. The Panthers, who have three team titles with the last coming in 2007, qualified 13 athletes and two relay teams for this week.
McCallie's Michael May also won the decathlon title for D-II, followed by teammates Nicolas Robinson and Eric Rivers in third and fourth. The Blue Tornado has 19 individual qualifiers for Wednesday's D-II state meet as well as four relay teams.
McCallie has finished state runner-up seven times but has yet to win a team title in track, which along with basketball are the only two sports the school has never claimed a championship in.
The Signal Mountain girls are also a contender to win another team title in track. The Lady Eagles, winners of six championships in the past eight years, have an impressive 25 individual qualifiers and teams in all four relays. They're led by Kara Wilson, who finished second in the pentathlon and has the state's top qualifying time in the 200 meters and best qualifying distance in the triple jump.
Team TFP coverage
The Times Free Press will have stories online and in each day's edition all week from the Spring Fling. For updated coverage each day, follow reporters Gene Henley — @genehenley3 — as well as Patrick MacCoon — @PMacCoon — and Stephen Hargis — @StephenHargis — all week for updated scores and highlights from the Chattanooga area's teams and athletes competing. Chief photographer Robin Rudd — @RobinRudd5 — will also have photos and updates throughout the week.