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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / From left, McCallie football players Thomas Pilon, Aaron Crowder and Austin Breedlove carry the trophy to their teammates on Dec. 2 at Finley Stadium after the Blue Tornado beat MBA to win the TSSAA Division II-AAA state title for the third straight year.

After multiple seasons were canceled or interrupted by the coronavirus in 2020, sports — and fans in the stands — returned with renewed enthusiasm in 2021. The typical highs and lows of competition also returned to provide us with plenty of memorable storylines throughout the year.

Here are a few of the biggest sports stories either produced by Chattanooga-area teams and athletes, or by the teams most of our area follows, during 2021.

In January, Jeremy Pruitt's time as University of Tennessee football coach ended in disgrace when he, along with nine other members of his staff, were fired amid a "significant number" of NCAA violations, according to the university. Pruitt had a turbulent three seasons with the Volunteers that yielded a 16-19 record, including 3-7 in 2020 against a schedule consisting solely of Southeastern Conference opposition due to COVID-19. Pruitt wound up 0-9 against the rivalry trio of Alabama, Florida and Georgia by an average score of 42-16 during his tenure. By firing him with cause, the university was not responsible for his contract buyout of roughly $12 million.

Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Hunter Greene set a professional baseball velocity record with 37 pitches in excess of 100 mph. Greene set the record in the season opener at AT&T Field on May 5 and was later promoted from the Class AA Lookouts to Triple-A Louisville in the Cincinnati Reds system.

In May's TSSAA Spring Fling, led by TSSAA Division II-AA Mr. Baseball award winner Cooper Kinney, who was later drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, Baylor finished a 27-4 season with its third straight state title and fifth overall. Kinney batted .456 with nine home runs, 17 doubles, 44 RBIs and a .967 slugging percentage against a schedule that included six of the top 30 teams in the nation.

Not to be outdone by their classmates, the Lady Red Raiders softball team routed their way to a sixth consecutive state title on the same day — May 27. Facing Chattanooga rival GPS for the eighth straight time in the final, Baylor cruised to a 10-0 victory that capped a three-game run of outscoring tournament opposition by a combined 27-1. Junior Syd Berzon, who had been limited in the postseason due to a nagging turf toe injury, wore a cleat on her left foot that was a full size larger than the right to accommodate the two padded inserts and extra medical wrapping. She still allowed just two hits and struck out six batters, and Berzon also added two hits at the plate and a pair of RBIs as Baylor finished 26-1.

Former Baylor School golfer Harris English won twice on the PGA Tour and helped the United States defeat Europe at the Ryder Cup. English won the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua Resort in Hawaii in January, and in June he won the Travelers Championship with a birdie on the eighth playoff hole. At the Ryder Cup in September, English went 1-2-0 against European competition, but the U.S. team won 19-9.

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Chattanooga area's top sports stories of 2021

In November, for the first time since 1995, the Atlanta Braves won the World Series. Despite having to overcome numerous setbacks, including star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr.'s season-ending knee injury just before the All-Star break, the Braves made several key acquisitions that paid off during a second-half run to the postseason. The team entered August five games out of first place but used a nine-game winning streak to finally move its record above .500 for the first time all season and take over first place in the National League East. The Braves won the division for the fourth season in a row, and despite having fewer regular-season wins than any other team that qualified for this year's playoffs, they beat the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers to win the NL pennant, then won the World Series over the Houston Astros in six games.

On Dec. 2, the first of three days of TSSAA BlueCross Bowl state title games at Finley Stadium, and in front of one of the largest crowds at the event, McCallie became the fourth football program in the 25-year history of Division II to win three straight state championships in the state's largest private school classification. Led by senior quarterback William Riddle and a defense that allowed just 23 rushing yards in the second half, the Blue Tornado finished their first undefeated season since 2001 with a dominating 28-7 win over Montgomery Bell Academy. Only three of the wins were by fewer than 17 points, and Riddle, a Mr. Football finalist who threw for 43 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards for the season, was named the title game's MVP after completing 10 of 15 attempts for 172 yards and two scores.

One day later, South Pittsburg made it a clean sweep of area teams that had qualified for the BlueCross Bowl winning a state title. The Pirates capped what began as a tumultuous season with a storybook ending by upsetting previously unbeaten McKenzie 24-21.

That ending seemed out of the question when, after coaching only one game, Chris Jones abruptly quit as head coach to return to the Canadian Football League as an assistant. Jones, who had spent 25 of his 29 years as a coach working at the professional and collegiate levels, had been named the head coach at his high school alma mater in April, calling it his "dream job" at the time.

The Pirates recovered to reach the title game for the 13th time in program history. BlueCross Bowl MVP De'Andre Kelly, a Mr. Football finalist, ran for 177 yards and two scores as South Pittsburg rallied from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit to outscore McKenzie 24-0 until a Rebels touchdown with just more than a minute remaining provided the final margin. One week earlier, the Pirates had rallied from deficits of 14-0 in the first half and eight points in the fourth quarter to win a semifinal at Cloudland. The Pirates finished 11-2, with one of those losses to nationally ranked Oakland, the Murfreesboro program that went on to win its second straight TSSAA Class 6A title.

Days after Chattanooga wrapped up the first of its two-year deal with the TSSAA to host the BlueCross Bowl, the state's high school sports governing body pronounced the event a "home run" in the Scenic City. According to TSSAA figures, this year's games drew a greater overall attendance than any in the past five years. The total paid attendance for the three-day event at Finley Stadium was 27,052, which is nearly 7,000 more than last year and surpassed the 2019 total of 21,765, which was the largest over the previous five-year period when the event was held at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.

Former North Murray all-state athlete Ladd McConkey became an unlikely breakout star for the Georgia Bulldogs, including a five-catch, 135-yard performance in an Oct. 9 win over Auburn that was followed by Georgia taking over as the nation's top-ranked team. Heading into the upcoming national championship game, where the Bulldogs will face an Alabama team responsible for their only loss this season, McConkey ranks second on the team with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns.

Despite the exodus of 30 scholarship players who transferred after Pruitt was fired, UT football coach Josh Heupel pulled off an impressive 7-6 debut season. Heupel's up-tempo offense led the nation in plays per minute, scoring a program-record 511 total points. The Vols surpassed expectations by qualifying for a bowl game, falling in overtime to Purdue in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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