All in all, 2011 wasn’t the greatest year in sports. Labor strife dominated the conversation much of the year and the ugliest collegiate scandal of all time gutted the reputation of college football’s all-time winningest head coach and has shaken some skeletons out of other closets as well.
Seriously, the Penn State saga over the university’s unresponsiveness to sickening child molestation charges against a former assistant coach is so reprehensible it can’t help but be the lingering impression of the year in sports. That a monster like Jerry Sandusky could remain a constant presence on campus for nine years after a former quarterback witnessed him raping a 10-year-old boy in the football team’s shower room is incomprehensible. As sorry as many people are that it sullied the legacy Joe Paterno built as a coach, it’s inexcusable that the most powerful man on campus in State College, Pa., didn’t do enough to safeguard the kind of defenseless young boys he went into kitchens promising moms he would take care of if they played football at Penn State.
But there was plenty of good mixed in with the bad in 2011 sports. In this region, it was the same kind of mixed bag that will be remembered. Kind of like the late local newscasts that mingle tales of mayhem and glory at the top of the hour, here’s my 11 for ’11 of regional interest:
1. Braves meltdown. Seems fitting that the top tale to fans around here was a month-long decent into oblivion by Atlanta. The Braves were such an uplifting story for five months that included a compelling hitting streak by Dan Uggla after a shameful start. But after building a seemingly insurmountable 10.5-game lead in the wildcard race by late August, everything collapsed. The bats dried up. The bullpen fell apart. Derek Lowe’s arm went AWOL. It all led to an epic confluence of Game 162s that may have been the most memorable regular season conclusion in major-league history with the Braves and Red Sox identical September meltdowns giving rise to postseason opportunities for the Cardinals and Rays. That St. Louis rode its new life all the way to an epic World Series rally on enhanced the anguish of Braves fans.
2. Back-to-back Jags. Last year’s top story would have reclaimed the crown if the Braves hadn’t been such a drawn-out disaster, but Augusta State’s NCAA golf title defense wasn’t second-rate in any way. In fact, it was probably even grander than its 2010 shocker in that it dramatically defeated top-ranked Oklahoma State on its home course and then handed a talent-rich Georgia squad about the only defeat any of its all-star players experienced all year. Those Jaguars (including unbeaten match-play ace Patrick Reed) carved a special place for themselves and the program in collegiate golf history.
3. Good news Bears. The formation of a new football dynasty was completed in Burke County. Building on a Class AAA state semifinal appearance last year, Eric Parker’s Bears went all the way this time with a Corey Mayton/Donquell Green-led offensive juggernaut that scored the third most points in Georgia history (666) and steamrolled Peach County in the Georgia Dome. It was Parker’s first state title as a coach and Burke County’s first championship since former glory under the Waynesboro banner in 1957.
4. Gamecocks repeat. While the football team didn’t quite fulfill its predicted promise, the South Carolina baseball team exceeded itself in consecutive College World Series triumphs. The Gamecocks opened the new TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., to same way it closed Rosenblatt Stadium the year before. Only this time, the Gamecocks were unchallenged in sweeping undefeated through the NCAA Tournament including an epic 13-inning showdown that ousted top-seeded Virginia in the CWS to earn a spot against SEC rival Florida in the final. In the last two seasons, South Carolina has won a record 16 consecutive postseason games including a record 11 straight in the CWS.
5. Epic Masters Sunday. With all due respect to the Jack Nicklaus triumphs in 1986 and ’75 that are considered all-time Augusta National classics, there has never been a Masters Tournament conclusion as wild and wide-open as 2011. Ten players had a chance to seize the green jacket on the back nine. Rory McIlroy flamed out spectacularly and Tiger Woods fizzled, but a host of others were eliciting almost unending roars with birdies and eagles in droves. South African Charl Schwartzel fittingly ended it with a record four consecutive birdies to win on the 50th anniversary of Gary Player’s international breakthrough triumph.
6. Georgia football revival. Just when everybody was ready to bury the Bulldogs and head coach Mark Richt after an 0-2 start on the heels of a 6-7 season, Georgia rattled off 10 consecutive wins to claim the SEC East title and seriously threatened No. 1 LSU in the title game before it got away from them. The Bulldogs are primed to contend for conference and national titles in 2012.
7. Orange Tigers. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s seat was hotter than Richt’s at the end of 2010, but the hiring of offensive coordinator Chad Morris and the influx of superstar talent like Sammy Watkins turned everything around. A couple of disturbing late-season losses including a non-competitive effort against rival South Carolina aside, the Tigers undressed Virginia Tech twice to win its first ACC championship in 20 years and return to the Orange Bowl for the first time in 30.
8. R.I.P damn good Dogs. Just six months after retiring and only a few days after the death of his beloved wife, Anne, the legendary Thomson football coach Luther Welsh succumbed to cancer himself in July. Welsh, who devoted his life to building young men and along the way brought three state titles to the Bulldogs, deserves to have the field at The Brickyard gets named in his honor. Then in November came the news that all-time gravelly voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, Larry Munson, passed away. Hunker down, Bulldogs.
9. Warren County assault. After defeating Hancock Central on the road, Warren County head coach David Daniel got brutally assaulted by an opposing player wielding a helmet during a postgame confrontation. A lot of questions remain unanswered after local authorities in Sparta, Ga., seemed to be obstructing an investigation. It was a very dark chapter in what is supposed to be a character-building game.
10. Q school of hard knocks. One of the great local golf stories of all time came up one cruel stroke short of a fantasy conclusion when mini-tour journeyman Scott Parel, 46, nearly secured his dream after a 14-year chase. The 15th year with start on the Nationwide Tour instead of the PGA Tour, but the Aquinas grad’s unyielding quest is still alive.
11. Falcons letdown. After securing homefield advantage and raising everyone’s hopes, Atlanta’s NFL franchise extended the city’s mostly frustrating postseason woes with an embarrassing beatdown by the Green Bay Packers. At least fans will be prepared for what’s to come in this year’s playoffs when 2012 gets started.