Even a quick reflection on the year in sports in 2007 brings to mind hallowed records in question, dogs fighting to the death and a pursuit of perfection that may or may not have had its origins in spying from the sidelines.
Those were among the top stories in sports nationwide. But a look back at the events on the sports landscape in Lee County shows that our area was not without its own share of triumphs and controversies.
Here is one man’s look at 10 of the biggest stories from the year in sports, Lee County style. (Honorable mentions include but by no means are limited to: Grace Christian’s run to the NCCSA state basketball finals, Lee Christian’s 9-0 start to the basketball season, the N.C. Women’s Amateur at Carolina Trace and Carson Lanier’s winning of the Brick Capital Classic golf tournament.)
10 When Appalachian State’s Julian Rauch lined up to kick the fateful field goal that would stun the world of college football in its opening week, a touch of Sanford was right there with him on the turf at Michigan’s famed Big House.
Settling to take the snap and spot the ball was Sanford native Hunter Stewart, who caught the ball cleanly, spun the laces and jumped emphatically as Rauch’s kick sailed through the uprights, signaling the beginning of what would turn out to be one of the wildest college football seasons on record.
“Once you get a hand on the ball and make the catch, the rest of it is normally pretty easy,” Stewart said in September. “You just get it down, spin the laces and let it go.”
And it went. Right through the uprights, giving the Mountaineers a stunning 34-32 win over fifth-ranked Michigan.
In December, Stewart celebrated a third straight national championship.
9 Less than a week after being cleared initially of any wrongdoing, a Sanford-based Little League team was denied entry to the state tournament after it was disqualified from play in July.
The Central Carolina All-Stars believed they had locked up the District 6 championship to advance to the state tournament and compete for the right to advance further in Little League play, possibly all the way to Williamsport, Penn.
But that dream was derailed after officials in Williamsport ruled that Central Carolina had played in the district tournament with an ineligible player.
“I hate it for the kids,” said coach Greg Oldham at the time. “For adults to take over something like this, it’s tragic.”
8 After two years of coming close, the Grace Christian baseball team finally captured an elusive state championship.
The Crusaders, backed by the sturdy arms of Peyton Spivey and Aaron Scott and the power of Josh Phillips, defeated Wake Christian on the Bulldogs’ home field to win the NCCSA 3-A title after coming up agonizingly short the two previous seasons with losses in the semifinals.
7 Madeline Edwards and the Lee County Yellow Jackets’ gymnastics team stuck their landings.
Edwards, who won the state individual state championship based on her all-around scores in her sophomore season two years ago, successfully defended her title in 2007. But this time Edwards also helped the Jackets capture the team state championship in Division II.
6 To be sure, this wasn’t the football season Lee County running back Jay Hollingsworth had envisioned when the team was going through its first practices in early August.
Hollingsworth, who committed to play for Duke in 2007, was often the best player on the field when he played.
The problem was, Hollingsworth suffered through a back injury that limited his playing time throughout the season, and the Jackets missed the state playoffs.
Still, Hollingsworth’s prep career ended on a high note with a start in the Shrine Bowl for North Carolina’s all-star team.
“This experience was definitely something that I’ll never forget,” Hollingsworth said. “Probably more tiring than any week or my life, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It was amazing week.”
5 The New England Patriots have nothing on Southern Lee wrestler Mike Williams.
While the Pats are still seeking perfection, Williams achieved it in winning the state 3-A championship at 140 pounds in 2007.
Williams was never threatened on the mat. The transfer from New Jersey put on a display few could match, completing the season with an unblemished record and a state title. Unknown and unranked before the season began, Williams opened his season 14-0 with a staggering 148-0 advantage in points.
By the time the season ended with another opponent on his back, Williams was 48-0. Entering the semifinals, he held a 394-5 advantage in points.
There’s dominance, then there’s Mike Williams in 2007.
4 Over the summer, the Lee County Yellow Jackets decided to try to move forward by looking back.
After Randy Yates, a 30-year veteran coach of many sports, resigned as the Jackets’ head basketball coach following a trying season that included the early-season transfer of his best player, Lee County turned to former coach Reggie Peace to retake the reins of the program.
Peace, who brought the Jackets to the brink of a state championship five years ago, had been coaching in Greensboro after leaving Lee County in 2004.
But his roots remained strong in the area, and when the position opened, he jumped at the opportunity to lead Lee County into a new era of basketball, an era that now includes two public high schools.
3 Second-year programs aren’t supposed to have this much success this early.
But Southern Lee’s football team didn’t need a blueprint. Instead, the Cavaliers built on the success from their inaugural season with a second trip to the state playoffs.
Along the way, Southern Lee knocked off rival Lee County 32-17 in the second Brick City Bowl as junior sensation Raymond Brown romped for a school-record 273 yards.
Following a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, the Cavaliers closed strong, winning three of their last four regular season games before pulling off the state’s biggest upset in the first round of the playoffs, stunning Cape Fear Valley Conference champion and No. 2 seed South Johnston 24-21.
“These kids are amazing. And they’ve done amazing things all year,” said Cavaliers coach Bryan Lee following the playoff victory, the first in the school’s brief history. “And one of the most amazing things they did was that they came to practice this week, and it didn’t matter to them that they were a No. 15 seed. It didn’t matter that most of them were just second-year varsity football players and it didn’t matter that they had to go on the road to face the No. 2 seed.
“I’m just elated, but it hasn’t really sunk in yet. We did it. That team over there was our conference’s champ, and they’re putting their equipment up for the year. I don’t mean any disrespect by that, but it’s incredible to think that we made that happen.”
2 If the Southern Lee football team had a big year, the basketball team had a huge year.
Led by All-State player Akeem Richmond, the Cavaliers stormed through the Cape Fear Valley Conference to easily win the league’s regular season and tournament titles. Southern Lee was a perfect 15-0 at home, knocked off rival Lee County twice and advanced all the way to the east region semifinals in the program’s second season.
Southern Lee won the sectional championship a round after getting a buzzer-beating bucket from Darrell Alston in the second round that sent a packed gym into pandemonium as fans spilled onto the floor to celebrate with the players.
The Cavaliers’ run ended against top-ranked Kinston, but not before Southern Lee took a lead into the half.
“I’m very proud of the effort of my kids,” Cavaliers coach Chris Cherry said after the tight loss. “Obviously, Kinston is the No. 1 team in the state for a reason, but if they’re No. 1, we can’t be too far behind.”
1 No story created more buzz or more controversy in 2007 than the one that had its origins in December 2006.
Freshman Damien Steadman showed glimpses of what he was capable of both on the football field and on the hardwood, scoring 20 points in his varsity basketball debut for the Lee County Yellow Jackets.
But three games into his first hoops season, Steadman walked out of Lee County High School and enrolled at Southern Lee, sparking a dramatic series of events that kept the young star in limbo for almost all of 2007.
In January 2007, Steadman was ruled ineligible to play basketball for the Cavaliers, or for anybody else, and undisclosed personal issues kept him off the football field and off the basketball court until the latter stages of the year.
On Dec. 19, Steadman took part in his first varsity basketball practice in 54 weeks, and finally played for the Cavaliers for the first time at the Wachovia Holiday Classic in High Point on Thursday, Dec. 27.
“He had some personal issues that needed to be resolved, and they have been,” Cherry said with 11 days left in 2007, “so we welcomed him to the basketball team.”
Steadman’s journey in Lee County sports will continue into 2008. Who the biggest newsmakers for the upcoming year are will reveal themselves soon enough.