By ALEX PODLOGAR and RYAN SARDA
Death, taxes — and the Lee County Yellow Jackets’ gymnastics team winning a state championship.
Those seem to be the three constants in life in Lee County. But you can always count on surprises and heroics as well, and in 2009, the local sports landscape was covered with them. There were staggering acheivements by teams, dazzling displays of individual athleticism and, of course, the sting of controversy.
Here are the 10 biggest sports stories in Lee County from 2009, counting down from 10 all the way to No. 1.
10 Carolina Trace hosts U.S. Women’s Open qualifer; youngest player in Open field qualifies from Trace
The past and the furture were on full display at Carolina Trace in June.
Ashleigh Albrecht, a day after two-putting for birdie to win a playoff, graduated from high school after she was one of six players to earn entry via Trace’s sectional qualifier into the U.S. Women’s Open.
Yueer “Cindy” Feng, though, won’t have to worry about wearing a cap and gown or hearing “Pomp and Circumstance” for five more years.
But both were in the field at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Penn., for the U.S Women’s Open in July, where they probably ran into 49-year-old LPGA Tour veteran Rosie Jones.
Feng, who turned 13 in February, tied for the low round of the qualifier with a 4-under-par 68 in the afternoon to follow a morning round of 76 and finished at even par 144, becoming the youngest player to play in the Open in 2009.
Jones was one of the first players to finish at Trace and seemed to have more trouble deciding what to do about dinner than whether her score would be good enough.
“I haven’t had to qualify for anything for a long time. I think the last time I was at a sectional for the Open was when I was 22 years old. And 27 years later, I just thought, what the heck, I’ll try it one more time.”
Trace will host a sectional qualifier again in 2010.
9 Grace Christian soccer finishes third in state
It had been half a decade since the Crusaders were mentioned in the same breath with any of the NCCSA soccer state championship contenders.
But they played their way back into the top echelon of the league in 2009, earning the West Conference’s No. 1 seed after winning 14 straight games to start the season to quickly emerge as one of the teams to beat.
Grace Christian fell a round short, though, tripping in the state semifinals in Wilmington to finish third. The Crusaders finished the season with a strong second-place performance in the NACA Tournament in Dayton, Tenn., and Grace Christian was the only squad to beat state champion Alamance Christian twice in 2009.
8 Grace Christian girls’ basketball finishes as state runner-up
The Grace Christian Lady Crusaders finished as the NCCSA State runner-up for the fifth time in the last nine years after falling 59-41 to three-time defending state champion Wake Christian in the NCCSA girls’ state tournament finals on Saturday at host Friendship Christian.
Still, the run was quite an achievement. The Crusaders, who won the state title in 2003, made their sixth trip to the final game under coach Joel Murr, despite using a starting five that included two freshmen and three sophomores.
But the West champions didn’t have enough against the dynastic Bulldogs, who were led by Emily Buffaloe, who finished with 20 points, four assists and foul steals with no turnovers.
7 Kenneth Lindsay finishes as state runner-up in 3-A wrestling 215- pounds
This was one of the most impressive athletic acheivements in the area in a long time, and it was one that no one could say he or she saw coming just two years ago.
Not even Lindsay himself.
The Southern Lee wrestler, who came to the sport just two years ago, finished an improbable season as the state runner-up in the 215-pound weight class in the NCHSAA 3-A Wrestling Tournament at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in February. This after leading the Southern Lee Cavaliers to conference and league tournament titles.
Lindsay lost by major decision, 17-11, to West Carteret’s Dereck Holloman, who came into the state tournament ranked second in the state in the division for 3-A wrestling. Holloman improved to 48-3 on the season.
“It’s amazing,” former Cavaliers coach Mike Short said of Lindsay’s performance. “With football and everything, Ken’s probably only had a total of eight months of mat time. He’s really kind of limited in his experience and only knows so many moves. Had he been wrestling four or five years like a lot of these guys, he’d be unstoppable.”
6 Lee County Gymnastics Three-peat
Of course they won again. It’s what they do.
The Lee County gymnastics team edged Enloe at the Division II State Championship meet in late January to win its third consecutive state title at the Raleigh School of Gymnastics.
The Yellow Jackets finished with 152.15 total points and Enloe finished with 150.475 to help the Jackets win their cherished three-peat.
“Right off the bat, I knew we’d have some tough competition,” said head coach Kathy McLeod-Edwards, who took over as coach this season after Aimee Petrarca left to pursue a principal internship. “I think the girls were confident and were focused but I also think they were a little nervous because they realized they had some tough competition.”
On top of winning as a team, Lee County also crowned two state champions of its own as Alyssa Krol and Rebekah Jackson each won their respective individual events.
5 Akeem Richmond caps his prep career, signs with Rhode Island
After a prolonged recruiting process that had its roots when Richmond was starring for West Lee Middle School, Richmond made his announcement at Southern Lee High School in late April.
“It’s been a long journey, a long recruiting process,” Richmond said as family members, teammates and fellow students looked on in the crowded school library. “My final schools were Western Kentucky, South Florida, Rhode Island and Charlotte, and today I’ve chosen to attend Rhode Island.”
Dressed nattily in a navy blue shirt and a light blue tie — Rams’ colors that hinted at Richmond’s chosen destination before he made his long-awaited announcement — Richmond signed his name on his national letter of intent, officially ending a sojourn that was equal parts joyous and tedious.
“It’s a blessing that I’ve been able to go through this, but it feels like a huge weight is lifted off my shoulders,” Richmond said. It’s a big relief, and now I’m just very happy.”
Richmond, a three-time All-State selection in his four years at Southern Lee, led North Carolina in scoring this season after averaging 29.2 points per game. He finished his career with the Cavaliers setting the bar for every player who follows him extremely high. He has authored the program’s record book, leading the team to the East Regional semifinals in his sophomore season and to the sectional finals in his junior and senior seasons. The Cavaliers won three straight Cape Fear Valley Conference regular season and tournament championships and qualified for the postseason in all four seasons — the only four seasons in Southern Lee history.
Richmond finished with 2,846 points, ranking amongst the most prolific prep scorers in state history. And later in the year — early in his freshman season with the Rams — Richmond was named Atlantic 10 Conference Rookie of the Week.
4 Southern Lee soccer enjoys historic season
Cavaliers coach Jason Burman had no regrets.
Despite an undefeated season ending in heartbreak, the Southern Lee soccer team finished with the best record in school history and a Cape Fear Valley Conference championship, which are two things the team can build on for the future.
The Cavaliers lost 5-0 to Chapel Hill in November in the third round of the 3-A state playoffs, ending an undefeated season and a shot at winning the school’s first state championship in history.
Still, Burman had nothing but pride for his team, which finished the regular season with an undefeated record, a conference title, two tournament wins and still has the bulk of its team coming back next year.
“I’m very proud of this team and all that we accomplished,” said Burman. “We outperformed our own expectations this year and had a stellar season. Unfortunately, we didn’t go as far as we wanted to but I’m still very proud of everything that we accomplished this year.”
The eighth-ranked Cavaliers won six matches by six or more goals and scored 96 goals this year. They also shut out 13 teams during the season and were led by a bevy of stars, including All-State senior Jake Brower.
3 Robert Sandidge leads nation in goals scored
In the end, he will spend just one year at Lee Christian after transferring from Fayetteville as a rising senior.
But he put the Falcons on the map.
Just about every week, there was reason to add another honor to Robert Sandidge’s growing list of accolades. That reason — his brilliant goal-scoring that led the Falcons into the NCCSA playoffs.
The biggest acclaim came in October, when Sandidge was named as the ESPN RISE National Soccer Player of the Week by espn.com following the conclusion to his season.The senior forward for Lee Christian completed his one year with the Falcons with 12 hat tricks and a staggering 66 goals, tops in not just North Carolina, but in the nation. He also had 31 assists and helped Lee Christian advance to the NCCSA state tournament quarterfinals.
Not surprisingly, Sandidge was also recognized at the NCCSA state championship as the league’s Player of the Year after being a unanimous selection by the coaches in the NCCSA for the All-State team.
2 Burton Cates joins Lee County
First, there were rumors circulating that legendary Eastern Randolph coach Burton Cates, who led the Wildcats to 19 state playoff appearances and the state 3-AA championship in 2006 was interested in the Lee County job, left vacant by Jody Stouffer’s abrupt resignation.
And then, in March, the rumors became reality, giving Lee County an established coaching royal at the helm for the Yellow Jackets.
“I just think that at this point in my career, you’re always looking for new challenges, and I think Lee County is just the right fit right now for taking on a challenge,” Cates said when he was hired. “There are also people at Lee County who will do everything possible for the football coach and for the football program to be successful.”
Success had been hard to come by recently for the Yellow Jackets, who advanced to the East 4-A Regional final in former coach Jody Stouffer’s first season in 2005. Lee County missed the postseason in the last two seasons under Stouffer, combining for just five wins.
While the Jackets missed the playoffs again in Cates’ first season in 2009, he has a long history of success on the gridiron. In the four seasons before 2008, Eastern Randolph was a combined 46-10, advancing to the state title game in 2005 before winning the championship a year later.
In his 25 years as a head coach, Cates’ career record is 236-81, a .744 winning percentage. Cates has led teams to nine conference titles and 12 league runner-up finishes. He is 34-18 in the postseason and was the 2006 recipient of the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s Harvey Reid Male Coach of the Year award.
1 Bill Maczko Saga
It wasn’t the best story of the year, but it was the biggest.
Maczko didn’t last a year.
The tumultuous short tenure of the first-year Southern Lee football coach ended officially in May —362 days after he was hired. Maczko, who beat out two Cavaliers’ assistant coaches for the head job, finished his one season at the Southern Lee helm 1-9, the lone victory coming against rival Lee County.
The embattled coach was the target of upset parents of Southern Lee football players before his only season in charge even finished. In January, Thomas Shoop, the father of junior defensive end Blade Shoop, made a presentation to the school board charging that Maczko bullied his son and peppered him with verbal abuse.
Before Shoop’s remarks to the board, and near the end of the football season, a petition detailing parents’ concerns over what they considered abusive behavior was circulated and delivered to the Southern Lee administration.
To date, the school has never given a reason for Maczko’s removal as the coach, and moved on three weeks later when it hired Eric Puryear as the program’s new leader.
Honorable mentions: Lee County football coach Jody Stouffer resigns, ends up at Campbell; Lee Christian boys basketball finishes third in state; Central Carolina Cougars’ men’s basketball team is ranked for first time; local young golfer Jack Radley collects more tournament wins, sets Sanford Golf Course course record; Southern Lee wrestling wins conference regular season and tournament crowns; Former Yellow Jackets quarterback Mike Stryffeler thrives at tight end at Campbell.