Memorable sports moments of 2012

December 30, 2012 

Tim Stevens: 'American Idol' on the mound

Scotty McCreery was thinking about his senior season of high school baseball long before he was crowned as the 2011 winner of the television talent show “American Idol.”

McCreery had played on the Garner High junior varsity baseball team in the spring of 2010 and had played with the Garner club that summer before the “Idol” season got started. He was so successful on “Idol” that he missed the entire 2011 baseball season and the spring semester of school.

But the plan he and his parents devised was for him to turn away from industry advice to get a GED and get to work.  They wanted him to graduate from his hometown school and somehow find a way to play high school baseball.

“I still want to have a senior year in high school and play some baseball. It's something I've always wanted to do," McCreery said.

Judy McCreery said the senior season of baseball was important to the family.

“One, he loves the sport,” she said. “Two, he's  competitive, even though on the surface he comes across as a very low key, laid back kind of guy. Three, he LOVES the camaraderie...being connected to a group. He's a very social creature....Scotty's not the type to be the life of the party or the class clown, but he wants to be in the middle of the buzz and surrounded by action.  

“As a parent, I thought it was extremely important for him emotionally and socially to be connected to a normal, teenage peer group.”

His mother knew there was a chance that the baseball season would be a difficult one for her son, who had been away from baseball for more than a year. He was sure to be heckled some and the potential for failure was great.

“His confidence and bravery is just part of his DNA,” she said. “I would think to myself after every Idol performance,

"Scotty is the bravest person I know.  To put yourself on live TV at 17 and be subject to public humiliation... I certainly couldn't do it.”

Garner coach Derek Goffena knew he wanted to have McCreery around, but he iniitally had doubts about whether would be effective as a pitcher. By the end of the 2012 season, McCreery was the 15-10 club’s most reliable pitcher.

"At the beginning of the year, I thought Scott might be able to give up a handful of useful innings, but he emerged as a very effective pitcher,” Goffena said. “I knew he would compete, but I had no idea he would be this effective."

The climatic moment came when McCreery faced his first batter in a non-conference game against Fuquay-Varina on a Saturday afternoon.

Judy McCreery was nervous because local television stations were filming every moment.

His first pitch was a strike. And another strike. And he had struck out the first batter he faced.

His mom, who often worked in the concession stand, put on her sunglasses so that everyone wouldn’t see her tears.

Andrew Carter: Bernard’s breakaway highlight finish

During his short time at North Carolina, Giovani Bernard had grown used to tears after football games against N.C. State. But not like this.

“I saw guys crying,” Bernard said that Saturday, after the Tar Heels’ dramatic 43-35 victory against N.C. State. “I mean, it was different from last year, years before, where guys were crying tears of sadness.”

Six years. That’s how long it had been, before Oct. 27, since UNC had beaten N.C. State. UNC players came and went without ever experiencing a victory against their most impassioned rival. Coaches came and went. Five seasons of anguish, frustration and disappointment. Five seasons of hearing it from co-workers, friends, family members, neighbors.

And then came Oct. 27 at Kenan Stadium. At last, the day that Larry Fedora had been anticipating since the day he became the Tar Heels’ coach.

Ineligible for the postseason, UNC didn’t have a bowl game this season. The Heels didn’t have a chance to play for the ACC championship.

The always-meaningful game against N.C. State, then, took on even more meaning.

It was one to remember even before the final seconds. Up tempo. Back and forth. Full of momentum changes and highlights.

The Wolfpack had possession with less than one minute to play, a chance to break a 35-35 tie and extend UNC’s misery. It would have been N.C. State’s longest winning streak in the history of the series.

But the Tar Heels’ defense, awful at times this season, forced a punt. Bernard fielded it at UNC’s 26-yard line. He took a step back, ran right and used a wall of blockers to find room on the right sideline. It all happened so quickly, before it became clear no one would catch him.

Bernard said the tears came to him somewhere toward to end of his 74-yard dash to the end zone.

Ron Green, Jr.: U.S. Open champ Simpson and recycling day

When you see someone in sports do something extraordinary, it’s difficult not to think of them as somehow different than the rest of us.

They are different, at least in their skill level.

But spending a day with Webb Simpson, just two weeks after his U.S. Open victory at the Olympic Club, was a reminder of how much the athletes at which we marvel are like the rest of us.

Simpson was going to Greensboro for a Wyndham Championship media day appearance, promoting the event that had been his first PGA Tour victory nearly one year earlier.

When I arrived at Simpson’s south Charlotte home at approximately 6:30 a.m., the U.S. Open champion was carrying his silver U.S. Open trophy through his garage.

He put the trophy on the garage floor and then rolled his garbage can and recycling bin to the street like everyone else on his block that day.

Simpson checked to see if it was a recycling week, admitting he loses track of which weeks both bins go to the street.

With his garbage cans in place, Simpson grabbed the trophy and tucked into the back seat of an SUV for the ride to Greensboro, the trophy at his feet in the floorboard.

We stopped at Chick-Fil-A going and coming, the national champion of American golf standing in line to order his sandwich.

On the ride to and from Greensboro, Simpson talked about sports, told stories about himself, did some business with his agent, autographed photos to be mailed out, contemplated his playing schedule and touched base with his then-pregnant wife, Dowd, back home.

Back in Charlotte by mid-afternoon, Simpson planned to get a workout in and then spend a quiet evening with the family.

After he rolled the garbage cans back in place.

Scott Fowler: Dean Smith said Coach K could bring home the gold

I was fortunate to be sent to London this summer to cover the Olympics, focusing my stories mostly on the athletes and coaches from North Carolina. I ended up covering a number of the U.S. men’s basketball games there because Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was coaching the team for the second Olympics in a row.

After the U.S. won the gold medal 107-100 over Spain in a victory keyed by LeBron James, I asked Jerry Colangelo – the chairman of USA Basketball – about something I had heard regarding former UNC coach Dean Smith and Coach K.

Colangelo had been charged with helping the U.S. men’s team rise from the ashes of the 2004 Olympic squad. That team had been coached by Larry Brown and had lost three times in Greece after many top NBA players found convenient excuses not to play.

Brown obviously wasn’t going to get to return after a bronze medal. So Colangelo started asking lots of basketball people who should next coach the team in 2008. One of those he asked at a meeting in Chicago was Smith, who had directed the 1976 U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal (that was back when the U.S. used only college players – Smith put four of his Tar Heels on the squad).

Colangelo showed Smith a blackboard filled with possible head coaches from the NBA and college ranks.

“Dean Smith said there’s only one college guy up there who I believe can get the job done, and that’s Coach K,” Colangelo recounted. “Which was really a statement, coming from his biggest rival.”

Coach K was recommended by many others, too, of course. But that one carried particular weight with Colangelo. And Smith was right – Coach K sure got the job done.

Krzyzewski ended up leading the U.S. men’s team to a 62-1 overall record as their head coach while still keeping Duke basketball at its normal height on the mountaintop. He said after these Olympics that he won’t return as coach for the 2016 Summer Games.

Even coming back for a second Olympic stint in 2012 carried quite a risk, because America shrugs when you win gold medals in basketball and rants when you don’t. But Krzyzewski felt the pull of patriotism. And ultimately, he was able to ride off into a golden sunset, capping one of the best moments of the 2012 Summer Games.

Joe Giglio: Winning, but not enough

You have to make hay while the sun shines.

I wrote that on Nov. 29, 2010, a day after a loss to Maryland kept N.C. State out of the ACC title game. Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien did not care for that particular turn of phrase and explained as much to me.

“The sun is going to shine for a long time,” O’Brien said then.

Almost two years to the day, the sun set on O’Brien’s tenure at N.C. State. Dismissed after a 7-5 finish in 2012, on the heels of an 8-5 season in 2011, O’Brien won but not enough to keep his job.

Former N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler hired O’Brien after the 2006 season to build a clean program and win the right way. O’Brien went 40-35 in six seasons and his program was unburdened by the kinds of scandals that have plagued North Carolina.

Neither the NCAA nor UNC was O’Brien’s undoing, despite this year’s crushing loss on Gio Bernard’s spectacular punt return, rather the former Marine ended up being his own worst enemy.

The same N.C. State team that beat ACC champion and then-No. 3 Florida State in October, lost on the same field to 4-8 Virginia in November.

The previous season was bookended with the same inconsistency – a win over ACC champion Clemson but a loss to 4-8 Boston College.

O’Brien referred to the inconsistencies as a roller-coaster ride. He had hoped to get off the ride in the once-promising 2012 season, instead, it just ended.

Laura Keeley: A ticket to a bowl game

Late in the fourth quarter, Duke’s game against North Carolina looked like it would end like so many other Duke football games have in recent years. Close enough to win, but not close enough to actually earn the W.

Duke had outplayed the Tar Heels, who were just a few plays away from a perfect 7-0 record (as it was, UNC came into the game 5-2, just like Duke). Through three quarters, Duke had a 23-9 lead. But then the Tar Heels offense started clicking.

The Tar Heels scored a touchdown and kicked a field goal, and Duke countered with a field goal and a punt. And with less than five minutes remaining on the clock, North Carolina had the ball, had yet to be stopped and trailed by only three.

And that’s when Duke really started to look like vintage Duke.

A Duke safety, Jordon Byas, forced a fumble at Duke’s 24-yard line. The Duke player in best position to fall on the ball – Ross Cockrell, who went on to be named a first-team, All-ACC cornerback – tried to pick it up instead. And it was the Tar Heels’ Gio Bernard who was able to scoop the ball, and he ran in for the easy touchdown. North Carolina 30, Duke 26, 1:47 left in the game.

An ensuing kickoff return to the 12-yard line produced more eye rolls from the writers who had entertained the notion that Duke could win. And as the Blue Devils moved down the field, it still felt like it would be too little, too late.

But with less than a minute on the clock, Duke had found the UNC red zone. And with 19 seconds left, it was fourth and 2 at the Tar Heels 5-yard line.

I stood up in the press box. My fellow Duke beat writer stood up next to me, too. And we, and everyone else in the press box and the sold-out stadium, saw Jamison Crowder hold onto the ball in the end zone as he was pounded by two Tar Heels defenders. Touchdown, Duke. Ballgame, Duke. And – for the first time in 17 years – bowl game, Duke.

Chip Alexander: A season stalled

Eric Staal had stuffed and shouldered his Carolina Hurricanes equipment bag, taken a last look around the team's locker room at Raleigh Center Ice, and was about to leave.

It was Friday, Sept. 14. At 11:59 p.m. the next day, the NHL's collective bargaining agreement was to expire. Unless a new one was in place, which was unlikely, Staal and the other Hurricanes players would be locked out of the Canes’ section of the RCI practice complex and all team facilities at PNC Arena.

As he headed to the door that Friday, Staal spotted equipment manager Skip Cunningham and said, "Hope to see you sooner rather than later."

Staal was hoping for the best -- a quick resolution to the league’s CBA negotiations and a start to the 2012-2013 NHL season. More than 100 days later, Staal is still waiting for the lockout to end and season to begin. So are hundreds of NHL players and thousands of hockey fans.

Staal still skates at RCI. But the Canes captain and his teammates that join him -- including brother Jordan, traded to the Canes in June -- must use a small dressing area and tote their own bags. Instead of Hurricanes sweaters, they wear jerseys with the NHL Players Association logo on the fronts and #THEPLAYERS on the backs, symbolic of their unity during the labor strife that continues and has the season on the brink of being canceled.

In talking about the CBA impasse on Sept. 14, Staal said, "It's about trying to get a fair deal and figuring out what’s going to work best for both sides."

More than three months later, they're still trying to figure it out.

Luke DeCock: ‘Coach ain’t talking’

N.C. State fans very clearly remember the traveling call that went against the Wolfpack in the 1989 regional semifinal loss to Georgetown: referee Rick Hartzell blowing the whistle on Wolfpack guard Chris Corchiani instead of calling Hoyas star Alonzo Mourning for his fifth foul.

When the two teams met again in the NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio, in March, the former Georgetown coach John Thompson was there, working as an analyst for the national radio broadcast and watching his son John Thompson III coach the Hoyas.

At one point during an off-day press conference, Thompson III was asked about that call from so long ago, and Thompson III joked that he also still hears complaints about a non-call in Princeton’s near-upset of Georgetown in the first round that year. From the other side of a curtain in the interview area, a deep voice boomed out, “And both of them are wrong!”

Having made his feelings known, I tried to corral the elder Thompson in the hallway afterward. “Coach ain’t talking,” he said.

I walked with him anyway and asked him about the N.C. State call, and he said, “You sound like one of those Princeton people.” I responded, “I went to Penn, so I thought that was a great call.” He stopped and looked at me, reconsidering me from above. Finally, he spoke again.

“Who won the game?”

“You did.”

“And if we had lost, and if it had been the other way, I’d be doing the same thing they are.”

The big man walked away, following his son through a doorway and into Georgetown’s private sanctum. With that, coach was done talking, but not before making it clear he remembered that call just as clearly as any Wolfpack fan.

Tim Stevens: Green Hope banner soccer seasons

The Green Hope girls soccer team was favored to win the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state championship but didn’t. Meanwhile, the Green Hope boys soccer team wasn’t expected to be a state factor, but  it won the crown.

Last spring, several girls who attended Green Hope High decided to play for the school team after their club team won a national championship in the summer. When they all decided to play for the school team, winning the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state championship was their goal.

The Falcons were just as outstanding as expected, racing to a 25-0 record before losing to Cornelius Hough 2-1 in the title game. Green Hope led 1-0 in the game and had allowed only one goal in the playoffs before giving up a pair in the final 11 minutes.

On the other hand, few people expected the Green Hope boys soccer team to add a second straight title after winning the 2011 crown. The Falcons graduated 13 seniors from the 2011 state championship team, had a new coach and had only four players back.

But Green Hope scored two goals in the final 14 minutes of the finals for a 2-0 victory over Charlotte Myers Park. The Falcons finished 24-2.

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