The year is almost over, and 2012 had no shortage of compelling sports stories – nationally and right here in Aiken and the CSRA. Here's a look at the top 10 local sports stories from the past 12 months as determined by the Aiken Standard Sports Department.
1. Augusta National admits female members
Normally the highlight of the golf calendar is the playing of the Masters Tournament, and this year was no exception with Bubba Watson winning in a playoff. But the biggest news to come out of Augusta National Golf Club this year was the addition of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore as the first female members since the club was founded in 1932.
It has been a touchy topic that reached a boiling point a decade ago when Martha Burk and her women's advocacy group first challenged the club over its all-male membership. The debate returned this year when IBM, one of the top corporate sponsors of the Masters, appointed Virginia Rometty as its chief executive. The previous four CEOs of IBM had all been members. Before the change, announced in August, women were allowed to play the golf course as guests, including on the Sunday before the Masters week begins.
2. Aiken boxer Paul “The Punisher” Williams is paralyzed in a motorcycle crash
Former world champion boxer Paul Williams, and Aiken native, was paralyzed from the waist down after being involved in a June motorcycle crash in the Atlanta suburbs. Williams might not walk again after damaging his spinal chord. The accident most assuredly ends his career, which was highlighted when he won his first major welterweight title in July 2007 with a decision over Antonio Margarito. The 30-year-old southpaw struggled to land fights with the sport's biggest stars because of his pronounced size advantages, a high-volume punching rate and his relative anonymity, but was considered one of the world's top pound-for-pound stars.
3. Aiken-trained Alpha runs in Kentucky Derby
Alpha, broken and trained in Aiken by Tim Jones, had a banner 3-year-old campaign which included four first-place finishes and saw the bay colt run in two of the biggest races of the year – the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Although the 2012 Aiken-trained Horse of the Year finished 12th in both of those races he had an overall great year and has five wins and two second-place finishes 11 lifetime starts, and has bankrolled $1,270,000 in his career.
4. North Augusta golfer Matt NeSmith has banner senior year
It was a stellar senior year and accompanying summer for recent North Augusta High School graduate Matt NeSmith. Now one of the top players for the University of South Carolina team, NeSmith had one highlight after another this year. He won the Class AAAA state championship, the Azalea Invitational, three tournaments that factor into the Polo Golf Rankings – in which he held the top spot for the final nine weeks of his time as a junior. One of those wins, in the FJ Invitational, earned him a spot in the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship and he played on another top PGA course at Bay Hill when he competed for the victorious East squad in the Wyndham Cup.
In addition, to all of his wins, NeSmith also tied for second place in the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club, finished fourth in the Players Amateur Championship and tied for seventh in the Palmetto Amateur. If that wasn't enough, he also appeared on The Golf Channel's “Morning Drive” program, was one of the recipients of the Byron Nelson International Junior Golf Awards and was named an American Junior Golf Association Rolex All-American and then the AJGA Rolex Player of the Year.
5. Three area high school football players fail to qualify academically at Clemson after signing with the Tigers
It was a banner day for Aiken-area high school football players on Feb. 1, when three members of the 2011 All-Aiken Standard team signed letters of intent to play at Clemson University. South Aiken defensive end Josh Brown put pen to paper on National Signing Day, as did quarterbacks Cordrea Tankersley (Silver Bluff) and Marty Williams (Fox Creek), who both figured to play in the Tigers' secondary. But none of them played for the Tigers this season. Brown, Tankersley and Williams all failed to qualify academically.
While Tankersley spent the fall at Hargrave Military Academy and looks to enroll at Clemson in January, Brown and Williams have gone in different directions. Brown was looking at enrolling at Marshall while Williams plans were unknown.
6. USC Aiken women's basketball team achieve several milestones for first time
The USC Aiken women's basketball team spent the entire 2011-12 season ranked in the top 25, the first time in program history the Pacers have accomplished the feat. It was one of many firsts for the team which posted a 27-4 record, marking the most wins, fewest losses and best winning percentage (.871) in school history. The season was punctuated by the USCA women's first-ever Peach Belt Conference title and the team playing host to the Southeast Regional of the Division II NCAA Tournament for the first time.
7. Strom Thurmond opens high school football season with thrilling game against national powerhouse
It's possible the best game of the 2012 high school football season was played in Week Zero. That was when Strom Thurmond played host to Eastern Christian Academy, a team out of Maryland that boasted 14 Division I college commitments. Although the Rebels lost a back-and-forth affair 39-35, it was a game that propelled them on a 12-game winning streak and a berth in the Class AAA Lower State championship game. There were several other noteworthy contests, achievements and performances this season, but the game when Strom Thurmond nearly knocked off a national powerhouse was the top story of another compelling high school footballs season.
8. Aiken High sends boys' tennis team and volleyball squad to state finals
The Aiken area high schools didn't produce any state championship team in 2012, but Aiken High School delivered some of the best performances. The boys' tennis team won its first 22 matches of the season, including a Lower State championship over crosstown rival South Aiken. The Hornets were pushed to the brink in the state title match against J.L. Mann, and came up just short – losing 4-2 with the decisive match determined in a 10-7 tiebreaker. The Aiken High volleyball team returned to the state title match for the third consecutive season, but also fell just shy of a second state title in the past three years. The Hornets lost to Hillcrest after knocking off Wando in a wildly competitive and entertaining Lower State championship match that was celebrated by Aiken because it was somewhat unexpected after losing the core of the past two year's teams to graduation.
9. Area golfers Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown spend season on PGA Tour
This past year, two golfers with connections to Aiken – Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown – played on the sports biggest stage by competing on the PGA Tour. It was the second season in a row on the top tour for Kisner, a South Aiken and Georgia product, while Brown – North Augusta and USC Aiken alum – made his debut as a PGA regular.
The fun spring and summer had a tough end when neither finished high enough on the money list to retain their tour cards. Both made it to the final stage of Q-School and while Brown fell out of contention early, Kisner missed retaining his card by a single stroke on the final of six rounds.
10. Longtime Palmetto Golf Club pro Tom Moore retires
After more than three decades of service as historic Palmetto Golf Club's longtime head professional and general manager, Tom Moore retired. The man known around the world as “Mr. Palmetto,” had a huge impact on the historic course, its restoration and growing its reputation globally. Moore won't be leaving entirely, he now moves into the role of pro-emeritus and should still be a fixture at the oldest, continually operated 18-hole golf course in its original location in the Southeast.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.