This past year has been a significant one for the sports world. There have been major national stories dealing with the loss of lives at the Boston Marathon in April to a Red Sox World Series victory in the same city in October, a blackout in the Super Bowl, an NFL star charged with murder and a Heisman Trophy winner accused of breaking NCAA rules before his successor overcame accusations of sexual assault among many other major stories to make headlines.
The Aiken area is no exception and has witnessed several major sporting events this past year. The following is a list ranking of the Aiken Standard’s top sports stories from 2013, which – like so many other things in sports – is subject to debate.
1. Palace Malice wins Belmont Stakes
Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice captured the third jewel of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. The 3-year-old colt was trained in Aiken by Legacy Stable’s Brad Stauffer, would go on to the barn of award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher and was ridden to victory in the Belmont Stakes by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. Palace Malice followed his Belmont Stakes victory with a win in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course and would later earn the designation of the 2013 Aiken-trained Horse of the Year, bringing joy to racing fans who followed him and Dogwood president Cot Campbell.
2. USC Aiken men advance to Elite Eight
It was a banner year for the USC Aiken men’s basketball team. Led by senior point guard Re’mon Nelson, the Pacers won the Peach Belt Conference regular season and postseason tournament before playing host to the Southeast Regional of the NCAA Division II Tournament. There, they reeled off three wins to lead them to the Elite Eight, the farthest the program has ever gone. Although USCA didn’t return from its trip to Louisville with a national championship, it drew the attention, respect and admiration of basketball fans across the country.
3. South Aiken wins two state titles
Spring time is always special in the area, and this past spring was especially memorable for followers of South Aiken High School athletics. First the boys’ tennis team won a state championship, and less than week later, the golf team pulled off the same feat, capturing a state crown of its own. While the tennis team had to grind its way to a title, playing one nail-biting match after another in its run, the Thoroughbreds’ golf team picked up momentum as the season wore on and rolled to a championship. Their accomplishments will be forever etched in school – and South Carolina – history, and overshadowed a tremendous run by the baseball team, which advanced to the Lower State championship.
4. USC Aiken women see stars transfer
The USCA women’s basketball program has been one of the most dominant in the PBC in recent years and was one of a few teams capable of winning a national championship last year. But when preseason All-American Kayla Harris was injured in a top-5 battle against Clayton State, it set off a series of events that got worse and worse for the Pacers. Harris was lost for the season with a torn ACL, and while her teammates did their best to keep the championship hopes alive – especially senior Daniela Tarailo – they weren’t the same caliber of team without her. That led to a struggle to the finish and a loss in the NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional, but what followed was just as tough. Harris and All-PBC selection Brittany Hill transferred to Wingate prior to their senior season’s – an unusual move. Reserve guard Michelle Turner also transferred, and assistant coaches Audrey Timmerman and Jennifer Brock also left the team. That combined with the loss of departed seniors Tarailo, Mia Antoine and Tiffany Moody left a huge void that the Pacers have struggled to compensate for at the start of this season.
5. Carey Johnson retires as Aiken football coach
Carey Johnson has been one of the stalwarts of area high school football coaches for more than two decades. But after 18 years as Aiken High’s head football coach, Johnson resigned. While he remains at the school as the athletic director, he leaves behind a coaching legacy that saw him compile a 135-88 record where his teams made the playoffs 13 times – including trips to the state championship game in 1999 and 2000. He established the Hornets as a measuring stick for all area programs but wasn’t able to meet those expectations in recent years, going 15-30 his final four seasons. In spite of any recent short comings, Johnson remains a highly-respected figure and role model in the community.
6. Silver Bluff plays for state title
One of the few coaches who has served longer than Johnson is Silver Bluff’s Al Lown. In his 21st season with the Bulldogs, Lown led his team to the Class AA, Division II state championship game, highlighting an exciting high school football season in the area. The Bulldogs were 13 yards away from a game-winning touchdown when time ran out on their season in a loss to Batesburg-Leesville, but it was a tremendous campaign for them, as they reeled off 12 wins in a row to advance to the state championship for the first time since 2001, advancing further than any other area team in the playoffs – a group that included North Augusta, Strom Thurmond, Williston-Elko, Ridge Spring-Monetta, Midland Valley and Wagener-Salley.
7. Kenny Thomas gets 1,000th win of career
Thomas has become a popular and successful figure in the area sports community in his tenure as head coach of the USCA baseball team. This season, area fans got the chance to celebrate and recognize Thomas as he notched the 1,000th victory of his coaching career. While he was achieving personal milestones, his Pacer squad was dominant – rising to the top of the national polls and returning to Division II’s top postseason tournament. Neither Thomas nor his team shows any signs of slowing down even after several players were drafted by major-league franchises.
8. Scott is first Aussie to win Masters
Adam Scott emerged from the ranks of best professional golfers never to have won a major championship by edging out Angel Cabrera in a sudden-death playoff to win the Masters Tournament. Scott became the first Australian to win a green jacket in the process and made amends for a heartbreaking collapse in the 2012 British Open. Scott’s dramatic win put a nice finish on a hectic Masters week that saw official scorekeepers draw as much attention for their treatment of world No. 1 Tiger Woods and Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan, the youngest player ever to make the cut at Augusta National Golf Club.
9. Carson Young loves Aiken
As he wrapped up his senior year, Pendleton High School golfer Carson Young got on a major roll in major tournaments in Aiken. First at Sage Valley, Young came from behind in the final round to win the prestigious Junior Invitational, allowing a golfer from the Palmetto State to defeat a field of the best juniors in the world. A few weeks later, Young remained red-hot as he captured medalist honors at the Southern Cross, played at historic Palmetto Golf Club. It was a strong year for the smooth swinger who is currently a member of the Clemson team.
10. Brown and Kisner return to PGA Tour
Scott Brown and Kevin Kisner are professional golfers with strong ties to the area. Kisner was a star at South Aiken before going to Georgia, and Brown moved from North Augusta to USCA and the pro tours. Both played on the PGA Tour in 2012, but failed to retain their cards. Brown got his full status back when he won a PGA Tour event in Puerto Rico, the same day Kisner won a Web.com tournament. Brown played in the first two majors of his career while Kisner toiled long enough and finished high enough on the Web.com money list to earn a partial status for 2014.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.