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Top local sports stories of 2011: Clowney picks South Carolina

South Pointe football player Jadeveon Clowney stood on the stage in the school's nearly full auditorium on Valentine's Day.

It was also his 18th birthday, and Clowney had an announcement to make. There were an estimated 100 media representatives there, including some from big markets and magazines.

ESPN was broadcasting the event live. It was nearly two weeks after National Signing Day, and the hype surrounding Clowney was at a fever pitch.

"I'm going to be," he said as he reached into a bag and pulled out a ball cap, "a South Carolina Gamecock."

Cheers broke out in the auditorium as Clowney, flanked by his mom and dad, flashed a smile that could have lit a small city.

It was not the news Alabama, which was neck-and neck with USC, nor Clemson, which moved into the picture late, wanted to hear.

Clowney said he wanted to sign on his birthday, Feb. 14. To avoid questions, he said it was his present to his mom, Josenna Clowney. Part of his decision to wait was that he was having a hard time telling the other two schools that he was going elsewhere.

So the nation waited as Clowney, regarded as the top senior player in the 2011 recruiting class, made up his mind. At 6-foot-6, 255-pounds. he was at the top of most college recruiting wish lists.

Clowney runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds and has a 36-inch vertical leap. He had 306 tackles and 52.5 sacks in his final two seasons at South Pointe. Opponents said he was unblockable. He was South Carolina's defensive player of the game in the 2010 North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl, and drew five holding penalties from the North Carolina players.

The big defensive end said after the signing that he had always been a Gamecock fan. It had been speculated for weeks that he would sign with them.

Clowney was not a full-time starter for South Carolina during the 2011 season, but he served notice he will be a player to be reckoned with in the SEC. He had 32 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 6 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. He was named the SEC's Freshman of the Year.

2. Clemson down twice but never out

For a team that lost its way late in the year, Clemson found its way to an ACC title and a BCS bowl game.

The Tigers play West Virginia in the Orange Bowl on Wednesday, capping an impressive turnaround in a whiplash season.

The Tigers won their first eight games in impressive fashion (averaging 40.6 points per game), climbing as high as fifth in the BCS rankings.

Then the wheels fell off in a 31-17 loss at Georgia Tech, starting a slide that saw their prodigious offense grind to a halt. They averaged just 18.5 points per game in losing three of their next four, including an embarrassing 34-13 decision at South Carolina.

What followed surprised everyone. The Tigers thrashed Virginia Tech 38-10 in the ACC Championship Game to earn their trip to Miami.

That helped restore some pride to a program hanging onto its national championship past, while losing three straight to their in-state rivals.

"We're a championship program, and tonight we added to a great tradition," coach Dabo Swinney said that night in Charlotte.

Darin Gantt

3. Gamecocks repeat as CWS champions

Back-to-Back was the headline on newspapers across the state after South Carolina repeated its College World Series championship in Omaha, Neb.

The Gamecocks were heavy favorites to return and were considered a likely contender for another title. But only six teams in the history of the series have gone back-to-back.

Michael Roth pitched 7 2/3 innings on three days' rest and the Gamecocks were in control throughout a 5-2 win over Florida that completed a two-game sweep in the 2011 CWS finals. USC won the first game of the series, 2-1.

South Carolina (55-14) became the first team to go 10-0 in an NCAA tournament and the first since Oregon State in 2007 to go unbeaten in a CWS. After losing their opening game in the 2010 series, the Gamecocks are on a 11-game winning streak in Omaha.

Second baseman Scott Wingo, the College World Series most valuable player, batted .333 and drove in four runs. His walk-off hit in a 5-4 win against Virginia sent USC into the championship round against Florida. He also made several stellar defensive plays that thwarted several late-inning threats by both Virginia and Florida.

After Texas A&M scored four runs in the first inning of the Gamecocks' first game in Omaha, South Carolina's hurlers allowed only six runs the rest of the series.

Matt Price worked 1 1/3 innings in the final championship game for his 20th save of the season.

Barry Byers

4. South Pointe wins AAA championship

Questions about South Pointe football were flying faster than golf balls hit off a wall by a driver.

Could new coach Strait Herron keep the tradition rolling? Would the Stallions be competitive after losing the nation's top player and several other seniors who signed scholarships? Could the defense be rebuilt? Could the Stallions overcome a lack of size with their speed?

The answers: yes.

Herron did some rebuilding to get his new staff in place and selected good replacements to work alongside the coaches who stayed. He also locked in the offense to the read option and the results were more than he could have hoped for.

The Stallions had six players who ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds - or less. Defensive back Corey Neely, The Herald's Class AAA Defensive Player of the Year, scored a pair of first-half touchdowns on punt returns in South Pointe's 42-27 win over previously unbeaten Bluffton in the championship game at Clemson.

Junior quarterback Devin Pearson, The Herald's Overall Offensive Player of the Year, ran just three times in the first half against Bluffton but ended up with 63 yards rushing and a TD as well as 116 passing and a TD.

Running back Manzey Miller also had a pair of rushing touchdowns.

Herron was a near unanimous choice for The Herald's Coach of the Year. After the title game, he said: "My old track coach, Bob Jenkins, shot me a message and asked what I was going to do if we won. I sent one back telling him I might retire. But now, I can finally relax."

He'll be back.

Barry Byers

5. USC loses Lattimore, boots Garcia, but wins 10 games

For all the losses the South Carolina football team took, they kept piling up wins at an impressive rate.

Despite a last-chance dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia and a knee injury that knocked out star running back Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks surged to the finish.

Losses to Auburn and Arkansas kept them from repeating as SEC East champions, but their 10-2 mark still stands as one of the school's best ever.

It was just the second 10-win season in school history, and the first time they've had nine or more wins in back-to-back years.

That success led them to Monday's Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, but the signature win was the 34-13 thrashing of Clemson in Columbia. That was the third straight win over their rivals, and the fourth in the last six meetings.

"It's been neat to beat Clemson, because they've kind of owned us in the past," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. "They don't own us right now, that's for sure."

Darin Gantt

6. Panthers QB Newton silences his critics

After the year they endured in 2010, 2011 couldn't have gone much worse for the Carolina Panthers.

The consolation prize for their 2-14 disaster the previous season was the top pick in the draft, which they used to select quarterback Cam Newton and change the face of the franchise.

While some expected Newton to need time to adapt to the NFL after leading Auburn to a championship in his only year starting in Division I football, he was a quick study.

He broke Peyton Manning's rookie passing record, the league's all-time rushing touchdown record for quarterbacks, and many more records in a turnaround which saw the Panthers with a 6-9 record heading into this weekend's finale at New Orleans.

That's heady stuff for a team that appeared to be on the rocks during the league's lockout.

After losing so much the year before, the Panthers made an early statement when the labor strife ended, writing big contracts to keep stars such as Charles Johnson, DeAngelo Williams and others in the fold.

New coach Ron Rivera closed strong, leading the Panthers to wins in four of their last five games to give them momentum heading into the offseason. In that respect, it's similar to the turnaround former coach John Fox led, as they overshadowed the 1-15 of George Seifert with a 7-9 mark in 2002 that led to the Super Bowl run the following year.

The Panthers might not be ready for that kind of run, but the progress has been remarkable, given the lack of offseason preparation. It also came despite a rash of injuries that saw them place a team-record 17 players on injured reserve, including defensive stars such as Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.

Darin Gantt

7. Year of high school football coach changes

The 2011 high school football season brought one of the biggest-ever turnover of local coaches. There were five openings and three were filled by coaches moving into the top spot for the first time.

The most talked about was Northwestern's Jimmy "Moose'' Wallace, who stepped down after 38 years. Wallace, 61, was a head coach for 28 years - 22 at Northwestern and six at Lewisville in Chester County.

The Trojans were a Class AAAA powerhouse under Wallace. In December 2010, he led Northwestern to its third state championship in eight tries on his watch. The team's 15-0 record marked the Trojans' first undefeated season in varsity football. His career record is 286-83; 236-62 at Northwestern.

The second most talked about was Bobby Carroll, who left South Pointe after building the Stallions into a state power after it opened in 2005. He left and returned to York, his hometown, and led the Cougars to 10 wins.

Assistant Strait Herron was promoted at South Pointe. He led the Stallions to a 14-1 record and the Class AAA state championship.

He was one of three local coaches moving to head man for the first time. Kyle Richardson replaced Wallace and Michael Allen took over at Nation Ford.

Jet Turner left Clover and was replaced by South Point (N.C.) coach John Devine.

Barry Byers

8. UNC soccer, led by Enzo Martinez, wins the national championship 1-0

The University of North Carolina finally broke through to win another national title, and the Tar Heels needed the smart play of former Northwestern High star Enzo Martinez to get them there.

UNC made its fourth straight College Cup (soccer's final four), and finished the year with a 12-match unbeaten streak, beating Charlotte 1-0 in the final to finish 21-2-3 on the season.

Martinez, a junior midfielder, led the Tar Heels with 11 assists and was second with nine goals. He also hauled in a load of awards, including All-Tournament honors along with first-team recognition from the NSCAA All-American team.

"He's just a tremendous competitor, just a tremendous character," North Carolina coach Carols Somoano said in August. "To be honest, I think he's got no choice but to continue to get better."

Martinez has also made an impact in the community, hustling back from the College Cup to help host a charity event in Rock Hill.

"Rock Hill, and soccer, have been so good to me, I want to do what I can to help others as people have helped me," he said.

Darin Gantt

9. USC teammates hired to run boys basketball programs

A pair of local high schools looked to turn their basketball fortunes around by tabbing a pair of coaches who know about winning.

South Pointe hired Melvin Watson and Lewisville hired Larry Davis, putting the former USC basketball teammates on nearby benches again.

The two joked this summer that the differences in their programs (Lewisville's Class A, South Pointe AAA), might keep them apart, but their shared past will make future meetings inevitable. "We're not quite there yet," Davis said. "We've got some work to do."

"If I know Larry, he's going to get them better in a hurry," Watson said.

The two were teammates on South Carolina's 1996-97 SEC regular season champions, the group that entered the NCAA tournament as a two-seed before a shocking first-round loss to Coppin State.

Before that upset, the three-guard rotation (which included current Charleston Southern assistant B.J. McKie) was the scourge of the SEC.

While neither made it to the NBA, both had long careers overseas, spanning the globe and picking up the nuances of the international game as well. Davis played in South Korea, Spain, Belgium, Israel, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Watson was in Greece, Cyprus and Belgium, and the lessons they learned are ones they plan to pass along.

"Seeing basketball through the world's eyes is definitely different," Davis said. "The skill level is so much higher and you don't realize that when you first go abroad.

"Here, so many guys just rely on speed and quickness and athleticism, while international players are learning skills at a younger age, ball handling and all the fundamentals."

Darin Gantt

10. Controversy at three high schools

Three local high school football teams were embroiled in controversy during the 2011 season.

The most serious was at Clover, where the Blue Eagles' roster was dismantled after an alleged hazing incident in the football locker room.

The other was at District Three Stadium, where Rock Hill and South Pointe scuffled after the Stallions' 28-21 win. Nine Rock Hill players and five from South Pointe served one-game suspensions and the schools paid $500 fines.

At Clover, rumors were raging that a JV player had been assaulted with a broom in the varsity locker-room.

The incident was reported by first-year coach Devine to his administration. After an internal investigation, 13 players were removed from the team.

The investigation was turned over to the York County Sheriff's Office, but prosecutors decided not to file charges.

Barry Byers

OTHER STORIES OF NOTE: The deaths of two local sports people rocked the area ... Bobby Thompson lost his long battle with Stage IV cancer. He was a lifetime Rock Hill Bearcats fan and was the team's equipment manager for a year before his death.

At Indian Land, popular wrestling coach Mike Kersey died from head injuries days after an ATV accident.

Other state championships include: Meredith Kilburn (Fort Mill) girls cross country; Fort Mill boys' swimming; Fort Mill girls track; Nation Ford softball; Fort Mill boys lacrosse; Great Falls boys basketball.

Winthrop University fired women's basketball coach Bud Childers and hired Marlene Stollings.

First-year Winthrop baseball coach Tom Riginos ended his first season with a 27-30 record. Riginos is a former Clemson baseball assistant coach.

Northwestern athletic director Bill Warren left to take the same position at rival Rock Hill High School. Former Northwestern girls basketball player Lauren Massey West was hired as the Trojans' new AD.

Barry Byers