By BEN JOHNSON
Jake Johnson, Zech VanFleet, Bryson McGowan and Kyla Holmes all came close. Individual titles were within their grasps, but all four fell short in a year marked by players and Cherokee County teams coming up just short of championships in 2013.
But for a year void of any titles, 2013 was quite a memorable one in the athletic realm.
Johnson finished third at the Class 5A state golf tournament at Tulsa Country Club in May. McGowan rallied to finish third at the Class 3A state wrestling tournament in March.
Zech VanFleet and Amy Hembree both sported third-place finishes at the Class 5A state cross country meet in October. The two runners also led both Tahlequah teams to second-place showings on the medal stand.
Holmes — like the Tahlequah runners a week after her — finished third at the Class 3A state cross country meet.
The Sequoyah softball team steam-rolled its way to the Class 3A fastpitch finals in October, only to fall in the championship game for the second straight season.
“We have had trouble getting to the championship game,” said Sequoyah softball coach Jeff Turtle, whose team lost to Washington, 5-3, in the title contest. “Now we are getting there; we just have to finish once we get here.”
Perhaps 2014 will be the year that yields a crown — or crowns — to local and area teams. But before we shift gears to a new calendar year, let’s look back at the top storylines from 2013:
(In chronological order)
• McGowan, 2 Tahlequah wrestlers pick up bronze (Feb. 23)
Hulbert’s Bryson McGowan (195 pounds) rallied after a 14-3 major decision loss to Barnsdall’s to win his next two matches to finish third at the Class 3A state wrestling tournament in Oklahoma City. McGowan posted a 2-1 victory over Vian’s Cale Mays to pick up the bronze at the State Fair Arena.
“That helped cap the season off on a good note,” McGowan said. “As far as I know, that’s the last time he’ll wrestle, so he’ll have to think about that the rest of his life.”
Tahlequah had two wrestlers finished in third place: Reese Davis (138 pounds) and Hestin Lamons (145). Davis posted a 9-3 win over Coweta’s Justin Shrum for the bronze, while Lamons beat Lawton MacArthur’s Colton Jump for the second time in the tournament to finish in third after an 8-1 decision.
For Keys, Seth Fritts became the first Cougar to qualify for the state tournament, but he did not finish in the top four at 138 pounds in Class 3A.
• Three hoops teams claim regional titles (Feb. 23 and Feb. 26)
Without starting shooting guard Randee O’Donnell, the Class 5A No. 7 Tahlequah girls rolled to a 68-63 victory over Chickasha for the program’s first regional championship in girls basketball since 2001. Marisa Girdner led the way for Tahlequah with 19 points.
“I’m really proud of the girls; they came together,” Tahlequah coach Chad Walker said. “They were really feeding off of that and feeding off all the naysayers. I’m proud of them.”
A few days later, both Sequoyah teams won Class 3A regional titles in Okmulgee. After being delayed a couple of days by dicey winter weather, the Sequoyah boys downed Henryetta, 63-49, while the Sequoyah girls walloped Henryetta, 80-41.
• NSU teams win in Jack Dobbins Field House finale (Feb. 27)
A raucous crowd at a soldout Jack Dobbins Field House watched as both NSU teams posted victories over Central Oklahoma in the final games ever played in the historic venue. The men needed overtime to subdue the Bronchos, 83-71, while the NSU women prevailed late in a 64-58 decision.
“That put a cap on what was a great evening for Northeastern State,” NSU coach Larry Gipson said.
• Lady Tigers punch ticket to state (Feb. 28)
Marisa Girdner was the only Tahlequah player to score in double figures with 14 points, but it was enough for the Lady Tigers to beat Memorial, 43-36, in the Class 5A area championship game at the Chieftain Center in Sapulpa. With the win, Tahlequah claimed its first spot in the state tournament since 2001.
“We’ve been building for this ever since we let a regional championship slip away last year,” Tahlequah coach Chad Walker said. “These girls have been through a lot and done more than we’ve asked them to do.”
• Sequoyah teams claim state tournament spots (March 1-2)
On March 1, the Sequoyah boys knocked off 3A No. 1 Centennial, 71-67, in overtime of the area championship game at Ed Dubie Fieldhouse in Sand Springs. T.J. Jones led the way with 20 points for Sequoyah, which rallied from an 18-point deficit in the second half.
“We didn’t play perfect, we played hard enough and believed and got the job done,” Sequoyah coach Jay Herrin said. “I couldn’t be any prouder of my kids.”
On the next night, the Sequoyah girls hammered Oklahoma Christian School in the area consolation title game, 64-49, for a spot in the 3A state tournament.
• Area teams come up short at state tournaments (March 7-8)
The Sequoyah boys made the deepest run of all the area high school basketball teams that made state tournament appearances. The Indians took down Sperry, 73-65, in the first round of the 3A state tournament before being doused by Okemah, 55-35, in the semifinals at State Fair Arena.
The Oklahoma City Fairgrounds is also where the season ended for the Sequoyah girls, who lost 61-39 to Adair in the first round of the 3A state tournament.
In Catoosa, the Tahlequah girls’ trip to the Class 5A state tournament was short-lived, thanks to Carl Albert’s Gioya Carter, who scored 18 points in the Lady Titans’ 44-37 triumph over Tahlequah.
• RiverHawks fall in NCAA tournament (March 16)
Jermaine Bransford had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Bryton Hobbs posted 17 points for NSU, but the RiverHawks still fell to Winona State in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Mankato, Minn. The RiverHawks’ season came to an end at 19-9, as Winona State advanced in the NCAA Central Regional, thanks to 18 points from Clayton Vette.
• Seattle drafts Michael Bowie (April 27)
It took until the seventh and final round of the NFL draft, but the Seattle Seahawks took Northeastern State’s Michael Bowie with the 242nd overall pick in the draft. Bowie became the first NSU player drafted since Derrick Moore was taken in 1992.
“I kind of felt it coming because (Seattle) reached out and told me they were thinking about taking me. But they didn’t know yet. It was just about me being patient,” said Bowie, who transferred to from Oklahoma State to NSU prior to his senior year.
• Tahlequah, Sequoyah bow out early at slowpitch state tournament (May 1)
Class 6A No. 2 Tahlequah struggled to get anything on offense and lost to No. 8 Broken Arrow, 5-3, in the first round of the slowpitch state tournament in Oklahoma City.
Not long after the Lady Tigers lost, Sequoyah followed on its way out the door, dropping a 6-5 contest to Cache in the opening round of the tournament at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. The Lady Indians committed seven errors en route to the defeat, which kept them from having a chance to repeat as 5A state champions.
• Johnson, Tigers fall short of 5A crowns (May 7)
Trouble at the turn cost Tahlequah’s Jake Johnson a chance at an individual crown at the Class 5A state golf tournament at Tulsa Country Club. A bogey on No. 9 and a triple bogey on No. 10 prevented Johnson from chasing down Bishop Kelley’s Chris Karlovich on the back nine. Karlovich won an individual crown at 219, while Johnson tied for third at 223.
As a team, Tahlequah tied for fourth place with Bishop McGuinness at 962, which was way off the pace set by the state champions, the Bishop Kelley Comets at 913.
• NSU tennis loses in Round of 16 (May 8)
The NSU women’s tennis team lost 5-0 to No. 3 BYU-Hawaii at the NCAA tournament in Surprise, Ariz. The RiverHawks lost all three doubles matches before losing two singles matches to have their season come to an end in the Round of 16.
• High jump silvers for Tahlequah (May 11)
Tahlequah picked up second-place finishes in the high jump at the Class 5A state track meet in Yukon. Jordan Roach (5 feet, 2 inches) was second on the girls side behind Grove’s Emilee Iverson (5 feet, 6 inches), while Brandon Conrad (6 feet, 6 inches) lost a tiebreaker to McAlester’s Zach Skimbo (6 feet, 6 inches) on the boys side.
• Lady Indians ousted at state volleyball tournament (Oct. 11)
The Sequoyah volleyball team appeared in the state tournament for the first time since 2006, but the Lady Indians were one-and-done following an opening-round loss to Oklahoma Christian School, 3-0 (25-18, 25-20, 25-18).
• Sequoyah softball falls in championship game (Oct. 12)
A squeeze bunt by Kelsey Harmon put Washington on top for good after Sequoyah jumped out to a 2-0 lead early on in the Class 3A fastpitch softball championship game in Shawnee. Washington rallied with four runs in the fourth inning and let pitcher Allison Wells do the rest of the work as Sequoyah fell in the title game for the second straight season.
Sequoyah was limited to two hits while committing three errors.
“We made too many mistakes today to win,” Sequoyah coach Jeff Turtle said.
• Double state-tournament exits for Tahlequah teams (Oct. 18)
In Sand Springs, Tahlequah’s volleyball team squandered a 2-1 lead and lost to 5A No. 2 Lincoln Christian, 3-2 (25-21, 27-29, 26-28, 25-20, 15-6), in the opening round of the state tournament at Sand Springs’ Ed Dubie Fieldhouse.
Hours before Tahlequah’s volleyball season came to an end, the softball team suffered the same fate with an 11-4 loss to eventual state champion, Carl Albert. Abby Meador pitched Carl Albert to victory by striking out 14 Lady Tigers, who reached the 5A semifinals after Randee O’Donnell blasted a three-run home run in the seventh inning to lead Tahlequah a 5-2 victory over Chickasha in the first round.
• Tahlequah cross country teams get second (Nov. 2)
Zech VanFleet and Amy Hembree both posted third-place finishes to lead both Tahlequah cross country teams to overall second places at the Class 5A state cross meets at Edmond Santa Fe High School. The Tahlequah boys had 94 points in second place, which was 58 points off the winning pace set by Deer Creek. The Tahlequah girls registered 67 points and narrowly missed knocking off Deer Creek (49).
• NSU opens new hoops venue (Nov. 16)
Northeastern State officially opened its new basketball facility with a win and a loss. The first game was a 69-67 loss by the NSU women in double overtime, while the NSU men held off Harding, 72-66, thanks to 27 points by Bryton Hobbs.
• NSU hires new head football coach (Dec. 19)
After reliving Kenny Evans of his coaching duties on Nov. 16, NSU appointed Rob Robinson as the RiverHawks’ new head football coach more than a month later. Robinson left Washburn, where he was the offensive coordinator, to become the 19th head coach in school history at NSU.
“The Redmen times are what we have to get back to — the traditional roots,” Robinson said during his introductory press conference.
Before NSU switched to the RiverHawks nickname, the Redmen weren’t strangers to picking up NAIA national championships. Robinson is hoping NSU can get back to that, and teams and schools at the high school level are hoping to bring in championships of their own in 2014.