BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — The little school in Greentown made the biggest splash on the area sports scene in 2013. Eastern High School athletes took four state championships in track, scored a runner-up finish in girls basketball, and saw a favorite son, Eastern graduate Josiah Price, close the book on a great year for the Comets by helping Michigan State’s football squad win the Big Ten championship and take a spot in the Rose Bowl.
Tipton County enjoyed the limelight in football season, sending two squads to Lucas Oil Stadium to play for state glory on the Colts’ home field.
Here’s a look at the Kokomo Tribune’s top 10 sports stories of 2013:
1. Eastern track
The wave of athletes in the Eastern track and field program crested this past spring as the Comets collected four first-place medals at the boys and girls state meets at Bloomington. Track and field is one of the IHSAA’s few open team tournaments, not divided by enrollment size
Grant Cole got the parade started with a state title in the boys long jump.
The Comet girls took to the track the next day and collected three more golds. Bethany Neeley repeated as state champion in the 1,600 run. Twin sister Brittany won the 800. Also, those two teamed with Sarah Wagner and Jessie Sprinkles to win the 3,200 relay in a blistering 8:53.74, crushing the old state record by more than 10 seconds.
Bethany Neeley finished the day as the mental attitude award winner, following Brittany’s mental attitude award in Class 2A at the girls basketball state finals.
2. Tipton County football
The only way to have generated more excitement about football in Tipton County this fall would have been to have the Class A and 2A state championship games on the same day at Lucas Oil Stadium. Super seasons from Tri-Central and Tipton took those squads all the way to Indianapolis where the Trojans and Blue Devils played in title games on back-to-back days.
Tri-Central capped a storybook rise from futility (a winless season in 2009) to a 14-win season in 2013. This fall the Trojans beat state superpower Sheridan twice before avenging their only loss of the season by beating Eastern Hancock 20-10 in the state championship game on Nov. 29. It was veteran coach George Gilbert’s first state title.
Tipton battled its way to the state final game in Class 2A, ripping off eight straight wins before losing to Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter in the state final Nov. 30.
3. Eastern girls hoops
Eastern’s girls basketball team stuffed a scrapbook full of memories with a 22-4 season that didn’t end until the Comets fell to defending state champ Evansville Mater Dei at the Class 2A state finals in Terre Haute. Along the way, Eastern won nine straight games leading up to the championship game, including an overtime victory over Winchester in the regional round.
But no game was more remarkable than Eastern’s 19-point thrashing of Fort Wayne Bishop Luers in the semistate Feb. 23. That day, Brittany Neeley powered the Comets to the state final with a stunning 48-point, 20-rebound outburst against the previous season’s state runner-up. The 48 points matched the all-time single-game scoring record for a Howard County girl.
4. Price to Rose Bowl
Eastern product Josiah Price’s bio page at the Michigan State football web site reads this:
“Second-year player provides depth at tight end.”
He’s done a lot more than that. Price, a redshirt freshman, has wedged his way into the lineup with the Big Ten champions, notching 16 catches and four touchdowns. Keeping the Greentown flag flying into fall, Price has TD receptions in each of the last three games, including the go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter of MSU’s 34-24 victory over previously unbeaten Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 7.
Michigan State plays Stanford in the Rose Bowl Wednesday.
5. Tayler Persons injured
Kokomo basketball standout Tayler Persons suffered a cruel blow before hitting the hardwood for his senior year. The Northern Kentucky recruit tore an ACL during football action and required knee surgery, knocking him out of basketball before his senior hoops season began.
Persons, a four-year Wildkat varsity basketball player, in addition to being the football team’s starting quarterback, is hoping to return at the end of the season.
6. Silver in Indy
Kokomo’s Fletcher Miller and Western’s Summer Brown both scored second-place medals last winter at state meets in Indianapolis.
Miller, a 220-pound wrestler, went unbeaten throughout the season and wrestled under the lights at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in his first trip to the state meet. There, he squared off against Gelen Robinson, son of former basketball star Glenn Robinson, as the unbeaten juniors clashed for the championship. Robinson won, capping his own perfect season.
Brown scored a second-place finish in the 200 freestyle at the state meet in February, slicing through the IU Natatorium water in a school-record 1:49.30. She also swam to sixth the 100 freestyle to take two medals as a junior.
7. Calloway ends his run
The former Panther player stepped aside as coach after four decades in the dugout at Western. Ty Calloway skippered the Panthers for 36 years, and was an assistant for four seasons before that.
Over a career which saw him rack up 662 wins, Calloway guided Western to the top of the baseball mountain, claiming his first state title in 2012 when the Panthers romped to the Class 3A championship at Victory Field in Indianapolis. The Panthers fell just short of repeating in 2013 as they lost in the semistate round to eventual state champ Norwell.
8. Taylor tennis
Snagging the championship of the first phase of postseason competition was a major accomplishment for the Taylor boys tennis squad. The Titans beat Kokomo in the sectional championship in October to win the school’s first sectional championship in more than 30 years. That Taylor fell 3-2 to Logansport in the regional didn’t dampen the achievement of the small school that picked up elusive hardware in one of the IHSAA’s few open team tournaments.
Taylor’s sectional crown was its first boys tennis title since 1981 and put an exclamation point on a 15-4 season.
9. IUK volley rises
First-year coach Heather Hayes led the Cougars to a 28-11 record in IUK’s third season of existence.
Fielding a roster that was scarce on size and heavy with freshmen (six of the 11 roster spots occupied by first-year students), the Cougars posted the program’s highest win total and tied for third in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with an 8-3 league mark.
10. Conference upheaval
This story has just begun to unfold as local conferences confront the dramatic changes which have swept college sports lately.
The North Central Conference lost New Castle at the beginning of the school year in a sudden divorce before Tippecanoe County schools McCutcheon, Harrison and Lafayette Jeff join beginning next school year. More change is underfoot. Huntington North will leave following the 2014-15 school year and the NCC is considering extending invitations to Indianapolis Tech and Guerin Catholic.
The Mid-Indiana Conference is bracing for upheaval as well. Taylor and Eastern have invitations to join the Hoosier Heartland Conference beginning with the 2015-16 school year. Taylor AD Karen Franklin has gone public with her school’s desire to join the HHC while Eastern will take a recommendation to its school board next month.
The HHC also has extended invites to a pair of White County schools, Tri-County and Frontier.