A year in sports in Laurens County that began with struggles with COVID-19 at every level ultimately included its share of successes, failures and controversies before all was said and done.
Here is a list of our Top 10 Sports Stories of 2021:
PC teams play to empty houses
The Big South Conference took drastic measures during COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021, opting to play basketball and other indoor sports in mostly empty arenas in 2020-21.
That included Presbyterian College men’s and women’s basketball, whose players had to get used to decidedly lonelier game days with no friends, classmates or family members to cheer them on in person.
“I think it’s obviously a challenge, and something we’ve had to adapt to but I think we did a really good job at encouraging each other and creating our own energy,” said PC guard Trinity Johnson during the 2020-21 season.
The move became a trend across the country as COVID-19 protocols forced fans from arenas and ultimately led to the cancellation of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
CHS boys tennis falls in finals
The Clinton High boys tennis team turned in an unbeaten regular season and carried its perfect record into the Class 3A state finals only to be denied a state championship for the third straight time.
The Red Devils also made finals appearances in 2018 and 2019. No state championship was held in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Clinton won the Upper State Championship with a 4-3 win over Seneca, but were defeated by Oceanside Collegiate 6-0 at the Florence Tennis Center. Oceanside Collegiate, a charter school in Mt. Pleasant outside of Charleston, upended perennial power Bishop England to claim the Lower State title and advance to the finals.
PC men’s tennis makes NCAA Tourney
The Presbyterian men’s tennis team earned its second Big South Conference championship and an automatic berth into the NCAA Division I Tournament in May.
Big South Player of the Year Max Benson helped the No. 4-seeded Blue Hose to a 4-3 win over No. 2 Radford in the Big South tournament finals.
PC drew No. 6 overall seed North Carolina for its opening round opponent in the NCAA Tournament and were dispatched by the Tar Heels 4-0 in Chapel Hill.
PC finished its season with an 11-7 record under first-year head coach John Collins.
McGowan weighs anchor with Commodores
Speedy Laurens District High wide receiver/kick returner Jayden McGowan signed his NCAA National Letter of Intent with Vanderbilt during the December early signing period.
McGowan had made his verbal commitment to the Commodores at the beginning of the Raiders’ football season in late August and held firm, choosing Vanderbilt over other NCAA Division I offers that included Harvard, Richmond, Army and Wake Forest.
“I wanted to play a high level of football, and we’re in the best conference in American in the SEC,” McGowan said. “I get to do that, get a great education at a small school in a big city.”
In the spring, McGowan won Class 4A state track titles in the 100- and 200-meters. The speed he put on display at the state track meet upped his football recruiting stock among Division I suitors and made him a catch for the Commodores, who expect him to contribute early on in their return game.
McGowan graduated from LDHS earlier this month and is set to enroll at Vanderbilt on Jan. 5.
Stevenson ends Cards career at Final Four
Laurens product Anna Stevenson ended her stellar volleyball career at Louisville in December with an ACC Championship, a Final Four appearance and first-team All-American honors.
Stevenson, a middle blocker who also graduated in December, led the Cardinals to a 32-0 record heading into the Final Four and a meeting with Big Ten foe Wisconsin. The Badgers upended Louisville in five sets en route to the national championship.
In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal in October, Stevenson said she had grown as a player as the Cardinals embarked on her final season.
“I feel so in control of what I do on the court. I’ve never played with so much control. . . . I don’t find myself making as many stupid errors as I used to,” she said. “It still happens but not as much as it used to. I guess that comes with age and experience.”
Stevenson is now set to embark on a professional career in Europe and has signed with an agent based in Italy.
LDHS wins region baseball title
When the dust settled in late April, the Raiders found themselves holding a region baseball championship trophy for the first time since 2012.
LDHS head coach Tory Patterson was a player on the Raiders’ last championship team and guided them to the top of Region 2-4A in 2021.
“That’s what we’ve been working for,” Patterson said after the Raiders clinched the title with a 2-1 win over rival Greenwood. “We’ve wanted to get back to winning and winning championships. I think this region title is definitely a start, and we want to keep it going.”
LDHS started the region schedule 2-2 before reeling off six straight wins to capture the conference title. The Raiders finished the season with an 18-10 record after exiting the playoffs with a pair of shutout losses to Lugoff-Elgin in the district finals.
Red Devils, Raiders golden on gridiron
Both Laurens and Clinton survived seasons interrupted occasionally by COVID-19, but managed to thrive when they were on the field.
The Red Devils saw the program return to its former glory with a 11-2 record and runner-up finish in Region 3-3A. Their only regular-season blemish came against eventual region champion Chapman, a 27-26 loss at Wilder Stadium. Clinton was ousted from the Class 3A playoffs by repeat state champion Daniel, 52-7.
Like their intra-county rival, the Raiders were also driven from the playoffs by the eventual state winner. South Pointe ended the Raiders’ Class 4A playoff run in the second round with a 47-20 win in Rock Hill.
LDHS, 6-5 overall, finished third in Region 2-4A with wins over Greer and Eastside, but were unable to play region heavyweights Greenwood and Greenville. South Pointe also defeated Greenwood on the way to the Class 4A state title.
PC meets Vandy in CWS
The Blue Hose got hot in the Big South Conference baseball tournament and captured the program’s first Big South title and with it a trip to the NCAA College World Series.
PC clinched the conference championship with an 8-5 win over Campbell, drawing a No. 4 seed in the Nashville Regional. There, the Blue Hose faced powerhouse Vanderbilt and former PC head coach Tim Corbin, who now leads the Commodores.
While PC was making its first CWS appearance, Vanderbilt returned to the postseason for the 15th straight year.
Beyond the Blue Hose’s underdog role – they were 22-21 heading into the regional – the opening game pitted Corbin against his former player, Elton Pollock. Pollock played for Corbin at PC after the coach took over the once-dormant Blue Hose program and started it anew.
“I’m excited for our kids and excited for our college,” Pollock said after seedings were announced for the CWS. “I’m excited for the town of Clinton and for Laurens County.”
PC was ousted from the double-elimination regional with a 10-0 loss to host Vanderbilt and a 9-2 loss to Indiana State.
“I told (the players) to embrace where we are – somewhere they’ve never been before – play the game, keep their heads up and enjoy it,” Pollock said after the Blue Hose’s run came to an end. “Ultimately, we can look back at the accomplishment of a Big South championship that was huge for our club and our school.”
Kelley resigns after 1 season
The “coach who never punts” did.
After one 2-9 season as head football coach of Presbyterian College football, Kevin Kelley resigned “to pursue other football interests.”
Kelley was hired soon after the firing of Tommy Spangler following a 4-3 spring season, PC’s first in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.
But Kelley, who achieved fame and success at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas for his analytics-driven, never-punt style of play, was unable to duplicate the success he found at the high school level. Kelley won nine state titles in 18 seasons at Pulaski Academy.
The Kelley era started with lopsided victories of NAIA opponents St. Andrews (84-13) and Fort Lauderdale (68-3) but ended with nine straight losses. Only one of those losses was within a touchdown (38-30 to Morehead State) and seven of them were by 20 points or more.
Kelley’s arrival did bring some attention to PC as national media outlets featured Kelley and his unique offensive system, but it did not translate immediately in victories or at the Bailey Memorial Stadium gate.
For the second straight offseason, PC says it is now engaged in a national search for a head football coach.
Spangler fired after 4-3 spring season
A day after returning from Des Moines, Iowa and a 28-24 win at Drake, Tommy Spangler was fired as Presbyterian’s head football coach.
The April victory at Drake put the final stamp on PC’s first winning season since 2014 and ended the program’s first foray into the non-scholarship NCAA Division I Pioneer Football League during a spring season brought about by COVID-19 and the cancellation of the PFL’s fall season.
Spangler was in his second stint as head coach of the Blue Hose, taking over in 2017 as the Blue Hose transitioned away from scholarship football while still competing in the Big South Conference. PC was a combined 8-25 from 2017-19 under Spangler.
During his first stint as head coach at PC from 2001-06, PC was 42-24 while playing in NCAA Division II and the South Atlantic Conference. After Spangler left in 2006 to become defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech, PC began its transition to NCAA Division I.
Less than three weeks after Spangler was fired, Pulaski Academy (Arkansas) head coach Kevin Kelley was pulled from the high school ranks to take over the reins at PC.
Kelley, known as “the coach who never punts” resigned after one 2-9 season with the Blue Hose.
Spangler spent this past fall as a volunteer assistant coach with Clinton High School and was credited by head coach Corey Fountain for his help improving the Red Devils’ defense.