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Top 10 East Texas Sports Stories of 2017: Carthage reigns once again

George Whitley

By George Whitley
Dec. 30, 2017 at 7:02 p.m.

The Carthage Bulldogs celebrate their sixth State Championshiop victory Friday, December 22, 2017, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

As we reach the last page of 2017, it's time to reflect on the past 364 days. East Texas has had its fair share of memorable stories and headline makers the past 12 months. Here's a sampling of what transpired this year with our Top 10 Sports Stories of 2017:

NO. 1

ON THE OTHER HAND, DAWGS GET A RING : It shouldn't have come as a great surprise when the Carthage Bulldogs opened the 2017 football as the clear-cut number one team in state in Class 4A. After all, Carthage was fresh off a fifth state championship against Abilene Wylie the previous December.

Scott Surratt's Dawgs were projected to make a successful defense of their crown and that's precisely what they did. Carthage's 49-21 win over Kennedale in the 4A Division I championship on Dec. 22 wasn't really as close as the score could indicate. And that's pretty much how Carthage did it all season long.

It was utter and total domination from stem to stern; wire-to-wire dominion like few have seen in recent years.

The Dawgs prevailed by an average of four touchdowns each time they took the field. Their 48-38 decision over Liberty-Eylau in week two would the closest call throughout the regular season. It wasn't until a hard-fought 46-39 semifinal victory over La Vega that Carthage really broke a sweat.

The Dawgs rang up an average 48 points per game in their six postseason games and safely secured Surratt his sixth ring, while running their win streak to 26 games.

Titletown has a new address and it's located in Panola County.

NO. 2

GRIDIRON RENAISSANCE AND NARROWLY MISSING OUT: Football turnarounds that energized communities, coupled with a school winning its first outright district crown in nearly a half century, painted indelible marks that won't soon fade. All this, not to mention, the drive to end 80 years of heartache coming up just a little short.

Robbie Coplin, just two years into his rebuild at New Diana, guided the Eagles to the Class 3A Division II quarterfinals before bowing out to defending state champion Gunter on Dec. 8.

Coplin's Eagles brought a high-flying offense to the party and ignited a fire in Diana that should burn for some time. Pine Tree's Kerry Lane, like Coplin, entered his second year in charge and got the Pirates a postseason invite for the first time in 16 years.

The White Oak Roughnecks were able to lock up their first undisputed and unshared district crown since 1971. Kris Iske's troops made things official with their 44-0 shutout of New Boston on Nov. 10. You'd have to go back to the Mike Barber days when White Oak last hoisted exclusive hardware.

Good things seem to come in 7s for the Longview Lobos. They won the school's only football state title in 1937 and advanced to the semifinals in 1947 and the state championship in 1997. Well, 2017 held a lot of promise, but few could have expected what transpired.

Just a year following a rare first-round playoff exit, the Lobos made it all the way to the Class 6A Division II state semifinals before suffering a heartbreaking 28-26 loss to Waco Midway.

John King's crew rebounded from a shocking district opening loss to Mesquite Horn and ran off 10 straight victories before their Dec. 16 season-ending setback.

NO. 3

ALL THE WAY TO STATE: After coming up short the past two seasons, the Kilgore Bulldogs soccer team made the third time indeed a charm. The Bulldogs notched the school's first state championship in soccer with a thrilling win over Bridgeport on April 13 in Georgetown.

Kilgore, a state qualifier for the fourth time, bested Bridgeport 4-2 on penalty kicks as Austin Walker's kickers garnered gold.

Later in the spring, the Union Grove Lady Lion track team went down to Austin and brought back the Class 2A team title. Cheyenne Grubbs won the 300 hurdles while. the 800 relay foursome of Shayla Gallagher, Kyra Winn, Hanna Chambliss and Summer Grubbs struck gold.

This was good enough to outpoint Shiner for the team title.

About a week later the Christian Heritage Sentinels won a thrilling back-and-forth affair to take a 3-2 win over Brazosport Christian and capture the TAPPS 2A Region 5 state baseball championship.

It's also worth mentioning the Hughes Springs Lady Mustangs softball team advanced to the state tournament for the first time in school history.

NO. 4

WINDS OF CHANGE: We witnessed several coaching resignations and or retirements this past calendar.

Longtime local coach Mark Comfort, most recently of Sabine, decided to hang up his whistle in early January. Comfort was a successful defensive coordinator at Longview, Pine Tree and Spring Hill before landing the head gig at Sabine in 2012. He was also a most-respected softball coach while at Spring Hill and Sabine.

Pine Tree basketball. baseball and softball all changed hands as Rick Dowdle stepped down after a long tenure as basketball coach, while softball coach Katie Keith moved on as did baseball coach David Sheppard.

Mike Eckels led the Spring Hill baseball team to the playoff before resigning his post. Lady Panther softball coach Ashton Brey took the volleyball job at Van.

The Longview boys and girls basketball programs experienced flux as both Billy Goffney and Keith Smith moved on.

Kurt Traylor left the friendly confines of Gilmer to lead the Tyler Lee football fortunes. Longtime Hallsville football coach David Plunk resigned, Clint Harper left Marshall as did Robbie Coplin at New Diana.

Harleton softball lead man Justin Kniffen resigned, while White Oak's Rob McFall took the Carthage post.

Kilgore had a couple notable departures as baseball coach Charles Foshee moved on as well as boys soccer coach Austin Walker.

NO. 5

THESE HALLOWED HALLS: A trio of East Texans earned the prestigious honor of hall of fame induction this year.

Former Longview Lady Lobo basketball legend Angela Lawson gained a spot in the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame.

Lawson was a catalyst on the Lady Lobos' 1983-84 undefeated state champions. She later starred at Louisiana Tech for the Lady Techsters. Lawson's induction ceremony will be May 19 in San Antonio.

Hallsville had a couple HOF honorees with Kayla Whatley's admission into the Arkansas-Monticello Sports Hall of Fame for softball. Also, Clayton Farrell entered the Abilene Christian Hall of Fame. Farrell was an All-American defensive end for ACU in 2005.

The late Evelyn Blalock, who coached the Kilgore College Lady Rangers to multiple national championships, was one of 12 finalists considered for inclusion into the Women's College Basketball Hall of Fame.

NO. 6

SUCCESS ON THE HARDWOOD: The Kilgore Lady Rangers, once a basketball power, experienced their first postseason victory in near a decade.

Coach Anna Nimz led the Lady Rangers to a 21-11 overall record and took them to the conference tournament championship before losing to Trinity Valley.

Dan Miller led the LeTourneau Yellow Jackets to their first American Southwest Conference title in school history.

LETU finished the 2016-17 season with a 22-6 overall record and 12-4 in conference play. The Jackets were especially hard to beat at Solheim Arena, finishing with an impressive 16-2 ledger.

NO. 7

NOTABLE LOSSES: We said goodbye to a couple East Texas icons in 2017 with the passing of Jim Norman and Y.A. Tittle.

Norman left his mark as one of the best high school football coaches in the state, leading the Big Sandy Wildcats to three state titles in the 1970s.

In his 10-year tenure, Norman carved an 84-26-5 record. The Wildcats had a five-year stretch from 1971 through 1975 winning 64 of 66 games and three state crowns. He passed away April 23.

Tittle, a native of Marshall, spent 17 years in the NFL with stints in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York. The 1971 NFL Hall of Fame inductee passed for over 28,000 yards and 212 TDs in a career that touched three decades.

The seven-time pro bowler spent the bulk of career with the 49ers, but made his stint with the New York football Giants pay off, leading the G-Men to three straight NFL Championship games. Tittle, who once threw 7 TDs in a single game, passed away Oct. 8.

NO. 8

SIMPLY THE BEST: White Oak graduate Whitney Simmons became the first two-time NCAA Division III national champion in UT Tyler history by winning the hammer throw in late May at the 2017 NCAA DIII Indoor Championships in Waverly, Iowa.

Simmons, who finished her UT Tyler career as one of its most decorated athletes with three national titles, was honored by the city of Tyler with "Whitney Simmons Day" on July 12.

NO. 9

BUILD IT , THEY WILL COME: The Kilgore College softball team moved into their new digs this past spring.

Known as The Ballpark at KC Commons, the sparkling new confines were just part of a memorable season.

The Rangers reached the regional tournament for the first time in school history and set school records for wins in a season (33) and conference (19).

NO. 10

FILLIES BACK IN NATIONALS: The Panola College volleyball team made its second straight trip to the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas.

After opening with a loss to Polk State College, the Fillies won three straight over Wallace State, Western Nebraska and Larimine County to finished ninth overall.

(Follow George Whitley on Twitter @GPigskinprof)

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