This year was different. It started off normal, with things like high school and college basketball rolling along, then saw the start of the baseball, softball, and golf seasons.
And then it all came to a screeching halt in March as the COVID-19 virus hit, and we wondered how long we might have to go without sports at any level as uncertainty and questions seemed to outnumber anything we actually knew.
But thankfully, sports were able to resume, and 2020 saw a number of great stories across Alabama, and here in the Sand Mountain area. Everything from major events being held, to football milestones, and something that will hopefully help the future of sports here in Sand Mountain. It may not have been normal, but the great sports stories and moments were still there.
Here are our 10 biggest sports stories of the year, presented in no particular order.
Alabama’s Prolific Offense
Even in the storied history of Alabama football, the Tide have never seen an offense like this. Heading into the College Football Playoff, the Tide had the second highest scoring offense in the country, averaging 49.7 points per game, just one tenth of a point behind Kent State, who played just four games, and against far lesser competition.
It added up to the Tide seeing three players voted among the top-5 in Heisman voting, with quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith named as finalists.
Even in a weird year where college football almost wasn’t played, the Tide found a way to put together one of the greatest offenses in college football history.
Auburn Coaching Saga
It seemed like every year since his first season at Auburn, Gus Malzahn was on the hot seat. This year, it finally boiled after an up-and-down 6-4 year that included a blowout loss to Alabama. Even with a $21 million buyout, the Tigers finally said goodbye to Gus after eight seasons.
And then the coaching search took a wild turn in every direction, with names like Bill Clark from UAB, Hugh Freeze at Liberty, and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele mentioned as candidates to take over the Tigers. It turned out none of those were the guy, as Bryan Harsin was announced the week of Christmas after his seven seasons at Boise State.
Snead State’s Continued Resurgence
Prior to coach Jeremiah Patterson taking over, the Parsons were a down program that hadn’t won a regional title since 1990. Patterson captured that elusive title in 2018, and darn near did it again during the 2019-20 season.
After a slow start to the season, the Parsons got hot at the right time, going 7-3 down the stretch and reaching the finals of the ACCC/Region XXII Tournament, where they unfortunately fell to host Shelton State, 72-68. The Parsons haven’t seen the floor since due to the pandemic, but are aiming to start their season on January 26, and features a young roster that will have just five sophomores.
Bassmaster Classic Takes Over Lake Guntersville
In a weird twist, this was the last major sporting event in the country that had full attendance at it. For three days in March, the top anglers in the world took over the lake, bringing thousands of visitors to the area to witness the event, and to see all the lake and the region had to offer.
After three days of fishing, Hank Cherry Jr. of North Carolina topped the field by more than six pounds to take home the title, and the $300,000 first prize that came with it. More importantly, the event reminded people that Lake Guntersville and the Sand Mountain area offers some of the country’s best bass fishing.
Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheater Opens
It may not have been under ideal circumstances, but one of the best athletic facilities in the state officially opened this year, featuring 16 tennis courts, 14 outdoor turf fields, an 8-lane indoor competition pool, and a rec center with indoor hardwood courts.
While COVID prevented many of the big events that it hopes to host in the future from happening, it laid the groundwork for being able to bring those events to town, and to give local youth (and adult) athletes the biggest thing they need to compete: A place to play. There are endless possibilities for what the complex can do for youth and adult sports in the area, and hopefully tennis, baseball, softball, soccer, football, basketball, and swim teams of all ages can take advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities.
Fyffe Football Continues to Dominate
There’s really not much you can say to describe how dominant the Fyffe Red Devils have been on the football field. They’re rolled of 45 consecutive wins, and three consecutive state championships, including their first at the 3A level this year.
Along the way this year, head coach Paul Benefield joined an exclusive coaching fraternity, notching his 300th career win on September 11. From there, the accolades and awards continued to roll in, with the Red Devils landing six players on this year’s 3A All-State teams, including four players named to the first time. In addition to those honors, players Ike Rowell and Caleb Lyles were named finalists for the Class 3A Back/Linemen of the Year awards, while Brody Dalton signed with UAB. The team is also within striking distance of the state record for consecutive wins.
Bell, Dalton Sign with D1 Schools
Outside of the major high school programs that receive national attention, players signing national letters of intent to major schools is a rare event that happens once in a while. This year, the Sand Mountain area was fortunate enough to have two football players sign with nationally recognized programs, and both of them are tight ends. Albertville’s Trinity Bell, a 6-foot-7 multi-sport star, fielded offers from over 30 schools, including Auburn, Florida, and a number of Big Ten schools, but in the end stuck with his initial commitment and the University of Tennessee. Bell initially hoped to play basketball in college, but after joining the football team for his junior year, the football offers far outweighed the basketball chances.
Fyffe’s Brody Dalton decided to stay local and inked with the UAB Blazers just four days after playing in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. Dalton was part of a senior class at Fyffe that went 72-1 and was named to this year’s 3A All-State team as a first-team selection.
Guntersville’s Magic Season
It all clicked on offense for the Guntersville Wildcats this season. Led by a trio of All-State players, the Wilcats racked up a whopping 75 touchdowns this season, 38 passing and 37 rushing, averaging around 50 points per game. The defense wsan’t bad either, giving up just over 10 points per game, with four shutouts.
The Wildcats had an undefeated regular season and saw receiver Jack Harris named first-team All-State, as well as Marshall County and Region MVP, while quarterback Cole McCarty and running back Logan Pate were named second-team All-State.
The Wildcats dominated the All-Marshall County team, with 19 players honored. Even scarier for next season: Nine of the 11 players selected to the All-County first-team will return next season.
Albertville Hires New Football Coach
Albertville made the jump to the state’s highest level of football this past season, and quickly learned what 7A play was like, going 2-8 and then dismissing coach Cliff Mitchell after two seasons in charge.
From there, the board set out to find a coach who had experience building a program at the 7A level and landed on Grissom High’s Chip English. English turned the Tigers into a playoff team this past season, culminating his four years at the helm there. Prior to English’s arrival, Grissom won just two games in the previous four seasons and hadn’t made the playoff since 2004.
English, who views himself as an offensive coach, will arrive in Albertville and address the team for the first time in early January.
COVID Impacts Sports
It takes a lot to bring sports to a halt, but the COVID-19 pandemic did that. Starting in March, everything almost instantly stopped, and for a couple months, there were literally no sports happening.
But it also gave us a chance to check out other outdoor activities that we hadn’t done as frequently as before, like hiking, fishing, boating, golfing.
Eventually, slowly, things came back. First individual sports like NASCAR and golf, then team sports like the NHL and NBA inside bubbles, and eventually the return of high school and college sports in the fall. Thankfully, Alabama was able to get through the entire football and volleyball seasons and is still playing basketball at the moment. And amidst all this, the first doses of a vaccine have begun to be administered, hopefully bringing us closer to a “normal” season, and fans being able to pack the stands again.