By BEN JOHNSON
Some Sequoyah softball players threw their gloves into the air. Others raced out of the dugout. Coaches high-fived and hugged one another.
The end result, as the sun crept lower to the horizon, casting some shade out onto the field, was a frenzy down the first-base line at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in early May.
Sequoyah, an underdog and an after-thought heading into the Class 5A slowpitch state tournament, had just knocked off No. 2 Morris, 5-1, for the state title.
Not to shabby for a team ranked ninth heading into the state tournament.
Sequoyah celebrated its first state crown since the girls basketball team capped off a three-year run of titles in 2007.
But four months — plus a couple of weeks — down the road, the raucous cause for celebration was tempered. The Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association stripped Sequoyah of the championship, citing the use of an ineligible player throughout the entire season.
The team and the school was crushed. Kelsey Leach — the player ruled to have participated illegally — was devastated.
Yet, the saga wasn’t even close to being done.
On Nov. 8, it was discovered that Leach was eligible to participate in athletics at Sequoyah, and thus the title returned to the school that endured a preposterous roller coaster ride during the calendar year.
The never-ending narrative of Sequoyah’s slowpitch softball title landed at No. 1 on the Tahlequah Daily Press’ top 10 sports moments of 2012.
Listed below are the top sports moments of 2012:
1. Sequoyah’s slowpitch softball team wins state championship - May 1.
Sequoyah won the crown on May 1, but the title wasn’t secure until November. Quite the journey for the Lady Indians.
2. Tahlequah’s Jessica Hembree wins cross country title, the third of her high school career - Oct. 27.
After a gut-wrenching injury that ended her bid to win her third state championship in three years during junior campaign, Hembree returned in 2012 as a senior to claim the third title that eluded her in 2011. In typical Hembree fashion, she won the state crown easily and cemented her status as one of the top female cross country runners this state has ever seen.
3. Keys boys basketball beats Kansas in area tournament finals to pick up the program’s first state-tournament berth - March 2.
After falling short of the state tournament in 2010 and 2011, Keys made the most of its appearance in the area tournament finals, beating Kansas, 44-38, at Fort Gibson’s Harrison Fieldhouse. Trevor Eubanks tallied 19 points to lead the Cougars, who went on to lose to Oklahoma Centennial in the 3A state quarterfinals. Keys was up on Oklahoma Centennial 25-19 at halftime but fell in double overtime.
4. Sequoyah’s Kayla Davis wins the 400-meter run at the Class 3A state track meet - May 4 (make brief mention of Sequoyah’s boys finishing 2nd as a team).
Lost in the shuffle of a tumultuous year at Sequoyah was Davis’ state title. As a freshman, Davis won the quarter-mile crown, highlighting a day that also saw the Sequoyah boys track team come in second at the 3A state track meet.
5. Sequoyah’s fastpitch softball team loses in the Class 3A title game - Oct. 7.
After five consecutive years of bowing out in the 3A semifinals, Sequoyah reached the championship game against Little Axe. The championship, though, still didn’t come home with Sequoyah, which lost 1-0 on a fielding error in the bottom of the seventh inning.
6. Sequoyah’s football team is forced to forfeit its nine wins during the regular season. - Nov. 5.
After OSSAA rulings and some court hearings sandwiched somewhere in there, Sequoyah’s football team decided to drop its quarrel with the OSSAA and forfeit its nine victories in 2012, resulting in an 0-10 season for the Indians. Prior to the forfeits, Sequoyah had won nine of its ten regular-season games, save for a collapse for the ages against Victory Christian during the early portion of the campaign. In every other game, Sequoyah was rarely challenged and even claimed the District 3A-7 crown, before having to hand it over to Hilldale, which Sequoyah “beat” 28-0 in Week 9. The Indians, losers of three consecutive first-round games in the playoffs prior to 2012, were primed to end their recent drought in the postseason and make a push for the 3A crown. The prevailing question at the end of the football season was a perplexing, “what if?”
7. Tahlequah’s Mason McMillan etches his name in the school record book, setting the Tigers’ new single-season rushing record in Tahlequah’s loss to Collinsville. - Nov. 2.
One of the few bright spots for Tahlequah during the football season was Mason McMillan. Despite his club limping to a 1-9 finish this year, McMillan rose to the occasion nearly every Friday night, resulting in a school record now belonging to him. With his 155-yard performance at Collinsville in Week 10, McMillan finished the season with 1,241 rushing yards, which is now the single-season rushing mark at Tahlequah.
8. Northeastern State’s Randy Gipson decides he’s leaving to take a coaching job at Northwest Missouri State. Then, the next day he decides to stay at NSU. - March 26-27.
The winningest women’s basketball coach at Northeastern State was out the door, heading to Northwest Missouri State. Then, he wasn’t. Gipson, after mulling his initial decision over for roughly 24 hours, opted against leaving and stayed at NSU, where he’s currently in the middle of his 14th year at the helm.
9. NSU men’s soccer team loses to Saginaw Valley State in the NCAA tournament, falling a game short of the Final Four in Florida.
A goal by No. 12 Saginaw Valley State in the final minute of double overtime sank a spectacular season for Northeastern State. Instead of heading to Evans, Ga., for a shot in the Division II title game, the RiverHawks season was done in a matter of seconds.
10. Tahlequah’s slowpitch softball team wins its 19th straight regional tournament championship. - April 26.
When it comes to domination, nothing personifies it more than Tahlequah’s slowpitch softball team. Regional championships don’t grow on trees in Class 6A, but Tahlequah has made it look easy the last two decades, and that was certainly the case again in 2012.
Honorable mention (listed by school):
• The girls tennis team wins its third straight regional tournament championship.
• Jake Johnson wins a regional tournament title in golf.
• The boys track team ties for the regional meet title.
• The fastpitch softball team wins its third straight regional crown, before losing in the state quarterfinals.
• Zack Robinson and Brayden Scott both sign national letters of intent to play Division I college football.
• The Indians’ football team crushes Keys in a Cherokee County football clash.
• The Cougars’ football team wins easily over Spiro in the first round of the playoffs, before losing the next week at Metro Christian.
• The slowpitch softball team qualifies for the state tournament, but loses to Colbert in the opening round.
• The women’s basketball team beats Newman in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
• Michael Bowie leaves Oklahoma State to solidify NSU’s offensive line in football.
• The football team beats Central Missouri for its first win in MIAA play.
Copy editor Kolby Paxton’s top 10 of 2012
1. Sequoyah FB/OSSAA saga
2. Hembree wins third XC crown
3. Keys BB wins area
4. Sequoyah FB wins district
5. Sequoyah SB stripped of SP title
6. McMillan sets rushing record
7. NSU wins first MIAA game
8. Bowie to NSU
9. Cub signs early... in Tulsa.
10. Gipson pulls a Dana Altman.