5. (tie) Silver inducted into NCHSAA Hall of Fame
Former McDowell Lady Titans basketball coach Mike Silver is no novice when it comes to accepting awards for his work, but the one he received in April may top them all.
Silver was named to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame, becoming the first McDowell native to be inducted.
Silver’s resume’ made his induction an eventuality rather than a possibility.
In 32 years at the helm of the Lady Titans, Silver built the program into a powerhouse that perennially challenged for regional and state titles.
The school’s winningest head coach in any sport, Silver compiled a 650-200 tied for second-most in North Carolina history and easily the state record for wins at one school.
Silver’s teams won 15 conference regular-season championships, 13 conference tournament championships and 10 State Sectional championships. The Lady Titans made 10 West Regional appearances under Silver, winning four regional championships and playing in four state championship games. The 1990-91 team captured the only team sports state title in school history. The 1997-98 and 1998-99 teams were state 4A runners-up in back-to-back seasons.
Silver’s teams made 22 straight state playoff appearances and won 20 or more games in 16 of his final 18 seasons, garnering 18 and 19 victories in the other two campaigns.
He was voted Northwestern 4A Conference Coach of the Year 14 times and was named Associated Press State Coach of the Year following the 1991-92 season. He was also named the Southeast Regional Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Silver coached in the Annual Blue-White All-Star Game twice, as well as coaching the West squad in the Annual East-West Game and the N.C. team in the North-South All-Star Game. He retired in 2007.
5 (tie). Titans’ Toney McGee a state runner-up
The only thing that stood between McDowell junior 126-pounder Toney McGee and a second consecutive State 4A championship was a third-period escape by Hough senior Caleb Kreitter.
Still, McGee’s runner-up finish in February was one of the county’s top stories in 2017.
McGee had beaten Kreitter in the championship bout at 120 pounds the previous year as a sophomore, becoming just the third Titan to win a state title and the first underclassman to do so.
Kreitter had handed McGee his first loss of the season with a win in the West Regional championship the previous week. It was the second straight season in which the two rivals met in both the regional and state finals.
The 2017 title bout was tied at 4-4 heading into the third period, but Kreitter’s late escape gave him a 5-4 victory. The match was not without controversy. Earlier in the bout, McGee appeared to have scored two back (near fall) points on Kreitter, but the referee did not award those to McGee.
Titans head coach Tim Hutchins said McGee handled the disappointing loss like a champ.
“If he had another few seconds, he would have won the match,” said Hutchins at the time. “He (McGee) handled it well. He held up Caleb’s hand when they shook hands, and he showed a lot of class. I was very proud of him.”
McGee finished the year with a 49-2 record and improved his career mark to 144-13.
The Titan senior is currently undefeated and has high hopes of becoming the first two-time state champ in school history and just the fourth MHS wrestler of all time to qualify for the State Championships three times.
4. Holland bounces back in a huge way
When McDowell native and two-time Major League All-Star Greg Holland missed the entire 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery, baseball experts wondered if the closer would ever return to his previous form.
Holland answered them emphatically in 2017.
The former Titan and Western Carolina star had a stellar year with the Colorado Rockies, making his third All-Star Game and winning the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year award. By year’s end, he was right back where he had been before: among the game’s best relief pitchers.
The 32-year-old Holland finished with 41 saves, tying a Rockies club record and tying the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen for tops in the National League. Holland was named the NL Reliever of the Month for both April and May and converted his first 22 save opportunities. For the year, he was 3-6 with a 3.61 ERA and 41 saves in 45 opportunities.
In his career, Holland, a former Kansas City Royals closer, has 186 saves in 206 chances and an earned run average of 2.60. He has 500 strikeouts.
The Rockies signed Holland to a one-year deal in January, and the righty easily met the performance thresholds in the contract to earn a player option for 2018.
Following his remarkable 2017 campaign, Holland declined a $15 million club option to play for the Rockies in 2018, and also declined Colorado’s $17.4 million qualifying offer, and with that is now a free agent. The Rockies have expressed interest in bringing him back, but there are no guarantees that will happen with Holland on the market.
Regardless of where he ends up, Holland – just the second big league player from McDowell and the first all-star – served notice he is again at the top of his game.
3. Big league dreams come to fruition
Trying to picture what the Big League Camp at Lake James would look like – even with computer-generated schematics – wasn’t easy.
But the abstract Donnie Suttles has in mind when he unveiled plans for the camp last November is now a sparkling reality.
The development and opening of the facility is No. 3 on the list of top local sports stories for 2017.
Suttles, a former McDowell High, West Carolina University and minor league standout who now works as a scout for the San Francisco Giants, came up with the idea when he discovered 85 percent of Major League Hall-of-Famers were involved in outdoor activities.
Along with partners Dennis Whitson and Stacy Crisp of Marion and Jeff Bryant of Asheville, Suttles developed the one-of-a-kind youth baseball and softball camp that combines top-notch instruction in the game’s fundamentals with a healthy dose of other outdoors-related challenges.
One year later, the camp opened its doors for the first time, and hopes to provide residents in McDowell County and all of western North Carolina a state-of-the-art facility that will assist in both physical and skill development in various sports, as well as recreational and team-building activities.
Big League Camp includes up to 10 batting cages along with pitching mounds and simulators for both baseball and softball. The inside can also be converted from a hitting and pitching station to a full infield layout where team throwing and fielding drills can be performed. The turfed area can also be of use for other various sports as well.
The facility, located on 125 acres off Yancey Road near Lake James, includes two outdoor turf fields, suitable for higher level baseball and softball, along with an indoor turf workout center that folks of all ages can utilize.
The camp features several newly built cabins that will be available for rental to groups or individually later on after the initial launch. Kayak and canoe rentals will also be available with easy access to both Lake James and the Catawba River
The camp offers monthly memberships and has already agreed to host the county’s Little League Baseball program in the spring.
As 2018 begins – to paraphrase the great Michael Jordan – the ceiling appears to be the roof for the Big League Camp.
2. A season to remember: Titans dominant on the hardwood
At the start of the 2016-17 basketball season, anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the game could see the McDowell Titans had the potential to dominate the conference and emerge as one of the best clubs west of Charlotte.
That’s exactly what the Titans did, and McDowell’s remarkable season is the No. 2 local sports story of the year.
Blessed with a formidable inside game led by 6-foot-8 senior Tanner Dillingham and 6-foot-5 senior Cannon Lamb, along with a deadly perimeter attack that included senior Divese Carson and juniors Kevin Silver, Skyler McKinney and Antoine Lindsey, McDowell was simply too much for most of the teams in the region.
The Titans lost only twice in the regular season, with one setback coming at Freedom against a Patriots team the Titans had beaten two weeks prior. The other blemish was an upset defeat against a solid Hibriten club in the semifinals of the Freedom Christmas Invitational.
After that, it was lights out the rest of the way. Following the Hibriten loss, McDowell reeled off 15 wins in a row.
The Titans ran roughshod through the league schedule in their final year as part of the Mountain Athletic 4A/3A Conference.
The Titans were a perfect 12-0 in the MAC to claim the split league’s 4A and (unofficial) overall title. McDowell then went on to win the conference tournament championship as well with a memorable 91-81victory over Erwin in the title game. MHS was 14-0 against the MAC.
McDowell won its first-round State 4A Playoff game easily, but was stunned in the second round when Mt. Tabor edged the Titans 77-75 on a last-second shot.
Despite the loss, McDowell finished 25-3 overall, the second-most wins in school history. Only the 28-1 Titans of 1991-92 – head coach Brian Franklin’s senior year – had a better record.
Along the way, the Titans won the MAC’s 4A title for the seventh time in eight years, and the overall championship for the fourth time in eight seasons. It was also McDowell’s eighth regular-season championship in the last 11 seasons and the Titans’ 10th conference tournament title in the last dozen years.
Five Titans, Dillingham, Carson, McKinney, Lamb and Silver, received all-conference or honorable-mention all-conference recognition, and Franklin was named the MAC’s Coach of the Year. Three seniors, Dillingham, Carson and Lamb, signed to play college ball.
So far in the 2017-18 season, the success has continued. Headed into this year’s Christmas Tournament, the Titans were 8-1 overall and 2-0 in their new conference, the Northwestern 3A/4A.
Titan Stadium gets a few improvements
Coming into 2017, it was no secret McDowell High’s Titan Stadium was looking – to put it kindly – a little run down.
But it didn’t stay that way for long, and the improvements to the venerable venue are the top local sports story of 2017.
The stadium upgrades, which included a new artificial turf field, were part of the McDowell Board of Education’s three-phase project to refurbish some of the school’s aging athletic facilities.
Phase I, which was completed in 2016, included the installation of handrails and guardrails, the reinforcement of the concrete at Titan stadium and making the stadium more accessible for the handicapped. Phase I also included repairing damages on the visitor and home sides of the stadium and fixing drainage issues that have caused erosion on both sides.
Phase II included the installation of a new rubberized track and artificial turf field. Work began in early April, and continued throughout the summer.
The Titans football program began practicing on the new field in August, and hosted the first game Friday, Aug. 25, against Avery. McDowell broke in the new field in style with a 43-6 trouncing of the Vikings.
Afterward, Titans head coach Andy Morgan told his players they’d always carry the memory of that game. “I told the kids that nobody can ever take away that you’re the first varsity victory on this field,” said Morgan. “They’ve got that for the rest of their lives.
Next up for the board is Phase III, which will include improvements to the school’s tennis courts, among other things.
By the time the project is complete, it will carry a price tag of more than $2.1 million.
The project hasn’t just benefitted one athletic program. McDowell Athletics Director Neil Brackett recently pointed out the school supports 29 athletic teams with participation numbers at more than 500. In addition, the school’s band and ROTC programs have gotten their share of use out of the field, as have the county’s middle schools and the local youth football program.
“It’s been a scheduling nightmare, but the area is being utilized all the time,” Brackett told the board in November. “What you have done to the stadium is absolutely impressive, and when people come to see it, they absolutely love it.”
Sportswriter Dan Crawley and education reporter Ginny Rhodes contributed to this story.