The top sports stories of the year for those who follow the local sports scene — from the pros down to high school — are usually easy to identify. They’re the items that keep fans talking and, in some cases, debating for a long time. The top sports stories often come out of nowhere, which is why they are so hotly debated, while others are much more anticipated.
In 2013, local sports fans saw the Atlanta Braves announce shocking plans to leave Turner Field and move outside of the city limits in 2017. It was also a less-than-stellar season in football for the Georgia Bulldogs and Atlanta Falcons. In high school football, the legendary career of the state’s all-time leading passer, Deshaun Watson, came to a close with another remarkable showing for Gainesville, while West Hall and Union County made a return to the postseason after an extended absence. And Buford won state titles, again, in football and softball, adding new accolades to their respective dynasties.
The following is how The Times’ sports staff ranked the Top 10 sports stories of 2013.
1. BRAVES ANNOUNCE MOVE TO COBB: On Nov. 11, every Atlanta Braves fan received a Monday morning surprise when the news broke of the team’s intentions to move to the northern suburbs of Cobb County in 2017. News of the planned 42,000-seat, $670 million stadium project was kept tightly under wraps, even though Braves executives said in a press conference that it began talks with Cobb County officials about the possibilities of a move in July, Braves president John Schuerholz said. The proposed stadium will be located on the north side of Interstate 285, near the intersection with I-75. The Braves have played in downtown Atlanta since moving from Milwaukee in 1966.
Three days after announcement of the future move to Cobb County, officials announced funds from existing taxes and future taxes on business and tourism will cover Cobb’s obligation for funding the stadium. The initial agreement with the Braves and Cobb County is for 30 years.
The financial responsibility for funding the new stadium is split almost 50-50 between the Braves and Cobb County.
The planned move has drawn mixed reactions from fans. Some think it will be difficult to attend games in a heavy-traffic area of the suburbs, while others think it is a positive to move out of a high-density area of downtown.
Atlanta will remain at Turner Field through the 2016 season, when a 20-year lease with the city ends. The stadium will be demolished after its final season of use by the Braves.
While downtown Atlanta will lose one pro sports franchise, another was locked up to stay within a stone’s throw of where it currently plays. In March, the Atlanta Falcons announced plans to build a new retractable-roof dome stadium. The new facility will come at a cost of $1 billion, $800 million of that to be covered by Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
2. WATSON SHINES AS SENIOR FOR BIG RED: Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson finished his high school career in 2013 with a legacy that will be hard to ever match. With 3,775 passing yards this fall, Watson extended his state-record passing mark to 13,145 career yards and a state-best 155 career passing touchdowns. This season, Watson helped Gainesville to its third trip to the state semifinals during his career, along with a third region championship. Watson, who will enroll at Clemson University to begin his college career on Jan. 5, made a habit of precise throws, tackle-eluding runs and clutch victories. Through his four years of high school, Watson started every game for the Red Elephants and compiled 12 playoff victories. Watson was selected as the Georgia Sportswriters Association All-Classification Player of the Year in 2012 and All-State Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 and 2013. He was also chosen to play in this week’s Under Armour All-American Game.
3. FALCONS FALL SHORT OF SUPER BOWL: On the heels of the Atlanta Falcons’ dismal 4-12 finish this season, their success early in 2013 now seems, in many ways, like a distant memory. Still, Atlanta essentially came within 10 yards of its first Super Bowl appearance since 1999, before suffering a 28-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game on January 20, 2013. One week after almost blowing a 20-0 halftime lead against the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons allowed an early 17-0 lead to slip away against San Francisco. After falling behind 28-24, the Falcons drove to the 49ers’ 10-yard line before a fourth-down pass attempt from Matt Ryan to Roddy White — which would have been enough for a first down if caught — was knocked away by linebacker Navorro Bowman with 1:13 remaining. San Francisco then ran all but the final six seconds off the clock to seal the victory. The loss was supposed to mark the final game of legendary Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez’s career, but he later chose to delay retirement and return for the 2013 season.
4. VINING RETIRES AFTER LEGENDARY CAREER: Seth Vining won everywhere he went as a high school coach over 39 seasons. And in 2013, after four state titles and 745 career victories, he decided to retire from Lakeview Academy. In addition to the state titles, Vining won 15 Lanierland titles, 11 region championships, 26 trips to the state tournament and 10 berths in the state semifinals. At his final career stop, Vining led Lakeview Academy to a pair of 20-win seasons during his nine years in charge. His final two seasons as a coach, Vining was named the Region 8-A Coach of the Year. Vining was inducted to the Northeast Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. He was also the man behind building East Hall into a powerhouse with girls state championships in 1979 and 1980. He later guided the Viking boys to state championships in 2001 and 2003.
5. TROJANS BASEBALL MAKES HISTORY: Led by a group of five college-bound seniors, the North Hall baseball program took its season all the way to the Class AAA championship series in 2013 before finishing as state runner-up. The Trojans finished with a program-record 32 wins and made their first trip past the second round of the postseason in school history. Fueled by dominating left-handed pitchers Preston Graham and Colton Duttweiler, the Trojans won the Region 7-AAA title, swept their first two playoff series with four wins and won 26 of 27 games during a stretch of its historic season. North Hall lost both games of the state championship series against Cartersville in the best-of-three finals on May 25 at Jody Davis Field.
6. BRAVES WIN FIRST DIVISION TITLE SINCE 2005: The Atlanta Braves recaptured some of the magic they enjoyed when they won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, cruising to a 96-66 record and the NL East pennant. Atlanta held a comfortable lead for the vast majority of the season and finished a full 10 games ahead of the second-place Washington Nationals, who were widely considered the favorites to win the division behind budding superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Braves went on to lose the NLDS to the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games.
7. WOOD LANDS WITH GAINESVILLE BASKETBALL: Benjie Wood was the hottest basketball coaching commodity in the spring after leading the North Hall boys to the state semifinals for the second time in seven years. Finally, in April, he landed with Gainesville — after Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell left for the same position at Lakeview Academy — but it wasn’t a direct path. On March 21, Wood was announced as the new coach at Flowery Branch, after Duke Mullis resigned. Five weeks later, Wood had a change of heart and was hired as boys coach at Gainesville. The Red Elephants’ coach has a history of winning wherever he goes. He’s led the Johnson girls and North Hall boys to the state semifinals, and is now in charge of a program that played for the Class AAAAA state championship last season in Macon. After Wood left North Hall, his long-time assistant Tyler Sanders took over the program. Flowery Branch brought in former Winder-Barrow coach David Sokol to helm the position.
8. BULLDOGS, FALCONS ENDURE DISAPPOINTING SEASONS: There were plenty of parallels between the Atlanta Falcons’ and Georgia Bulldogs’ football seasons in the fall, but few of them were pretty. Both teams endured season-ending injuries to multiple key players, and fell well short of expectations less than a year after each squad came within mere yards of advancing to the biggest game in their respective leagues. The Falcons finished 4-12 overall, going from worst to first in the NFC South and suffering their first losing season since 2007, while the Bulldogs ended the regular season 8-4 and failed to win the SEC East for the first time since 2010.
9. BUFORD FOOTBALL, SOFTBALL PROGRAMS REMAIN UNSTOPPABLE: This was a special season for the Buford football and softball teams, even when judged by the programs’ own lofty standards. The Wolves football team finished a perfect 15-0 and won its ninth state championship in the past 13 seasons, breaking the state’s single-season scoring record along the way. Meanwhile, the school’s softball team finished 37-1 overall and extended its record streak of state championships to a seventh consecutive title.
10. GOOD THINGS HAPPENING FOR WEST HALL FOOTBALL: The strides the Spartans have made under second-year coach Tony Lotti are easy to see. This fall, West Hall (6-5) posted its first winning record and trip to the postseason since 2002. With a 4-3 record in Region 7-AAA, the Spartans made the playoffs a reality with back-to-back region victories and another against county-rival East Hall. Once in the playoffs, the Spartans took Region 5-AAA champion Cartersville down to the wire, before losing 28-26. Union County had a similar track in 2013, posting a 6-5 record and breaking a 12-year playoff drought.