The Year in Sports … and a Fond Farewell

By Earl Vaughan Jr.

As we arrive at New Year’s Eve, let’s take a moment to recap some of the biggest stories of 2021.

Members of the Cape Fear High School state champion tennis team: top row, from left, Brianna Keen, Madisyn Hall, Shea Bieniek, Brooke Bieniek. Bottom row, from left, Anna Piland, Andi Brinker, Olivia Arnette, Alexandra Jones, Ansley Thomas.

We polled folks from the local athletic scene, including coaches, athletic directors, school administrators and game officials.

Here are the results of the voting:

1. Cape Fear High School’s girls stole the scene in local high school tennis. They won both the 3-A state dual team championship in the N.C. High School Athletic Association, and teammates Brooke Bieniek and Anna Piland captured the doubles championship.

2. COVID-19 continued to dominate the local sports scene. The football season from 2020 was moved to the winter months of 2021. Small crowds were the rule at many contests as fans stayed home as a precaution. Some schools had to drop junior varsity teams due to lack of players.

3. A pair of former Terry Sanford stars, Austin Warren and D.J. Herz, continued their rise in professional baseball. Warren was called up to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the summer and had an outstanding first season as a relief pitcher. Herz continued his climb through the minors, advancing to South Bend, the High-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Before going there, he pitched in Myrtle Beach and made an appearance in Fayetteville at Segra Stadium against the hometown Woodpeckers. He ended the season as Chicago’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

4. There was a changing of the guard in the athletic leadership of the Cumberland County Schools. Longtime student activities director Vernon Aldridge, a journeyman administrator at multiple schools, stepped down after five years at the helm to be replaced by David Culbreth. Culbreth, one of the most successful wrestling coaches in county history, was promoted from the principal’s job at Pine Forest High School.

5. Seventy-First bounced back from a 2-4 record in the abbreviated winter football season to go 12-1 in the fall and dominate the local high school football scene. Coach Duran McLaurin’s team ended the year with a disappointing state playoff loss to Greenville Rose, which went on to win the East title and advance to the state finals.

6. Kylie Aldridge had a brilliant senior season at Gray’s Creek High School and capped it by earning a softball scholarship to Virginia Tech. In the fall, she led the Bears to a 25-1 record in volleyball. In softball, the Bears were 12-3 and made the fourth round of the playoffs before falling to eventual 3-A state champion Southern Alamance. Aldridge was named Player of the Year in both sports.

7. Davis Molnar was a two-sport star for Terry Sanford who landed a soccer scholarship with Furman. In basketball season, Molnar led Cumberland County Schools in scoring with 21.1 points per game. He was second in rebounds with 12.4. He was also the county’s top goal scorer in soccer with 37 along with 15 assists. He was offensive soccer player of the year in the All American Conference, leading the team to a 19-6 record. 

8. Terry Sanford’s girls’ lacrosse team made school history by playing the first game in the school’s newly rebuilt football stadium. They advanced to the NCHSAA state playoffs, falling in the first round to Chapel Hill to end the season 8-1.

9. Westover had a miserable spring in football, going 1-5 in the abbreviated season. But Ernest King’s Wolverines bounced back in the fall to put together their best record ever, going 10-2. Their only loss in the regular season was to county rival Pine Forest. They rebounded to win out the rest of the regular season and advance to the third round of the state 3-A playoffs, falling to Eastern Alamance.

10. Terry Sanford running back Jonathan Higgins-Simmons had possibly the best single-game performance of any player in Cumberland County last season. In a state playoff game at Currituck, Higgins-Simmons rolled up 421 yards on 28 carries and had five touchdowns.

Honorable mention

• The N.C. General Assembly got in a squabble over the way the N.C. High School Athletic Association oversees athletics in the state. After legislators threatened to disband the NCHSAA and replace it with a state-appointed group, a bill finally passed allowing the association to continue once it works out a memorandum of understanding with the state board of education.

• The Cumberland County Board of Education waffled on a rule requiring anyone participating in extracurricular activities to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to stay eligible. As of now, the 2.0 minimum is still required.

• Longtime Cumberland County school administrator Brian Edkins passed away unexpectedly. Edkins, 51, was a soccer player at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke and eventual soccer coach at South View High School. He rose to administration, becoming athletic director and later principal at South View. He later served as principal at Scotland High School and was principal at Cape Fear High School when he died.

• Neil Buie, a veteran in the officiating program in Cumberland County and the Cape Fear region, left the area after a highly successful run.  Buie was best known as a football and baseball official and spent years as the supervisor of football officials for the Southeastern Athletic Officials Association. Years ago, while attending one of the first games for the old Fayetteville Generals minor league baseball team at Arnette Park, Buie was pressed into service as the plate umpire when the scheduled officials didn’t show up. During the game, he ejected the visiting coach of the Asheville Tourists for arguing balls and strikes. A huge Andy Griffith fan, Buie would sometimes play Griffith’s famous “What It Was Was Football’’ during breaks in his rules meetings with officials. 

Former Terry Sanford High School and University of Connecticut women’s basketball star Shea Ralph was named head women’s coach at Vanderbilt University. Ralph’s Commodores are off to a 9-5 start as they prepare to open play in the tough Southeastern Conference next month. 

• Terry Sanford golfer Ethan Paschal had a strong year both in high school and junior golf competition. In the NCHSAA 3-A tournament at Longleaf in Southern Pines, Paschal tied for second, one shot off the winning score, shooting 70. He helped Terry Sanford to a third-place team finish, 17 shots behind state champion Charlotte Catholic. –

A fond, final farewell

This will be my last scheduled article for CityView and The Press Box. For a variety of reasons, I’ve decided it’s time to write a final -30- on my career as a reporter and enter full retirement.

I want to express deepest thanks to three key people who made it possible: Ramon Yarborough, my publisher at The Fayetteville Observer; Bill Bowman of Up&Coming Weekly and Kim Hasty of CityView. Mr. Yarborough opened the door for me, and Mr. Bowman and Ms. Hasty invited me to continue it after I retired from full-time work.

One last deepest and greatest thanks to my father, the Rev. Earl Vaughan Sr., who has been my road warrior and defender my whole life, and who was also the guy who made the phone call to Mr. Yarborough that made this all happen. 

Thanks to everyone I covered and quoted for the last 49 years. It’s been a wonderful ride. I’ll still be active on social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, in case you’re interested in what I have to share. Maybe I’ll see you at a ballgame someday.