The 2008-09 school year will not be celebrated in poetry or song around the University of Tennessee. No new street signs are on order.
It was the year that saw a football coaching legend get a pink slip, two basketball teams excused early from the NCAA tournament and a baseball program remain in SEC oblivion.
Certainly, there were highlights, none more so than the Lady Vols national title in indoor track and field.
But even in a down year for team results, there was excellence from individuals. Here is my third annual survey of the top dozen efforts from UT’s athletes in the past school year.
1. Eric Berry: Even in a stumbling, bumbling season for the football Vols, Berry’s brilliance shone through for the nation to see.
The sophomore safety might well have been the best player at his position of any player and position in college football.
A consensus All-American, Berry was the SEC defensive player of the year, led the nation with seven interceptions and needs only 14 yards as a junior to break the NCAA career record on interception-return yardage.
2. Sarah Bowman: Without this senior, the Lady Vols don’t win a track title.
Bowman won the NCAA indoor mile, breaking the meet and UT records, and also anchored the victorious distance-medley relay.
On the SEC level, she completed threepeats in both the mile and 3,000 indoors. Outdoors, she won the 1,500 for the third time in four years, the 12th SEC title of her career.
3. John-Patrick Smith: As a freshman “J.P.” ranked sixth on my 2007-08 list after reaching the finals of the NCAA tennis tournament.
He proved that was no fluke with a fine sophomore season, facing a steady diet of rugged competition while playing No. 1 singles.
He finished the season ranked No. 3 in the nation in singles and No. 1 in doubles after he and teammate Davey Sandgren reached the championship match of the NCAA tournament.
4. Tyler Smith: Facing increased defensive attention after the departure of basketball teammates Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, Tyler Smith was a marked man.
He adjusted to the load and earned unanimous first-team All-SEC accolades. He led the team in scoring and assists and was second in rebounding. No shocker, then, that he recorded the first triple-double in school history on Dec. 3 against UNC-Asheville.
5. Blake Forsythe: It’s tough to earn first-team All-SEC notice on a losing baseball team but Forsythe did it by being the best catcher in the league.
The sophomore from Memphis hit .347 with 15 home runs. Bonus points: This week Forsythe was named to Team USA for the summer an impressive tryout camp.
6. Jamie Saffer: Anyone who can win an SEC title has accomplished something. Saffer did it in the 100 breaststroke, then finished 11th at the NCAA meet.
She was national swimmer of the week in January after a banner day against top-ranked Georgia when she won three events and broke the NCAA dual-meet record in her specialty.
7. Michele King: Another SEC champion swimmer. King won the 50 freestyle, then took third at the NCAA meet.
She teamed with Saffer on the third-place 200 medley relay, the Lady Vols’ best ever relay finish at the NCAA meet.
8. Cody Hawn: It was a disappointing campaign at Lindsey Nelson Stadium but Hawn had one of the better seasons ever at UT swinging a bat.
His 22 home runs ranked second all-time at UT, his 81 RBIs rank third, his .750 slugging percentage seventh. He ranked top five in the SEC in average (.364), homers and RBIs.
9. Caitlyn Whoriskey/Natalie Pluskota: The junior and freshman teamed up to reach the doubles finals of the NCAA tournament.
Anyone who plays for a national championship belongs on this list.
10. Nikki Fowler: She was a unanimous first-team All-SEC volleyball star, who ranked second in the league in kills per set.
Fowler was three times the SEC offensive player of the week.
11. Kylee Rossi: A first-team All-SEC soccer pick for the third consecutive year despite missing the final two weeks of the season because of injury.
Rossi produced an SEC-leading 13 goals in 19 matches and finished her career with 43, a school record.
12. Phoebe Wright: From walk-on to All-America. The junior swept the SEC 800 meters on the track, winning indoor and outdoor. Her second-place finish in the 800 contributed to UT’s indoor NCAA title, as did her leg on the victorious and record-setting distance-medley relay.
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.