Retrospective: Top 14 stories of ’14

As we ready to wrap up our 2014 Retrospective, we at The Watchman combed through all of the happenings of the calendar year and compiled the list of the biggest stories the last 12 months.

Agree. Disagree. Debate. Whatever the case may be, there is no question that this year brought with it plenty of newsworthy items, many of which will have long-lasting effects for years to come.

gator11. Stokes takes world record gator – When a story makes national headlines, it is a pretty safe bet that it will be your top story of the year locally. In this instance, Thomaston’s Mandy Stokes set the bar awfully high for herself when she took a world record alligator in her very first hunt. The Aug. 16 kill bagged a 15-foot long, 1,011.5-pound gator near Millers Ferry in Wilcox County. The Watchman broke the story four hours before any other media outlets picked up on it and our original post has since been shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook.

White2. Woman shot, killed outside Marengo jail – The July 2 incident was the first shooting death in Linden in more than two decades. Gallion resident Eddie White confessed to shooting and killing Joyce Houston in a crime of passion that was caught by the security cameras at the Marengo County Sheriff’s Department. Houston died on the scene in the parking lot adjacent to the Marengo jail just minutes after having fled to the location for safety. White confessed to the incident July 3 after being apprehended by the Linden Police Department hours earlier.

3. BWWMH bids farewell to L&D, administrator – There was little doubt 2014 would be a pivotal one for Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital after the facility had to make significant personnel cuts to close 2013 and swiftly turned the conversation to the embattled labor and delivery unit after the start of 2014. News broke early in the year that L&D would be no more after Feb. 28. Town hall meetings, task forces and city council intervention would not be enough to keep the unit open. But the closure was far from the final change for the hospital. After 11 years at the helm of the hospital, Mike Marshall resigned in October, leaving Art Evans to run the facility in his stead.

essex 24. John Essex School closes its doors – Much-maligned and long-embattled, the other shoe finally dropped for John Essex School in April when the Marengo County Schools Board of Education voted to shutter the doors of the community institution. Dwindling enrollment numbers spelled financial hardship for Essex. When the 1003g grant expired, the math became simple. Essex watched 12 seniors graduate in May in a ceremony that marked the beginning of something new for those students and the end of something for the west Marengo County school.

 Dr. Ken Tucker, left, has been elected by the University of West Alabama Board of Trustees to serve as president of the 179-year-old institution, effective January 1, 2015. Pictured with Tucker is Board of Trustees President Terry Bunn.

Dr. Ken Tucker, left.

5. UWA cuts Holland, appoints Tucker president – The handwriting was firmly on the wall for University of West Alabama president Dr. Richard Holland March 3 when the school’s board of trustees voted to put him on administrative leave. Later in the year, UWA parted ways with Holland. The presidency of the Livingston institution took on a new face in November when the board tabbed Dr. Ken Tucker of Demopolis to fill the office.

6. Robertson Banking Company robbed – It was more than just the talk of the town April 22 when someone walked into the downtown branch of Robertson Bank and made off with an undisclosed amount of cash in a grab-and-dash robbery attempt that involved no weapons. Eight days later, the Demopolis Police Department arrested Tommie Lee Williams and Roderick Moore of Tuscaloosa. For his role in the crime, Williams received a sentence of eight years in December.

7. Higher education changes in Demopolis – The look of higher education in Demopolis began to take on a new look in 2014. After years of rhetoric that Shelton State would ultimately have some presence in the City of the People, the talk came to fruition this year when the community college opened a truck driving school at the former New Era Cap Company Building on Cedar Avenue. The higher education landscape turned a little more toward then end of the year when the announcement was made that UWA would be pulling out of the Demopolis Higher Education Center, leaving the facility with no tenant at year’s end.

8. Fire department gets major budget cuts – When the city council issued cries to “stop the bleeding” of reserves earlier this year, there was little doubt changes were coming. There, indeed, were budget cuts across the board for the city’s departments but no other municipal area garnered quite the attention of the Demopolis Fire Department. When the city council approved its budget for the new fiscal year the fire department learned it would have some $252,900 less with which to operate in the coming year. While the effects of those cuts have yet to be truly felt, it stands to reason the trimming will prove impactful sooner rather than later.

9. City attorney found shot in office – City attorney Bill Poole made state headlines Jan. 17 when he was found in his office suffering from a gunshot wound. Poole would recover and ultimately get back to work in 2014, ending the year far better than he began it.

10. City loses prominent citizens – It was a year of saying “goodbye” for Demopolis as it bid farewell to Christmas on the River co-founder and long-time community pillar Barry Collins, former assistant police chief Bobby Meigs and well-respected former fire chief Aubrey Randall.

11. Stokley leaves Sweet Water – After 17 years in the Marengo County Schools system and 12 years as the principal of Sweet Water High School, Stan Stokley walked away in 2014 to take over Saraland Elementary School. Stokley replaced former Demopolis Middle School principal Chris Tangle who left SES to take over Thompson High School in Alabaster. Marengo County Schools Board of Education picked Phyllis Mabowitz, the school’s instructional coach, to take over as interim principal.

snow12. Snow closes schools, businesses – This particular story is not “year-in-review” material in some parts of the country, but in a city that had not had measurable snowfall in years, it is worth mentioning. Demopolis got significant snowfall in late January, closing schools for three days.

13. Luker, Causey leaves posts – Stacy Luker garnered plenty of attention Jan. 6 when he stepped down as the head football coach of Sweet Water High after 12 seasons. Luker retired with a career record of 171-66 and four state championships. Luker spent the 2014 season coaching Neshoba Central in Mississippi. Tom Causey made headlines much later in the year when he tendered his resignation from the Demopolis High head football coach post Dec. 17. Causey won a state championship for the Tigers in 2009.

14. No news is good new for incumbents – The races got heated leading into the primaries but Marengo County’s election year resulted in no major changes in 2014. Incumbent Ben Bates won his second term as sheriff of Marengo County while Sharon Barkley retained the revenue commissioner post.

Retrospective: Jeremy’s favorite stories of 2014

Jey Uso (left) and Jimmy Uso played are the currenty WWE Tag Team Champions and each played linebacker at the University of West Alabama.

Jey Uso (left) and Jimmy Uso played are the former WWE Tag Team Champions and each played linebacker at the University of West Alabama.

When I came up with the idea of having each of us share our favorite stories of 2014, I had no idea exactly how hard it would be to narrow that list down. The design of this idea was to tell you about the things we enjoyed writing this year. The lists likely will not be news heavy, but each story will have its own special meaning to its writer.

So here they are in no particular order and with no particular limitations. These were my favorite stories of 2014.

• Big ol’ Christmas tree – Barbara Blevins and her team built a 30-foot tall Christmas tree downtown. I knew nothing of it but just happened by one day in hopes of snagging a Photo of the Day. Sometimes the most fun stories are the ones you didn’t know you were going to write. In this instance, I got to tell of the creative process from inspiration to fruition of how Blevins and her team were adding their own piece to the Demopolis Christmas landscape.

• DMS in the Top 10 percent – There are so many negative stories when it comes to the world of education. Every now and again, it is really good to get to sit down and tell a good one. In this case, Demopolis Middle School received a rating that placed it in the Top 10 percent of Alabama middle schools according to Niche. Getting to break down the how and why of the rankings as well as getting feedback from DMS principal Blaine Hathcock was an interesting process. The real reward came from seeing  just a little piece of payoff for the faculty that works so hard to educate students from sixth through eighth grades here in our city.

Sessions• Jeff Sessions visits the Farmhouse – In the interest of disclosure, I will readily admit that I was not initially looking forward to interviewing Senator Jeff Sessions when he visited Demopolis. I was not excited about the photo-op, the story or anything else that went along with it. What I got, however, was one of the more fun stories of my career. Sessions proved to be a terrific interview and easily one of the more interesting people I have had the opportunity to meet.

• Debbie Nichols leaves Demopolis High – I had no doubt when I sat down to interview Debbie Nichols that the long-time DHS counselor would shed a few tears. I did not understand at the time that I would want to do the same. Nichols truly loved the students of DHS and it was difficult to see the walls once coated so fully with pictures and newspaper clippings be stripped bare as she prepared to leave her post and head into the next phase of her life.

Prom_Oates Clements_IMG_6302• Tyler Oates is a dude – I always knew Tyler Oates was a tough kid. But to watch him go from a Dec. 2013 car accident that left him with a broken back to taking the field on Opening Day of baseball season some two months later was pretty remarkable. What’s more is that Oates hit .395 that season and earned First Team Class 5A All-State Honors at third base for the Alabama Sports Writers Association. And it couldn’t have happened for a more likeable kid. Tyler Oates is a dude.

Williams_Ray• Oh but Ray Williams… — Demopolis native Ray Williams broke multiple powerlifting world records this year. I got the pleasure of interviewing the ever-so-humble and ever-so-impressive Williams back in the summer. You talk about brushes with greatness…

• Taylor Polk, Devin Stroud sign – These were two very different stories with two very similar themes. In both cases, you had a former Demopolis High athlete who bet on himself and collected the payoff. Taylor Polk walked on at Troy University as a long snapper. After two years, he got his chance this year when he ascended to the top of the depth chart and the Trojans put him on scholarship. For Stroud, he had Tommy John surgery after playing injured for DHS during his senior year. He endured the rehab process, got himself on a mound and landed a scholarship from Lurleen B. Wallace Community College for his efforts. Rumble young man…

Chandler Stenz and Andrea Edmonds share a celebratory hug while Brooke Smyly shouts for joy as the Lady Longhorns finished off an overtime win to grab the AISA Class A state championship Friday.

• Lady Longhorns win it all – I’ve covered one basketball state championship to this point in my career. That came in February when Marengo Academy’s ladies polished off a 27-0 campaign with an overtime win against Patrician. The win was especially sweet since the core of that team had been together on the varsity squad all the way back into the seventh and eighth grades.

Ronda 1• Ronda Russell climbs into the cage – I’ve done several stories over the years on the martial arts acumen of Ronda Russell, her husband Jay, and their students at Ross Martial Arts in Demopolis. In 2014, I did a story about Ronda turning to mixed martial arts for the first time. In her 30s, a wife, a business owner, a mother of two children, Russell had every reason to think the ship had sailed on her dream. But that’s not her attitude. She climbed into the cage for the first time this summer and the safe money says she’ll do it again.

• From the gridiron to the squared circle – I’m not even going to pretend that this was anything but my favorite story of the year. In fact, it is one of my favorite stories to date in my career. I grew up a wrestling fan. It has been a source of entertainment for me since I was about five years old. As such, the chance to interview former UWA linebackers turned WWE Tag Team Champions was absolutely one of the highlights of my career.

Jimmy Uso connects with his signature top rope splash on WWE Superstar Seth Rollins at the company's Money in the Bank pay-per-view last year.

Jimmy Uso connects with his signature top rope splash on WWE Superstar Seth Rollins at the company’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view last year.

Retrospective: Favorite Photos of 2014

In no particular order, what follows is my contribution to our 2014 Retrospective. Though the images vary greatly, they all make me think or stir some sort of emotion.

1. Sometimes, you have to wait an entire season just to get your one opportunity. Be sure you make the most of it.

POTD Dunn_9236

2. You never outgrow love.

Friends of Gaineswood-0334

3. Sometimes, the true reward is not getting praise for the job you’ve done – it’s seeing the people you did it for enjoy it.

F3 POTD-4944

4. Friends can make all the difference in the world.

POTD Browder_7428

5. There’s always ONE in every crowd . . . sometimes there are TWO!

2014 Mardi Gras-2292

Retrospective: The year in sports

Our annual look back at the year that was begins with a retrospective on what 2014 brought for the Marengo County sports.

While numerous local teams performed exceptionally well, the year in sports for Marengo County was defined more by things that happened away from the field rather than things that happened on it. Most notably, 2014 was a year defined largely by coaching changes.

When the calendar turned nearly a year ago, the high school football teams of Marengo County had certain long-tenured names entrenched atop their respective programs.

As of this writing, only two of the six head football coaches in Marengo County held those same positions 365 days ago.

As we run down our list of the biggest stories in sports this year, note that we will not include the world record alligator taken by Mandy Stokes back in August. That story actually transcends the world of sports and outdoors and will be reserved for our biggest stories of the year that will release on New Year’s Eve.

pic - luker• Stacy Luker and Mose Jones retire: Long-time Sweet Water coach Stacy Luker started his year by retiring from his post at SWHS and subsequently accepting a job at Neshoba Central High in Mississippi. That story quickly became one of the most read in our site’s young history. Soon thereafter, Sweet Water tabbed Pat Thompson as the new head football coach and AD. In a loosely-related story, Sweet Water’s administrative changes would continue later in the year when principal Stan Stokley left his post for Saraland. The turnover for Marengo County Schools continued throughout the offseason as injuries sustained from a car accident forced Mose Jones to retire from A.L. Johnson High School after three decades. Johnney Ford got the call to step in for ALJ. The turnover for the county school system rounded out when Marengo High’s coaching vacancy was filled by Eberne Myrthil.

• Marengo Academy competes in five state championship games: They were stretched across two academic years, so most people probably did not even notice that the Longhorns competed in five state championship games in 2014. The Lady Longhorn basketball team downed Patrician in overtime to polish off a 27-0 record and win its first state title back in February. That same night, the Longhorn boys fell in the state finals when Chamber knocked down a three at the buzzer. Fast forward to the end of baseball and softball and the Longhorns and Lady Longhorns were left standing at the end again. The Longhorn baseball team lost to Edgewood Academy in the state championship series while the Lady Longhorn softball team saw its run of state championships end in the finals of the state tournament when it fell to Edgewood Academy. Marengo’s latest heartbreak came in November when the Longhorn football team lost to Edgewood in the state championship game in Troy.

Sweet Water 12U• Sweet Water 12U baseball goes to World Series: Youth baseball folks in Marengo County have long been pretty proud of their teams. And when folks on the south end of the county decided to combine the dwindling league from Sweet Water and the dwindling league from Linden, they were pretty confident they could put together some talent. They soon found out they were right when the Sweet Water 12U team went on a remarkable run through the district and state brackets before winning the South Regional in Virginia and punching its ticket to the World Series in Alachua, Fla.

• Causey leaves Demopolis for Pelham: Remember that coaching changes theme? Demopolis High football coach Tom Causey is the latest head man to leave his post. This story is probably higher on the list if it is not so fresh. As of now, DHS is still in the early stages of searching for Causey’s replacement. And Causey is still in the process of putting together his staff at Class 6A Pelham High. So the coming weeks could show this one to be even more impactful if the 2009 Class 5A state champion coach can lure some of his best assistants (and their families) to Pelham with him.

• National Signing Day: It has become an annual rite to see numerous Marengo County players ink football scholarship offers on National Signing Day. This year, nine such local players did just that. Demopolis headlined the day with five signees, including three that committed to ACC schools. Demetrius Kemp and Cortez Lewis signed with Wake Forest while Tyler Merriweather cemented his letter of intent with Georgia Tech. Two more DHS players signed with Division II schools as Hollis Bright signed with UWA and Peyton Pearson sent his letter to Mississippi College. Linden saw two players, Kynard Craig and Chris Rogers, sign with Division II Miles College. Sweet Water sent All-State running back Jakoby Aldridge to Jacksonville State and bruising fullback Demarcus Gamble to Tuskegee.

Williams_Ray• Demopolis native sets world records: Ray Williams left an indelible mark at Demopolis High School as a football player before signing with UT-Martin and then moving on to coach at his current post at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss. But Williams really found his niche in the powerlifting world, a competitive arena that saw him rewrite record books in 2014. We reported in June that Williams traveled to South Africa to compete in the world championships. Having previously shattered world records in squat and totals while competing in Melbourne, Australia, Williams bested himself when he squatted 909 pounds and set a totals mark of 2,144 pounds.

Gracie Boykin (Todd Thompson - RiverCat Photography)

Gracie Boykin (Todd Thompson – RiverCat Photography)

• Demopolis adds cross-country: Demopolis High School has long been able to take a lot of pride in the variety of athletic teams it boats. A fall and winter slate of football, volleyball, boys basketball and girls basketball annually gives way to boys and girls tennis, golf, soccer, baseball and softball as well as girls and boys track. This year, the Tiger athletics family welcomed cross-country to the mix, adding the sport to its fall schedule for the first time. And what a year it proved to be for the program as eight DHS runners qualified for the state meet.

• More collegiate signings: The athletic scholarships were getting doled out to Marengo County athletes well beyond football’s National Signing Day. Linden girls basketball standout Alexis Johnson inked with Miles College. Former Demopolis baseball player Devin Stroud signed with LBW. After having worked his way up the long-snapper depth chart as a walk-on, Demopolis alum Taylor Polk signed with Troy. Stud DHS golfer Braden Spiller signed with Mississippi College. And the list goes on as local kids are earning educational opportunities through athletic venues.

• Demopolis volleyball sets new wins mark: A season after former coach Blythe Smith led the Demopolis High volleyball program to a school record in wins (14) and a regional tournament berth, new coach Angela Sanders continued the progression as she led the Lady Tigers to a 21-6 mark and a narrow loss in the first round of the regional draw. Sweet Water volleyball also got a new look in 2014 when it hired former Mississippi State head coach Mike Tucker.

That is the year in sports as we remember it. Here is to hoping 2015 brings more good news for Marengo County’s athletes, coaches, families and fans.

Check back each day between now and New Year’s Eve to see the rest of our 2014 Retrospective. Danny Smith will continue the series tomorrow with his favorite stories of the year. Michael Clements will share the year in photos Monday before you get Jeremy Smith’s favorite stories Tuesday and the top stories of the year Wednesday.