Continuing my countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2017.
* 2017 Liberty Bowl: Memphis vs. Iowa State (December 30)
— I’ve written this countdown annually for 14 years now, but this is the first time an event yet to happen — Scrooge would love this — has made the top five. Unless the creek rises or planes stop flying south (I’ll be in Vermont for Christmas), I’ll be in the Liberty Bowl press box next Saturday for the biggest bowl game in University of Memphis history, a home-field send-off for the record-shattering duo of Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller. The weather, crowd, and outcome may impact where exactly it finishes on this list (thus the asterisks), but it’s going to be unforgettable.
4*) Tigers 30, Navy 27 (October 14)
Memphis erased the Navy curse
— On a hot (nearly 90 degrees) fall Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, Memphis removed an outsized monkey from its back by containing — barely — the Midshipmen and their surgical triple-option offense. (When does a triple-option become a double option? When it completes precisely one pass, as did Navy quarterback Zach Abey in this game.) The lead changed hands five times after Navy kicked a field goal following a Tiger miscue on the opening kickoff. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw three touchdown passes (two to Anthony Miller) and freshman kicker Riley Patterson delivered three field goals. Sophomore Austin Hall shifted to safety and picked off two of Abey’s seven passes to help secure the win and a ranking of 25 for the Tigers in the next AP poll.
3*) Redbirds 3, Sounds 2 (August 16)
— Sometimes it’s not so much the game you attend, but who accompanies you. I raised my firstborn daughter, Sofia, at AutoZone Park. She attended her first game at the downtown jewel a few weeks before her first birthday. I have pictures of Sofia romping on the left field bluff in a Redbirds cap and a diaper. I have a treasured photo of her at age 3, timidly posing with her mom and Stubby Clapp near the end of his final season as a player (2002) with the Redbirds. Sofia’s grown up now. She spent two summers (2015 and 2016) as the franchise’s first regular bat girl. This was one of the last games we’d attend while living under the same roof. Stephen Piscotty and Patrick Wisdom homered to support seven shutout innings by Jack Flaherty and the Redbirds — managed by Clapp — reached 40 games over .500 (82-42). When Memphis won the Pacific Coast League championship the next month, Sofia was finding her way as a freshman at Wesleyan University. Where they call themselves the Cardinals.
2*) Tigers 48, UCLA 45 (September 16)
— After their first two games were directly impacted by hurricanes (one of them cancelled, then moved back three weeks), the Memphis Tigers took the field at the Liberty Bowl under a sunny sky and temperatures hot enough to make even their opponents from SoCal breathe heavier than they’d like. Kickoff was at 11 a.m. (that’s 9 a.m. Pacific Time), a slot preferable to the schedule-makers at ABC, which televised the game nationally. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen — an All-America candidate — played well, passing for 463 yards and four touchdowns. But Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson played better, connecting on six touchdown passes in a game that featured six lead changes. And Anthony Miller. The Tigers’ senior wide receiver became a star beyond the Mid-South on this day with 185 yards and two touchdowns through the air. At season’s end the AP named Miller first-team All-America.
1*) Redbirds 2, Chihuahuas 0 (September 14)
— Game 2 of the Pacific Coast League championship series was played under bright sunshine — imagine that! — on a Thursday afternoon at AutoZone Park. And the teams played like something was at stake. Memphis starter Kevin Herget — nowhere near a top-prospects list in the Cardinal system — struck out 15 El Paso hitters in eight innings, but the Redbirds couldn’t crack Chihuahua starter Bryan Rodriguez either. The game went to extra innings scoreless. With two outs in the 11th, following a single by Aledmys Diaz, Redbird outfielder Adolis Garcia — having split the 2017 season between Double-A Springfield and Memphis — launched a home run onto the leftfield bluff (shades of Albert Pujols and the 2000 PCL championship). The win improved the Redbirds to an astounding 13-0 in extra-inning games. Three days later in El Paso, they clinched the franchise’s third PCL title.