Well, the year is finally coming to an end.
It’s safe to say the end of 2020, a year in which we all endured heartbreak for a variety of reasons and triumph in unexpected ways, is a welcoming sight for all. The last year brought on the death of an NBA legend in Kobe Bryant, championships for local East Valley programs and disappointment for seniors involved with spring sports.
The fall sports season was almost canceled, while winter sports were delayed to 2021. There’s still no guarantee of anything as it relates to sports, especially at the high school level. The last year taught us that. But, through all the turmoil, there was plenty of good in the last year as well.
We learned how to persevere. We learned how to stay active in the midst of a lockdown. We learned how to appreciate the things we all once took for granted, like a filled stadium or gymnasium with screaming fans. One day, we will get back to that.
Here’s a look at some of VarsityXtra’s top stories – the good and bad – from 2020.
Arizona College Prep's Diego Navarro, now graduated, dealt with heartbreak in August 2019 when his father, Daniel, passed away after battling a rare brain disorder for two years. The Knights' basketball program honored Daniel on Jan. 9, wearing special blue uniforms. Diego, who normally wore No. 24, switched with his teammate to wear No. 11, the same number his father wore in high school. Diego scored 36 points on the night his father was honored.
"I was just thinking about my dad, my mom and how great it was that everyone came out. It was a packed gym," Diego said. "I just thanked God, thanked my dad for everything.”
The death of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gigi, was a shock to sports fans across the world. Whether one viewed Bryant as a hero or villain, there was little doubt he was one of the most well-respected players in the history of the game. Tributes to Bryant and his daughter in the NBA spread to East Valley high schools, as several, including Skyline and Mesa, had a 24-second runoff to start the game. Fans and players wore their favorite Kobe Bryant memorabilia in honor of the NBA legend.
Basha's Trenton McLuaghlin was hit especially hard by the death of Kobe Bryant. He wore No. 24 in honor of his favorite player. He was left speechless when Bryant passed, and thought of numerous ways to honor him. Against Perry just two days after Bryant's death, McLaughlin hit a game-winner with just 4 seconds on the clock to secure the victory for Basha. Basha students chanted "Kobe! Kobe!" before McLaughlin's shot and in true Kobe Bryant fashion, he hit it.
Seven former Chandler standout athletes were inducted into the Chandler Sports Hall of Fame in February. Former Hamilton, Arizona State and NFL lineman Christian Westerman, Chandler and USC track star Ky Westbrook, Seton Catholic softball star Meghan Mullin, Basha standout baseball player Michael Benjamin Jr., Chandler soccer and gymnastics star Katy Herbert Kotlarczyk, Perry basketball star Jordan Howard and Chandler wrestling standout Max Mejia were those inducted.
Desert Vista, the top-ranked basketball team all season, battled through its coach being fired then reinstated on the way to the program's first state championship since 2008 in March. The Thunder beat rival Mountain Pointe in an all-Ahwatukee battle, and cemented itself as one of the best basketball teams in Arizona history.
Just 10 days after Desert Vista was crowned 6A state champion in basketball, high school sports across the Valley came to a halt. Due to concerns with the coronavirus spreading in Arizona, schools began closing their doors in an effort to mitigate potential uncontrolled spread.
After two delays and refusal to cancel the spring sports season altogether, the Arizona Interscholastic Association announced the official end to the season on March 30. It was at this time all professional sports had stopped and other mitigation strategies outside of sports picked up.
The stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic forced athletes of all ages to stay active in any way they can. Highland's Zach Schroeder, an avid football and track athlete, had hoped to showcase his speed on the track in the spring to secure a scholarship. While it worked out in the end for Schroeder as he now plays football for the Lumberjacks, he and others were forced to get creative with at-home workouts.
Former Williams Field quarterback Zack Shepherd, in Italy for his church mission, was among the several hundred thousand thrust into lockdown. He was called to serve his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Lombardy, the region at the center of the outbreak in Italy. Despite difficult circumstances, he found ways to stay upbeat during unprecedented times.
The cancellation of high school sports spread to Little Leagues across the state. Young athletes who may not have been able to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic were told by their parents they would no longer be able to play the sport they love for some time.
In June, three months after sports were brought to a halt, schools began summer workout programs to prepare for the fall season. Though, plenty of uncertainty remained as coaches and trainers were thrust into different roles to identify potentially ill athletes.
Racing in an event called the Quarantine Clasico on May 23, Highland's Leo Daschbach was one of nine competitors from the surrounding states invited to participate. His goal heading into the final race of his prep career was to finish the mile in under 4 minutes, a feat that had only been done by 10 male high school runners in history. When he crossed the finish line, the timer read 3 minutes, 59.54 seconds.
The inevitable happened. Cases of COVID-19 began popping up at schools, forcing some programs to suspend activities. Along with a surge in cases across the state, most schools suspended workouts in general out of precaution. It wasn't until August that most schools returned to activities.
The Chandler community mourned the loss of beloved swim coach Kerry Croswhite, who lost his battle to COVID-19 after nearly a month in the hospital. Croswhite was put on a ventilator when his oxygen levels dropped and despite improvement some days, he was unable to defeat the virus. The pool at Chandler has since been named after him.
After several meetings and more questions than answers at times, the AIA and its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee officially cleared the way for football to begin after a key metric the committee used to determine when fall sports could begin was changed. At this point, football was the only sport in question due to the amount of contact between players. But, the season was able to start Oct. 2.
The JM23 Classic honored the life and legacy left behind by former Perry baseball player Jacob Medina, who lost his battle to leukemia after he was diagnosed a second time with the deadly form of cancer. The event was organized by Emery Miller, Jacob's longtime friend and former teammate. It captured everything Jacob encompassed in life, including his passion for others.
With the fall sports season in full swing, the AIA announced the winter sports season would be delayed due to rising metrics across the state. Some fall teams experienced cancellations due to cases, but the AIA was determined not to stop the season after it got started. Winter sports, however, were forced to wait.
The 2020 season saw the emergence of Arizona's next great high school football athletes, including Mountain View defensive end Malaki Ta'ase. He led the 6A Conference in sacks all season for the Toros, who enjoyed a successful 6-2 season.
Three confirmed positive cases in the Saguaro football program forced the third-ranked Sabercats to bow out of the Open Division playoffs. It was a circumstance many hoped would be avoided with the season nearing its end. But unfortunately, the virus took control.
Edward DeLuna Jr. was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer before the start of his senior football season at Westwood. For the first time on Nov. 20, he was able to be on the sideline with his team.
With champions crowned in all fall sports, the early signing period began for senior athletes across the state. As per usual, several opted to sign their National Letter of Intent to their college of choice, which brought on a sense of normalcy and overall excitement to a difficult year.
With cases and hospitalizations at unprecedented levels in Arizona, the AIA made the decision to push back the start of winter sports to Jan. 18. This way, student-athletes coming back from winter break had a two-week window to prepare for the season.