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Year in review: Sports were quiet in 2020

It happened so fast.

One moment, the South Medford girls and Crater’s boys and girls basketball teams were prepping for attempts at state championships; the next moment, they were on buses headed for home, team members reeling from a sudden stoppage of play.

That was March 12. That was COVID-19 barging into our consciousness.

The Mail Tribune sports department typically ranks the top local stories at the end of each year, then wraps them up in a bow as a send-off for 20-such-and-such and a christening of the coming year.

We don’t need to tell you how different 2020 was.

The coronavirus wasn’t just a story, it was the story. And, like everyone else the past nine months, we’re making an adjustment on how we treat the year just past.

A send-off? More like good riddance. The five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — came into play for kids who missed their sports seasons, parents who watched them try to cope, coaches who devised ways to get something, anything, resembling their sport going. Mask up, social distance, sanitize. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But in the shadow of this viral monster, there were stories to remember, achievements and acknowledgements to chronicle.

Here, we’ll remind of, rather than rank, our Rogue Valley 2020 sports experience.

The story of all stories

That day a couple weeks into March was the starkest mark on the Oregon high school sports timeline. March 12 was when we slammed on the brakes.

Bella Pedrojetti, the lone senior on the South Medford basketball team, was shopping in Portland that morning, a day off before the Panthers entered the semifinal round of the 6A state tournament. Her phone buzzed, an alert from the Oregon School Activities Association: Winter championships were being canceled, immediately.

“I’m just really devastated,” she said shortly after.

The Panthers, 25-3 and the No. 2 seed, were stopped in their tracks.

“We couldn’t prove to anybody what we’re capable of,” said Pedrojetti. “It’s super disappointing that it had to come to shutting down the whole tournament. I’m honestly in shock. It doesn’t seem real to me yet. It’s just a bummer.”

There were signs something was afoot.

The night before, the OSAA declared fans would not be allowed in the arenas. Earlier on the morning of the 12th, a college team on TV warmed up, left the floor, and never returned. The Pac-12 Conference canceled its men’s tournament, meaning Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum, where the Crater boys and girls were playing the 5A championships, was off limits.

The OSAA was in the midst of finding replacement venues in and around Corvallis when it decided to pull the plug on everything.

“As this unprecedented public health emergency continues to evolve,” OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said in a release, “we believe that the responsibility to our member schools and communities regarding the health and safety of participants remains our highest priority.”

Little did anyone know those concerns and the shutdown of high school and some college sports would stretch the entirety of the year. Nor did we know how often we’d hear verbiage similar to Weber’s.

The Crater boys were seeded third and the Comet girls fifth, each making it to the semifinals with opening victories at state.

Chris Schmerbach, the Crater boys coach who also had two daughters on the South Medford team, called it “strange” to have the season end so abruptly. “It’s like worse than losing, in my opinion, because there’s this big question mark, what if, that you’re left with.”

Tom Cole, the Panthers’ coach, agreed. “What if?” would linger.

“This will be a memory that I will forever hold,” he said, “and I’m sure every kid will, as well, because it was not conclusive.”

To recognize teams in the hunt when their seasons were canceled, the OSAA awarded Final Four trophies to each.

While some basketball tournaments didn’t finish, there were winter sports that wrapped up in the nick of time and delivered us illustrious champions.

Ashland senior Chris Frownfelter and Crater sophomore Marcus Reyes-Gentry claimed swimming state titles.

Frownfelter won the 5A 100-yard backstroke in 52.72 seconds, breaking the school record that stood for 29 years. Reyes-Gentry brought home the 5A 200 freestyle crown — the third state championship for the Comet — in 1:43.07, more than 5 seconds ahead of the next finisher.

Similarly, the wrestling season ended in February, with three locals at the top of the medals stand.

Cascade Christian’s Gabe Vidlak capped a 45-0 campaign to win the 3A boys title at 126 pounds. In the girls tournament, Phoenix senior Emma Truex, at 125, won her fourth crown, and Eagle Point junior Shayla McNulty, at 130, claimed her first.

Basketball did manage to get in championship play at lower levels, and 10th-seeded Cascade Christian made a run at the 3A boys title before bowing in the final, 35-33, to Oregon Episcopal.

Unbeknownst to anyone, that day, March 7, was the last time in 2020 an Oregon prep title would be decided.

As the days, weeks and months progressed, dates to begin seasons were set, then scrapped, then set again, and scrapped again.

Along the way, a movement began in Medford that developed a statewide following: “Let Them Play in Oregon!”

It was dedicated to convincing Gov. Kate Brown to amend restrictions preventing youth contact sports from resuming normally in the fall. In just a few days, its Facebook page attracted 18,000 members (now more than 26,000), and the principle component of it — a petition for Brown and state legislators — surpassed 11,000 signatures.

As popular as the movement became, it did not lead to a resumption of youth sports.

There’s still hope of prep sports competition this school year, however. The newest revision to the OSAA calendar calls for three, six-week seasons. Fall sports are first in line, starting with contests on March 1. Spring and winter sports seasons follow.

Shutdowns weren’t limited to high schools, of course.

Southern Oregon University’s men’s basketball and women’s wrestling teams were at their national tournaments when the NAIA followed a similar path as the OSAA, limiting fans on March 11, then canceling all winter sports a day later.

The Raider men were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and owned a tournament victory when play stopped. They made their fourth appearance in the Round of 16 and ended with a 24-7 record.

The women wrestlers were ranked third and had not yet begun action at the individual nationals in Jamestown, North Dakota.

The following week, the NAIA canceled competition for the remainder of the school year. Track and field ended before it started for SOU, but the Raider softball team — the defending national champion — was ranked No. 1 in the country with a 23-3 record.

In its decision, the NAIA declared athletes would not lose a year of eligibility.

Mike Mayben, the interim head softball coach at the time, acknowledged the challenge of dealing with COVID-19.

“Everybody is in that same position and just trying to do what’s best,” he said. “But it’s disappointing not to be able to get on the field and compete. Every time there’s a game day that pops up on the calendar, you kind of feel that loss a little more.”

The Raider softball program made news a couple months later despite not taking the field.

Jessica Pistole, who coached SOU to the national title before heading off to San Diego, returned as the Raiders’ head coach in May.

With coronavirus cases rising, Southern Oregon announced in early December its basketball, cross-country and volleyball teams would opt out of their Cascade Conference schedules and NAIA postseason participation; they would instead seek alternative competitive opportunities in the spring.

The school’s football, soccer, softball and track and field seasons are expected to go on as scheduled, with the earliest starting in February.

And the award goes to

There were honors to go around, but one was bestowed based on humanity, not athletic performance.

The Cascade Christian boys soccer team was recognized as the OSAA’s team of the month for October after coach Javier De La Mora summoned his squad to serve the Phoenix community after the Almeda fire.

Over four days and in whatever shifts fit their schedules, the Challengers assisted a displaced family as it moved into a temporary house. They helped repair and sanitize the home, cleared debris, made countless dump runs and hauled furniture.

“Any possibility for me to get my guys together was a big bonus for me,” said De La Mora, “so when these fires came, I thought quickly and said that we need to be a part of helping. I’ve got a group of strong young men and I knew that I wanted to get together real quick and suggest being part of something bigger. These guys, they all jumped at the chance to serve.”

Dante Olson, himself a former Challenger, capped his University of Montana career with the Buck Buchanan Award as the FCS defensive player of the year. The middle linebacker broke his own season school record as a senior with 179 tackles.

SOU volleyball player Taylor Ristvedt was named the Ad Rutschman Small College Female Athlete of the Year at the Oregon Sports Awards, becoming only the second Raider woman to win the award.

State player of the year honors were earned by Nate Bittle, Crater boys basketball; Scott Gustafson, Ashland boys soccer; and EJ Holland, Ashland boys cross-country.

Off to the next level

There had already been an exodus by local star athletes to the University of Oregon — track and field stars Holland and Jaida Ross signed with the Ducks in the fall of 2019 as their senior years unfolded.

That was just the beginning as Oregon continued to haul in Rogue Valley talent in 2020, headlined by Crater’s Bittle, a 6-foot-11, five-star recruit. He chose the Ducks over fellow finalists Arizona, Gonzaga and UCLA.

Bittle was ranked eighth in his class by ESPN, and is Oregon’s highest in-state recruit. He averaged 25.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals for the Comets as a junior.

South Medford baseball catcher Bennett Thompson also signed with the Ducks. In 2019, he helped the Medford Mustangs to their sixth straight American Legion state tile by batting .303 with 38 runs and 37 RBIs.

St. Mary’s girl golfer Baylee Hammericksen joined the fold, inking with Oregon. Hammericksen won two state championships before her junior season last spring was canceled due to COVID-19.

Old standbys

They took on different looks, certainly, but some area staples rolled with the punches and kept going as best they could.

It was notably refreshing when the Medford Mustangs and Medford Rogues staged baseball seasons, giving fans something, finally, to follow.

Unable to try to stretch their state championship string to seven because of the coronavirus, the Mustangs played an independent schedule. They went 33-17 and finished off the summer with a 5-1 win over the Humboldt Eagles in the final of the West Coast Invitational Baseball Classic.

Similarly, the Medford Rogues college wood-bat team got in 30 games, all at home. Their Golden State league canceled its season, so the Rogues improvised, working with local officials to get going and limiting the fan count to 250 per game while going 22-8.

The Pear Blossom Run went viral, allowing entrants to run their own courses or, in some cases, on their own treadmills, over a 19-day span to keep the 44th-annual event alive. Holland won the men’s and Heather Johnson took the women’s 10-mile races.

Grants Pass Downs canceled its spring meet, then limited fans for the summer and fall meets. Regardless, the horse track did record business, thanks to significant television exposure and a robust online presence. It’s handle of $6,044,635 in the fall was six times that of the 2019 fall meet.

In golf, the Southern Oregon Golf Championships had a limited field and fewer social options, but it was played for the 91st time at Rogue Valley Country Club. Winners were Kevin Geniza, men’s regular; Hammericksen, women’s; Todd Couch, men’s junior-senior; Kevin Klabunde, men’s senior; Bob Dickey, men’s super senior; and Mike Simmons, men’s legends.

In the pro ranks

We caught up with a few athletes at the professional level, among them, National Hot Rod Association pro stock motorcycle racer Scotty Pollacheck.

The Central Point tire shop co-owner won that sport’s Super Bowl, the DENSO Spark Plugs U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. In a decade of competing at the highest level, he was in his 12th national final and recorded his first win.

In the final, the 51-year-old Pollacheck beat legendary Andrew Hines with a track-record 200.53 mph pass.

Golfer Dylan Wu didn’t win, but he got off to a fast start on the Korn Ferry Tour, residing in the top five through six events before the tour was suspended several months by COVID-19.

For the year, he played 23 events, made the cut in 13, had five top-10 finishes and finished 16th on the points list.

Baseball players Seth Brown, of the Oakland A’s, and Braden Shipley, of the Kansas City Royals, were featured while Major League Baseball was on a virus pause. When play resumed, Brown got in only five hitless at-bats and Shipley didn’t pitch before he was released in August.

E.J. Singler signed a one-year contract in February with the Canterbury Rams of the New Zealand National Basketball League but never got to join the team because of the coronavirus.

Off the beaten path

A few jaw-dropping stories came our way.

Like, Chuck Hodge, who continued his streak of running every day — extending it to more than 45 years. The 70-year-old began the streak on Nov. 27, 1975, averages about 6 miles per day and has eclipsed 16,450 straight days, covering more than 95,000 miles.

And, Cory Sullivan, an Ashland professional mountain bike racer who achieved his goal of ascending 1 million feet within the year. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest more than 34 times. He reached the mark on Nov. 29.

And Jay Quimby, an avid softball player at the age of 81. The former Ashland High math teacher began playing senior ball more than 30 years ago, manning second base and the rover position. He played on three teams this year, including one that played throughout the United States.

Retiring and hiring

For the first time in a quarter century, the Phoenix boys soccer team will have a coach other than Dennis Flenner, who stepped down in 2020.

Flenner’s last Pirates team captured its 15th Skyline Conference title under him and was No. 4 in the 4A power rankings. Phoenix lost 3-1 to Stayton in the state quarterfinals, finishing 12-2-2 overall.

His teams were 294-88-15 and placed second in the state in 1995 and 2011.

On the hiring front, at South Medford, Chris Mahavong became assistant principal/athletic director, while coaches brought in were Dave Potter for girls soccer, Robin Akpan for volleyball and Jordan Gieg for cheer.

At Eagle Point, wrestling coach Kacey McNulty took on athletic director duties, and at Crater, Berk Brown was named interim football head coach after former coach Randy Waite took an administrative position at Phoenix.

From the archives

Without the usual slate of activities, we took the opportunity to dig into the past and bring a few old stories back to the forefront.

They included:

Crater’s first baseball state championship in 2000, a 5-2 win over Southern Oregon Conference rival North Medford.

Medford’s participation in the first OSAA football state championship game in 1940, when it fell to Bend, 20-7.

Crater’s dominant showing in the 5A girls cross-country state championships, when the Comets set a state record with 16 points.

The Jim Nagel years of Ashland football, when the Grizzlies were state champions three times and runners-up twice in 20 years.

The 1997 South Medford boys soccer team, coached by Wally Hicks and led by Bryn Ritchie, claimed the school’s first state title, 5-0 over South Eugene.

The 1963 Phoenix football team, which was named the most dominant second-level team in Oregon history after winning the state title with a 12-0 record and allowing only one touchdown all season.

In memoriam

Bob Riehm, the coach responsible for building the Southern Oregon University men’s wrestling program into a national powerhouse over two-plus decades, passed away in November at 83.

Riehm, who coached at SOU for 25 years, was elected to the NAIA Hall of Fame in 1988 and led the Raiders to three national championships. He mentored 100 NAIA All-Americans.

The gym in the school’s athletic facility was named after him in 2011.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

OSAA awards