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YEAR IN REVIEW: Given a chance, our stars shined bright

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What a difference a year can make.

At this point last year, the Mail Tribune’s annual Year In Review focused mostly on a quiet 2020 in the local sports scene.

The stunning stoppage brought on by COVID-19 left us anxiously waiting for a change, yearning for a return to competitions with a heightened sense of appreciation for even being able to pick up a bat or a ball and don your team uniform.

Thankfully, 2021 brought such a return to action, and athletes here in the Rogue Valley did not disappoint once they finally got their time to shine.

We enjoyed championship efforts in all forms, be it a repeat showing by the Southern Oregon University softball team or highly anticipated coronation for the South Medford girls basketball team.

We saw former prep standouts achieve the pinnacle of success, from a well-earned PGA Tour card for Medford’s Dylan Wu to professional careers blossoming in baseball for Central Point’s Larson Kindreich or in hockey for Ashland native Jasper Weatherby.

Most of all, we reveled in a change of spirit.

The camaraderie and laughter of friends furthering their bond through sports was back in our lives.

None of it has been easy, mind you, with increased safety protocols added to the new normal, but it has definitely been better than the alternative.

In narrowing down the top sports stories for the year, a panel of voters with current and former ties to the Mail Tribune produced a diverse list. In all, 29 different storylines proved worthy of merit to be included in our annual top-10 review — evidence of what a fruitful year of sports we enjoyed here in Southern Oregon during 2021.

One notable storyline not up for debate and deserving special recognition was the well-earned retirement here at the Mail Tribune of sports editor Tim Trower at the end of June.

After more than 31 years at the Mail Tribune and nearly 44 years since he first walked into a daily newspaper office, Trower said goodbye to the daily grind of churning out sports pages to focus on, well, producing pars at a golf course near you, as well as travels with his wife, Cathy.

How she is handling the increased night and weekend time with a retired newsie was not available as of press time, but our fingers remain crossed.

Without further ado, here is the year that was in order of voting importance:

1. Play ball!

After a year of delays brought about by COVID-19, Oregon’s high school and college sports programs finally gained approval from the Oregon Health Authority and Gov. Kate Brown to resume competitions in February.

Athletes and teams that had waited and hoped to finally get to play for the first time since March of 2020 breathed a sigh of relief after seeing their window of opportunity shrink month by month in the 2020-21 school year until the final OK was granted.

Six-week high school seasons were set in staggered fall, spring and winter seasons (in that order) that ran through June, with a focus on regional play and an absence of state championship events put on by the Oregon School Activities Association.

Over those initial six weeks of prep play in 2021, a great deal of learning and adapting was taking place for all involved.

From the requirements of athletes, coaches and spectators (if allowed at all to attend contests) to wear masks and follow stringent safety protocols to a prep schedule that included culminating week events coordinated on the fly, it was a season unlike any other.

It was also a season potentially more welcomed than any other given everyone’s hunger to compete again after such a nerve-wracking hiatus.

And through the hard work of diligent athletes and coaches who proved it can work after all to play again, since August we have been able to enjoy a traditional 2021-22 sports season — albeit with a few COVID-caused hiccups along the way.

2. SOU softball

Southern Oregon University waited longer than expected but was still able to secure a second straight NAIA national championship through highlight efforts by Lauren Quirke, Gabby Sandoval and Riley Donovan, among so many others.

The top-seeded Raiders (55-6) completed their season with five straight elimination victories at the NAIA World Series, clinching their back-to-back championship with exhilarating wins over rival Oregon Tech, 3-2 and 7-5 in nine innings.

Sandoval clinched her 122nd career victory to put her No. 2 on the NAIA’s all-time list in Game 1 and was supported by key RBI efforts from Quirke and Donovan. In the finale, Donovan supplied a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning to propel her team to the title.

Donovan went 11-for-17 with two homers, eight RBIs, seven runs scored and drew a team-high seven walks to be named NAIA World Series MVP.

Quirke was named NAIA softball player of the year in a season that saw her bat .488 with 11 home runs, 20 doubles, four triples, 70 RBIs and 64 runs scored and also post a 17-2 pitching record. She also became only the fourth athlete in SOU history to be named Cascade Conference female athlete of the year.

For her efforts, Jessica Pistole received a second straight NAIA softball coach of the year award.

3. Dylan Wu

Medford golfer Dylan Wu enjoyed possibly his finest season, flirting with the lead at the U.S. Open after qualifying for the June event for the first time and one month later earning his first win on the Korn Ferry Tour to secure his first PGA Tour card at age 25.

The stage didn’t prove too big for Wu in his first major and only second PGA event of his career. The 2014 graduate of St. Mary’s High climbed to second place at one point during the second round of the U.S. Open before finishing tied for 31st overall with a 4-over-par finish.

In July, Wu clinched his standing among the top-25 players on the Korn Ferry Tour — guaranteeing a PGA Tour card — with a resounding win in the Price Cutter Charity Championship. Wu’s winning 72-hole total of 27-under 261 tied a tournament record originally set in 2006, and came with younger brother Jeremy on the bag as his caddie.

4. Nate Bittle

Central Point’s Nate Bittle became only the second boys basketball player from Southern Oregon to earn a spot on the McDonald’s All-American team and be named to the Jordan Brand Classic to cap a tremendous prep run that saw him also receive All-American recognition from MaxPreps and USA Today.

A three-year standout player at Crater High, Bittle opted to play his senior season at Prolific Prep in California due to the COVID-induced uncertainty of play for the 2020-21 school year.

After being named the 2020 Oregon 5A state player of the year, Bittle averaged 14.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 17 games at Prolific Prep. An Oregon signee, the 7-foot, 215-pound center finished the year ranked ninth in the ESPN 100 list and as a consensus five-star recruit.

5. Crater distance runners

Keeping up with Crater’s Tyrone Gorze and Josiah Tostenson proved a difficult task for anyone in 2021.

Gorze ran the fastest 1,500 by a sophomore in Oregon history — for any classification — in 3:50.88 seconds to win the spring season-ending Class 5A Invitational in May and then finished 1-2 with Tostenson in November’s 5A state cross-country meet to lead the Comets to their first team title since 2018.

Still not done with putting runners in his wake, Gorze closed out 2021 by winning the Eastbay Cross-Country Championships regional title and, a week later, placed sixth at the national championships by running the 5,000-meter course at Balboa Park in San Diego in 15 minutes, 26.4 seconds.

A rising star in his own right, Tostenson set a national boys middle school record of 4:23.98 at The Outdoor Nationals in Eugene in June.

6. South Medford girls basketball

After being one of the last teams to play in 2020, and seeing its official state championship hopes dashed by COVID just prior to the semifinals, the South Medford girls basketball team was left wondering if it would ever accomplish its ultimate goal.

Buoyed by a promising senior class that had either been starters or key role players dating back to their freshman days, the Panthers pounced on a return to play in the spring and completed a perfect 13-0 season with a dominant performance at the Class 6A/5A culminating week spring championships — beating Sheldon 64-33 in the finals.

Senior forward Kaili Chamberlin, the Southern Oregon Conference’s player of the year, averaged 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals in limited minutes caused by runaway wins for the Panthers.

Guards Toni Coleman and Emma Schmerbach were also first-team SOC selections and joined fellow seniors Chamberlin, Bella Stone, Shakia Teague-Perry and Laini Dahlin in signing letters of intent to play at the collegiate level. It’s the largest senior signing class in head coach Tom Cole’s 15 years at South Medford.

7. Black and Blue Bowl

The crosstown rivalry football game between South Medford and North Medford offered a rare treat as the Panthers and Black Tornado squared off twice in a year for the first time in series history.

In April, the 35th edition rivaled the most dramatic finishes of all time after South Medford rallied from an early 20-0 deficit and later scored 14 straight points in the final two minutes for a stunning 35-34 victory.

North Medford senior Devin Bradd demolished yet another series of Black and Blue records with his totals in rushing yards (306) and carries (38), and tied a record with four rushing TDs.

The Panthers, however, used a 2-yard TD run by sophomore quarterback Deacon Edgar with 1:53 to play, an ensuing onside kick recovery by Lucas Rivera and another 7-yard score by Edgar to set up Jude Pannell for the game-clinching point-after kick with 29 seconds left on the clock.

When the teams returned to the field in November, South Medford used three TD runs by Carson Joe and scoring strikes from Edgar to Ty Henry, Andrew Walker and Colton Samis to withstand a North Medford effort that included three TD runs by QB Mason Warren and his late TD pass to Bryce Dyer for a 40-34 win that evened the overall Black and Blue Bowl series at 16 wins apiece for each school.

8. Larson Kindreich

Former Crater High star pitcher Larson Kindreich dreamed of the day he would be drafted by a Major League Baseball franchise and that moment finally arrived in July when he was selected in the eighth round by the Texas Rangers.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Kindreich was rated as Baseball America’s No. 159 prospect entering the draft and No. 246 on MLB Pipeline, and went to Texas with the 224th overall selection. The left-handed pitcher posted a 3.33 ERA in 54 innings during his sophomore season at Division II Biola University in California, striking out 79 against 21 walks.

A grateful Kindreich agreed days later to a deal with Texas that included a $150,000 bonus to begin his professional career. In Rookie League ball for the Rangers, Kindreich posted 18 strikeouts against three walks in six relief appearances, with one save and a 1.13 ERA.

9. Odell Beckham Jr.

NFL All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has enjoyed a football career filled with ballyhooed moments, but it was hush-hush here in Medford when he paid a surprise visit to local students at the Kids Unlimited Academy as well as those on hand for a South Medford football camp in July.

Beckham was in town to learn more about Kids Unlimited from CEO and founder Tom Cole in a business venture that is a byproduct of his work with Royal Coffee Roasting, which agreed to donate a meal back to Kids Unlimited for every pound of coffee it roasts.

Making it all happen was Eagle Point’s Jason Hanlin, who is chief marketing officer for Royal Coffee Roasting and has known Cole for more than two decades, including service on the Kids Unlimited board of directors. Hanlin struck up a friendship with Beckham about four years ago and the two found a common passion in the coffee industry and helping kids.

Beckham shook hands, posed for photos, signed autographs and went out of his way to interact with all on hand as he toured Kids Unlimited.

10. Jasper Weatherby

Ashland native Jasper Weatherby inked a two-year deal with the San Jose Sharks in August, officially signing his first NHL contract with the team that drafted him three years ago in the fourth round at 102nd overall.

Weatherby, 23, grew up in Ashland before moving to Canada when he was 14 to advance his hockey career. The 6-foot-4, 222-pound center tallied 47 points (27 goals, 20 assists) in 100 career games with the University of North Dakota, capturing a 2021 NCHC Championship by defeating St. Cloud State in the finals.

In 29 games this NHL season, Weatherby has two goals and four assists for the Sharks.

Honorable Mention

— With a new scoreboard in left field, the Medford Rogues set a franchise record with a 21-3 start and finish 33-11 overall.

— Central Point’s Mike Wilson gets a second chance at Michael Hunter Jr. after 14 years and, after the bout is delayed due to COVID-19, suffers a fourth-round TKO at Madison Square Garden.

— Medford’s Jacob Melton is a Pac-12 Conference honorable mention selection for the Oregon State baseball team after batting .404 with 25 RBIs and eight stolen bases. He’s named national player of the week after becoming the first Beaver with three HR in the same game since 2001.

— Southern Oregon Speedway undergoes huge upgrades as new promotional group Southern Oregon Motorsports takes over for former race promoter Mike McCann.

— SOU senior women’s wrestler Sienna Ramirez wins the program’s first-ever NAIA national championship at 155 pounds.

— Ashland’s Clara Honsinger, the reigning U.S. national champion, places fourth at the UCI World Cyclocross Championships in January. She defends her first place title in December at the Elite Women USA Cyclocross National Championships.

— Southern Oregon Spartans opt out of the 2021-22 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which later sets in motion an end to their contract with The RRRink.

— Eagle Point High girls teams end skids. EP halts 46-match winless streak in girls soccer with 2-0 win over Roseburg in August. EP volleyball team snaps 37-match losing streak in October with four-set win over Springfield.

— SOU football opts out of Frontier Conference spring football season.

— Former SOU distance runner Eric Avila places seventh at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in the 1,500 meters in 3:38.20.

— SOU Sports Hall of Fame adds 3 national title teams: head coach Mike Ritchey’s 2000-01 Raider men’s wrestling team, Brent Ericksen’s 2010 Raider cross country team and the late Craig Howard’s 2014 Raider football team.

— St. Mary’s golfer Baylee Hammericksen, who has signed with Oregon, sets a new women’s course record of 64 at Centennial Golf Club during a spring golf tournament with one eagle, six birdies and 11 pars.

— Wildfire smoke limits outdoor practices for fall sports teams and causes changes to sports schedules, moving many football games out of the area for the first two weeks of the season and causing the cancellation of others as well as soccer matches and cross-country meets.

— SOU adds new sports for 2022-23 school year in golf, cycling, beach volleyball and competitive cheer and dance.

— Former Crater standout Zeth Brower clinches third straight National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) wrestling national title for Clackamas CC with a pin in his championship-clinching match at 133 pounds to cap an unbeaten spring at 18-0.

— Ashland’s Cameron Stein, an Oregon signee, wins Gatorade Oregon boys cross-country runner of the year in the spring, keeping the honor in Southern Oregon for a fifth straight year.

— Ashland girls water polo club team wins 5A state championship.

— Medford’s Stan Moore, who is legally blind, wins bronze medal with riding partner Mark-Anthony Sanchez in para-cycling at U.S. Paralympic team trials.

— Local golf professionals Norm Blandel and Patrick Oropallo complete 100 holes of golf in a one-day marathon at Oak Knoll Golf Course in Ashland to raise money for veterans.

— North Medford graduate Morgan Fossen ties for 10th in the pole vault at the NCAA Championships for Eastern Washington to earn All-American honors.

— Medford Mustangs win the Area 4 championship but fall one win shy of a seventh straight American Legion AAA state championship with a loss in the title game to Eugene.

— Ashland football adopts a JV-only schedule for the spring, marking the first time in school history that the Grizzlies do not field a varsity program in the sport.

Have a story idea? Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Junior Sleezer drives to the hoop during the third quarter of a game against North Medford this past spring. Sleezer and fellow prep athletes were required to wear masks during games in the spring, a lasting image throughout the rest of 2021.
Southern Oregon Raiders’ Gaby Sandoval pitching against Oregon Tech’s McKenna Armantrout in the second inning of the NAIA Championship World Series Softball tournament, June 2, 2021
Medford's Dylan Wu shows off the trophy earned after his first Korn Ferry Tour victory on July 25 at the Price Cutter Charity Championship in Springfield, Mo. Photo courtesy PGA Tour
Crater High School basketball standout Nathan Bittle smiles while talking with media after signing Saturday to play at the University of Oregon. Photo by Denise Baratta
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater's Tyrone Gorze runs at the top of a hill winning the 5A boys championships race in Eugene on Nov. 7.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Kaili Chamberlin defends the ball during a game against Crater this past spring.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Carson Cota celebrates after scoring during the third quarter of the Balck and Blue Bowl this past spring.
Former Crater High pitcher Larson Kindreich was selected in the eighth round of the MLB draft by the Texas Rangers as the No. 224 pick overall. Photo courtesy Biola University
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNFL star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. of the Cleveland Browns takes photos with young athletes at the Kids Unlimited football camp in downtown Medford on July 12.
San Jose Sharks left wing Jasper Weatherby (26) against the Winnipeg Jets during an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)