In a year like 2020, it’s easy to choose something negative as the top story of the year in local sports.
Obviously, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on sports in general and, more particularly, on the area high school sports scene was a dominant storyline. The early days of the pandemic in Ohio halted the winter sports postseason just over a week from its conclusion, and then wiped out the entire spring sports season.
But, the way players, coaches, school administrators and organizations such as the Ohio High School Athletic Association worked to get players back in action for the fall season can be considered an even more important story.
In fact, the return of high school sports in the fall, especially football, was selected as the top local sports story of 2020 by The Vindicator sports department.
1. Back on the field
The OHSAA already had added four additional playoff qualifiers per region to the football playoff format, but then, in response to the pandemic, opened the postseason to all teams while in effect shortening the regular season to six games. The revamped format — along with stricter in-game and fan attendance protocols — was part of an effort to provide a meaningful season despite the chance a number of games would be canceled.
Teams with state championship aspirations still had the opportunity to compete at that level, and those schools just hoping to have a season for their student-athletes were able to accomplish that also.
The protocols and scheduling flexibility extended to the other fall sports of soccer, volleyball, cross country, golf and girls tennis, and that planning and attention to the effects of the virus allowed the fall sports season to happen.
2. Empty diamonds & tracks
During the warm-up period before their Division II state semifinal game in Columbus, the West Branch girls basketball team was informed that because of coronavirus concerns the game was being postponed. That contest and all other remaining winter sports postseason events eventually were canceled by the OHSAA, leaving the Warriors wondering what might have been.
Also affected was the Chaney boys basketball team which had its season ended before playing in the Division II regional semifinal round, and several area wrestlers who had qualified for the state tournament.
Even worse, the entire spring sports season was called off after teams had practiced during a couple of weeks of uncertainty about the final decision by the OHSAA.
3. No. 2 all-time in Ohio
With his season ending shortly before the winter sports postseason was called off, McDonald senior Zach Rasile completed a prolific four-year career with the Blue Devils, finishing with 3,013 points, good for second all-time in the state of Ohio.
Rasile finished off his career by being named the Division IV Player of the Year for the state.
4. Runner-up once again
The Springfield Tigers football team worked through the uncertainty of the fall sports season and adjusted to the protocols and restrictions of the pandemic, reaching the Division VI state championship game for the second straight season.
Once again the Tigers finished as the state runners-up, dropping a 38-35 decision to Coldwater in the final.
5. Cardinals fly high
The Cardinal Mooney boys soccer team returned the program to its glory years by advancing to the Division III state championship game where the Cardinals were beaten 4-1 by Cincinnati Mariemont.
6. Baseball is back?
Minor league baseball took a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers were wondering if they still would exist in 2021, considering Major League Baseball’s documented effort to trim player development budgets by fundamentally changing the minor leagues.
In the end, the Scrappers survived as a member of the brand-new MLB Draft League which will include top draft prospects — both college and high school — for a given year. Details of how rosters would be shaped, both before and after the draft, remained to be worked out.
7. What’s in a name?
In addition to dealing with the pandemic, which led to a 60-game MLB season, Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan and the club’s front office dealt with a potential name change.
Once the Washington NFL franchise dropped its racist nickname during the summer, Dolan indicated that the same move would be investigated for Cleveland’s baseball team.
Eventually it was announced that the name would be changed, but not until after the 2021 season.
8. Penguins postponed
Youngstown native Bo Pelini ended his five-year run as Youngstown State football head coach in January with a 33-28 record and one playoff berth. He was replaced in February by ex-Springfield and Salem coach Doug Phillips who never got a chance to coach the Penguins in a game in 2020.
The pandemic forced any coaching to be done remotely and the Missouri Valley Football Conference eventually decided to play its football season in early 2021.
9. NFL success
Both area NFL teams, the Browns and Steelers, made news in 2020.
The Browns revamped their front office and coaching staff — what’s new — in January, hiring Kevin Stefanski as coach and Andrew Berry as general manager. The result was a 10-4 season that has the team on the verge of clinching a playoff berth.
The Steelers showed their usual continuity and reeled off 11 straight wins to start the season. Even with three losses since then, Pittsburgh has clinched another playoff spot.
10. Dominating programs
The Youngstown State indoor track and field teams won Horizon League titles early in the year before the coronavirus pandemic struck. The significant part of this story is that it was the fifth consecutive league title for the women and the fourth straight for the men.
Other stories that were considered for the top 10 include West Branch swimmer Jamyson Robb repeating her state title in the 100 breaststroke; the expansion of the Horizon League with the addition or Robert Morris and Purdue Fort Wayne; Ohio State’s football odyssey from a delayed Big Ten start, to missing three games due to COVID-19 complications, to another Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoffs; and a Major League Soccer title for the Columbus Crew.