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2020 sports stories of the year

The year 2020 was unlike any other, and the relative significance — or insignificance — of sporting events all over this country was put into perspective this year unlike in any other year in history.

The coronavirus pandemic first erupted in the United States in mid-March, and would cause world-wide tragedy throughout 2020, factoring in more than 19 million confirmed cases and more than 300,000 deaths in this country by year’s end.

The world, as everybody knew it, was changed drastically and immeasurably — and in some cases, forever — in 2020.

With many hospitals filling to crisis capacity across the country, sporting events were placed on a distant backburner, if they were permitted to be held at all.

Terms such as social distancing, sheltering in place, masking, and flattening the curve became household language in the American and world lexicon in 2020, and will undoubtedly continue to be throughout 2021, despite the recent availability of a vaccine to combat the deadly virus.

Professional, collegiate and high school sports teams all over the U.S. were affected in various and profound ways by COVID-19.

Some, like the NCAA and PIAA spring sports teams, saw their seasons completely canceled after COVID had unleashed its initial wrath and prompted a statewide shutdown of what were termed non-essential businesses by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.

Others, like NCAA men’s and women’s basketball and NCAA wrestling teams, had their shots at glory dashed last March when their postseason tournaments were canceled and their seasons were prematurely halted.

Hearts were broken on a widespread basis locally as six area high school basketball teams — the Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic boys and girls, the Bellwood-Antis, Cambria Heights and Tyrone girls and the Bishop Carroll boys — had all reached the PIAA quarterfinal playoff round before watching COVID-19 suspend their playoff runs in March and ultimately wipe out their dreams of a gold medal with the cancellation of the PIAA tournament in April.

The Penn State men’s basketball team had its first opportunity to participate in the NCAA Tournament in nine years dashed, and the Penn State wrestling team was also denied another opportunity to continue what has been its fabulous run of NCAA Tournament success.

The PIAA wrestling tournament finished its competition just under the COVID wire, with Glendale’s Brock McMillen winning his second Class 2A state championship, and Bedford’s Kaden Cassidy also capturing a gold medal.

The effects of the virus had abated somewhat and restrictions were considerably relaxed by Wolf by the beginning of the summer, allowing for area baseball leagues to run through and finish their schedules, and for Major League Baseball and the Pittsburgh Pirates to start and finish an abbreviated 60-game regular-season schedule with no fans permitted in the stands.

The Class AA Altoona Curve, whose season begins in April, had its entire 2020 schedule wiped out, but Peoples Natural Gas Field did serve as an Alternate Training Site for the Curve’s major league parent club, the Pirates, throughout the summer months.

The Pirates struggled to a 19-41 record and a last-place finish in the National League Central Division in their first year under an all-new management team that consisted of field manager Derek Shelton, general manager Ben Cherington and team president Travis Williams.

By the fall, the major college football season was in serious jeopardy due to the virus, and the NFL had canceled its preseason and faced serious questions about its season.

The Big Ten Conference had initially canceled its season, but, along with the PAC 12 Conference, had a change of heart and allowed teams to play an exclusive conference schedule that began in late October and wound up in mid-December.

COVID drastically affected both the NFL and NCAA football schedules throughout the fall, with games being postponed or canceled on a weekly basis, and only a select small number of fans such as family members being permitted to attend the college games.

The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North Division championship and will advance to the NFL postseason later this month, while Penn State overcame an 0-5 start that was the worst in the history of its storied football program to win its next four games and salvage respectability out of what had been a lost season.

The PIAA fall sports schedule survived the pandemic well enough that athletic programs were able to complete their seasons and postseasons, albeit with several cancellations and schedule readjustments.

But just finishing an entire season amidst such overwhelming adversity was a monumental accomplishment in a year that was unprecedented in world history.

The area’s scholastic winter sports programs may not be so fortunate, with a recent COVID flare-up already forcing drastic schedule changes for teams for the 2020-21 ledger and wiping out the entire December schedule for PIAA schools and teams.

On Dec. 10, in response to the state’s surging number of COVID cases, Wolf issued a mitigation order to pause all Pennsylvania sports activities in grades K-12 until this Monday for students in public, non-public and private schools alike.

Practices cannot begin or resume until then, and with a 10-practice limit required for PIAA member schools to engage in competition, Wolf’s decree means that most PIAA winter sports competitions will not begin until mid-January at the earliest.

Following is a closer look at the Mirror’s biggest stories in what was the craziest sports year ever:

March 12 … D-day

Thursday, March 12 initiated a 2020 death knell for collegiate and high school winter and spring sports teams across the nation.

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic would later prompt massive business shutdowns and cause a nationwide spiral of Depression era-like unemployment, along with rampant death and illness.

The Penn State men’s basketball team had put together a fabulous 2019-20 season under Pat Chambers, who would resign as the Nittany Lions’ head coach later in the year after an internal investigation was held into his having made a controversial statement to a former player.

Chambers’ final season at Penn State last year was a very successful one, though. The Nittany Lions fashioned a 21-10 record and an 11-9 mark in the Big Ten Conference that would almost certainly have put them on the NCAA Tournament board on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2011.

But on March 12, the NCAA announced cancellation of both its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, and its wrestling tournament, one day after having decreed that the NCAA basketball tournaments could be held, but without fans in the stands.

That announcement set forth a domino effect that would eventually bring about the cancellation of all NCAA spring sports for 2020, as well as the cancellation of postseason tournaments for PIAA basketball teams and the cancellation of all PIAA spring sports.

High school heartbreak

The COVID-19 pandemic brought heartbreak to a considerable number of District 6 basketball coaches and their players in 2020, but the disappointment of having the postseason end prematurely had to be especially keen for Notre Dame University signee and Bellwood-Antis girls star Alli Campbell and her Lady Blue Devils’ teammates — who lost their chance to win a third consecutive PIAA Class 2A basketball championship.

En route to earning her third straight selection as the PIAA Class 2A Girls Basketball Player of the Year in 2020, Campbell established scoring records for all District 6 and Blair County basketball players — girls or boys. She scored 35 points in Bellwood’s 83-54 PIAA second-round victory over Redbank Valley March 10 to become just the 10th player in PIAA girls basketball history to surpass the 3,000-point career mark.

But that’s where Campbell’s storied high school career would end, as Bellwood’s March 13 quarterfinal-round game with Marion Center was postponed, and the PIAA basketball postseason would never resume.

On Thursday, April 9, after the PIAA had waited as long as it possibly could to try to get the playoff games in, it announced that its basketball postseason would be canceled.

It was a crushing disappointment for Campbell, her teammates, and veteran Bellwood head coach Jim Swaney, who earlier last season had picked up his 500th career coaching victory.

The Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic boys and girls teams both endured high levels of disappointment from the postseason cancellations as well.

The BG boys, with a very strong nucleus returning from a team that had reached the PIAA Class 1A championship game in 2019, put together a 26-3 record last year, won another District 6 championship, and had strong hopes of returning to the PIAA Class 1A title game before having the curtain pulled on their season.

The Bishop Guilfoyle girls won the District 6 Class 1A championship last season — including a district semifinal victory over Bellwood — and posted a 22-6 record before their postseason was canceled.

Both the Cambria Heights and Tyrone girls reached the PIAA Class 3A quarterfinals for the first time in program history before seeing COVID dash their dreams.

Cambria Heights, which finished with a 25-3 record, defeated Tyrone (22-4) in the District 6 Class 3A championship game.

The Bishop Carroll boys, who beat Williamsburg in the District 6 Class 1A championship game, finished last season with a 17-10 record.

McMillen earns second PIAA mat title

Making his third straight appearance in the PIAA Class 2A wrestling championship match, Glendale’s McMillen won his second consecutive title last March 7 at Hershey’s Giant Center by topping Burrell junior Ian Oswalt, 5-1 in an overtime second-period tiebreaker in the 132-pound championship bout.

The win capped off a 36-5 junior season for McMillen, who had won the Class 2A 126-pound state title as a sophomore in 2019 after finishing second at 113 as a freshman in 2018.

Whether McMillen — who carries a 120-10 varsity career record into his senior season — can win a third state PIAA championship remains to be seen, with the resurgence of COVID-19 currently threatening all scholastic winter sports.

McMillen is trying to make the best of things in the interim. After verbally committing to continue his wrestling career on the NCAA Division I college level at the University of Pittsburgh in September 2019, McMillen officially signed with the Panthers on Nov. 11.

Pittsburgh is one of the top collegiate wrestling programs in the country, and McMillen never wavered in his decision to sign with the Panthers despite also drawing interest from Iowa, Purdue and Northern Iowa.

Also last March, Bedford’s Cassidy capped off a perfect 40-0 senior season with a 10-6 victory over Saegertown senior Kenny Kiser in the PIAA Class 2A 138-pound state championship bout.

Chestnut Ridge freshman Callan Bollman also reached the PIAA Class 2A championship match at 106 pounds before losing a 4-2 decision there to Montoursville’s Branden Wentzel.

Steelers win division title

After racing to 11 straight victories to open their season, the Steelers lost their next three games and were in danger of losing their hold on first place in the AFC North Division before finally clinching the title with a come-from-behind 28-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday at Heinz Field.

The Steelers carry a 12-3 record into Sunday’s regular-season finale with the division runner-up Cleveland Browns in Cleveland, and will move on to the playoffs in quest of their seventh Super Bowl trophy.

Up-and-down year for Penn State

The 2020 football season was a tale of two seasons for Penn State, which stumbled to an 0-5 start for the first time in program history before rebounding to win its last four games and finish 4-5.

The Nittany Lions had an opportunity to compete in one of the lower-tier bowl games in a season in which the normal six-win eligibility for NCAA teams was waived. But the Penn State players, after their regular season had concluded, elected not to compete in a bowl and opted instead to return home to spend the holidays with their families after having endured a regular season which didn’t kick off until Oct. 24 and was played under the dark shadow of the pandemic for the next eight weeks.

Ranked seventh nationally in the preseason, Penn State faced a boatload of adversity in what everybody associated with the Nittany Lions’ program hopes will be an outlier of a season.

After the Big Ten Conference had initially announced that its teams would not have a season this year, conference officials — thanks in large part due to pressure from the league’s coaches, players, parents and fans — settled on having a nine-game all-conference schedule that would begin in late October and run through Dec. 19.

Penn State struggled both offensively and defensively en route to the abysmal 0-5 start, bringing rumblings of discontent aimed at head coach James Franklin and his coaching staff despite Franklin’s impressive run of success over his first six seasons with the Nittany Lions.

But irate fans generally overlooked the significant personnel losses that Penn State has endured over the past 12 months, starting with the declaration of star wideout K.J. Hamler for the NFL Draft early in the year — he was taken by the Denver Broncos in the second round — and continuing with the decision in August by star linebacker Micah Parsons, a consensus All-American, to opt out of playing this season for the Nittany Lions in order to focus on the 2021 NFL Draft.

Add to that the fact that outstanding running back Journey Brown was diagnosed with a career-ending heart condition, that another key cog in Penn State’s offensive backfield, Noah Cain, suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first game of the year at Indiana, and that tight end Pat Freiermuth — a highly-touted NFL prospect who would officially declare for the NFL draft in late December — sustained an injury in the second game of the year that would require season-ending surgery, and it is feasible to give Penn State a mulligan for what was a crazy season.

Pitt got its 2020 football season underway on time in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Panthers finished the season with a 6-5 record but, like Penn State, made the decision to opt out of accepting any bowl invitation.

Chambers resigns

After leading Penn State to an almost-certain NCAA Tournament bid last season, it was a comment that Pat Chambers had made to a former player during the 2018-19 campaign that prompted an internal investigation by Penn State that led to Chambers’ resignation as the Nittany Lions’ head coach this past Oct. 21.

In a story that was published this past July by ESPN’s The Undefeated, former Penn State player Rasir Bolton — who had left the Nittany Lions for Iowa State at the end of the 2018-19 season — alleged that he had endured racism while at Penn State, with Chambers reportedly making the comment to Bolton, in January 2019, that he “wanted to loosen the noose that’s around (Bolton’s) neck.”

The alleged comment was made shortly after Chambers had served a one-game suspension for shoving another current Penn State player, Myles Dread, during a timeout in a nationally-televised game.

Chambers — who had issued a public apology to Bolton following the publication of the story by The Undefeated — had coached Penn State to 26 wins and the National Invitation Tournament championship in the 2017-18 season.

The current Penn State players, including Dread, have expressed their widespread support of Chambers, whose nine-year coaching record with the Nittany Lions was 148-150.

At one point last season, Penn State was ranked as high as ninth in the country.

Jim Ferry has been promoted from assistant coach to interim head coach at Penn State for the 2020-21 season.

Fall sports survive

After a strong recommendation by governor Tom Wolf that PIAA fall sports be put on hold until 2021 because of the coronavirus, the PIAA decreed that the sports seasons would be held in spite of the adversity.

It was a completely different type of high school football season, with the start of the season being delayed for two weeks, the PIAA playoffs being held on Thanksgiving weekend, and all teams being required to adhere to strict COVID-19 protocol at their practices and games.

Many football teams lost games due to COVID, but the season for all area fall sports programs — which began under Wolf’s initial mandate that a limit of only 250 people, including coaches, players, officials, medical personnel, media members and fans, would be permitted into athletic facilities to attend outdoor scholastic sporting events and that just 25 people would be permitted at indoor events — was able to run its course.

Later in the football season, the attendance mandates were considerably relaxed at football games according to stadium capacity, and crowds were almost normal for late-season playoff games, despite the fact that masks were required to be worn all season in order for anybody not actually playing in the games to be granted stadium entrance.

Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic — whose three-time PIAA Class 1A state championship program had advanced to the state title game before finishing second in 2019 — won the District 6 championship this season and made it to the PIAA semifinals before losing there to eventual state champion Steelton-Highspire.

Bishop Guilfoyle all-state selection Andrew Yanoshak, a senior tight end-defensive end, was offered the opportunity in December to become a preferred walk-on player byNCAA powerhouse Notre Dame.

District 5-9 subregional champion Bedford also qualified for the PIAA Class 3A semifinals before suffering its first loss of the season, to eventual PIAA state champion Central Valley of the WPIAL at Mansion Park.

Altoona (District 6 Class 6A), Hollidaysburg (District 6 Class 5A) and Central (District 6 Class 3A) also won district championships and advanced to the state playoffs, as did District 5 Class 2A champion Chestnut Ridge and District 5 Class 1A champion Northern Bedford.

In other area fall sports events, the Central Cambria boys and girls cross country teams both finished second in their respective team races at the PIAA Class 2A championships, and the Philipsburg-Osceola girls volleyball team earned a runner-up finish in the PIAA Class 2A tournament.

On Saturday, Nov. 7 at Hershey, the Central Cambria boys cross country team — led by senior Toby Cree’s eighth-place individual finish — placed second with 71 points to team champion Lewisburg (57) in the PIAA Class 2A boys team race. The Central Cambria girls squad, led by sophomore Annaliese Niebauer’s 16th-place finish, placed second with 77 points to champion Warrior Run (44) in the Class 2A girls team race.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, the Philipsburg-Osceola girls volleyball squad reached the PIAA Class 2A title match at Cumberland Valley High School for the first time in school history, but lost in four sets to Trinity, 19-25, 25-23, 23-25, 19-25. P-O finished the season at 20-1.

The Bedford girls soccer team made it to the PIAA Class 2A semifinals before losing a 2-0 decision to Pittsburgh North Catholic at Mars High School.

Sideline Cancer team shines

In 2014, a basketball team with local ties entered The Basketball Tournament, a nationally-televised event, for the first time.

In 2020, that team achieved national recognition for its very worthy cause.

The team was originally assembled to support the Greg and Cathy Griffith Family Foundation, an organization whose mission has been to promote awareness of and raise research funds for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. The deadly disease claimed the life of Greg Griffith — a former Hollidaysburg Area High School basketball standout — at the age of 50 in 2011.

The team was given the moniker of Sideline Cancer, and has operated under the leadership of former Penn State Altoona men’s basketball coach Billy Clapper, who is now serving as the team’s general manager.

In 2020, the Sideline Cancer team competed in The Basketball Tournament from July 4-14 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

Despite being seeded just 22nd in the 24-team field, the Sideline Cancer team made it all the way to the championship game in the winner-take-all event, which offered one million dollars in prize money to the winning team.

A good percentage of that money would have gone to pancreatic cancer research had Sideline Cancer won the championship. But the team — on which Jordan Griffith, the son of Greg and Cathy and a long-time area high school basketball coach, served as an assistant coach — narrowly missed out on the cash prize, losing a 78-73 decision to an alumni team from the University of Marquette in the title game.

The Sideline Cancer team — whose head coach was former long-time NCAA and NBA coach Charlie Parker — played most of the tournament with only eight players on its roster, but ousted opponents who were seeded 11th, sixth, third and second en route to reaching the title game against fourth-seeded Marquette.

The Basketball Tournament is open to any athlete over the age of 18 who is not currently playing in the NBA. The 2020 Sideline Cancer team was led by point guard Marcus Keene, a former player at Central Michigan University who was the NCAA’s leading scorer during the 2016-17 season with a nation-best 30 points-per-game average.

Other key members of the 2020 Sideline Cancer squad included former University of Pittsburgh standout forward Jamel Artis, and former University of Indiana and George Washington University shooting guard Mo Creek.

Despite coming up short in the championship game, participation in The Basketball Tournament, in which all games were televised nationally on a daily basis by ESPN, gave the Sideline Cancer team a tremendous world-wide platform on which to promote its cause.

With most of its players planning to return for The Basketball Tournament in 2021, the Sideline Cancer squad has solid hopes to win a championship and the prize money to benefit its very worthwhile cause.

In memory

Former Altoona Area High School assistant football coach and Keith Junior High coach Carl Luckner, 95; former Claysburg-Kimmel High School football coach, baseball coach and athletic director Ted Delozier, 94; former Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School football and basketball team chaplain Rev. Raymond Crosser, 90; former veteran PIAA and area sports official Joe Bidoli, Sr., 86, who had also served as the long-time athletic director at Altoona’s Jewish Memorial Center … long-time PIAA and area sports official Hughie Parker, 85; former University of Pittsburgh football coach Johnny Majors, 85, who coached the Panthers to the NCAA championship in 1976; Bob Cummings, 84, former president of the Altoona baseball East End Little League; John Elensky, 83, former football, baseball and wrestling coach at Claysburg-Kimmel High School, who started the school’s wrestling program; former Altoona High School wrestler Ed Masood, 82, who went on to become a PIAA and NCAA wrestling official as well as a coach and athletic director at Maryland high schools; former Bishop Carroll High School football coach and athletic director Chuck Sponsky, 80; former Chestnut Ridge High School coach and athletic director Dick Fisher, 80, an inductee into the Bedford County Sports Hall of Fame; former Altoona High School and University of Pittsburgh football standout Ralph Conrad, 79, a Blair County Sports Hall of Fame inductee; former Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic, Altoona and Tyrone High School assistant coach Lou Berardinelli, 77; Tom Link, 77, former Cambria Heights coach and athletic director, and PIAA basketball official; Don Donaldson, 74, long-time PIAA basketball official and former Tussey Mountain High School softball and football coach; Ron Pavlechko, 71, former State College High School athletic director and football coach; Tommy Sandt, 69, former Pittsburgh Pirates base coach; Jack Phelan, 66, former Saint Francis College basketball star; former Sinking Valley Country Club head golf professional Bobby Sweitzer, 65; Al Futrell, 62, former standout athlete at Altoona High School who went on to play Division I college football at Texas Christian University and have an NFL tryout; former University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and Central Cambria High School wrestling standout John Revesz, 59; former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Kevin Greene, 58; former University of Pittsburgh and National Football League defensive end Chris Doleman, 58; former Tyrone High School wrestler William “Bull” Muir, 58; former Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl guard and six-time NCAA University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown wrestling champion Carlton Haselrig, 54; former long-time area Little League baseball coach Joe Veckov, 54; former Altoona Area High School varsity girls basketball player Segan (Smith) Farster, 29; former Northern Bedford High School wrestling standout and UPJ wrestler Tyler Chesney, 29; former University of Pittsburgh wrestling standout Mikey Racciato, 26; former Central High School football, wrestling and baseball standout Nick Hoenstine, 23; former Hollidaysburg High School softball standout Jordynn Robertson, 21; Chestnut Ridge High School wrestling standout Kai Burkett, 17; Altoona High School wrestler Devon Pfirsching, 15.

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