To be perfectly honest, when trying to determine what the Top 10 Sports Stories of 2020 might be it became crystal clear that literally not much happened throughout 2020 in the way of sports. It was spotty at best, as we continued to battle for the right to play amid a pandemic that filled our every waking hours beginning in March. Obviously, many of the best stories occurred before we were locked down and high school sports became a fond memory.
Unfortunately, as the months passed and the mandated shutdown on all sports continued, great anger and frustration developed; especially toward the end of 2020 when it became obvious that there were definitely disparities among state leadership as to how controlled things were depending on geographic location. The majority of the states opened their high school sports seasons in the fall with the traditional football, softball, golf and volleyball, but in Colorado the students, parents, schools and communities had to fight for every opportunity that was eventually given. Sadly, at this writing, we are still being controlled by state leadership’s delay of getting to play despite the fact that more than 40 states and even Colorado’s college-level sports are currently being played.
The best part of the year came in January and February as local high school athletes were competing at high levels in basketball and wrestling. By mid-February the regional wrestling tournaments were in high gear and local teams such as the Rivals, consisting of wrestlers from Eads, Wiley and McClave, Holly and Lamar were setting their sites on a trip to the coveted State Wrestling Tournament in Denver.
In basketball the area teams were duking it out in the exciting post season where the District Tournaments and Regional Tournaments were packed to the rafters with fans cheering on their favorite teams. If one looks back on the 1A Region 3 Tournament held in La Junta in early March 2020 the atmosphere was electrifying with the best teams in the region duking it out for a chance to advance to the State Basketball Tournament to be held at the Bank of Colorado Arena on the campus of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley the next weekend.
And then catastrophe struck at the state basketball tournament on a leadership call that never should have been made. As the qualifying teams were preparing to travel to the city for the state tournament word came down from CHSAA that only players and coaches could be present in the huge Bank One Arena for the state games due to concerns over the COVID virus. What ensued was the first of many battles CHSAA and the athletes, parents, schools and community would have. Petitions were put out, phone calls made, and angry emails written. CHSAA relinquished very late in the week and allowed 4 fans per player into the arena. It was still a blow to basketball fans across the state and the tradition of the state tournament, as a whole, but generally it was better than nothing, so the people agreed to this still aggressive mandate.
However, the CHSAA officials were anxious and were influenced by the daunting media stories of a handful of COVID cases identified in Colorado. They completed the quarterfinal rounds for both the girls’ and boys’ tournaments, and then with a call that will go down in the Colorado Sports History books as short-sited and based on fear instead of facts, the CHSAA officials just cancelled the Colorado State Basketball Tournament. There were never champions named---only a Final Four finish. After years of hard work and dedication to their sport the senior athletes from the class of 2020 took it on the chin and were forced to give up their dreams of a championship.
And then it got worse. Next came the spring season of Baseball and Track & Field. Those seasons never even happened as the entire country was on lockdown. These athletes, who were vying for championships, individually and as a team, again had their dreams extinguished. In fact, the kids never went back to school and the seniors quietly graduated in front of well-wishers sitting in their cars masked up and socially distanced.
In the summer we were well into the pandemic and local businesses were closed, people were mandated to wear masks even outside in the summertime heat, and even the little children were facing massive closures. Their summer baseball and softball programs were cancelled. The swimming pools and parks were closed with yellow police tape wrapping the playground equipment. However, at this point, there was a moment of inspiration as some fed up parents and coaches decided to at least get the kids on the fields to play some baseball and softball. Local teams were formed and the older players from age 12 and up actually started traveling into Kansas where the sports scene had been alive and well this entire time. Local baseball players from Eads, Cheyenne Wells, Burlington, Kit Carson, Plainview, Holly, Granada, Lamar, Wiley and McClave—to mention just a few---fought back and enjoyed a summer of high competition on the Kansas diamonds. A handful of softball players did the same.
Unfortunately, the youth programs were still stagnant, but some interested parents, at least, got the children on the fields to learn the skills and play some scrimmages against each other. It wasn’t the best, but it was something.
Then August rolled around and there were huge debates in Colorado as to whether the schools should open. Of course, the rural eastern side of the state got their schools opened with little problem and were ready for the fall sports to begin. However, CHSAA was following the strict mandates and guidelines set out by Governor Polis’ COVID Response team and therefore announced the fall sports of football and volleyball would not begin on time and would have to wait until it was more advisable. Golf and softball were allowed to begin on time and had a normal season.
This ruling by CHSAA received serious pushback and again the state agencies and CHSAA were at odds with the schools, athletes, and parents. In a week of vicious back-and-forth CHSAA finally relinquished allowing football to begin in a much-shortened 6-game season and minimal post season. Volleyball never even got to play, although in the cities hundreds of volleyball players were competing in the clubs.
CHSAA also introduced their new “Seasons” that were developed because of the delay or outright cancellation of some of the seasonal sports. Season B, what is known as the Winter Sports Season that features boys’ and girls’ basketball and wrestling got postponed for a whole month late in December. This move shortened every season to follow. CHSAA’s move was so unfair that now the student athletes got involved. They began making videos to request CHSAA to #letthemplay. Again, there were petitions, emails, articles, demands to CHSAA to look around at all the other states, approximately 40 states, and open up the high school sports programs. Through more than a week of protests by angry citizens, CHSAA relented once again, but this time by only a week. This was basically no compromise as Season B is still delayed by three weeks pushing back or shortening all the other sports seasons to come.
If the year of 2020 has shown us nothing else out here on the eastern plains of Colorado, it should have shown us that the way CHSAA is organized as a governing body for the sports programs of every school in the state, big or small, is not beneficial to small schools that have a much different reality than the huge city schools, some of which have never even opened their doors since last March. Is it not time that the small schools develop their own CHSAA and break away from the mother ship who tried to appease everyone with decisions of one size fits all through this COVID catastrophe? That kind of leadership never works, and it is always the small guy that gets kicked to the curb.
Can we not govern small school sports ourselves? Do we not know best how our schools operate and what they need to be successful? Is it not time to stand up and fight for ourselves?
In May the annual Ryder Cup Golf Tournament was held between two neighboring golf clubs including Cheyenne Wells and Eads. The tournament’s venue alternates each year with this year’s competition held at Smoky River Golf Course in Cheyenne Wells. In an exceptionally exciting finish Eads came back from a deficit to tie the 36-hole tournament and maintain possession of the Cup for the third year in a row.
In the first year of the Ryder Cup hosted by Cheyenne Wells in 2018 Eads would come from behind in the exciting two-hole final tie-breaker playoff with Kyle Barnett from Eads sinking a 15-foot putt for the win and the Cup.
Last year the tournament moved to the Eads Golf Course. The 2019 tournament had a little different outcome as Eads, on their own course, dominated the Cheyenne Wells contention in a final score of 13-7. The Ryder Cup stayed in Eads.
It’s was a hell of a way to go out.
The Kit Carson boys were riding high on a wave of success as they played their last --- ever --- home game in the “new gym” in February blowing out their opponent and scoring 83 points in a shooting fest that burned up the old nets at the hometown gym.
Head coach Damon Dechant, who also played on this same hardwood with huge success, was pleased with his team and enjoyed the many emotions expected when one comes to the end of something very special.
“This weekend was a celebration of our Kit Carson family. At one time we had our current team, future Wildcats and some of my childhood heroes in the gym. It made me think about how special the night was. The “new gym” really isn’t just a place to watch the Wildcats play, but a place that brings us all together. We aren’t all related to each other, but we are for sure a family.”
A special presentation was made to legendary Granada coach Manuel Gonzales before the start of the Bobcats’ game with Bethune on Friday, Feb. 21. It marked the final home game for Gonzales who spent countless hours of practice and coaching players in the program.
Granada superintendent Ty Kemp read the following to the crowd in attendance.
“Before we begin tonight’s final contest, we want to take a moment and honor a man that has given his entire life and career to the Granada School District. A man who has coached, mentored, and influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women. Tonight, he will coach his last home game as the head basketball coach in the Granada School Gym.”
The Eads girls with just a dubious 8-14 overall season record were living proof that the old adage, “Defense Wins Championships,” is even more true than they had ever realized. Using strong rebounding and creative defensive sets, the Eads girls got by Granada in a heartstopper, 34-33, in the District 2 quarterfinals. That win eliminated Granada and allowed Eads to move forward against Kit Carson in the semifinals. Controlling the Cat offense with a unique defensive set proved profitable and the Lady Eagles came away with a massive upset over #1 Kit Carson, 32-29. The win propelled the Lady Eagles into the district championship game against McClave where they could not overcome a weak second quarter handing the championship to the Lady Cards, 36-33.
McClave advanced to the Regional Tournament at La Junta High School on March 6 and 7 as one of three of the automatic #1 seeds while Eads and Kit Carson qualified as #2 and #3 respectively.
COVID-19 severely hampered the sports scene locally, regionally, statewide and even nationally. The spring, as we know all too well, was a series of disappointments and cancellations. After two and a half months of quarantine the youth in the area had missed the entire baseball season and it looked like their summer opportunities would go away, as well.
Some local coaches decided enough was enough and brought area players together, not in a sanctioned program, but rather through parental approval and with the somewhat loosening guidelines from the state that allowed to start practicing baseball once again.
Chad Rouse headed up the baseball protest and quickly enough players ages 13 through 19 began showing up for daily practices. Then the littler guys started practicing, as well, and now the area kids from ages tee ball to 19 are playing summer ball. Just as it should be.
Over the weekend, Rouse and a crew of volunteer coaches took five of the Hi-Plains teams to the Jim Clanton Memorial Baseball Tournament held in Garden City. Coaches included Chad Rouse, Tyler Rouse, Preston Courkamp, Chance Fowler, Marcus Gilmore, Dayne Eaton, and Billy Koehler. There were other volunteers who helped these men as well. Between them they managed to fill brackets in the 12U, 13U, 14U, 16U, and 19U respective tournaments.
The U.S. Kids Golf Association wrapped up their 2020 Golf Program with the culmination of the Fall Tour on Sunday, October 18. After the six tour tournaments stretching each weekend through September and October, Eads Elementary 4th grader Reese Barnett was named the 2020 Girls’ 10 & 11-Year-Old Division Fall Tour Champion after the final tournament was played out.
For her efforts, Barnett was awarded a Trophy as Fall Tour Champion at the final tournament site at the Collindale Golf Course in Fort Collins. She has also been invited to compete in two other regional tournaments including one in San Antonio, TX and another in West Palm Beach, FL.
Blood, sweat and tears were shed over that weekend as the County Line Rivals wrestled their final matches of the 2020 season. For a few, it was their last match ever of competitive wrestling, for others it was just be the end of another year as they move into their next sport. Regardless of the situation, the state tournament is always a bittersweet feeling. All these young men’s hard work finally gets put to the test, and the rush of being on those mats in the middle of the Pepsi Center is like no other. As fans, we watch them pour their hearts out on that mat, and celebrate along with them after a big win, or pick our own hearts back up after a tough loss. One thing is for certain, being a part of the CHSAA State Wrestling Championships will be a memory none of these boys will soon forget. Seven young men from Eads, McClave, and Wiley got the opportunity to make these memories. Ty Michael, Tate Krentz, Aiden Michael, Jamie Ibarra, Brooks Jones, Taite Johnson, and Chase Stolzenberger represented the Rivals at Denver.
McClave senior Jamie Ibarra from McClave went into the state tournament as the regional champion in the 182-pound bracket. In the final match of the Rival’s career, he defeated Devon Harshman of Wiggins 4-3 and earned 3rd place.
Eads Sophomore Taite Johnson of Eads went to state as the 4th place finisher from Region 4 last week. He wrestled his final match of 2020 against JJ Horn from Fowler that ended with Johnson being pinned by the Grizzly in just :59. Tatie took home 6th place for his efforts.
In his final high school match, Holly senior Grayson Flint lost by a pin in 1:46 to senior Jace Peebles (35-7) of Hotchkiss for third place.
It wasn’t what any basketball fan envisioned. The sudden halt to the Colorado State Basketball Tournament still has those who were striving for their lifelong goals reeling in disbelief and anger. For Kit Carson, the reality of losing a chance to win their long-sought-after title came to a screeching halt, and this was more than likely the year they would actually be able to complete their goal.
The KC group came roaring into the state tournament and despite some injury obstacles and cold shooting advanced to the state semifinals in a win over Ouray and were set to play Briggsdale the next day when the life changed as we know it.
The Wildcats will graduate 7 seniors off of the 12-man roster leaving only Sullivan Farmer (Jr.) as the one returning senior and starter. Perhaps even worse than that, however, is the loss to the extremely strong bench that Coach Damon Dechant developed.
Dechant said, “I hurt for our 7 seniors, who along with myself started this journey 3 years ago with a lot to prove. Although there was never a trophy handed out, I know we were all champions.”
Wiley High School has announced that it will start a girls’ softball this fall. The school is committed to establishing a varsity level program with the intention of building a permanent and competitive team for years to come.
“Preliminary discussions were held this summer about building a softball program in Wiley, and with the current situation with CHSAA seasons, it felt like the perfect time to both create our program and give our girls the competitive outlet that many are missing during these times. Our program will be a Wiley program but will allow girls from other schools to walk on,” said Jeff Bollinger, who will be the head coach and is also the new school superintendent.
Wiley would eventually qualify for the 16 team Colorado State Softball Tournament in their first season out of the gate. They entered the state tournament bracket with #16 seed and played a tough game against eventual state champions #1 Eaton. The new team consisted of players from Wiley, Eads, and McClave.
Burlington Softball enjoyed the addition of 7 student athletes from Kit Carson who were originally volleyball players but found themselves without a sport. They entered the state tournament bracket with a #6 seed and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to #11 Strasburg in the first-round tournament on October 6 at Burlington.
In April CHSAA revealed their annual All-State lists for Colorado’s five basketball divisions. After an upsetting and tumultuous end to the basketball season in mid-March where the state tournaments were abruptly cancelled after the quarterfinals on Thursday due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, it was questionable just how CHSAA would determine the best performances in the state as these awards are always based on performances at the state tournament.
It looks like, though, CHSAA did all they could to base their All-State selections and Player of the Year and Coach of the Year awards fairly on the season performances and the one game the teams got in at the state tournament.
Kit Carson head coach Damon Dechant, in his third year at the helm, was named the 1A Coach of the Year. And, in an appropriate turn of events, Dechant’s senior leader, Jayden McCombs-Farmer, was listed as the 1A Player of the Year.
In an interview after the state quarterfinals, Dechant said, “Yesterday was the hardest day because of what was supposed to happen. We set our goal on winning a state championship. Currently, I’m being as positive as I can. Our small towns are full of elderly or compromised people. I’m glad we are doing all we can for them. It’s just about the boys for me. I hurt for our 7 seniors, who along with myself started this journey 3 years ago with a lot to prove.”
Dechant took the Wildcat reins from legendary coach Jim Trahern three years ago. In his first season, during the 2017-2018 season, the Wildcats went 18-5 and lost in the regional finals to Creede, 58-56. That left a hunger in Dechant and for the next two years he and his Wildcats marched to the state tournament with a gold ball as the ultimate goal. During the 2018-2019 season, they were upset in the quarterfinals round at state by Sangre de Cristo, 52-41, but ultimately learned a lot of state-level lessons grabbing the consolation championship, 68-51, over Evangelical Christian.
Jayden was on all those teams with Dechant and together they set their sites for the ultimate win. As a sophomore JMF averaged 10.3 points per game and pulled down 4.1 boards per game. The next year, as a junior, he really developed as a player and improved his stats decisively averaging 12.6 ppg and 6.4 rpg. Finally, as a senior, JMF spent a lot of time in the weight room and upped his overall understanding of the game to a level that Dechant relied on him to run the show. He shot a phenomenal 43% from the field and his ability to get the ball to his teammates was perhaps the best part of his game.