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Year in review: The top local sports stories of 2020

Year in review: The top local sports stories of 2020

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Way back on Jan. 1, everyone assumed this year would be the standard, run-of-the-mill routine that we’ve all grown accustomed to.

However, by the time March was over, it was clear that 2020 was going to be anything but a 12-month rat race.

From schools and businesses being shut down to public mask mandates and midnight curfews being implemented, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we all lived our daily lives over the past nine months.

Sports were just as affected as all of the above, with the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all deciding to shutter operations from mid-March until mid-summer. Each of them eventually crowned champions through unconventional formats this fall, whether it was MLB’s 60-game regular season and expanded postseason or the NBA and NHL’s respective “bubble” playoff layouts. The NFL is set to complete its regular season on time next week, but it hasn’t come without a handful of scheduling quirks resulting from coronavirus outbreaks among various teams.

At the collegiate level, the NCAA made the decision to cancel both its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as all spring sports. When it came time to play football in August and September, several conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, initially opted out of participating. Public outcry later convinced both to reconsider, but a disparity in the number of games played and COVID-19 mitigation techniques on their part contributed to a very disjointed college football season.

With all of the upheaval at the upper levels, it’s no surprise that there was a trickle-down effect to the high school level and local sports as a whole. From entire seasons being canceled or postponed to the tragic loss of a beloved member of the Culpeper community, here are the top 10 local sports stories of the year.

10. Hatfield wills Cyclones past Foxes for title

In the only game-related story you’ll find on this countdown, Eastern View’s girls basketball team rallied from a 21-point third-quarter deficit to top host King George for the Battlefield District tournament championship on Feb. 21. Senior Sarah Hatfield keyed the comeback.

From the Feb. 23 edition of the Culpeper Star-Exponent:

Hatfield scored 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and collected five steals—the last of which helped Eastern View overcome a nine-point deficit with two minutes to play—as the Cyclones rallied twice in the second half to stun the Foxes for a 57-53 victory.

“I don’t even have the words to properly describe what just happened,” Eastern View head coach Mike McCombs said after the game. “The refusal to quit and the undying will to win by these girls just created something incredible.”

9. VHSL approves mid-cycle realignment, sending Culpeper home to Battlefield

The Battlefield District had already approved Culpeper’s application to return to the district beginning with the 2021-22 school year, but the Virginia High School League had the final say. On July 30, the league agreed to send the Blue Devils back to the district they called home for nearly three decades.

From the July 31 Star-Exponent:

“We are so excited for our student body to be going into the Battlefield District,” Blue Devils athletic director Danny Nobbs said. “It will allow for us to go back to some of our historical rivalries with the district’s other member schools.”

Culpeper principal Dr. Danny Soderholm praised the guidance of Nobbs, a Blue Devil alum who is entering his second year as the school’s AD, as a critical component in the realignment process.

“The leadership Danny has provided through this process has been priceless,” Soderholm said. “He competed in the Battlefield as a player and a coach for the Blue Devils in the 1990s and early 2000s, and he wanted to lead us back to historic rivalries.

8. Culpeper honors Averett with surprise court dedication

Nobbs and Soderholm made the news again when they took part in dedicating Culpeper’s new gym floor to John Averett on Oct. 23. Averett led the Blue Devils’ boys basketball team to a state title in 1973, as well as guiding their cross country program to a pair of state championships.

Taken from the Oct. 25 edition of the Star-Exponent:

The surprise court dedication ceremony was the culmination of months of collaboration between Blue Devils athletic director Danny Nobbs and Gary Deal, chairman of the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors.  

In addition to having the floor named after him, Averett received a commemorative framed plaque that contained photos of him and outlined his accomplishments from his tenure at the school.

“I think this is the greatest honor I have ever had in my life,” he said. “I owe so many people for this, and it just means so much to me.”

7. Legendary Eastern View coach Peggy Allen receives VHSL’s top honor

Continuing with the theme of legendary coaches being honored for their tireless efforts, recently retired Eastern View field hockey coach Peggy Allen was named the VHSL’s 2019-20 field hockey coach of the year for all classifications.

From the Oct. 29 Star-Exponent:

At the conclusion of every school year, the VHSL votes on who it believes was the top coach in each of the 27 sports it offers. The league has a total of 318 member schools that are currently divided into six classifications based on enrollment size. While not all of those schools have field hockey programs, the vast majority of them do.

The enormity of her selection was not lost on Allen.

“I’m just shocked, because I know the caliber of coaches we have across the state,” she said. “There are several great teachers of the game in the [Fredericksburg] area alone, so for the [VHSL] to pick me means a lot.”

6. Five years after leaving football, Eastern View grad Coen King excels at Virginia

2018 Eastern View graduate Coen King went from playing just one year of varsity football for the Cyclones to earning a scholarship from the University of Virginia on Aug. 27.

As it appeared on Sept. 6 in the Star-Exponent:

King’s watershed moment finally came on Aug. 27, and while his fellow Cavaliers didn’t carry him off the field on their shoulders, the nature of the presentation and the fanfare that ensued immediately afterward didn’t disappoint.

“It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling,” King said Tuesday. “That one moment encompassed everything I’ve done since getting here over two years ago. It’s what I’ve thought about during every single workout, every single practice, day and night.”

As Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall addressed the team following practice that balmy Thursday morning, an unassuming bike courier rode up to him and announced he had a special delivery.

In reality, the “courier” was actually Gerry Capone, the Cavaliers’ associate director of athletics for football administration. Capone handed Mendenhall two envelopes—one with King’s name on it and another with fellow walk-on Hayden Mitchell’s on it.

Upon hearing Mendenhall announce the names, the team immediately launched into a wild celebration, screaming and jumping up and down as it swarmed around both King and Mitchell.

5. College football cancellations hit local players for a loss

While Power Five college football conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 waffled on whether or not they’d play football this year, most lower-level conferences decided during the summer that they would not. That decision affected a handful of local athletes, such as 2016 Culpeper alum Eli Marks and 2018 Eastern View grad D’Ago Hunter.

From the Aug. 20 edition of the Star-Exponent:

“I kind of figured the season was going to get canceled, but it didn’t really hit me until they announced it,” Marks said. “Once that happened, I was just overcome with sadness.”

Marks’ sadness is rooted in the fact that the SAC’s decision effectively ended his college career. A criminal justice major, he’s already prolonged his stay at UVa-Wise once, enrolling in the fall semester so he’d have one last go-round on the gridiron this year.

At the D-1 level, the Colonial Athletic Association decided last month to cancel its 2020 conference slate, but left the decision up to its member schools on whether or not they wanted to pursue independent schedules. Some opted to do so initially, but Towson (Md.) University was not one of them, choosing to suspend fall sports on the same day the CAA made it’s announcement.

A redshirt sophomore for the Tigers, 2018 Eastern View alum D’Ago Hunter now has to deal with the prospect of losing an entire season--assuming Towson doesn’t implement a shortened campaign in the spring like UVa-Wise.

“When I first found out that the season was canceled, I was in shock,” said Hunter, who accumulated 797 all-purpose yards and a score while seeing action as a receiver, running back and return man for Towson in 2019. “I was already back on campus training with the team and we were wrapping up the first week of workouts when we got the bad news. It felt unreal. I’ve been playing football for 15 years, and this hurt.”

4. Local football standouts weigh in on postponement of 2020 season

After canceling all spring sports in mid-March and dragging its feet throughout the summer on a decision regarding the fall season, the VHSL finally decided on July 27 that the earliest any high school sports would be played was December. Local student-athletes didn’t take long to speak out on that edict.

From the July 30 Star-Exponent:

A first-team all-Battlefield District selection at running back after racking up 942 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, Eastern View’s Raq Lawson made it clear that he’s more focused on spending his time improving rather than worrying about things he can’t control.

“I’m pretty sure everyone is angry about the situation, but that should also bring out the best in everyone,” he added. “This extra time on our hands is going to separate those of us who put in the work from the ones that just show up and expect to compete.”

Lawson’s attitude is shared by many players in the area, especially those who only have a year of eligibility left and need one more high school campaign to (hopefully) make colleges take notice of them.

However, over at Liberty, the VHSL’s decision left at least one player in a state of uncertainty.

“We all have dreams of going somewhere to play football, no matter where it’s at,” said Dylan Bailey, the Eagles’ senior quarterback. “The delay of the season puts a lot of seniors who are not yet committed [to college] or without any offers in a bad situation.”

3. VHSL approves ‘Championships +1’ schedule, setting December return for sports

The VHSL went on to approve the modified 2020-21 athletic calendar that its executive committee had proposed over the summer at a special session held on Sept. 17.

As it appeared in the Sept. 18 edition of the Star-Exponent:

The first sports to begin will be basketball and sideline cheer, which can start practices on Dec. 7. Their first games are slated for Dec. 21.

Indoor track, swimming and diving and wrestling begin practicing Dec. 14, with their first competitions slated for Dec. 28. Regional playoffs start at the beginning of February and state playoffs will wrap up for most winter sports by the end of the month.

Fall sports start Feb. 4 with practices for high school football and competition cheer. The first football games are slated for Feb. 22. Golf, volleyball and cross country start practicing Feb. 15, with their first date of competition slated for March 1. Regional play begins April 5-12 for all sports, while state championships will run from the final week of April through May 1 for football.

Spring sports can begin practice on April 12. Tennis matches start April 21, while baseball, lacrosse, soccer, softball, tennis and track begin competition April 26. Most state semifinals, except for tennis, start June 22 and the season will end by June 26.

“It’s a positive step and it puts us one step closer to putting our athletes back on the playing fields and in the arenas,” Eastern View athletic director Mark Settle said when reached by phone Thursday evening. “We’ve had a good few weeks of school with our blended model so far, so hopefully we’re ready to move on to the next phase when December comes around.”

2. VHSL cancels all spring sports through remainder of school year

When the dominoes began to fall due to the pandemic, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced on March 23 that all K-12 public and private schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year. Northam’s ruling led to the VHSL canceling its spring sports season the same day.

From the March 24 Star-Exponent:

For players and coaches who were hoping for at least an abbreviated season, the announcement further fleshed out the stark reality that the coronavirus has changed practically all aspects of daily life as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise rapidly across the United States.

“We’re in a very different, unprecedented time,” Eastern View football coach Greg Hatfield said. “Even for sports like football that are out of season, this could have far-reaching effects because we’re all guessing as far as what the overall timeline for a return to normalcy will be. Right now, you just hope everyone comes out of this okay on the other end, whenever that may be.”

“It leaves you with a very unfulfilling feeling to have had your last day of high school and you didn’t even know it,” said Eastern View senior Sarah Hatfield, who was preparing for the soccer season before the pandemic. “I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to and definitely feel like there should have been more to [my senior year].”

“To say I’m heartbroken would be a real understatement,” said one Culpeper senior who wished to remain anonymous. “I understand the severity of the pandemic, but to know that my high school athletic career and all the things I’ve looked forward to as a senior have been taken away, it certainly fills me with anger. I mean, I’m not even going to be able to walk across a stage in front of my family and friends and get a diploma because of all this.”

1. Friends, colleagues and former players remember Culpeper’s Eric Dinkens

As heartbreaking as it was for area student-athletes, coaches and administrators to have sports taken away from them in 2020, it paled in comparison to the tragic news of Eric Dinkens’ passing on Dec. 6. A longtime coach at Culpeper High School, Culpeper Middle School and various local youth leagues, Dinkens passed away at the age of 49 from a heart attack.

From the Dec. 9 edition of the Star-Exponent:

A 1990 graduate of Culpeper High School, Dinkens spent much of his adult life teaching at Culpeper Middle School and coaching various sports from the youth level up through high school. He’d served as facilities services coordinator for Culpeper County Public Schools over the past two years.

“When I got the call [about his passing] Sunday, I couldn’t believe it,” said Rod Stewart, one of Dinkens’ closest friends. “I’m still numb, and I’ve hardly been able to sleep just thinking about it.”

Dinkens, often referred to as “Dink” by those who knew him, went on to serve as an assistant football coach at Culpeper High from 2013-18, which allowed him to continue to guide many of the players he’d coached at both the youth and middle school levels toward reaching their full potential as student-athletes.

During the same time, Dinkens was also traveling a similar path with his only child, Daisy.

“Eric loved Daisy as much as a father can love a child,” Stewart said of Dinkens’ relationship with his daughter, who went on to play volleyball at Division II East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University after graduating from Culpeper in 2016. “He spent a lot of time traveling up and down the East Coast with her so she could play travel volleyball and have the opportunity for more college coaches to see her play. He was very proud when she accepted that offer to East Stroudsburg.”

“He loved with all his heart,” Blue Devils athletic director Danny Nobbs said of his longtime friend and colleague. “And that went for more than just his family. He loved being here and being a Blue Devil.”

Dinkens’ former players didn’t waste any time expressing the love they felt for him.

“Dink coached me in little league, middle school, junior varsity and varsity [football],” said Eli Marks, a 2016 Culpeper grad who went on to play collegiately at Division II UVA-Wise. “He was there for me from the beginning as a great coach, but even more so as a mentor.”

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