State championships, historic moments and a slow return to normalcy highlight one of the most entertaining seasons I’ve ever covered.
Going into the 2020-21 school year, a lot of folks didn’t think there would be a sports season.
In interviews I did with student-athletes and coaches in the spring — when COVID-19 shut everything down — and in the summer, the No. 1 concern I heard was about whether the high school season would happen.
As it turned out, after guidelines were put into place — some warranted, some not so much — the season got underway, and I’m thankful it did. It brought back some normalcy to many folks, including myself, and it gave us the most memorable sports season I’ve ever covered.
A TIME FOR FIRSTS
One of my favorite things as a sports writer is the chance to ride right alongside programs as they make history, and that happened quite often this year.
Most recently, The First Academy baseball team stormed its way through a 31-1 season that culminated with the school’s first state championship, thanks to a ton of top-level talent and a coach in Scott Grove, who always gets the best out of his players. I didn’t get to make it to the game — which was held in Fort Myers — but Grove was more than happy to have me on the journey remotely.
Other firsts includes Dr. Phillips senior Gerald Greaves, who ended his career by winning the school’s first state title in boys wrestling earlier this year. To add onto Dr. Phillips’ wildly successful year, senior Zamora St. Cyr won the school’s first title in weightlifting — after helping the girls wrestling team win its fifth consecutive title.
Meanwhile, down the road at Windermere Prep, the Lakers softball team took to the diamond and beat up just about everyone on its way to the program’s first district and regional titles, before falling in a heartbreaking walkoff in the state title game over in Clermont. Let that sink in: A program that had never won anything managed to come back from a COVID-shortened season to make a run to the state championship.
The resilience of this Lakers team — led by head coach Wes Pollock — was incredible, and the win against TFA in the regional finals was the best softball game I’ve ever covered. When I mean good, I mean “physically shaking from anxiety and nerves, despite not having a dog in the fight” good.
PANTHERS BASKETBALL CONQUERS
Basketball holds a special part in my bleeding, North Carolinian heart.
So, when DP’s boys basketball team ran amok through the season and landed in Lakeland for the state semis and final, I knew it would be one of the highlights of the year. I mean, it had been a solid few years — when CFCA won its first state title in early 2019 — since I had made the pilgrimage over to the RP Funding Center in Lakeland, so any excuse to go was worth taking.
Sitting on the floor with media snacks in my pocket, while live — as in real-life — human beings filled the arena with a sound that vibrated off the walls gave me life.
A big win over Oak Ridge in the semis sent the Panthers into the title game, where a 27-point explosion by Denzel Aberdeen had me frantically running onto the court to grab photos, just like I was Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug after the 1983 NCAA title game.
WHEN THE CROWD CAME BACK
When I went up to Apopka to cover Ocoee High’s first football game of the season, it was … weird to the point of dystopian.
Before the restrictions on bands, cheerleaders and other vital game day bits and pieces were lifted, speakers were set up in the end zone — which blasted pre-recorded music and cheers. Meanwhile, in the stands — where normally there would be hundreds and hundreds of people — sat a small dozen or so in quiet bleachers.
Luckily, those rules were removed just as fast as they had been instituted thanks to outcry from communities around the county. Slowly but surely the pomp and circumstance of game day came back.
The ebb and flow of a game can be doubly felt by crowd reactions, and when a game gets tense, I can feel it even more so with every cheer — or jeer. When I’m sitting down to write that game recap, I use that energy to help me channel what needs to be said in a piece — it’s a liberating thing.
So thank you to those fans who have made it back to fill the stands on Friday nights, and on mid-week nights of basketball, and thank you to the student-athletes who have put up with so much just to get back the games you play.