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West Orange Times & Observer Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 3 weeks ago

Year in Sports 2020

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COVID-19 may have thrown the 2020 sports world into chaos, but that doesn't mean there weren't moments of brilliance from local athletes and teams.
by: Troy Herring Sports Editor

Well, this has been a wildly weird year, hasn’t it?

I remember starting my 2020 by knocking something off of my bucket list — covering Alabama’s shellacking of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. The next thing I know, I’m standing in the midst of a sports desert with nothing to quench my thirst for athletics.

As I was combing through the thousands of sports photos I took this year, the reality of just how truly bizarre this sports year set in. In those early months, things were great. I covered incredible district basketball tourneys in February — which produced one of my favorite shots of Zoe Sedo holding up the district trophy after the Foundation Academy girls team won districts — and then I shot the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

The joys of those moment still stick out — it was the calm before the COVID-19 storm. We had all heard about it, but let’s be honest: Most of us — including myself — figured it would come and go. 

Kate Johnstone is one of many equestrian athletes who spent time practicing at Sunnybrook Farm in Winter Garden.

We were wrong.

A day after I covered Foundation’s baseball game against Legacy Charter, I took a minute to chat with my friend and former Eagles baseball coach Jack Chambless about how things were going, and I remember him talking about the uncertainty of the times. 

His words rang true, because the following day — Friday, March 13 — Orange County Public Schools announced it would be closing one week beyond spring break. What followed was chaos, and the end of the spring sports season.

I remember speaking with high school seniors after the news broke and how devastating it was for them to lose their last year of high school sports. For some, they already had played their last game and didn’t even know it. I also spoke with juniors who were losing out on one of the most important years of their athletic careers; that third high school season is when college recruiting really begins.

With high school sports done and no Little League to be played, my journey into the sports desert commenced.

To add to the pain, a month later, tragedy struck in West Orange. Ocoee football standout Dexter Rentz — who had just signed to play at the University of Louisville — was shot and killed Saturday, April 25. If there was a low point, it was this.

But despite having to watch my sports world implode, there were many moments of brilliant silver linings of a community rallying around one another.

On numerous occasions I documented runners such as Liliana Umpierre, Birhanu Van Der Riet and Mary Surprenant who, despite being stuck at home, made the most out of their time by doing the thing they loved: running. For Umpierre, it was running a marathon out and around Winter Garden after the Tokyo Marathon was canceled, while Surprenant ran her own Kessel Run Challenge half-marathon. Then there were others like Van Der Riet, who decided to run a full-blown marathon in — get this — his own backyard.

These and the others stories I wrote about athletes finding a way to still enjoy their sports were among the highlights of my year. Even during a time of complete uncertainty, these folks kept going.

And there were other moments of accomplishments, too, including Dr. Phillips’ football standout, Ledger Hatch, getting an offer from Cornell University — handing him offers at all eight Ivy League schools — and the birth of a new travel softball organization, Divergent, founded by a couple of locals looking to help girls develop their game.

Danny Lee barely missed the hole after a chip shot out of a bunker on the 14th hole during the 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

To keep 2020 weird, I even bought some golf clubs and somehow managed to get my friend Thomas Lightbody to teach me how to play golf for a column series. For those who didn’t check that out, it was the equivalent of teaching Forrest Gump to read.

The clouds began to part a smidgen in August when discussion about high school athletics coming back. Soon, I was diving into a fall season that kept up the 2020 tradition of being extremely weird. Seasons were shortened, masks were worn, and restrictions were put into place. But I didn’t mind at all — at least it was something.

I watched first-year head coach Mike Granato lead his West Orange football team to a playoff win after years of anguish, and I saw Foundation have its best football season ever. 

Right now, we are in the throes of the winter sports season, which means I’m frantically running around trying to cover multiple sports at the 10 schools in our coverage area. 

With that said, please, for the love of the Ghost of Bear Bryant — or whatever sports gods you hold dear — do your part in helping to get rid of COVID-19, because the world needs you and, on a much more insignificant note, because I’m tired of writing stories about these “unprecedented times.”

Troy Herring is the sports editor at the West Orange Times and Windermere Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Mount Olive (BS '12) and the University of Alabama (MA '16)....

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