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Top stories of 2020

COVID-19 shared headlines with Rasile, Howland state champions

Correspondent file photo / Robert Hayes -- McDonald’s Zach Rasile finished his career as the No. 2 all-time scorer in the state of Ohio.

In a year like 2020, it’s easy to choose something negative as the top story of the year in local sports.

Obviously, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on sports in general and, more particularly, on the the area high school sports scene was a dominant storyline. The early days of the pandemic in Ohio halted the winter sports postseason just over a week from its conclusion, and then wiped out the entire spring sports season.

But, the way players, coaches, school administrators and organizations such as the Ohio High School Athletic Association worked to get players back in action for the fall season can be considered an even more important story.

In fact, the return of high school sports in the fall, especially football, was selected as the top local sports story of 2020 by the Tribune Chronicle sports department.

1. Back on the field

Correspondent file photo / Robert Hayes -- The Howland Tigers celebrate after winning the Division II boys soccer state championship.

The OHSAA already had added four additional playoff qualifiers per region to the football playoff format, but then, in response to the pandemic, opened the postseason to all teams while in effect shortening the regular season to six games. The revamped format — along with stricter in-game protocols and fan attendance protocols — was part of an effort to provide a meaningful season despite the chance a number of games would be canceled.

Teams with state championship aspirations still had the opportunity to compete at that level, and those schools just hoping to have a season for their student-athletes were able to accomplish that also.

The protocols and scheduling flexibility extended to the other fall sports of soccer, volleyball, cross country, golf and girls tennis, and that planning and attention to the effects of the virus allowed the fall sports season to happen.

2. Empty diamonds & tracks

The Champion softball team returned both of its pitchers and most of its starters from the 2019 team, which won a third consecutive Division III state championship. But the Golden Flashes never got a chance to go for four in a row because the spring sports season was canceled by the OHSAA in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Prior to that decision, the last 10 days or so of the winter sports postseason was postponed and then eventually canceled. There also was uncertainty as spring sports programs initially began to practice before ultimately being shut down for good. The Golden Flashes and other softball, baseball, track and field and tennis teams and athletes were left to wonder what might have been.

3. State champions

After reaching the state championship game the season before, the Howland Tigers boys soccer team battled through the uncertainty of the summer and increased protocols and restrictions of a fall sports season during a pandemic.

The Tigers, on a mission all season, gained their revenge by winning the Division II state title with a 5-0 shutout of last year’s champ, Tipp City Tippecanoe.

4. No. 2 all-time in Ohio

With his season ending shortly before the winter sports postseason was called off, McDonald senior Zach Rasile completed a prolific four-year career with the Blue Devils, finishing with 3,013 points, good for second all-time in the state of Ohio.

Rasile finished off his career by being named the Division IV Player of the Year for the state.

5. Eagles fly high

The John F. Kennedy football team battled through all the complications of a pandemic season and reached the Division VII state title game where the Eagles dropped a 31-0 decision to New Bremen, finishing as state runnerup.

6. Baseball is back?

Minor league baseball took a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers were wondering if they still would exist in 2021, considering Major League Baseball’s documented effort to trim player development budgets by fundamentally changing the minor leagues.

In the end, the Scrappers survived as a member of the brand-new MLB Draft League which will include top draft prospects — both college and high school — for a given year. Details of how rosters would be shaped, both before and after the draft, remained to be worked out.

7. What’s in a name?

In addition to dealing with the pandemic, which led to a 60-game MLB season, Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan and the club’s front office dealt with a potential name change.

Once the Washington NFL franchise dropped its racist nickname during the summer, Dolan indicated that the same move would be investigated for Cleveland’s baseball team.

Eventually it was announced that the name would be changed, but not until after the 2021 season.

8. Penguins postponed

Youngstown native Bo Pelini ended his five-year run as Youngstown State football head coach in January with a 33-28 record and one playoff berth. He was replaced in February by ex-Springfield and Salem coach Doug Phillips who never got a chance to coach the Penguins in a game in 2020.

The pandemic forced any coaching to be done remotely and the Missouri Valley Football Conference eventually decided to play its football season in early 2021.

9. NFL success

Both area NFL teams, the Browns and Steelers, made news in 2020.

The Browns revamped their front office and coaching staff — what’s new — in January, hiring Kevin Stefanski as coach and Andrew Berry as general manager. The result was a 10-4 season that has the team on the verge of clinching a playoff berth.

The Steelers showed their usual continuity and reeled off 11 straight wins to start the season. Even with three losses since then, Pittsburgh has clinched another playoff spot.

10. Dominating programs

The Youngstown State indoor track and field teams won Horizon League titles early in the year before the coronavirus pandemic struck. The significant part of this story is that it was the fifth consecutive league title for the women and the fourth straight for the men.

Honorable mention

Other stories that were considered for the top 10 include Maplewood freshman Caleigh Richards winning the Division III state cross country girls race; the expansion of the Horizon League with the addition of Robert Morris and Purdue Fort Wayne; Ohio State’s football odyssey from a delayed Big Ten start, to missing three games due to COVID-19 complications, to another Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoffs; and a Major League Soccer title for the Columbus Crew.

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