Objectivity is the hallmark of good journalism.
Sports writers are told to keep an open mind and our opinions to ourselves, but, we’re only human and we’re all a little bit biased against 2020.
It was an unforgettable year, no matter how hard we try to forget the virus, the loss of jobs and lives, the quarantine and the shared experience that we’re all eager to put in the rearview mirror.
Life is all about taking the good with the bad, though, and that’s reflected in our year-end list of the top local sports stories of 2020.
When the first case of coronavirus was reported in the U.S. in January, the sports scene in the Wyoming Valley continued with wrestling matches, swim meets and basketball and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins games.
COVID-19 quickly spread throughout the country, however, and although high school district champions were crowned and state tournaments got underway, things began to get scary in the middle of March.
High school, collegiate and professional sports came to a screeching halt and the coronavirus unquestionably became the story of 2020.
However, there were other accomplishments during the year that deserve some attention, as well.
Rather than revealing a top-10 list that would have been saturated with the coronavirus, we’re going to make our way through 2020’s 20 most impactful local sports stories in chronological order; a mix of news and games, of highs and lows, of good and bad.
Wyoming Valley West senior J.J. White joined elite company, becoming only the second wrestler to win four Wyoming Valley Conference championships. White’s historic run continued in February, when he won his fourth consecutive District 2 championship, as well. He’s one of 26 four-time D-2 champs from the WVC.
Wyoming Seminary’s boys and girls wrestling teams swept the National Prep Championships, winning national titles at Lehigh University. At 145, Sem’s Lachlan McNeil earned most outstanding wrestler honors.
Dupont native Brandon Matthews earned his first exemption into a PGA Tour event with an invitation to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Golf Course in Orlando, Florida. Matthews missed the cut, shooting 12-over-par 156 in two rounds, but cherished the experience and captured another career highlight in December, when he won the PGA Tour Latinoamerica’s Puerto Plata Open in the Dominican Republic.
The PIAA Board of Directors voted unanimously to suspend — but not cancel — the remainder of the state basketball and Class 2A swimming and diving championships, a shocking but inevitable twist in the coronavirus fallout amid a week that saw professional and amateur athletic events canceled en masse. At the time, the PIAA hoped to return to competition in two weeks with changes to game-day procedures.
Carmine Fusco, a 55-year-old harness racing trainer with well-established ties to The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, was identified as Pennsylvania’s first person to die from COVID-19. “I was just on the phone with all the other horsemen,” said Joe Yandoli, a handicapper and writer for The Citizens’ Voice. “Everyone’s in shock. It’s hitting close to home. This is scary to begin with, just looking at the news, but next thing you know it’s people you know.”
Hours after Gov. Tom Wolf announced schools across the state would shut down for the remainder of the academic year, the PIAA followed Wolf’s lead and officially canceled its remaining events scheduled for the winter and spring seasons. There were a handful of District 2 basketball teams whose seasons ended abruptly, including Dallas’ boys and Dunmore, Scranton Prep, Old Forge and Susquehanna’s girls.
The Pennsylvania Department of American Legion announced its baseball season was canceled, following in the footsteps of the organization’s national officials, who previously canceled the World Series, slated for August. Swoyersville was the defending state champion. American Legion baseball, Little League baseball and softball, numerous country club golf tournaments and the historic Giants Despair Hillclimb were among the highly anticipated summer events that were either canceled, postponed or took place in unusual circumstances.
The American Hockey League shut down the remainder of its 2019-20 season, ending the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ campaign with a 29-26-3-5 record. More Penguins news broke in September, when Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s first-year head coach, Mike Vellucci, was promoted to being an assistant coach for Pittsburgh. Vellucci’s predecessor, Clark Donatelli, was accused in December of sexual assault in a federal lawsuit filed against Donatelli and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh said the team investigated and acted upon the alleged incident when it was notified in June 2019.
During an unprecedented year for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of high school sports in the state, local resident Frank Majikes was elected president of its board of directors. After serving as vice president for several years, Majikes was appointed president during a spring season that never was. Majikes also serves as the chairman of the District 2 athletic committee, the PIAA’s local extension.
Tiz the Law won the first leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, routing the field at the Belmont Stakes. Tiz the Law, a New York-bred horse, had several local investors, including the late attorney Bruce Phillips and his wife, Margaret.
The Citizens’ Voice tweaked its Athlete of the Week Ceremony, pivoting to a video presentation rather than a formal gathering at the F.M. Kirby Center. Wyoming Area’s Dom DeLuca and Lake-Lehman’s Abby Paczewski were named Male and Female Athletes of the Year in the virtual ceremony, which included cameos from standout local athletes Danielle Grega, Alexis Lewis, Kat Sharkey, Shakir Soto, Ray Black, Brandon Matthews and Connor McGovern. Additionally, John Kashatus was the recipient of the Neil Corbett Award for his career achievements.
The Pocono Mountains were abuzz with excitement when NASCAR blitzed Long Pond for an exciting weekend that featured five races in four days. The doubleheader weekend even included two NASCAR Cup Series races on back-to-back days for the first time in NASCAR history. Kevin Harvick won the Pocono Organics 325 and Denny Hamlin won the Pocono 350.
New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman announced that PNC Field, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, would serve as the organization’s alternate site to host rehabbing big-leaguers and top minor-leaguers. The RailRiders’ season was canceled, but Yankees stars Aroldis Chapman, D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge were among those who worked out at the closed-doors facility.
Wolf’s remarks at the end of a news conference threw the state’s sports leagues into a state of uncertainty, as Wolf recommended that sports not resume until 2021. Days later, the PIAA, which was planning its fall season, wrote a letter to Wolf, requesting an opportunity to meet with the governor’s office and discuss how to safely conduct a season. This saga played out over several weeks with the PIAA Board of Directors on Aug. 21 permitting fall sports practices to begin Aug. 24, pending “local school decisions,” which essentially put the onus on school administrations as to whether it would have a season on a case-by-case basis.
The high school football season officially kicked off at cavernous stadiums around the WVC in compliance with the state’s orders of not allowing spectators. The attendance restrictions eventually eased up, allowing sparse amounts of fans to attend events.
The Big Ten announced it would finally bring football back on the weekend of Oct. 23-24, reversing its previous stance to postpone the season, which was met with protests, petitions and all sorts of politicking.
Lake-Lehman graduate Connor McGovern, a third-round draft pick out of Penn State, made his first career start at right guard in the Dallas Cowboys’ 25-3 loss at Washington. McGovern had previously played on special teams and in a reserve role, but was pressed into action against Washington due to a number of injuries on Dallas’ offensive line. McGovern took the opportunity and ran with it, joining Indianapolis’ Mark Glowinski (GAR grad) as former WVC standouts starting on NFL offensive lines.
The fall sports postseason made it evident that it was the year of the Crestwood Comets, who, during a season of so much uncertainty, managed to persevere through all the issues facing high school teams across the state. The Comets pulled off a trifecta, winning District 2 championships in field hockey, football and boys soccer. Crestwood beat Valley West, 2-1, for the Class 2A field hockey crown; defeated Dallas, 34-14, for the Class 4A football championship; and shut out Valley View, 4-0, for the Class 3A boys soccer title.
Wyoming Seminary’s field hockey team won its ninth state championship in history and third in a row, becoming the state’s first team to successfully complete a “threepeat” of PIAA titles in the sport. Goalkeeper Mia Magnotta keyed Sem’s 3-0 victory against Greenwood for the Class 1A crown, making 13 saves. Isabella Pisano, Ella Barbacci and Anna Mozeleski scored Sem’s goals.
Twelve schools from the WVC simultaneously shut down their winter sports programs until Jan. 4, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases combined with the higher risk of spreading the virus in gymnasiums rather than the outdoors. The WVC was slightly ahead of the curve because, a few days later, Wolf announced a statewide stoppage of youth and high school athletics.
STEVE BENNETT, MATT BUFANO and TYLER PICCOTTI, staff writers, contributed to this report.