Top sports stories of 2020

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Up and down year for Gunnison Valley athletics

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  • Alex Baca won the 3A cross country state chamionship.
    Alex Baca won the 3A cross country state chamionship.

A year in which things were turned upside down was also a year many will remember.

Claiming two titles on the way to a deep postseason run. Winning a first ever state title in school history. Earning first ever NCAA tournament bid, only to have it taken away by the COVID -19 pandemic. To then have seasons canceled, postponed, rescheduled and reversed — 2020 will be a year Gunnison Valley athletes will never forget.

Following is a look back on some of the top local sports moments in 2020.

NO. 1 —

BACA GOES OUT ON TOP

A season that already was one for the history books got even more memorable on Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Colorado State Cross Country Championship in Colorado Springs.

When Gunnison High School (GHS) senior Alex Baca walked into Norris Penrose Event Center, he knew he had a good chance to win a state title — being ranked No. 1 in the 3A division — yet, victory is never certain.

“I certainly had doubts that were trying to creep their way into my mind. But I just did my best to keep my composure and get in a state that I was meditating, so that way those doubts wouldn’t affect the way I race Baca explained. “I knew that I could win, I just needed to stay calm so that I could perform!’

Coaches and fans were on the edge of their seat with only one mile left to go.

It was a close race, with Baca, freshman Caden Schweer from Severance High School and Joshua Medina from Alamosa High School battling for first place.

But Baca was able to stay composed and turn in his best performance of the season.

Baca had a stride lead over Schweer, while Medina was 30 meters behind waiting to make his move. After Baca left Schweer in the dust, Medina — who finished third last season at state — kicked it into high gear, closing the gap between him and Baca.

However, Baca was determined not to be overcome and crossed the finish line first in a time of 16:07. Medina crossed two seconds later.

“It was very emotional when I crossed the finish line. The prominent emotion I think I was feeling at the time was gratitude,” said Baca. “I was also thankful, above all else, with all the adversity in the world right now, so many people worked so hard to put on this meet for us.”

Baca would go on to sign a letter of intent to compete for the heralded University of Colorado running program.

NO. 2 —

WESTERN WOMEN CLAIM RMAC CROWN

Western Colorado University continued their legacy as one of the top cross country programs in the nation as the women won the 2020 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Cross Country Championships and the men finished second.

The Western women won their eighth conference title and their first one since 2011.

In the women’s final, Western won the title by putting their five scoring runners in the top 20 to finish with a score of 44 points. Colorado Mines was the next closest team as they scored 63 points and Metro State University finished third with 87 points.

The first Mountaineer across the line was Bailey Sharon, finishing fourth overall in a time of 21:21.5. Sharon finished just 10 seconds behind the leader, Zoe Baker from Colorado Mines.

Finishing in fifth was Mountaineer Katie Doucette as she clocked 21:26.3 for the 6-kilometer course.

To wrap up the team scoring and lock in the conference title, Western placed Alexia Thiros in seventh (21:50.2), Malindi (Lindi) Congour in 11th (22:14.0), and Hannah Mae Gigstad in 17th (22:34.6).

Due to the pandemic, no regional or national competitions were held.

NO. 3 —

COWBOY BASKETBALL MAKES HISTORIC RUN

GHS boys basketball has been on the rise over the last two seasons — making it to the “Sweet 16” of the state tournament back-to-back years, posting a 38-10 overall record and a 15-3 Western Slope League (WSL) mark in that time span.

“I have had a really special group of kids come through here over the last few years,” head coach Matt Smith said on the success of the program. “They have taken ownership over the process and I finally had a bunch of players who were consistently in the gym and saying the same things we preach in the program!’

While the Cowboys fell in the “Sweet 16” round of the 3A boys basketball state playoffs to Sterling, 57-41, a packed GHS gym cheered on in appreciation until the final buzzer. And Sterling went on to advance to the State Quarterfinals before the pandemic forced a tourney cancellation.

Prior to falling in the state tournament, the Cowboys did something that hadn’t been done in 23 years — win the WSL 3A District Tournament title with a victory over Aspen in Grand Junction.

GHS also won their first regular season Western Slope League title since 2001. Buoyed by one of the largest and most raucous home crowds in Cowboy memory — punctuated by 400 black GHS Hoops T-shirts being snatched up by fans on their way into the gym — GHS defeated Delta 73-67. The win secured the Cowboys’ record at 18-2 overall, 8-1 in league play.

“We worked our butts off to get here,” senior Hunter Wood said about the victory over Delta. “I can’t describe how hard we worked, and to come into an atmosphere like that and come away with the victory was incredible.”

NO. 4 —

WESTERN EARNS FIRST NCAA TOURNAMENT BID

Time seemingly froze for the Western women’s basketball team and their supporters in the Virginia Harris Sports and Education Room on a Sunday night in March. The National Collegiate Athletic Association Selection Show had reached the final team — the No. 6 seed — out of the South Central Region.

Some players had their hands over their faces, while others held hands with teammates. Nerves could be felt throughout the packed room, waiting to see if Western’s historic season was going to continue.

The show’s host barely got out the first syllable of “Western” before the room exploded with cheers. The team had secured its first NCAA Tournament bid in program history.

Western, as the No. 6 seed, was supposed to take on No. 3 West Texas A&M. However, after Western had already traveled to Lubbock, Texas, the NCAA announced it had canceled the remaining winter and spring championships due to precautions for the COVID-19 public health threat.

NO. 5 —

PREP SPORTS UPENDED

Colorado high school sports looked a lot differently this year.

The biggest change locally affected the traditional fall programs of volleyball and soccer. This school year those sports will be held in the spring, beginning Feb. 22 and March 1, respectively.

All sports schedules are being reduced and calendars condensed in an attempt to avoid worsening the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) announced the plan for the 2020-21 interscholastic athletics and activities calendar, following months of collaboration with Governor Jared Polis, the CHSAA Resocialization Task Force, the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, the state’s COVID-19 Response team, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and CHSAA board members and staff.

CHSAA’s 2020-21 coronavirus-impacted “Season A” originally wasn’t going to include football. However, the CHSAA board of directors had a change of heart.

The CHSAA board late in the fall voted to approve variances from the Governor’s COVID-19 Response Team, which gave schools the option to play field hockey, football and sideline spirit during the fall or in the spring their choice.

Shortly thereafter, the (GHS) football team announced that they had decided to play now.

Similar to what has been seen in college football and the National Football League, all participants — including athletes, coaches, officials, staff and others — were forced to wear masks while not actively playing, even outdoors. They were also required to be six feet apart from non-household members on the sidelines. They could not go into the spectator area, and the number of spectators allowed was significantly limited at most games.

More recently, CHSAA secured variances from CDPHE and state officials to allow all Season B sports and activities to begin practice in late January.

The following sports have been approved to start practice then: Ice hockey, skiing, girls swimming, wrestling, basketball and competitive spirit. The approved calendar will be revised to begin competition in early February.

NO. 6 —

ONE FOR THE RECORD BOOKS

It was a record payout ($90,636, in total). It was a “who’s-who” of professional cowboys and cowgirls. Yes, the pandemic-delayed 2020 Cattlemen’s Days Rodeo was unlike any other in the long and illustrious 120 year history of Gunnison’s signature local event.

Held over Labor Day weekend instead of its traditional early July time frame, the rodeo took place under a waiver from local public health orders — which limited spectators to a fraction of the crowd that’s crammed into the county fairgrounds in recent years. However, the exposure this year’s rodeo received in the greater cowboy community might just be the largest ever — thanks to nightly broadcasts on the Cowboy Channel and a record number of contestants in this rodeo-depleted year, thanks to COVID-19.

NO. 7 —

COWBOYS HOT ON A COLD DAY

It wasn’t the way seven Gunnison High seniors scripted ending their local football careers, but it was a pretty sweet ending nonetheless.

In a season of uncertainties and firsts, the Cowboys rolled with a few more curveballs leading up to November’s season home finale and then bowled over the visiting Pirates from Olathe, 35-0. GHS finished their first season back playing at the varsity level with a 3-3 overall record, 3-2 in the Western Slope League — which earned them third place.

The game couldn’t be played in the Mountaineer Bowl, where this season’s previous home games were held, due to Western’s recent cancelation of in-person events due to the pandemic. It couldn’t even be played in front of fans.

Seemingly undaunted, the Cowboys went back to their roots by playing on the humble (and tucked away) field where they rumbled as Gunnison Middle School Mustangs. But not before a cadre of parent volunteers and school officials pitched in to make the field even playable.

Friday night’s storm dropped a few inches of snow and Saturday’s gale-force wind gusts made conditions extra hard-packed. Parent John Solanik went to work with a plow-equipped ATV and about a dozen parents scraped the icy remnants off of hash marks, end lines and midfield with shovels.

NO. 8 —

DISC GOLFERS FLY HIGH AT DOS RIOS

Despite a few days of weird winter-like weather, the sun was shining bright and the weather was perfect on Sunday, Sept. 13, for the 15th annual High Mountain Invitational Disc Golf Tournament.

This year’s event, hosted by the High Mountain Flyers Disc Golf Club, was one to remember. For the first time the tournament took place at Dos Rios Golf Club.

“We always wanted to do the tournament at Dos Rios,” said tournament director Greg Corliss. “Disc golf on a golf course is a rare opportunity, to play on such a finely manicured landscape, with much different potential for terrain and obstacles.”

Another thing that made this invitational memorable is the fact that the tournament reached maximum capacity — 72 disc golfers, resulting in a waiting list. Previously, the highest turnout for the event was in 2011, when 64 disc golfers participated.

“This town has really backed this tournament,” said tournament director Chris Brown.

NO. 9 —

WILD GETS HOT AT DOS RIOS

Mother Nature almost put a crimp in plans for Dos Rios Golf Course to host its first Colorado high school state championship tournament. But a collective effort to clean up debris from a freak September snowstorm, including by numerous club members who volunteered, enabled the show to go on, and the course to shine.

Gunnison High’s lone participant, junior Skylor Wild, capitalized on his home course advantage. He shot an 83 on day one and then got hot, and stayed hot, en route to a 74 round two score. He finished 23rd overall.

NO. 10 —

WALIO WINS IN RECORD FASHION

It was a long wait but Gunnison runner and Western Colorado University alum Bashash “Bash” Walio was finally able to get back to racing in July, competing in the Bryce Canyon Half Marathon. Walio was in prime form passing all his competitors on his way to a course record and personal best time of 1:03:08, which earned him first place. Gunnison was also represented well by Riley Huffman, who finished in fourth place in a time of 1:10:40

(Brandon Warr can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or brandon@gunnisontimes.com.)