Usually around this time I put together a roundup of the year’s biggest moments in high school and youth sports. But writing a year-end review for 2020 is a challenge because it has been the most unusual year that I can remember—certainly the strangest in my 12-plus years covering local youth sports.
For one thing, time has become extraordinarily blurred. Things that happened earlier this year seem so distant, as if they happened years ago.
Estancia High School’s boys and girls track coach and assistant football coach Eric Lucero told me, “In the times we’re in now, everything’s real foggy, like you’re driving down the road through a thick fog, and you don’t know when the fog’s gonna lift.”
Along with the foggy time warp is the harsh reality that the triumphs in youth sports over the past 12 months were eclipsed by heartbreaking and unprecedented events.
But much of the sad, dour, disappointing things that happened in 2020 were countered with area kids reaching uplifting and positive achievements.
As Moriarty High School athletic director Joe Anaya told me recently, “It’s been one of those years where you can expect anything.”
The year started out on a tragic note when the Moriarty High community was stunned by the Jan. 14 deaths of student-athletes Pedro “Pete” Sandoval and his younger brother Mateo.
Less than a week later, the community rallied together and packed Moriarty’s gym to watch the boys basketball team beat Albuquerque Academy 47-45. In the final seconds of the thrilling come-from-behind victory, the thunderous roar of the crowd chanting “Sandoval Strong!” was unforgettable.
A month later, three Moriarty girls made history by qualifying to compete in New Mexico’s first-ever fully sanctioned girls Class 1A-5A state wrestling tournament. On Moriarty’s boys wrestling team, grappler Nick Sanders made it all the way to the 4A state championship in his 285-pound weight class, finishing as the state runner-up.
In March, Mountainair High School’s boys’ and girls’ basketball squads made it to the Class 1A state tournament. It was the Mountainair boys’ first trip to state since 2010. Estancia High School’s boys’ basketball team made it to the 2A state tournament.
Then Covid-19 wiped out all sports.
Estancia High School’s baseball team had a new coach, but the team never got to play a single game.
A few other high school teams got to play a game or two to start their spring seasons. One or two track meets took place. But when the state closed schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, the New Mexico Activities Association had to pull the plug on all interscholastic sports and activities, including practices.
It was a one-two punch to the gut for senior student-athletes. Not only did they miss out on the typical things like prom and graduation, but they also lost their final opportunity to play the high school sport they love with teammates they regard as family.
“It was pretty devastating,” Moriarty softball player and 2020 graduate Aneleya Guillen told me at the time. “I live for the sport and to have it shut down kinda broke my heart.”
East Mountain’s baseball team went to the Cobre Invitational, a tournament in southwestern New Mexico, and was on the field warming up for the first game when the team was told to go home, the tournament had been canceled. No one knew that their season was finished.
“None of us thought it was gonna be shut down,” East Mountain pitcher and 2020 graduate Tommy Morgan told me at the end of March. “We feel kinda cheated.”
As a tribute to the seniors, Moriarty High turned its football stadium lights on for an hour every night as part of the nationwide #BeTheLight campaign.
With in-person practices and workouts prohibited, multiple schools turned to a new way to keep their student-athletes in shape: the virtual workout.
The NMAA Foundation awarded Moriarty High School graduating senior Tyler Ortiz the 2020 Compete with Class Sportsmanship Scholarship for his outstanding leadership.
The New Mexico High School Coaches Association announced the area athletes who were named to the annual All-State teams: Estancia 2020 graduates Andrew Lujan and Luke Pope made the Class 2A All-State football team; East Mountain High’s Michelle Carver and 2020 grads Kimberly Stephenson and Azalea Hughes made the Class 1A-3A All-State girls soccer team; East Mountain’s Zane Randall made the 1A-3A All-State boys soccer team; Mountainair High’s Alyssa Bargas earned a spot on the 1A All-State girls basketball team; Mountainair’s Adrian Luna, Dylan Greene, Cade Brazil, and Francisco Zamora made the All-State 8-man football team.
But the NMHSCA canceled its annual North-South All-Star games due to Covid-19. It was the first cancellation of the North-South football game since the 1940s.
East Mountain Little League and AYSO soccer also canceled their seasons.
In June, the NMAA rolled out its Return to Play guidelines, allowing workouts in small groups—with restrictions. The sight of athletes wearing masks during workouts was strange at first but eventually became ordinary.
As the state’s public health order changed throughout the summer and into the fall, the NMAA’s guidelines fluctuated like a traffic light. Workouts were stopped, then got the green light to resume. Pod sizes were expanded, then reduced.
Then the NMAA announced that football and soccer seasons were being postponed until 2021. By October, all fall sports seasons were sidelined until the spring semester. No blocking and tackling or sprinting to the end zone; no serving and volleying or diving for digs; no soccer players scoring game-winning goals; no cross country runners qualifying for state.
High schools with their own weight rooms remain the one place student-athletes can participate in a workout and beat the Covid-19 blues.
And with high school sports on hold until at least February, student-athletes, coaches, and athletic directors play a wait-and-see game, hoping to get the green light to return to the ballfields or the gyms.