So 2020 is finally over, huh?
It’d be the understatement of the century to call 2020 challenging, trying, frustrating or draining. All of those fit a year we’ll always remember, but especially for us folks on the sports side.
There were sad moments, the lockdown, the return of games and some pleasant surprises to close the year. So in order to put that wretched year in the rearview, here are the moments that shaped my wildest year-long experience in sports (and in life, for that matter).
A FINAL CHAT
This may be cheap, but one Jan. 1, 2020 story was actually from an event that took place in late December 2019. We highlighted some of the local football players that were honored at the 33rd annual Western New York high school football banquet, hosted by the great Dick Gallagher.
It was nice to see so many local honorees, but my lasting memory will be chatting with Mr. Gallagher, telling him how much of an honor it was to finally be his colleague after he wrote about myself during my days at Lockport.
I’ll always hold that memory near and dear, especially since it was the last time we spoke, as Gallagher passed away in June. Whenever he was on the sideline, you knew it meant he thought your squad was good enough to get some buzz, and that you were playing in a big game.
If anyone has followed WNY high school football over the last three decades, Gallagher was synonymous with the sport. He said that as long as there was high school football in 2020 he’d be there, despite his personal ailments.
So it was almost fitting that with no Gallagher we also didn’t have a high school football season. Rest in peace, Mr. Gallagher. We salute you and all you did for high school football, kids escaping drugs and beyond.
I hate to keep the sad theme going, but it’s impossible to ignore what will be one of the most memorable tragedies of all-time when Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and six others perished in a helicopter crash in January. I still think about that day when our sports editor Mike Meiler texted me to see if I had heard of anything about it.
I wanted to believe it was a hoax, but to then turn on NBATV and see the news was devastating. Kobe is almost a mythical figure in sports lore, so to have a real life super hero passing away on such tragic terms was the first of many gut punches in 2020.
From his shoes to the ‘Mamba mentality’ book, to kids wearing No. 24 and yelling out “Kobe!” shooting paper balls into a trash can, Kobe’s influence on the world will be felt for centuries. It just stinks knowing Michael Jordan had to speak at his memorial service as his “big brother,” or the fact we won’t get to hear him talk about the three-peat days with Shaq and Phil Jackson during his Hall of Fame speech.
That’s why it was so impactful hearing from all the different people in our Niagara Country basketball community, who shared some thoughts on Kobe’s passing for a special story we were able to put together. Shout out to Mike on this one, because we got to hear great Kobe stories, including from people who watched him play in person and went head-to-head with him in AAU.
LOOK AT HIM NOW
One other personal story for me was being able to interview my old roommate, Demone Harris, as my fellow University at Buffalo walk-on helped Kansas City secure its first Super Bowl win in 50 years.
Harris was one of three Buffalo-born Chiefs on the roster, along with Ryan Hunter and Jody Fortson Jr. Having played with Tampa Bay, Baltimore and KC, Harris has played with the 2018 and 2019 NFL MVPs and has been with the Chiefs as they’ve won 23 of their past 24 games.
MAKING THE MOST OF AN EXTRA DAY
It’s fitting that the last full month of high school sports went by in a blur. February got a 29th day during the leap year and it didn’t disappoint.
The wrestling season was one to remember, with Niagara Falls (Niagara Frontier League) and Newfane (Niagara-Orleans League) shining as league champions, but many individuals ran the show.
The McDougald cousins, Willie (Niagara Falls) and Justin (Niagara Wheatfield), became the all-time wins leaders at their respective schools, before claiming Section VI championships and large school state titles to cap their illustrious careers.
Both will wrestle at the Division I level, with Willie headed to Oklahoma University while Justin stays home to join his brother, Warren III, at UB.
Newfane’s Jaden Heers also doubled up as a sectional and state champion, taking the small schools heavyweight division at 285. We saw several other sectional champions in Starpoint eighth grader Gage LaPlante, Grand Island’s Bielec brothers, Blake and Brian, as well as a Newfane crew of Aidan Gillings, Andy Lucinski and Ryan Nugent.
We also saw some indoor track and field stars stand out, as Lockport’s Kahniya James and Niagara Falls’ Abraham Averhart took first-place finishes in the 55-meter dash for Section VI crowns, while fellow Lady Lion Sydney Nowicki earned her 11th NYSPHSAA appearance with a sectional win in the 1,000-meter run.
James’ 6.95 run in the New York State federation race would not only break her own Section VI record, but tie her for the fourth-fastest mark amongst high school girls in the nation. Along with Nowicki, the Lady Lions tandem both committed to Syracuse to continue their T&F careers.
Hockey season was highlighted by Starpoint’s Tyler Kalota and GI’s Tyler Hunt, as they split Division II co-player of the year honors in NYS. Hunt posted 14 goals and 32 assists in 21 games, while Kalota ended with three goals and 17 assists, as the defenseman led the Spartans to their first Section VI title just three years into the program’s history.
Starpoint ended the season with a loss to 2019 state champion Skaneateles, wrapping up the year at 20-2-2. That record was aided by a 16-0-1 stretch to close the season.
With the popularity of basketball season, I decided to devote a section all its own.
The race for the boys NFL title came down to Roddy Gayle Jr.’s Lewiston-Porter squad and Jaemon “Mookie” Turner’s Niagara Falls team, who would play in the championship game with only six players due to several members being dismissed from the team.
Gayle and Turner made up for it, though, scoring 29 and 28 points, respectively, in one of the best duels we’ve seen in WNY. Turner would get some help from Aarien “Oobie” Robinson and Faybion Prather to secure Brent Gadacz’s first NFL title win as a head coach.
On the girls side, GI had its own star in Lydia Sweeney, as the Division II Cedarville commit pushed the Lady Vikings to a second straight NFL title and eventually a trip to Buff State for a berth in the Class A-2 championship game.
Newfane boys basketball was the class of the N-O League, as Garrett Srock led the Panthers under the tutelage of Eric Klumpp. I’ll always look back to Srock’s performance in the Feb. 13 win over Albion, as the Niagara County Community College baseball player logged 34 points and 17 rebounds to earn a share of the N-O title.
The N-O’s girls side once again belonged to Wilson, as coach Brian Baker’s Lakewomen claimed their fourth league title in five seasons. Leading the way was two-time N-O player of the year Skylar Munnikhuysen, as the UB soccer player guided Wilson to a perfect 12-0 record in the league.
Although there were many definitives, the one what-if I dawn on has to deal with our All-Area Gazette team for the boys. Outside of Srock, four of the top five players were Niagara Falls natives, with Gayle, Turner, Jalen Bradberry (Park School) and Avion Harris (Cardinal O’Hara). They were all teammates at some point on the travel circuit or at Niagara Falls HS, along with 2018 GNN Sports Co-Player of the Year Willie Lightfoot, who had already transferred to Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas.
Imagine a lineup with those guys? That’s a real-life hoop dream.
A team not yet mentioned ended up making the most noise in the postseason. North Tonawanda’s boys team won Class A-1 as one of the deepest squads in Section VI. It was a treat to watch their trip to Buff State as well, which plays into my next point.
Buff State week is a time like no other in WNY. The college hosts playoff games each evening for two weeks straight, culminating with regional championships. No teams in Section VI even got that opportunity, though, as the coronavirus stopped regionals days before they were set to tip.
But the week overall will remain memorable for me. Seeing Niagara Falls, NT and Newfane all earn trips there was awesome, especially being at the epicenter of the local basketball scene for a stint. It was almost like covering major college or professional games with the amount of media on hand.
The one game I’ll look back on is the Lumberjacks’ loss to Health Sciences in the overall Class A title game. Although Ryan Mountain’s squad fell short after leading at halftime, it was thrilling to see the Jacks’ near upset of the 23-1 Falcons.
It’s even more thrilling knowing it would be the last game I’d cover until August. No games or summer events meant no Niagara Power baseball, Porter Cup golf, Niagara Pioneer League soccer and more.
The pandemic was tough for all of us and my own personal experience was unfortunate, as I was furloughed from April until August. I just thank the Lord that I was able to come back and share with you all again.
The month of August was choppy, which included several Niagara County natives receiving state title rings with Canisius High School football and chatting with Lockport native and Arizona Cardinals assistant coach Jordan Hogan. But the highlight will be covering the ‘Buffalo Blue Jays,’ as Toronto’s MLB franchise had to leave the North due to COVID-19 restrictions.
It was also cool checking out the Aug. 16 game against the Tampa Bay Rays, who would go on to be the American League champions. What wasn’t cool, though, was seeing all the cardboard cut-out fans and hearing crowd noise being pumped into Sahlen Field.
Weird. That’s as 2020 as it gets.
We finally got back to high school sports, as boys and girls soccer, cross country, golf, girls tennis and field hockey were spotlighted like never before, while we had one girls swimming program going at Starpoint.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it was the quickest sports season we’ve ever seen, with all six sports sprinting through in under two months.
Golf lasted about a month’s time to ensure the season was wrapped before the winter weather arrived. NW’s Anthony Delisanti, who set a school and NFL record with a 6-under 30 round in nine holes, highlighted his final season before heading off to Division I Valparaiso this coming fall. Lockport was the top team in the league, winning its first NFL golf title since 2013.
The N-O was won by Akron, but several locals shined, as Wilson’s Nathan Meyers and Newfane’s Sam Capen and Trevor Heschke all finished in the top 10 of the league standings.
Heschke was a cool piece to the season, following in the footsteps of four-sport Newfane buddy Josh Everett, who wrestled and played basketball last winter, by doubling up with soccer and golf. Not only was Heschke a first team All-N-O golfer, he was named N-O POY in soccer and a small school All-WNY pick.
GI’s Kiersten Brown was unable to go back-to-back with Section VI tennis titles, but she was able to take third place to add to what’s been a dominant career. Only a junior, Brown has put together a 49-15 singles record in five seasons, including a 28-2 mark since 2019.
The field hockey season was Barker’s once again, as the Lady Raiders took their third straight N-O title under Jeff Costello and the program’s 17th since 2000. Carrying on the “tradition of success,” Madison Gancasz was named the league’s POY and an all-state selection.
Unfortunately, Gancasz and Natalie Bruning both were withheld from the Section VI Class C title game as COVID close contacts. It was just another tale in the story that was 2020.
Cross country was highlighted by Lew-Port’s Justin Pavan, who was able to win his first NFL and Section VI titles, outpacing the second-place finisher by nearly 14 seconds in the B-2 race. We also saw Newfane’s Kylie Bowman double up as a champion, as the freshman won both the individual N-O title and a sectional title in the C-1 girls race.
Speaking of Newfane, not only did the Panthers sweep the N-O boys and girls crowns for the fourth straight year, they also got a team sectional title on the girls side — the program’s fifth consecutive championship. Barker was our other team champion, as the Raiders got back to their winning ways in Class D after a six-year title gap.
Lockport also swept the NFL. The girls picked up a third straight share of the NFL title — splitting with GI in back-to-back seasons — while the boys claimed their 15th title share since 2002.
In soccer, we had three programs secure sectional title shares with NW and Lew-Port on the girls side, as well as GI on the boys side.
The Lady Falcons and Lady Lancers were both guided by all-time greats, as Erin Weir wrapped her stellar career at NW with a sectional win and the program’s first NFL title since 1988, while Sarah Woods closed out her junior season as a Class A-2 champion.
It was a perfect way to close things out for the Lady Lancers, as they dedicated the season to teammate Logan Monteleone and her family, after her brother, Mason, passed away in August.
GI did win the NFL, taking down Canisius College commit and NFL POY Reilly Boyer and his Lockport squad. But it did not technically win its sectional title.
In another odd circumstance that was 2020, the Vikings ended up as co-Class A-1 champions with Williamsville East after drawing at 0 in the VI title game. Because there was no regional competition to advance to, it was decided that there would be no free kicks to break a tie.
The N-O had a unique circumstance with the soccer season as well, as both of Royalton-Hartland’s squads won league championships. It was momentous moment for the programs, as the boys won their first title since 2000 while the Lady Rams took home their first ever.
We mentioned Gayle earlier, but I wanted to share how bittersweet it is to see him heading west to the Wasatch Academy in Utah. From a basketball perspective, it’s great to see a talent like him being on a loaded roster, as he becomes the fourth D-I commit for the Tigers after he announced his decision to attend Ohio State University on Nov. 13.
Elite talent always has the potential to move on to a brighter stage, as Niagara County had already seen in Willie Lightfoot.
So if this is a goodbye and not a see you later, then we all wish Roddy well. It’d be amazing if he had a LeBron James-like coming home announcement for the 2021-22 season, though.
Last and most certainly not least, it’s the Buffalo Bills and Bulls for me. To think we had to watch one historic football season from home is laughable. But two in the same fall?
The Bulls were the more surprising of the two, as UB won its second straight bowl game and earned its first top 25 ranking in the AP poll. I hate to be that guy, but I knew Jaret Patterson would generate a lot of buzz after working with him on several stories during the year.
But to think he’d blow up this way? Unreal. A 300-yard effort, followed by a 409-yard, eight-touchdown effort — while rocking the No. 41 of my fallen former teammate Soloman Jackson — gives me chills just reflecting back.
He didn’t do it alone, though, as one of the nation’s top offensive lines cleared the way for he and fellow future NFL back Kevin Marks to carve teams up for 42.6 points and 287.1 rushing yards averages per game. Patterson’s twin brother, James, also became a star in his own right, leading Lance Leipold’s defense to help the Bulls earn another trip to the Mid-American Conferece title game.
Then there’s Josh Allen and the Bills, as he and Stefon Diggs developed (statistically) the best QB-WR tandem Buffalo has ever seen.
Considering Brandon Beane’s roster construction, Brian Daboll elevating Allen and calling the shots on ‘O,’ and Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott revitalizing the defense after a tough first half, the Bills are legit Super Bowl contenders.
And to think, not a single fan purchased a ticket to watch either team play live, until Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement on Wednesday to allow fans for the Wild Card round.
Please 2021, can you take it a little easier on us?
Respond to sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure to listen to the GNN Sports Podcast, on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts and more.