Sports

A look back at 2021 through the eyes of your local sports editor

We have turned the calendar to 2022, but yet it is still looking a lot like 2021.

We are still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic with cases of COVID-19 seemingly growing by the day despite being a year into vaccinations.

A year ago at this time, it didn’t look like there would ever be a return of sports. Then suddenly, with the reigns being pulled back on COVID-19 restrictions, the IHSA announced a plan to return all of its sports in a half calendar school year with some modified seasons.

With all the grief the IHSA receives at times, they should be praised for getting all the kids back in the game.

Here’s a look back at 2021 in the eyes of your local sports editor:

Stories that touched me the most: It was truly a miracle to see St. Bede senior Renn Ludford return to play volleyball and basketball after her near tragic accident on Feb. 26. She was Life Flighted to Peoria with a traumatic brain injury that she was told leaves 80% of patients dead at the scene and most of the remaining 20% brain dead. She said, “I’m kind of one in seven billion.”

Another touching story was seeing the Bureau Valley football team wear “BB” stickers in memory of BVHS junior Bailey Broers, who was killed in automobile accident in July. While he didn’t play football, he was still part of their team.

Favorite game to cover: This entry for this year’s column was a slam dunk, you could say. Princeton beat rival Hall 81-50 in December while throwing down five slam dunks along with seven 3-pointers. In all my years covering high school basketball, I have never seen such a high-wire display. PHS junior Teegan Davis, who had four dunks, brought the house down with an alley-oop off the glass from Kolten Monroe with a one-handed throw-down.

When I asked Hall coach Mike Filippini if he’d ever seen such a dunk he said, “Sure in the Chicago Public League.”

Best quote(s): I’m going to go with two quotes this year. When I asked Princeton coach Ryan Pearson about the Tigers renewing the football rivalry with Bureau Valley he said, ‘I think every business in Bureau County should be closed for that one.” And when PHS won their first regional volleyball championship in 10 years, senior McKenzie Hecht said, “I feel like I’m on top of the world.”

Head scratcher: I find it amusing to watch high school activities when kids are required to wear masks due to COVID-19 protocols, but yet they are for the most part, nothing but chin strips. At a typical high school basketball game, two maybe three players have them over their faces at any given time, and very few, if any, over their nose. I don’t blame them. it would be difficult to play an up and down the court game like basketball.

Strangest moments: Sitting in an empty gym with no fans allowed due to COVID-19 mitigations while the games were played. I had to wonder if the officials enjoyed their time with no help from the stands. As a parent of a senior basketball player, I was blessed to be able to attend games while covering games as media. I felt bad for the parents who were shut out.

It was also certainly strange to be playing volleyball and football in March. Usually the football season starts in warm weather and turns cold. This time it was the other way around. At least it didn’t start in February as first proposed.

Stunning moment: Tom McGunnigal has been a good a friend of mine and still is. When he was let go as girls basketball coach at St. Bede Academy on the eve of the new season for undisclosed reasons, it was a shocker, to say the least. He established a program that was a consistent winner for two decades. I miss seeing “Gunny” and his mom, “Mama Syb,” at the scorer’s table at St. Bede.

My story that drew most reader response: It’s always hard to gauge this question, but I know my column last month on Princeton’s Grady Thompson and St. Bede’s Paul Hart, the “Brothers in basketball, faith” received a lot response. Another story would have been writing about St. Bede alums J.A. Happ and Kyle Dinges being employed by the St. Louis Cardinals.

My favorite moment: I got to take my Bears fan wife, Kami, out to Pittsburgh for some Monday Night Football. It was especially pleasing to see my Steelers win.

Sadly missed: In closing, I take a look at the sports figures we lost in the past year. At the top of the list is Lew Flinn, who is widely regarded as the greatest all-around athlete in the history of Princeton High School. He earned 10 varsity letters at PHS, excelling as an all-state quarterback in football, was all-state guard on Princeton’s only two state basketball teams in 1953-54 and 1954-55 and was the 1955 state pole vault champion in track and field.

Flinn, a Bureau County Sports Hall of Fame Inductee both as a member of the Tiger basketball teams and as an individual, passed away May 5. He was 84.

We also lost: Rick Amy (state champion football/wrestling coach at Rockrdge, father of PHS coach, Steve); Joy Beattie (LaMoille basketball standout, 1990-92, No. 4 all-time LHS scorer); Vern Magnuson (Princeton basketball standout, 1956-59, third all-time leading scorer with 1,234 career points); and Don “Duke” Dobrino, 86 (DePue coach, brought football back to DePue after a 20-year hiatus in the mid-60s. Field is named after him in Gillespie).

Here’s to 2022: I can safely say we can all share this sentiment that may we finally kick this virus to the curb and get back to a full sense of normalcy, sooner rather than later. More than ever, I wish you a healthy new year.

BCR Sports Editor Kevin Hieronymus has covered sports in Bureau County since 1986. Contact him at khieronymus@bcrnews.com.