Sauk Valley Media counts down the Top 10 non-COVID sports stories of 2020

No. 1: Eastland girls basketball team wins Class 1A state championship

With a senior-laden squad and talent at every position on the floor, Eastland felt it was Redbird Arena or bust in the 2019-20 season.

And when they got down to Normal for the Final Four, they wouldn’t be denied the Class 1A state title.

After avenging a pair of regular-season losses to Amboy with a thrilling sectional final victory on Lydia Coatney’s 3-pointer with 5 seconds left, the Cougars used it as a springboard to claim their first state crown in girls basketball.

After dispatching Chicago Hope Academy, 77-38, in the supersectional, the Cougars cruised into the title tilt with a 70-28 win over Tri-County in the state semifinals. Eastland led, 21-8, after the first quarter, then pushed it to 38-9 by halftime and 58-16 after three quarters.

Erin Henze poured in 29 points, hitting 7 3-pointers, and she also added 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals. Coatney had 8 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocked shots, Dani Rush added 7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals, and Meredith Janssen and Karlie Krogman each scored 6 points, with Janssen pulling down 9 rebounds and Krogman grabbing 4.

After a pair of blowout wins, the Cougars had their work cut out for them in the championship game. They trailed, 36-26, at halftime against Lewistown, but opened the third quarter with a 10-0 run to tie the game at 36 midway through the period. There were then 4 ties and 3 lead changes over the final 12 minutes, but Erin Henze’s jumper with 2:45 to play gave Eastland the lead for good at 54-52. Coatney hit four free throws, then Rush added two more to hold Lewistown at bay, then Henze iced the win with a pair of free throws with 23 seconds to play as the Cougars rallied for the 62-57 victory.

Henze, Coatney and Krogman all played the full 32 minutes; Henze finished with 20 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals, Coatney had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, and Krogman added 6 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. Rush scored 12 points, and Janssen chipped in 9 points and 4 rebounds.

Henze repeated as the SVM Player of the Year after averaging 20.3 points, 4.1 assists and 3.2 steals per game, earning first-team all-state honors from the AP and IBCA and breaking the school scoring record for both boys and girls.

Coatney was also an SVM first-teamer, earning second-team all-state honors from the AP and IBCA after averaging 13.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.4 asissts and 2.4 steals per game.

After coming up to play varsity their freshman year, Henze and Coatney helped the Cougars to a 115-23 record during their 4 years, including an 18-3 mark in postseason play while winning 4 regional titles, 2 sectionals, and 2 supersectionals. In their final game at Eastland, they added a state title to their state runner-up trophy from 2018-19.

No. 2: Dixon native Isaiah Roby traded to the Thunder, makes first NBA start

One of the biggest stories of 2019 on the local sports scene was former Dixon star Isaiah Roby realizing his NBA dreams when he was drafted in the second round out of Nebraska by the Detroit Pistons, then promptly traded to the Dallas Mavericks.

But a bigger story emerged this year – this week, in fact – when Roby made his first NBA start Tuesday night for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The 6-foot-8 shooting forward logged 28 minutes in a 118-107 loss to the Orlando Magic, finishing with 19 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 1 steal, and a highlight-reel dunk (see the AP photo at right) that’s making the rounds on social media.

After a successful stint in the NBA Summer League in 2019, Roby spent his first NBA season shuttling back and forth between the Mavericks and their G-League affiliate Texas Legends.

Roby was traded from the Mavs to the Thunder in January, and made his NBA debut on Jan. 29. He ended up playing in 3 games for Oklahoma City in 2019-20, seeing a total of 11 minutes of game action, finishing 0-for-1 from the field with 2 rebounds.

With the Legends and the Oklahoma City Blue in the G League in 2019-20, Roby averaged 8.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks in 20.2 minutes per game over 17 games, making 9 starts.

No. 3: Rock Falls native Seth Blair signs deal with Red Sox organization

After a strong start to his post-high school baseball career, former Rock Falls star Seth Blair has dealt with some adversity. But 2020 was a summer of redemption for the former Pac-10 pitcher of the year, as he got another opportunity to chase his dreams of being a Major League pitcher.

After being out of professional baseball for 4 years, Blair signed a deal with the Padres in 2019 and pitched at San Diego’s High-A affiliate.

He took another step in 2020, as he signed a minor-league contract with the Boston Red Sox organization and was added to their 60-man player pool. Since no minor league baseball was played this past summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Blair worked out and pitched simulated games in Pawtucket, R.I., the site of Boston’s Triple-A affiliate.

Blair, who was the 46th pick in the 2010 amateur draft by the Cardinals after earning Pac-10 pitcher of the year honors as a junior at Arizona State, spent 4 years in St. Louis’ minor-league system, and battled through a benign tumor in the joint of the middle finger on his pitching hand in 2012.

But after hosting nearly two dozen players in the practice facility in the backyard of his Arizona home during the pandemic, Blair was throwing harder than ever before, and earned another chance in pro baseball.

No. 4: Rock Falls native Jakob Junis re-signs with Royals on 1-year contract

After leading the Kansas City pitching staff in wins, starts, innings pitched and strikeouts in 2018 and 2019, former Rock Falls star Jakob Junis had a bit rougher go of it last summer.

After suffering through COVID-19 before the season, he got off to a later start than most players, and it meant not a lot of innings in a shortened 60-game schedule.

In 6 starts, he got 4 no-decisions and finished 0-2 with a 6.39 ERA in 25 1/3 innings over 8 games; he came on in relief in 2 games. He struck out 19, walked only 6 and hit 2 batters, and finished the season at the Royals’ alternate training site.

But he avoided salary arbitration by signing a 1-year, $1.7 million deal to stay in Kansas City, nearly tripling the salary from his original rookie deal after the Royals drafted him in the 29th round of the 2011 amateur draft.

There is talk of a possible role change for Junis in 2021, with writers and bloggers who report on the Royals suggesting that he may be in line for a long-relief or spot-starter role next summer, based on some of the other moves KC has made with its pitching staff so far this offseason.

Junis has a 27-31 career record with a 4.78 ERA, 427 strikeouts, 132 walks and 37 hit batsmen in 476 innings.

No. 5: Newman wrestler Kyle Tunink wins Class 1A state title at 152 pounds

If you like a storybook tale with a happy ending, look no further than Newman senior Kyle Tunink, who closed his Comet career in style at State Farm Center in Champaign on Feb. 22.

A four-time state qualifier, he ended his high school career with a Class 1A state championship at 152 pounds to cap off a 45-1 season.

After winning by pin in both his quarterfinal match (1:49 over Cumberland’s Michael Carpenter) and semifinal bout (4:37 over St. Thomas More’s John Sexton), Tunink faced off against a very familiar opponent in the title tilt: Alleman junior Jack Patting.

Tunink had already beaten Patting 3 times previously in the season, and never trailed in a 5-1 victory in his season finale to make it 4-for-4.

Tunink led 3-0 heading into the third period after an escape and takedown, then rode out Patting for all but 8 seconds in the final period before answering Patting’s late escape with another takedown for the final score.

It was the 37th state title in Newman wrestling history, and the 96th in the Sauk Valley since 1954. Tunink’s title made it 46 of the last 51 years the area has crowned an individual state champ. Tunink was the 36th individual from the Sauk Valley to win a state wrestling title since 2000; it’s been done in all but 2 years in this millenium.

No. 6: Amboy & Eastland girls basketball teams play epic trilogy throughout season

This trio of games had it all, and culminated in a buzzer-beater by the Cougars on their way to the Class 1A state title.

It started on Jan. 7, when Amboy beat Eastland, 60-57, in a battle of top-three teams in the state rankings. Amboy led by 10 with 6:01 to play; the Cougars got within 2 points twice but couldn’t close it out. Mallory Powers led the Clippers with 16 points, Gabby Jones had 14, and Abi Payne added 12 points and 8 assists. Eastland got 19 points from Erin Henze.

Round 2 also went to Amboy, as Payne poured in 34 points and Powers scored 21 in a 68-61 Clippers win Jan. 21 that they closed with a 16-8 run. Karlie Krogman had 22 points & 8 rebounds for Eastland, and Lydia Coatney scored 18.

The finale of the trilogy was the best game of the three, as Coatney hit a 3-pointer with 5 seconds left to take the sectional title in a 59-58 Cougars win on Feb. 20. Henze had 18 points, and Krogman had 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Amboy rallied from a 50-44 deficit in the fourth quarter to take a 56-52 lead, then Coatney tied it up with back-to-back baskets. Olivia Dinges’ layup with 10 seconds left put the Clippers up 58-56, before Coatney’s heroics.

Payne had 17 points, Powers added 16 points, 6 rebounds & 5 assists, and Dinges scored 11 in the heartbreaking loss for Amboy.

No. 7: Dave Smith & Brad Bickett step down after successful coaching stints

The Sauk Valley lost a pair of successful coaches during the COVID-19 shutdown this season, as Dixon football coach Dave Smith and Rock Falls boys basketball coach Brad Bickett both resigned from their positions.

Smith retired as coach and driver’s education teacher at the June school board meeting, after leading the Dukes to a 48-43 record over the past 9 seasons. Dixon was 43-21 over the last 6 years with 6 straight playoff appearances, including the school’s second-ever trip to the state quarterfinals. The 1980 Dixon grad amassed a 138-93 record in 35 seasons at 8 different schools.

At the July school board meeting, athletic director Jared Shaner was named the new Dixon coach.

Bickett left the Rockets in April to take the AD job at Bureau Valley, where he led the Storm to a 290-143 record and 12 regional titles in 15 seasons as boys basketball coach, including three straight third-place finishes in Class A from 2000-02.

At Rock Falls, Bickett had a 134-105 record in 8 years, including a 94-34 record and 2 regional titles over the last 4 years. The former Ohio standout has a 490-314 record in 28 years as a coach at 4 schools.

Former Rocket player Zach Sand-rock, a Dixon assistant the past 3 years, was hired as Rock Falls’ new coach in May.

No. 8: Sterling’s Lexi Rodriguez graduates early to play spring volleyball at Nebraska

After leading the Sterling Golden Warriors to back-to-back Class 3A state titles in 2018 and 2019, earning Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a junior in 2019, and helping Team USA win its first-ever gold medal at the U18 world volleyball championships, libero Lexi Rodriguez felt she was ready for the next chapter in her volleyball career.

Instead of trying to capture a three-peat at Redbird Arena this spring, the first-team all-stater and three-time first-team all-conference player announced Sept. 9 that she would graduate from Sterling High School a semester early and forgo her senior season to enroll at the University of Nebraska and join the Cornhuskers volleyball team for the spring semester.

With the NCAA granting a free year of eligibility to all of its athletes this school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodriguez could play right away in Lincoln, and still have 4 years of eligibility left at Nebraska.

Rodriguez led the area in digs in each of the last 3 years (405 in 2019, 643 in 2018 & 574 in 2017), and one of the best servers in the area (32 aces in 2019, 30 aces in 2018, 58 aces in 2017), she also took on more responsibilities at the setter position this past season (233 assists in 2019, 134 in 2018, 103 in 2017) for the Golden Warriors.

No. 9: Sterling boys swimming wins its first sectional championship since 2007

With a deep, talented pool of athletes, the Sterling Water Warriors knew they could be in for a memorable and record-setting 2019-20 season.

At the top of the list of goals for the season was a sectional title, and on Feb. 22 the Warriors did just that.

Sterling won eight of the 11 swimming events at the Byron Sectional to claim its first crown since 2007. Senior Jack Wike (above) and junior Calvin Sandefer (below) both won a pair of individual events and swam on two victorious relay teams, both taking part in a sectional-record swim in the 200 medley relay before Wike added another record in the 200 individual medley.

Also part of that medley relay record, Reiley Austin (100 butterfly) and Skylar Drolema (100 breaststroke) went on to win individual events.

A week later, Wike and Sandefer both qualified for the state finals, with Wike eventually placing 12th in the 200 IM and Sandefer taking 11th in the 50 freestyle.

It was sweet redemption to close out a stellar career on the state’s biggest stage for Wike, who missed out on the finals by just one place in both of his individual events as a junior in 2019.

Sandefer also missed the finals in his two events as a sophomore in 2019, and looked at his finals swim as a springboard for the 2020-21 season.

No. 10: Dixon’s Riley Bally (tennis) & Laci Long (diving) win sectional championships

In the span of 2 weeks, Dixon High School added a pair of sectional champions to its long list of standout athletic performances.

On Oct. 17, senior tennis standout Riley Bally capped a dominating performance at the Class 1A Rochelle Sectional with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Sycamore’s Ella Sharp in the championship match, after a 6-1, 6-0 semifinal win over Freeport’s Anika Fosler.

In a normal year, it would’ve given Bally a more favorable matchup in the first round of the state meet. Instead, she was happy to break the string of semifinal losses in her previous sectional trips, as she had dropped her penultimate match in each of her first three seasons with the Duchesses before bouncing back to win the third-place match each time.

On Oct. 24, junior diver Laci Long made it two titles in as many weeks as she claimed the crown in the 1-meter diving competition at the Byron Sectional for the second consecutive season.

She also helped the Tigers co-op to its second straight sectional championship, after they won the Rockford Jefferson Sectional title in 2019.

In a non-COVID year, it would have been Long’s third trip to the state finals in as many years; she was an at-large qualifier as a freshman after placing third in 2018.