Sports stories of the year: Pandemic touched everything

Games played in empty gyms (and stadia) became the norm in 2020, as the novel coronavirus pandemic made for major changes in sports. (photo by Viraj Bulla)

By Micah Weathers |
Sports contributor

The year 2020 pushed through the tough defender of COVID-19 with its abbreviated slate of sports competitions in front of usually very small audiences, or none at all.

For Augusta University athletes, the winter and spring seasons ended early, in mid-March. The AU men’s basketball team was on its way to the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional in Tennessee when it got word that the season was over.

The summer was a nervous time for both athletes and coaches, as the NCAA and the Peach Belt Conference monitored the pandemic and tried to make policy to fit the situation. Although COVID-19 cancelled or postponed some fall sports’ seasons, other fall sports safely prevailed. AU only ended up being able to have shortened cross-country and men’s golf seasons in the fall.

The 2020 sports year produced many stories, but here are the most important sport stories for AU and Augusta. The NCAA Division I Council’s decision on canceling fall sports, except football; the Division I Council’s decision to give back eligibility to the COVID-19 impacted student-athletes; the playing of the 2020 Masters Golf Tournament in November, and Augusta University’s men’s cross-country team becoming a Division II powerhouse, moving up as high as third in the national poll.

The NCAA Division I Council canceled fall sports in August of 2020 with the exception of football. The cancellation put a stop to fall championships for fall sports and an end to many students-athletes’ careers. The decision shocked the sports world and the student-athletes themselves, who were unsure of their loss of eligibility.

The Division I Council’s decision to give back eligibility to student-athletes returned a sense of comfort to student-athletes who were greatly impacted by COVID-19. This also gave clarity to student-athletes in regards to their athletic careers and their athletic scholarships.

The 2020 Masters Golf Tournament being pushed to the much later date of Nov. 12-15 was an uncertainty for many fans and even athletes during the time. Originally, the Masters was to be held on April 9-12, but with COVID-19 being at a record high in March, the Augusta National officials resorted to rescheduling. COVID-19 put a stop to the many spectators who usually come from all over to watch the Masters in Augusta. This year the only people out on the course were the television cameramen, the golfers and their caddies, and the officials. Dustin Justin, who is from South Carolina, was the runaway winner with a record score of 20 under par.

The Augusta University’s men’s cross country team became a Division II powerhouse as the Jaguar XC team won its fifth Peach Belt Conference title. In 2019, the team made it a three-year streak of advancing to the national championship as well. This team is making history each year at AU and with eligibility being given back, Jaguar Coach Adam Ward gets another year to train his powerhouse team for a major run in the nationals next fall. Jacob Poston was co-runner of the year in the conference, finishing second in the PBC meet at the University of North Georgia. Poston has also had an outstanding outdoor track season before the NCAA stopped spring sports.

Perhaps the greatest story of all was the emergence of AU’s Mackenzie Taylor as the top cross-country runner on the women’s side of the PBC. Taylor won all four of her meets in the fall in this her first year in XC after spending the first years of college eligibility playing soccer at at another university. It was the second straight year Augusta had won the women’s PBC XC crown. (Last year’s winner was the author, Micah Weathers.)

Another major story was the emergence of former AU men’s basketball player Rafael Monteiro. After earning all-conference honors and leading the Jaguars to a second-place finish in the Peach Belt Conference in the 2019-2020 season, Monteiro earned a contract with a professional team in Brazil.

Outside of the AU campus, the biggest sports story of the year in the United States, other than the effect COVID-19 had on every sport, was the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, Calif., on Jan. 26. Bryant was a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and made the all-NBA team 18 times. Kobe Bryant was 41 years old and his daughter just 13.

Another major story was the reaction of athletes, coaches and leagues to the murder of George Floyd in May by Minneapolis police officer. Protest marches ensued all over the country, including in Augusta. Major professional leagues and college programs made major investments in social justice projects. This included University of Georgia football Coach Kirby Smart, who promised to donate $1 million to the UGa. Athletic Association’s social justice program.

And the Atlanta Braves nearly made it back to the World Series for the first time since 1999, but the Braves lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, blowing a 3-1 lead in games. Still, there was good news for Braves’ fans in the CSRA in the offseason when it was announced an Atlanta Low Single A minor-league affiliate will be coming to the stadium in North Augusta, S.C., for 2021. This comes after the 2020 minor-league season was cancelled. The Augusta GreenJackets had been affiliated with the San Francisco Giants since 2004.

 

Contact Micah Weathers at miweathers@augusta.edu.