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AARON FERGUSON: Presenting The Times 2020 Sports Stories of the Year
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THE TIMES 2020 SPORTS STORIES OF THE YEAR

AARON FERGUSON: Presenting The Times 2020 Sports Stories of the Year

Any other year we’d be celebrating those that accomplished great feats, and we still will. Though, everyday life changed as we knew it in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the sports world shutdown on local, collegiate and professional levels.

We’ve tried to navigate these unprecedented times the best way we know how, digging deeper to find enticing stories of those in our communities. Not many sports sections across the country were able to produce a daily section with local content but we take pride in sharing important stories from the Region sport scene, and the pandemic wouldn't stop us. We took a look at seniors who did great things outside of school and sports with senior spotlights, checked in with athletes who had an extended spring break due to the pandemic and caught up with professional and college athletes as they returned.

When the practices and games returned, we hit the ground running doing our best to keep others informed about how COVID-19 was impacting our teams with shutdowns, restarts on top of our notebooks, game coverage, features, columns, stats sheets and more. We are fortunate that high school sports have been safely contested since August, and that’s a credit to all of the coaches, players, athletic directors, parents/guardians and school support staff that have made a commitment for it to happen.

Admittedly, when talking with IHSAA commissioner Paul Neidig in June about how high school football would be played safely, I didn’t think we’d get through Thanksgiving weekend to crown state champions. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves as a community over the past 12 months, and we are better for it.

As the 21st century turns 21, hopefully we can return to full capacity to celebrate what is great about high school sports: communities showcasing their pride for where they live and supporting the next generation of citizens that will be tasked with important decisions in their own fields.

A ballot of over 20 events was sent out to the sports staff with 10 people whose names you see in our section submitting their votes. Writers and editors were asked to rank the most newsworthy with one being the highest and receiving 10 points, and 10 being the lowest and receiving one point.

Zach Plesac, Indians

Indians starting pitcher and Crown Point native Zach Plesac throws against the White Sox on Aug. 8. Plesac was sent home after violating COVID-19 protocols put in place by Major League Baseball after the outing.

Honorable mention

Three stories just missed the No. 10 spot. As the coronavirus pandemic played itself out, professional sports leagues made their returns with a strict set of protocols. Crown Point native and Cleveland Indians pitcher Zach Plesac violated those after a start against the White Sox in Chicago. He subsequently was sent home and sent to the taxi squad for several weeks until being recalled. He went on to be a Gold Glove finalist among American League pitchers.

Crown Point native Zach Plesac apologizes for misstep after Indians start
Crown Point native Zach Plesac sent home after protocol misstep
SPORTS DIGEST: Crown Point native Zach Plesac named Gold Glove finalist
VU McMillan

Valparaiso's Mileek McMillan looks for an opening in the second half against Bradley in the Arch Madness championship game.

Just before COVID-19 shut the country down, Valparaiso made history. In its third season in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Crusaders became the first team in Arch Madness history to begin the tournament in the play-in games and make it to championship Sunday, the fourth day, eventually falling to Bradley 80-66.

Playing fourth game in four days, Valparaiso falls to Bradley in MVC final
3A girls soccer sectional final: Chesterton vs. Valparaiso

Chesterton soccer players, from left, Annalisa Hackett, Addy Joiner, Carley Balas and Kaitlyn Kogl celebrate with their Class 3A sectional championship trophy after a 2-0 win over rival Valparaiso.

In October Chesterton needed to create space quickly in its trophy case. Trojans teams won 11 trophies in a 21-day stretch among the boys and girls cross country and boys and girls soccer programs.

Chesterton delivers 11 championships over 21-day period

Without further ado, here are The Times 2020 Stories of the Year.

Eugene German

Eugene German broke the Northern Illinois scoring record, previously held by Merrillville graduate T.J. Lux.

10 — Eugene German breaks Northern Illinois’ career scoring mark (23 points)

All Gary native Eugene German does is score. The 21st Century product led the state of Indiana in scoring as a junior and senior, and then averaged 20 points per game in his final three years at Northern Illinois. He broke a record held by former Merrillville star and coach T.J. Lux and was the first Huskie to score more than 2,000 points.

Eugene German attributes NIU scoring record to Gary upbringing
Gymnastics state finals

Chesterton gymnasts hold up their championship trophy at Ball State University's Worthen Arena.

9 — Chesterton wins the state gymnastics championship (25)

Ball State’s Worthen Arena was shut off to family members and those wanting to watch the state gymnastics final. The Region was well represented as Chesterton won its third straight state championship, edging out Valparaiso by 0.7 points. Mia Pak was a state champion on the bars with a 9.6 and third in all-around.

Chesterton completes state gymnastics 3-peat
JoJo Johnson, Merrillville

Merrillville's JoJo Johnson, left, became the first Region player to sign with Notre Dame football since 2015.

8 — JoJo Johnson becomes first NWI prospect to sign with Notre Dame in six years (27)

Merrillville’s JoJo Johnson was a playmaker in all three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams. The Times 2020 Offensive Player of the Year committed a day after receiving an offer from Notre Dame, and signed during the early signing period. He is the first Region player since Andrean’s Josh Barajas in 2015 to sign with the Irish. Johnson previously committed to Northern Illinois, and then Cincinnati before landing the Notre Dame offer.

'I really want to win a national championship': Merrillville star JoJo Johnson verbally commits to Notre Dame
Merrillville's JoJo Johnson is The Times 2020 Offensive Player of the Year
Karina James, Lowell

Lowell's Karina James, right, won the 2020 IHSAA girls state cross country meet.

7 — Karina James wins the state cross country meet (28)

Lowell’s Karina James beamed with Region pride after winning the girls state cross country meet in a time of 18 minutes, 0.1 seconds. Her championship run gave Lowell back-to-back individual crowns as Gabriel Sanchez won the boys meet in 2019.

“There’s a movement happening in the Region, and I think that it’s being missed far too often, especially lately,” James said.

Lowell’s Karina James brings home state title
Dana Evans, Louisville

Gary native Dana Evans was named an All-American for the 2019-20 season.

6 — Dana Evans named an All-American (30)

It speaks to the work ethic and talent that West Side grad Dana Evans has that she went from ACC Sixth Player of the Year in 2018-19 to being named the league’s Player of the Year and then an All-American. She takes pride in being from Gary and was excited to return to the Genesis Center with Louisville for a game against Valparaiso, only to have that canceled due to the pandemic.

Dana Evans ‘numb’ when Louisville’s season ended; knew she would be an All-American
Dana Evans thrilled to be coming home to Gary with Louisville
Dana Evans won’t be returning to Gary to face Valpo

Evans, a 5-foot-6 guard, chose to return to Louisville for her senior year. She dreams of reaching the Final Four after the coronavirus shut down an opportunity for the Cardinals to reach it last season.

3A boys soccer state final: Chesterton vs. Castle

The Chesterton Trojans celebrate with the 3A state championship trophy on after defeating Castle 7-1 in Fishers.

5 — Chesterton wins state boys soccer championship (36)

The Trojans etched their names in the IHSAA record books winning a second state title in three years by scoring a state-best seven goals in the championship. They broke a record set in 1996 by Fort Wayne Canterbury with their 7-1 win over Castle in the 3A final.

Top goal-scorer Zack Bowser had a hat trick in the game and was in awe of Chesterton’s performance.

“I can’t explain it. No one was expecting this,” he said.

Record-breaking effort: Chesterton dominates en route to second state title in three years
4A football state final: Hobart vs. Roncalli

Hobart's Riley Johnston, left, and Zach Vode look to the Brickies fans in the stands as the team's seniors hoist up the 4A runner-up trophy after Hobart lost 49-7 to Roncalli.

4 — Hobart football reaches first state final since 1996 (46)

The Brickies showcased a tight-knit family and, after a 3-2 start, won eight straight games to reach the Class 4A state championship game, their first since 1996. Hobart’s bid for its first state title since 1993 ended with a 49-7 Roncalli win.

That didn’t stop the outpouring support from one another and their fans after a game in which they fought to the end.

Hobart denied first state title since 1993 by Roncalli
Zach Vode, Hobart battle to the end
Hobart's Bobby Babcock is The Times 2020 Defensive Player of the Year
Rays Yankees Baseball

Rays pinch-hitter Michael Brosseau ducks away from a pitch from Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman during the ninth inning on Sept. 1. Brosseau, an Andrean grad, hit a game-winning home run to eliminate the Yankees from the 2020 postseason.

3 — Mike Brosseau, Rays get to the World Series (52)

Andrean grad Mike Brosseau hit perhaps the most memorable home run of the 2020 postseason. It was a game-winning home run off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning of a decisive Game 5 to send the Tampa Bay Rays into the American League Championship Series, which led to a World Series appearance.

One month prior, Chapman threw a 102 mph fastball by Brosseau’s head at Yankee Stadium, causing benches to clear. It was only fitting that Brosseau turned around a 100 mph fastball to lift the Rays over the Yankees.

Brosseau went 2 for 6 in the World Series, which was won by the Dodgers. He became the first from The Times coverage area to go to the World Series since TF South’s Curtis Granderson went in 2017 with the Dodgers. Brosseau is the first from the area to appear in a World Series game since Gary native LaTroy Hawkins pitched for the Rockies in 2007.

Michael Brosseau's postseason play sets off many Region celebrations
Spring sports canceled Andrean baseball

Andrean's Sonny Ferrantella, right, gives out hugs to teammates after the 59ers won the 2019 Class 3A state championship. The 59ers were unable to defend their state title after the IHSAA canceled spring sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.

2 — IHSAA cancels spring sports (63, 1 first-place vote)

It seemed inevitable but it didn’t mean the finality of losing a season of competing stung any less. On April 2, the spring sports seasons were officially canceled by the IHSAA as Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick announced schools would remain closed with a move to e-learning.

Andrean had hopes of winning a third straight baseball state championship. Sanchez wanted to parlay his cross country state title with a win in the 800 meters during track season.

Many others had those dreams shattered.

'It just sucks': Region athletes react to IHSAA's cancellation of spring sports
Class A boys basketball sectional final: Kouts vs. 21st Century

21st Century's Cameron Jernigan goes up for the dunk as Kouts' Cale Wireman trails during the Class 1A Kouts Sectional championship game. Packed gyms are now an afterthought due to the cornavirus pandemic.

1 — IHSAA cancels state basketball tournaments (99, 9 first-place votes)

For some, the severity of COVID-19 and its outbreak in the country may not have hit until the IHSAA canceled the state basketball tournaments on March 19. Postseason play was postponed on March 13, as several teams were en route to regional games. All the hard work and dedication in hopes of playing for a state championship at Bankers Life Fieldhouse stopped.

'It's pretty devastating': Region reacts to IHSAA canceling state basketball tournament

To those who subscribe to our print and digital products, thank you for supporting us even through tough times. We wouldn’t be able to share these stories without your support, and from all those who read our content. Thank you, coaches, athletes, administrators and families for allowing us to share your stories, being transparent with us and our communities.

We wish you all good health and an abundance of blessings in 2021.

The Times Photos of the Year

Aaron Ferguson is the assistant sports editor at The Times. He can be reached at aaron.ferguson@nwi.com or 219-853-2519. The opinions are the writer’s.

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