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Nick Scala: Lingering COVID heads list of top 10 sports stories of 2021

Written by corres2

While researching this year-end column on the Gazette-Mail’s top 10 sports stories of 2021, it occurred to me that there was a common thread running through the year that, much to our consternation, never really subsided:

The COVID-19 pandemic — which, by definition, started in 2019 and affected sports throughout 2020 — continued unabated throughout 2021.

That’s why, with all the sports news that broke this year, the good and the bad, the lingering and continued difficulties prompted by the pandemic sadly tops my list of top sports stories of the year that ends Friday night.

It began with the new year, when the start of the 2021 winter high school sports schedule — which would normally begin in late November and early December — was pushed back to March, the month when winter sports normally wrap up with the state basketball tournaments. In 2021, the basketball season concluded in the first week of May. Overlapping schedules forced multi-sports athletes to choose between one sport or the other.

Schedules were abbreviated, and attendance was limited. There were no color-coded maps to determine which counties could or couldn’t continue playing, but occasional isolated COVID outbreaks continued to force cancellation or postponement of competitions.

The winter sports delay necessarily pushed back the start of spring sports, which normally start in March but didn’t get going until April and didn’t end until the end of June, a month later than the norm.

College sports were also affected by the lingering pandemic. In an unprecedented move, the Mountain East Conference moved its 2020 schedule to the spring of 2021, with an abbreviated five-game schedule — divisional games only — played in March and April, and COVID-related cancellations meant that no MEC teams were able to play their full complement of games.

Similarly, the 2020 college soccer season was played in the spring of 2021. More on that soon.

COVID restrictions limited crowd sizes at college events. Schedules were reshuffled. The unwieldy football bowl schedule was shortened when games were scrapped due to COVID outbreaks among some participating schools.

And now, as we look ahead to 2022, we continue to get college cancellations and postponements, with Marshall’s basketball game at Southern Miss on New Year’s Day and WVU’s game Monday night at TCU falling by the wayside. More of those are sure to come.

As much as we wished otherwise, the pandemic reared its ugly head from start to finish during 2021, and that’s why it’s No. 1 on the list of the top sports stories of the year.

Now on to the rest of the list, which I promise won’t be nearly as depressing.

2. PRO BASEBALL RETURNS TO CHARLESTON: After the pandemic wiped out all of minor-league baseball in 2020, including the West Virginia Power’s South Atlantic League season, Major League Baseball reduced its number of minor-league affiliates, and the Power was one of the teams included in the cutback. That left Charleston with the prospect of going without professional baseball for the first time since the mid-1980s.

Then, on a brisk February morning at Appalachian Power Park, it was announced that there would indeed be pro baseball in Charleston, with the Power joining the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.  

Andy Shea, owner of the Lexington Legends — who were also on MLB’s minor-league cut list — would be the Power’s principal owner, and his friend from his youth, Mark Minicozzi, would be the manager. From there, they started putting a roster together and filling it with available talent from cast-aside minor leaguers, players from international leagues and even some former major leaguers looking for a chance to return to The Show.

The roster included former big-league outfielder Jose Tabata, who played for the Power on his way up through the Pittsburgh Pirates chain, and pitcher Arik Sikula, a local product who had been the West Virginia High School Player of the Year at South Charleston some 15 years earlier and who emerged as one of the Atlantic League’s best hurlers.

Still partnered with MLB despite its non-affiliation, the Atlantic League was and remains a testing ground for rules changes MLB is considering, most notably testing the effects of moving the distance between home plate and the pitching rubber back one foot, to 61 feet, 6 inches for the second half of the season.

The Atlantic League schedule also was affected by COVID, with the season not starting until late May and not ending until mid-October. The Power had the league’s worst record during the season’s first half, but turned that around in the second half by qualifying for the postseason with the league’s best record.

Before that happened, though, the team pulled off an unprecedented mid-season rebranding. In the midst of the stretch drive for the playoff berth, the team announced it was changing its name from the West Virginia Power to the Charleston Dirty Birds, complete with new logos, new colors and — most importantly for minor league teams trying to stay afloat — new merchandising.

Before the start of the best-of-three South Division playoff series against Lexington, COVID made another appearance: Minicozzi and five players were dropped from the postseason roster due to testing positive for the disease.

The Dirty Birds were beaten by Lexington in the playoff series, but not before pulling off a memorable 13-inning victory in the first game at Appalachian Power Park, during which Minicozzi, watching the live feed from his hotel room, communicated managerial decisions to Sikula and other Dirty Birds in the dugout via text messaging.

Earlier this month, Billy Horn was named as the new Dirty Birds manager after Minicozzi accepted the offer from Shea to manage the Atlantic League’s Lexington-based Kentucky team that will serve as a temporary place-holder for the league’s expansion team in Hagerstown, Maryland, which will join the Atlantic League in 2023.

3. MARSHALL SOCCER WINS NATIONAL TITLE: The Thundering Herd had never won a national championship at the highest level of competition until May 18, when Jamil Roberts’ overtime goal gave MU the Division I men’s soccer championship with a 1-0 win over No. 3 Indiana in the College Cup title game in Cary, North Carolina.

Marshall’s run to the championship included tournament wins over No. 1-ranked Clemson, defending champion Georgetown, College Cup host North Carolina and finally Indiana. Roberts tallied the game-winners in each of the last three matches.

Marshall coach Chris Grassie was awarded with a five-year contract extension that tripled his base pay.

4. HUGGINS CLIMBS ALL-TIME WINS LIST: Bob Huggins, WVU’s veteran men’s basketball coach, reached some significant milestones in 2021 while leading the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament.

On March 18, in the opening round of the NCAA’s, Huggins picked up his 900th career coaching victory, becoming just the sixth to reach that number, when the Mountaineers defeated Morehead State in Indianapolis.

Two more milestones were reached this season, when Huggins moved past Bob Knight and Roy Williams into fourth place on the all-time list.

While WVU’s 2020-21 season ended with a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse, the Mountaineers climbed as high as No. 6 in the national ratings.

Huggins lost some key members of the 2020-21 season who would have otherwise been available for this season — Oscar Tshiebwe transferred to Kentucky and Miles McBride and Derek Culver left WVU to pursue pro careers — but the Mountaineers have kept winning, posting an 11-1 record heading into the start of the Big 12 schedule.

5. HUFF REPLACES HOLLIDAY AT MARSHALL: On Jan. 4, Marshall announced that Doc Holliday would not be retained as the Herd’s head football coach after 11 seasons at the helm and just two weeks after being named Conference USA Coach of the Year.

Two weeks after Holliday was pushed out, Charles Huff was hired as Holliday’s replacement on Jan 18. It was a landmark day for the university as Huff became the first Black head coach to lead the football program.

Huff arrived in Huntington from the staff of Nick Saban just one week removed from Alabama’s national championship victory. Huff served as Missisippi State’s assistant head coach in 2019 and his previous 17 years of coaching include stops at Penn State University, Western Michigan, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, Vanderbilt and Maryland.

Huff is also highly regarded in the recruiting realm. He was named National Recruiter of the Year for 2020 by 247Sports.

Huff’s up-and-down first season at Marshall ended with a 36-21 loss to Louisiana in the New Orleans bowl as the Herd finished with a 7-6 record.

6. CONFERENCE SHAKEUPS: Conference realignment had huge effects on both WVU and Marshall in 2021.

On July 26, Big 12 powerhouses Texas and Oklahoma announced they would be leaving the conference, and four days later they were accepted into the Southeast Conference, joining Alabama, Georgia et. al. in college football’s most dominant Conference.

Mountaineer fans’ worries that the Big 12 would not remain a viable top-tier conference with the departures of Texas and Oklahoma were alleviated on Sept. 10, when it was announced that Cincinnati, BYU, Houston and Central Florida accepted invitations to join the Big 12.

A series of events in conference realignment also radically altered Marshall’s future in college athletics, ultimately landing MU in the Sun Belt Conference.

On Nov. 1, Marshall announced it would join the Sun Belt no later than July 1, 2023. Two other C-USA schools, Southern Miss and Old Dominion, will join the Herd in the new league, along with ascending FCS member James Madison.

With the announcement, Marshall joined a league that houses former Southern Conference rivals Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.

Marshall’s move was part of the domino effect that began with Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 and continued when C-USA members North Texas, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, UTSA, Rice and UAB left that league to join the American Athletic Conference. 

We’re not sure yet if Marshall will start play in the Sun Belt Conference in time for 2022-23 or wait until the 2023-24 academic year, but it’ll soon be a vastly different sports landscape for the Thundering Herd.

7. THE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT: Better known as TBT, The Basketball Tournament arrived in Charleston from July 17-21 at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center for five days of summertime hoops, complete with a winner-take-all top prize of $1 million to the winner of the 64-team event that features the “Elam Ending.”

Charleston had been ticketed to be the host site for one of four TBT regionals in 2020, but that idea was scrapped when — what else? — COVID-19 reduced the field to 24 teams all playing at one site in Columbus, Ohio.

With the pandemic (kind of) in the background, it was announced on April 20 that Charleston would host one of the eight TBT 2021 regionals, with alumni teams featuring players from WVU (Best Virginia) and Marshall (Herd That) serving as the hosts of the 16-team regional.

Best Virginia and Herd That both won their first-round games, keeping alive the hopes that the two West Virginia-based teams might meet in the semifinals. Best Virginia advanced with a win in the second round, but Herd That was ousted.

Best Virginia’s run at the million-dollar top prize was ended by in the semifinals, but we learned on Dec. 8 that The Basketball Tournament will return to Charleston for the 2022 event.

8. HOT STUFF IN THE MEC: As mentioned earlier, the Mountain East Conference played its 2020 season in the spring of this year, but that wasn’t the only big news emanating from the Division II college conference for its local members, the University of Charleston and West Virginia State University.

The UC women’s basketball team, led by first-year coach Tianni Kelly, won the MEC tournament to advance to the Division II Atlantic Regional, won that too and advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2006.

The UC men’s soccer team, the two-time defending national champion, almost made it three in a row as the Golden Eagles advanced to the D2 championship game, where they lost 1-0 to Cal State Los Angeles.

At WVSU, officials announced on Aug. 24 that its football field at Institute, Lakin Field, would receive a $2 million upgrade including the installation of an atrificial-turf playing surface, lights and new bleachers.

The project was finished ahead of schedule, well in time for the upgraded facility — now known as Lakin-Ray Field — to make its debut for WVSU’s homecoming game against UNC-Pembroke. That resulted in a 14-13 loss by the Yellow Jackets, but the crowd was dazzled by the facility’s newly installed LED lights that flashed and synced to music throughout the first nighttime home football game in WVSU history.

The WVSU men’s basketball team had a rare opportunity this month to travel to Hawaii for a Holiday tournament, and Bryan Poore’s Yellow Jackets returned with the championship trophy at the Hoops in Hawaii Holiday Tournament in Honolulu.

9. HIGH SCHOOL CHAMPIONS: The Kanawha Valley had its usual share of state champions in 2021, but probably none was as thrilling as the Nitro girls basketball team’s run to the Class AAA title at the Charleston Coliseum.

As recently retired Gazette-Mail prep writer Rick Ryan reported on May 1:

“After losing All-State point guard Baylee Goins, one of West Virginia’s top players and the team’s heart and soul, to a possible major knee injury midway through the second quarter, Nitro somehow found the resolve to not only keep going, but to knock off unbeaten and No. 1 seed Fairmont Senior 51-45 in the Class AAA title game.”

Our headline the next day: “WOW”

Other Kanawha Valley championship teams in 2021 were George Washington (boys and girls swimming, boys basketball, boys tennis, girls soccer),  Winfield (girls track, cross country), Herbert Hoover (softball) and Charleston Catholic (boys and girls soccer).

10. WVU FOOTBALL FINISHES WITH LOSING RECORD: Nothing attracts readers to our newspaper and website more than WVU football stories, but the Mountaineers came up short of fans’ expectations in 2021, finishing with a 6-7 record following their disappointing 18-6 loss to Minnesota earlier this week in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix.

The season wasn’t without high points: the win over Virginia Tech in the revival of the Black Diamond rivalry, Big 12 wins over Iowa State and Texas stand out as the biggest of the six victories.

The difference between what would have made for a successful season were the near-misses — close losses to Maryland, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

Mountaineer fans look to 2022 wondering if oft-maligned quarterback Jarret Doege will return for one more season in Morgantown.

All in all, though, the 2021 WVU football season will be remembered as one of disappointment.

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