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Yodice: COVID’s cloud darkened NM’s prep sports scene in 2020

The NMAA state basketball championships were allowed to finish even as COVID started to emerge in March, but games at the Pit ultimately were held without fans. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

The drill is, I sit down in mid-to-late December, sift through the previous 12 months, both in my head and in our archives, and extract my choices for the top five high school sports stories from that calendar year.

There was very little sifting required this year. The year’s top five prep stories are, unfortunately and not surprisingly, a somber quintet of headlines. COVID-19 was the story none of us could escape, and we remain even now in its persistent clutches as we look forward to what we hope will be happier – and busier – times in the new year.

The coronavirus left its mark on the state’s high school community in myriad ways, several outlined here. Alamo Navajo boys basketball coach Marcus Pino, who died in April at 42, and longtime Rio Grande cross country/track and field coach Prentis Jones, who was 75 when he died in early November, were among those who lost their lives due to complications from this nasty virus.

My wish for all of us is a prosperous, and healthy, and healing, 2021.

Any other year, the addition of girls wrestling as a sanctioned sport would easily have made my list. Just not this year. Here are my top five from 2020:

5 SHHHHHHH: I spent a good portion of championship Saturday during state basketball tournament week at the Pit, watching several of that day’s seven title games.

A more surreal viewing experience I can scarcely recall.

In the middle of the tournament, on Wednesday night, the New Mexico Activities Association, in conjunction with the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, announced that fans would be barred from attending the final three days, just as the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to gain a foothold here.

Hence, the Pit, which is almost always pulsating with energy and dramatic basketball as we approach the climax of the season, was quiet as a church mouse at the end, including for the title games.

Iconic high school football coach Bill Gentry, shown during his days at Highland (he also coached at Eldorado), died this year at 93. (Aaron Wilson/Journal)

4 BILL GENTRY DIES: Gentry’s passing, the night/morning of June 20-21 at age 93, was not a surprise, as the Hall of Fame prep football coach’s health had been declining.

It nevertheless was a jolt to hear that he had passed. And what a gargantuan legacy the man left behind.

Gentry won 305 games in 38 seasons with Highland and Eldorado, and he won three state championships with the Hornets. There were, remarkably, only three losing seasons in all that time.

He was an intense, driven human being who knew football and how to coach those who played it.

“I think you could legitimately say he was the father of high school football in the state,” said Eric Roanhaus, who went head-to-head so many memorable times against Gentry when Roanhaus coached the Clovis Wildcats.

3 DELAY DELAY DELAY: Certainly one of the most frustrating and annoying things for athletes and coaches was being told, more than once, that their fall 2020 seasons would not be played.

The NMAA, to its credit, has slavishly worked behind the scenes, trying to find a model that might work for everyone.

There was hope for an October start for a couple of fall sports, with a slew of safety precautions. But state health restrictions prohibited that.

Then there were crossed fingers for a Jan. 4 start for basketball. That’s out, too.

And now the state has circled Feb. 1 as the latest start date, for football.

Time is running perilously short, however, and without changes (re: flexibility) from government officials in Santa Fe, I suspect there may be more bad news ahead on the horizon.

J.B. White, shown with the ball against Cleveland in Santa Fe in January 2019, had his bright future snuffed out when he was shot to death in August. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

2 GOODBYE, J.B.: While COVID has been a predictably harsh and unrelenting nuisance, the most shocking story of 2020 unquestionably was the killing of Santa Fe’s dazzling 18-year-old basketball talent, J.B. White.

He was gunned down outside a house party in the early-morning hours of Aug. 1 – paralyzing news that stunned New Mexicans as they awoke.

White was soon to become a member of University of New Mexico men’s program and was considered one of the top senior recruits in the country. The sudden and depressing end to his life lingers still, particularly in Santa Fe. White’s accused killer is 16-year-old Estevan Moreno Montoya.

The death of J.B. White was a tragic and unnecessary waste of a promising life.

It could have been prevented. Should have been prevented.

1 CANCEL CULTURE: Go back to March 14, a Saturday, and the Las Cruces Bulldawgs winning the Class 5A boys basketball crown, defeating Capital in the final.

Hard to believe on that night that it would prove to be the final high school game of the 2020 prep sports calendar.

Not even World War II interrupted New Mexico from conducting spring championship events in sports like baseball and track and field.

But the novel coronavirus managed what nothing before it could – it forced the state to cancel virtually the entire spring season in every sport. Baseball, softball, tennis, golf and track athletes never got to participate in a postseason, and in fact a majority of them barely had begun their regular seasons when the plug was pulled.

It’s been a sobering year, boys and girls.

Stay strong, stay resolute.

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