Year in review 2020: Alaska’s strange year in sports

Published: Dec. 31, 2020 at 7:03 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Sports were different in 2020 with three months of normalcy before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, turning the sports calendar upside down. Despite the year being less than ideal, Alaska athletes showed their resilience with countless stories of players, coaches, and teams pressing on safely despite the challenges of playing during a pandemic. This year also left fans and athletes appreciating the simple things about sports like the crowds, hugs, high fives, road trips and being able to play games. While the question of when sports will get back to normal is a work in progress we look forward to telling Alaska’s sports story in 2021.

Year in Review

The Alaska sports calendar got off to a hot start in 2020 when Gus Schumacher did what Alaskans do best: ski very fast. The Anchorage cross-country skier became the first American man to win a gold medal at the FIS Junior World Cross Country Championships when he won the 10-kilometer classic.

In late January, two childhood friends met in the championship of the Alaska Airlines Classic at West Anchorage High School. A pre-pandemic crowd packed the West gym to watch McDonald’s All-American Daishen Nix and Trinity Prep take on Isaiah Moses and Dimond High School.

The two grew up in Anchorage before Nix left to play high school basketball in Nevada and is considered the biggest prep basketball recruit from Alaska since Mario Chalmers. While Nix had the hype, Moses stole the show in the championship scoring 42 points, but the Dimond Lynx fell to the Trinity Prep Thunder 70 to 63.

The high school hockey season ended dramatically between West and South High School in the large schools’ state championship game when Matt Patchin scored the game-winning goal for the Eagles in double overtime to lift West over South 4 to 3.

The 2020 Iditarod began on March 7 in Willow for the traditional restart, but things started to change mid-race on March 11th when the coronavirus started to become a major concern across the country. The race finished but it urged fans to stay at home creating an odd celebration at the finish line when Thomas Waerner came down Front Street in Nome. This new normal was a sign of things to come for sports across the country and here in Alaska.

High school basketball was dealt a blow when the Alaska School Activities Association had to cancel March Madness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and prep sports were paused in the spring. The NCAA also canceled March Madness which ended the fourth-ranked University of Alaska Anchorage women’s basketball team run at a national championship.

In April, Alaska sports fans had something to cheer about when Fairbanks Ruthy Hebard was drafted to the WNBA by the Chicago Sky and Anchorage’s Jeremy Swayman won the Mike Richter Award the highest honor for a college hockey goalie.

Initially, Mount Marathon was going to delay its 2020 race until the fall but eventually, it had to cancel the 2020 edition of the race for the first time since World War II. The Alaska Baseball League would also cancel its season, but youth players were able to press on with the Alaska Alliance of Legion Baseball playing a season.

One of the biggest cancellations in the world of sports was the summer Olympics which a handful of Alaskans were preparing for. Seward High School swimmer Lydia Jacoby qualified for the 2020 Olympic trials and said she was thankful to have another winter to train. During the spring she had to work out in her garage, run outside and swim in Seward to stay in shape for the trials. Jacoby continued to turn heads in the fall qualifying for the Olympic trials again and verbally committed to swim at the University of Texas. Fellow Olympic hopeful runner Allie Ostrander posted to Instagram that she would take the time off in the summer to undergo aggressive treatment for her Achilles.

Heading into the fall, the discussion around high school sports heated up, and it looked like state championships could have a chance to resume. With controversy over whether to hold a statewide event during a pandemic, the Alaska Schools Activities Association held a cross-country championship before canceling the football state championship shortly before it was scheduled to be held.

This left some football teams frustrated since they were looking forward to the chance to play another game with limited opportunities for smaller school districts. With ASAA canceling fall state championships through the rest of 2020 the Anchorage School District held a region championships for volleyball and football. The East High School football team won the Cook Inlet Conference Championship in dominating fashion, and so did Dimond volleyball, going undefeated.

The biggest news over the fall was the announcement from the University of Alaska Anchorage that it had planned to eliminate its three division one sports programs: skiing, hockey and gymnastics to save money.

The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents eventually gave the programs a chance to return if they could raise two years’ worth of funds by February 2021.

Despite the countless challenges COVID-19 presents to raising large amounts of money in a short time, the hockey skiing and gymnastics programs have responded with aggressive efforts to save their programs. While the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic continues, the spirit of sports lives on in the 49th state.

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