KENANSVILLE — It’s the sure sign of a crazy year when an area football team advances to a state final, another gridiron star sets his sights on the NFL and both are pushed to the side as the top story by a health crisis.

Welcome to a rewind of 2020, when just about any and everything had a twist related to the Covid-19 pandemic that changed the landscape of every state and small town in America.

Needless to say, Duplin’s Dozen Top Sports Stories of 2020 are a bit different than in the past. Here are news-makers and sports-shaking happenings that made bold headlines.

An honorable mention list that follows lassos together about 13 more top stories.

No. 1

Covid-19 Pandemic

Covid all but ruined public-school prep seasons in the spring, summer and fall.

The face of the virus showed in early March and a week later, schools had shut down basketball state finals, softball, baseball, girls soccer plus track and field. Area teams had played between three and five games when the curtain came down.

Senior athletes were hit the worst.

No sports practices went on into the summer as the NCAA basketball tournament cancellation sent out a loud roar about the seriousness of the virus.

That 66-team tournament makes a bank vault of cash and for many is the turning point from winter to spring.

But the virus was just starting and dwarfed everything in its track — work, school, play, social unrest, wildfires on the West Coast, protests and even one of the most volatile Presidential elections in the history of the United States.

Sports became an afterthought to many.

Those who did not take the coronavirus seriously were often infected.

By the end of the calendar year more than 330,000 Americans had died as vaccines were rushed to those 75 years and older in late December.

It took eight months to get to 10 million positive tests and just two months to double that. Initially, older people (60 and up) and those with disabilities and health woes, such as diabetes, were the most suspect.

Between May and July, the median age of confirmed US cases fell from 46 years to 37 years. The pandemic’s age distribution had already shifted by June, when new cases were highest among people aged 20 through 29. From Aug. 2 to Sept. 5, the weekly incidence among people aged 18 through 22 years roughly doubled from 10.2 percent to 22.5 percent of total new cases. Some of this shift was likely due to college students going back to school.

But toward the end of the summer the curve began to bend as younger people became prime rock star carriers, since as a whole they did not do enough mask wearing, standing six-feet apart and avoiding large social gatherings.

So crazy things followed.

The NC High School Athletic Association made our state one of 12 to rearrange its sports calendar.

Volleyball and cross country were the lone sports played in the fall.

Basketball starts in January. Football games begin Feb. 26. Baseball and softball will have first pitches on April 26 and run into late June.

Football plays just seven regular-season games and has one fewer playoff round.

Basketball, baseball and softball teams can play 14 regular-season tilts.

Health authorities say vaccines could be available to anyone who wants one by the end of 2021.

But the virus’ predicted second wave is starting to roll mightier than the football team from Alabama.

Duplin schools will go to total remote learning until next Dec. 18.

Students are becoming uprooted and uninterested, as shown by the larger number with failing grades — in every school across the state.

Some athletes found jobs, or work at home now in another potential cut in participation.

And when athletes play, they do so in front of very sparse crowds (usually only parents), and they wear face masks.

Imagine doing that super-aerobic exercise while playing a game of full-court hoops.

The virus is the top story because of its power, sustained nature and for its ability to quietly kill at will.

While MLB, the NHL NBA and NFL have found ways to play around the virus, college football got hit harder.

Basketball is struggling to find its way, too, leaving the future in doubt.

Some feel high schools will do about as well as college basketball has done so far.

Play every game possible and realize not everyone will play the same amount.

Lejeune opted out of sports until the fall, but no other school has joined them — yet.

Junior varsity teams are also a scarcity.

Covid-19 will certainly cost some athletes college “looks” — though with the relatively small amount of athletes who make the jump, the bigger loss is young prep athletes missing a season during a time of life many consider “the glory days.”

There are multiple losers in that game.

While no one knows how life will be in the next couple months, 2020 has taught us to expect the totally unexpected and that the virus shows no mercy.

No one can truly be “marked” safe. Rather, each of us is safe for the time being.

And nearly everyone in the nation knows the full meaning of Yogi Berra’s quote: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

New variants have already seemed to spread around much of the world. More than 32 other countries, including the U.S., have diagnosed cases with the variant first detected in Britain, which is known as B.1.1.7. Scientists say that it could soon become the dominant form of the virus.

The B.1.1.7 variant appears to be between 10 percent and 60 percent more transmissible than the original version because it may increase the amount of the virus that infected people carry in their noses and throats. Which in turn would raise the likelihood that they infect others through breathing, talking, sneezing, coughing and so on.

So with apologies to at least HCA and Wallace-Rose Hill alumnus Javonte Williams, the pandemic is the top story.

There are lots of football tales that will live as time passes.

This pandemic will be talked about into the next century and beyond.

Yes, it’s also made us appreciate high school sports more than ever.

We also saw and remembered how, when athletics are a driving force, students make better grades, show up on time more and do every little thing that allows them to do the one thing they love as much as childhood itself: high school sports.

It has created a big black hole for some schools and students.

Cheers to a new year, one in which we find our way back to dugouts, huddles, sidelines and bleachers.

It’s been a long and winding road, filled with pain, discourse, anger and bewilderment.

“Why can’t we play?”

“When can we play?”

“Where can we play?

“How long and who can we play?”

These thoughts were constantly flashing into the minds of athletes in 2020.

No. 2

HCA advances

to state finals

Few people saw this coming. Head coach Jason Arnette did because he built the offensive and defensive lines into bulls.

Harrells Christian Academy (8-1) played more football games than anyone in the state and only lost its final one, 55-21 to Christ School near Asheville, which is twice the size of HCA.

That’s the way the cookie was cut up this fall. Some schools opted out and the NC Independent Schools Athletic Association went from three division to two.

Before that, HCA powered its way to the Big East Conference title.

Wallace-Rose Hill transfer fullback Devin Gardner (1,961 yards rushing, 466 receiving, 20 touchdowns), center Brice Bell and punter Ethan Spell, who also played quarterback, defensive back and was 40 of 44 on PAT kicks, were named NCISAA all-state first-team players.

Leading tackler Trent Jackson was a second-team linebacker and two-way tackle Jahiem Murphy an honorable mention pick.

Only two of HCA’s wins were remotely close.

Just five seniors graduate in June.

Fall football was the worst of times for most players.

HCA’s 13th state title might be the target in 2021.

No. 3

Javonte Williams

opts for NFL Draft

Former WRH RB Javonte Williams helped lead UNC to an Orange Bowl berth, but decided to opt out of the game as the junior is heading for the NFL Draft.

This season he set several UNC rushing marks and was, statistically, the most difficult runner in the game to tackle.

Williams (1,140 yards, 19 TDs) and Michael Carter (1,245, 9 TDs) paced UNC’s running game and augmented the passing of Sam Howell (237-348 for 3,586 yards and 30 TDs).

Williams is projected as the No. 3 RB in the draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

He was a starter at RB and LB on four straight WRH state championship teams (2014-17).

No. 4

Realignment woes for North Duplin

The NCHSAA’s recent realignment pushes 1As North Duplin and Hobbton into a conference with 2A schools twice the size of the two current Carolina 1A Conference members.

North Duplin (317 students) and Hobbton (494) comprise the 1A portion of the seven-team league, joining 2A James Kenan (663), Wallace-Rose Hill (674), Midway (775), Clinton (806) and East Duplin (913).

ED in fact has been in the 2AA football playoff classification, while Clinton has weaved from 2A to 2AA the past decade. But the association has done away with the AA brackets in all four football classifications, cutting back to four state champions after a two-decade run with eight (1A-1AA, 2A-2AA, etc.

ND has until the end of this week to submit its appeal to be placed in a different conference.

The realignment committee meets Jan. 13 and is scheduled to release a second draft the next day. Schools then will have seven days to review and appeal that proposal.

When Princeton moved to 2A for the first time ever, the NCHSAA broke up the Carolina 1A Conference, a league that has been around for more than 50 years.

Split conferences were the rule as 13 were projected in the association’s first draft.

No. 5

Hoop coach

Stan Gelbhaar dies

Longtime Charity Middle and WRH basketball coach San Gelbhaar died April 1 at the age of 69.

Gelbhaar coached at Charity for more than a quarter of a century and won championships in nearly half of those seasons.

He was also former WRH coach Steve Robinson’s assistant during state title seasons in 2006 (1A) and 1998 (2A).

Gelbhaar, though, loved teaching the game at the middle school level and turned down offers to move to higher levels.

No. 6

ED sweeps

COY awards

First-year East Duplin boys basketball head coach Blake Lanier and 12th-year girls coach Mark Lane were name Duplin’s Elite Coach of the Year in their respective category.

Lainer, a former Panther point guard who helped ED reach the East Region 2A final in 2009, and who later played at Methodist College, guided the 2020 boys to a 15-10 mark.

Lane’s girls went 20-5, his seventh 20-win campaign in Beulaville.

His career mark is 243-82.

No. 7

Avent Jr. returns

Ken Avent Jr. has returned to coach the James Kenan football team.

Avent guided the Tigers to 1AA titles in 2007 and 2013, to another final berth in 2006, and to four consecutive region finals (2012-15).

Avent (171-105) also coached three years each at his alma mater North Duplin (26-11) and at North Johnston (25-14), which advanced to the region final in 2005.

He stepped down at JK after the 2016 season, but has remained as a top assistant for the past three seasons. Head coach Will Clark went 13-19 overall and 6-11 in the ECC 2A the next three seasons.

Avent is one win away from tying the win total of his father, Ken Avent Sr. (172-105), who coached all of 25 of his seasons at ND, also his alma mater.

No. 8

’Dawgs win 9th

Holiday Classic

Wallace-Rose Hills’ boys basketball team captured their record 9th Duplin Holiday Classic championship under first-year head coach Ervin Murray.

MVP Jahiem Faison and all-tourney forward Tyrone Barbee paced the ’Dawgs past East Duplin 62-53 on the home court of the Panthers.

WRH went on to finish 11-11, but returns the bulk of its team. Barbee transferred to HCA, but Jahon Owens, a first-team all-county player from 2018 (who sat out last season), is also back.

No. 9

Ingram, Benson

finish careers

East Duplin’s girls basketball team, the area’s best team for more than a decade, and most of three decades before, captured its fourth straight Duplin Holiday Classic and second straight ECC crown.

Point guard Marley Ingram and shooting guard Alizay Benson were Duplin’s Elite Co-Ms. Basketball. The duo helped ED win more than 80 games in four years.

No. 10

Jones takes over boys’ hoops at JK

Longtime Spring Creek basketball coach and Duplin native Taylor Jones was named head coach at James Kenan.

The North Duplin graduate coached the Gator boys for 12 seasons, going 125-152, often with marginal talent compared to the competition.

Jones’ wife Heather is a JK graduate and the bulk of her family live in Kenansville.

He is the seventh coach at JK since 2009. The Tigers have won two-thirds of their games during that span.

He replaces Reggie Melvin, who went 40-33 in three seasons and was two-time Duplin’s Elite Coach of the Year.

No. 11

Holley, McClarin,

Gaby nab honors

The East Duplin football team won three of the four individual marquee awards when Duplin’s Elite all-county awards were announced for the 2019 season.

Battle Holley won his first Coach of the Year trophy.

KD McClairin was Mr. Football and Russell Gaby Defensive Player of the Year. WRH’s Cameren Dalrymple was the Offensive Player of the Year.

No. 12

JK grad Byrd

will coach ’Cats

Duplin native Pat Byrd was named head coach of the Richlands football team.

Byrd was 9-23 during two seasons at West Bladen and one at West Columbus before spending recent seasons as a top assistant at 3A Jacksonvile, which advanced to a state championship game.

He played center and linebacker at James Kenan in the 1980s under his father, the late Billy Byrd, whose 119 wins for the Tigers are second only to Ken Avent Jr. (120).

No. 13

Reyes-Zavala

is Mr. Soccer

Hector Reyes-Zavala was the top soccer player in Duplin County and it wasn’t even close.

Reyes-Zavala, who was selected to play in the Coaches East-West All-Star Game, was Duplin’s Elite Mr. Soccer. Like nearly everything else, the post-high school game was canceled.

He scored 33 goals for WRH (20-5), which beat future 2A champ Dixon and 3A power Jacksonville during the regular season.

First-year Bulldog Rodrigo Diaz was Coach of the Year.

James Kenan’s Hector Garcia was Defensive Player of the Year.

The awards were announced Jan. 16.

Honorable Mention

  • Trever Schock became baseball coach at Wallace-Rose Hill, replacing Kevin Hager, who was at the post for two season (and three games in 2020 before the season was cancelled).

Schock’s previous coaching stops were at Green Central and Wakefield.

He played on Lenoir Community College’s 2010 team that advanced to the Junior College World Series.

Schock will also be an assistant football coach.

  • Former Wallace resident Michael Williams penned a book about his son Marvin Williams’ tenure at UNC and during his long NBA career. The younger Williams, a power forward, averaged 13.1 points during his 16-year NBA career.

He was a valuable sixth man on the Tar Heels’ national title team in 2005, his lone season in Chapel Hill. He was the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft that spring.

  • Former North Duplin player and coach Brad Rhodes was named North Lenoir’s head football coach.
  • Beulaville’s Jamie Pickett won a UFC bout on ESPN to earn a contract on the Contenders’ Series.
  • The Duplin Times’ Gridiron DNA series rolled out features on some longtime fixtures in Duplin County.

The list included ED defensive coordinator Kirk Kennedy, WRH offensive coordinator Adam Scronce, Bulldog assistant Will Jeffers, North Duplin TE and assistant coach Ralph Britt and Kenansville’s Bob Mitchell, a referee.

  • Smokeless nightmare. Middle and high school athletes are vaping and using electronic cigarettes at an alarming rate. A feature story on America’s most-used drug for youth was an eye-opener for some and a shock for others. A smaller number of people know about the problem.

The Center for Disease Control says use is up 78 percent and that seven of 10 high schoolers vape. The same study reported that it is four times more addicting than tobacco—the drug that many youths ran away from to find e-cigarettes.

National and local sources weighed in on the problem/crisis.

Like the coronavirus, it’s real and it’s here, and it’s somewhat invisible, although there have been many advance warnings.

  • In another football-related note, former Southwest Onslow coach Phil Padgett died of cancer at the age of 63 on Dec. 18. Padgett led the Stallions to state titles in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2012, runnerup finishes three other times and had a career mark of 295-69 (.810).

He was in remission from a cancer that was diagnosed in 2012, and had just recently started a sports talk show.

He might have been an Onslow County coach, but he made waves throughout the area and state, as noted by his inclusion into the NCHSAA’s “100 to Remember” list in 2003.

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com