--By Rob Witham, December 30, 2021
It was a year unlike any other, which is a phrase we thought might be reserved just for 2020.
2021 saw a slow, steady return to sports, with some school divisions opting out, others limiting travel early in the calendar year, with some more normalcy returning in the spring and fall, but with COVID-19 rearing its ugly head again near year's end thanks to the Omicron variant.
But the year wasn't all about coronavirus, thankfully! Let's look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2021 with our choices for the top ten storylines in high school sports of the past twelve months.
NOTE: This article does contain some commentary.
10) TITANS BACK TO THE TOP: It was the shot heard 'round the world of the Cosby Titans, searching for their first Virginia High School League (VHSL) state championship since 2012, when Alexandra DiNardo's grand slam in the fifth inning of the Class 6 state final broke a 1-1 tie with South County en route to a 6-3 victory over the team that had defeated them for the crown in a seventeen-inning marathon in 2019 and also defeated the Titans for the 2014 Class 6 title.
Taylor Norton took care of business in the circle for the victory. Norton is now at Villanova, while DiNardo is at the University of Lynchburg.
9) BLUE DEVILS TAKE TITLE: The Hopewell boys basketball program is rich with tradition, but short on championships. It was hard to believe that, when the Blue Devils knocked off Abingdon for the Class 3 state title on the road in February, it gained Hopewell its first state championship since the Nixon Administration.
1972 was the last time Hopewell brought home the ultimate trophy, but in their first title game appearance since an overtime loss to I.C. Norcom in 2016, the Blue Devils won 58-55 to finally claim the crown.
8) MAVERICKS MAKE HISTORY: Until this past June, no "Central Region" girls lacrosse team had ever won a VHSL state championship. But Kerry Nease and the Douglas Freeman Mavericks changed that. With their 16-14 triumph over Riverside, Douglas Freeman won the school's first, and the area's first, state girls lacrosse championship, a sport which exploded in popularity across Richmond during the late 2000's and 2010's.
7) EMPHASIS ON UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT: Every week during our "High School Football Friday Night" coverage on Rejoice 101.3 FM and the RVA Sports Network, time and time again we would see penalty markers as players went out of bounds, after touchdowns, and even after regular plays. Whether it was an extra push, the wrong word said, or a celebration taken too far, flags flew aplenty across the RVA this autumn as officials strived to keep games in control.
Some teams learned quicker than others, and, in the end, one team may have suffered from at least one call that simply didn't make sense. After a touchdown in their Class 5 state semifinal loss at Stone Bridge, a Highland Springs receiver simply tossed the football to the official. It looked like an Emmitt Smith move. It drew a penalty. It had an adverse effect on a game decided by two points.
So, for 2022, we suggest that the emphasis continue to avoid unnecessary confrontations, but to be realistic about the actions of the players, and, if one throws a flag prematurely, simply have the fortitude to admit the mistake, and pick it up. We've seen it happen. Sadly, for the Springers, it did not.
6) GETTING BACK TO ACTION: We struggled with where to place this storyline in the top ten, simply because we rarely avoided the effects of COVID-19 at any sporting event once we began to return to action in January. From no crowds, to limited crowds, to mandatory masks, and the rise of YouTube broadcasts (some good, some awful), coronavirus impacted everything. We dedicate this storyline to the administrators and Activities Directors who worked tirelessly to create safe environments for student-athletes to both practice and compete, plus give credit to the student-athletes themselves. No one wanted to bring COVID-19 into their bubble. Let us hope that the Omicron variant is controlled early in 2022 and we can aspire to our most "normal" year since 2019.
5) BY HERSELF?!?: For as long as there have been team sports, the phrase, "it's a team effort" has thrived, heard out of the mouths of coaches and players alike. But in late spring at the Class 5 State Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Atlee junior phenom Jada Foreman traveled to Todd Stadium in Newport News as the only Raider eligible to compete. She would go on to score 43 points by winning the triple jump, taking second place in the 200, high jump, and long jump, plus adding a fourth place finish in the 100 hurdles and a fifth place mark in the 300 hurdles.
The Midlothian TEAM had to earn a sixth place finish in the 4 X 400 relay in order to defeat Foreman, and did exactly that to win the Class 5 crown with 44 points.
And Foreman will return this spring to try again. This fall, she will head to the University of Southern California.
4) PATRIOTS MAKE IT SIX: With a coaching change and a team in somewhat disarray in mid-September, people began to wonder if the incredible run of Patrick Henry boys volleyball, owners of five consecutive VHSL state championships, was coming to an end. But the return of long-time head coach Michael Townsend made the Patriots redouble their efforts, and, from that point, they never lost again, defeating Maggie Walker Governors School in the Class 4 state final for the third consecutive season to grab title number six in November at the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. Class 4 State Player of The Year Davis Luck led the Patriots in the final with 13 kills.
3) COVERAGE DECREASE: If you were focused during the recently concluded high school football season on your favorite team, maybe you didn't notice an acceleration in a troubling trend: loss of media coverage.
Not because they wanted to, but due to decisions made above the newsroom level, fans looking for high school football stories would have to wait for the Sunday edition of the Times-Dispatch if they did not have digital subscriptions.
If you turned to NBC12, our former television partner, on Friday night, you witnessed zero high school football coverage. With the departure of (their final?) sports director Marc Davis, now the sports director for WTKR-TV in Norfolk, NBC12 seemingly pulled the plug on covering high school football, and, with that, likely high school sports in general. They sent no cameras to games, and what little sports they "report" in general, at any level, is done by news anchors.
As we've known for years, the future of journalism is digital. I know from personal experience in working both in radio and newspapers in my career that both, at the local level, are well past their prime. Local television news is quickly traveling in the same direction.
WRIC-8 saw their sports director depart earlier this month, and their high school football coverage this past season, while well-meaning, simply didn't have the experience or gravitas necessary to fully cover the landscape yet.
Fans should give great appreciation to WTVR-TV (CBS6) for their continued dedication to coverage, not just of high school football this past fall, but high school sports period. Lane Casadonte and Sean Robertson have decades of experience combined in the area and know the history inside out. Hopefully their parent company, Scripps, will continue to see the need for, and the advantage of providing, truly in-depth local sports coverage. Reading scores off a teleprompter isn't covering sports.
Add to them the great work led by the legendary Gary Hess at WRNL Radio (AM 910/FM 105.1) with their High School Football Game of The Week series, the tireless work of Tim Pearrell, Zach Joachim and the rest of the 804Varsity.com crew with the Times-Dispatch, and the fine work of both Danny Lewis and Byron Jones with VirginiaPreps.com covering the Richmond area, plus our contributions, and we still have a fantastic group of dedicated journalists, all of whom are passionate about the teams, the games, and the student-athletes who make them happen.
But that core group has shrunk in the past couple of years. We have tried to offer our coverage without a paywall here at the RVA Sports Network. Time will tell if we can continue to do that. We can't say this loud enough: support local journalism that cares about high school sports.
We must also give great thanks to Rejoice 101.3 FM/990 AM, our new radio partners for high school football, and to 106.1 ESPN Richmond, where we are proud to guest many weeks during the season, for their support and coverage.
2) THE SWITCH IS ON...AGAIN: Another odd-numbered year meant another round of changes to the membership of classifications across the Virginia High School League. This happens every two years in four-year cycles that mirror national elections.
Every two years, there are adjustments to the various classes as schools gain or lose enrollment while new schools open. Every four years, there's a system-wide look to determine if there need to be any major changes.
The big news this fall began in Class 5, where Manchester departed, returning to Class 6, while Varina, Henrico, Matoaca and Atlee all left to move down to Class 4. It wasn't that those schools were shrinking in side. You can be passed by other Virginia schools who are growing, enrollment-wise.
There are now so many Class 5 schools in Tidewater that they were split into two regions, taking over Region 5B, moving the eleven Richmond-area schools to a revamped Region 5C.
Meanwhile, the quartet who moved to Class 4 found themselves in a Region 4B that, at one time, had 21 proposed members. Caroline petitioned successfully to move down to Class 3, while Louisa, Orange, and Western Albemarle agreed to spend the next two years in Region 4D instead of 4B, sending them west come playoff time. The current Class 4, Region B has seventeen members from Culpeper to King George, through Fredericksburg down to Hanover, west to Powhatan and south to Dinwiddie.
Don't get too used to the status quo, as it will only be with us another year (2022-23). Come August, 2023, expect more changes.
Why did we list this at #2? Well, in part because of how it affected part of our #1 storyline of 2021....
1) VARINA, KING WILLIAM TAKE TROPHIES: In their first season in Class 4, in arguably the most difficult region in the entire Commonwealth, the Varina Blue Devils walked in, and, in five consecutive weeks, survived a first-round overtime thriller, defeated the defending region champion on the road, avenged their only loss of the season to claim a region crown, then survived two more heartstoppers to lay claim to their first VHSL football state championship in school history, defeating King's Fork, then Broad Run, for the Class 4 Championship.
Within minutes of that result, the King William Cavaliers, behind their do-everything tailback Demond Claiborne, raced to their first state championship victory since the turn of the century, outscoring Graham 48-21 for the Class 2 Championship, as the Wake Forest commit rumbled for 242 yards in the victory for King William.
--Glen Allen Boys Volleyball Sweeps to Class 6 Crown Unbeaten
--L.C. Bird Track And Field Continues State Dominance, outdoors and indoors
--Hanover Softball Goes Extras in Class 4 State Final
--Hanover Softball Goes Extras in Class 4 State Final
--Patrick Henry's Nuckols, Powhatan's Henderson get to 1,000 career points despite COVID pauses
--J.R. Tucker football earns first playoff bid since 1992 without a practice or playing facility
--Pete Mutascio, the only head coach in Cosby football history, retires
--Louisa Girls Basketball ride the youth train to Class 4 State Crown