AURORA | The second half of 2020 for Aurora prep sports saw a return to competition, but not without significant disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Preps Year In Review, Part I, here.
Here is a look back at some of the important happenings in Aurora prep sports in final six months of 2020:
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports
COLORADO HIGH SCHOOL ACTIVITIES ASSOCIATION RECONSTRUCTS CALENDAR INTO FOUR SEASONS, DELAYS HIT DUE TO SURGE IN CORONAVIRUS
The Colorado High School Activities Association spent the summer constructing multiple plans to contest all of its sports and activities in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
A four-season calendar (as opposed to the usual three) announced in August took shape (full story, here), with only four sports scheduled for the fall in boys golf, boys tennis, softball and cross country, while football was a late addition.
Winter sports were moved to Season B, which was scheduled to start on Jan. 4, 2021, but now aren’t expected to start practice until Jan. 18 after variance requests made by CHSAA to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment were approved after they were initially denied (full story, here).
Season C and Season D sports and activities also were pushed back, with the season now scheduled to stretch into the later portion of June.
FOOTBALL SEASON DIVIDED INTO FALL AND SPRING SEASONS, SOME PLAYERS FLEE COLORADO FOR MORE CERTAIN CHANCE TO PLAY
Players, coaches and families fought doggedly for the right to have a football season and they were eventually successful, but there was major impact felt before hand.
The uncertainty of having a season at all and slow response over the summer caused multiple players from the Aurora area and elsewhere in the state to leave for surrounding states that seemed to offer more of a guarantee for seniors who needed a final season for scholarship purposes (End Run cover story, here).
Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona, became the biggest beneficiary, with three former Regis Jesuit players — including standout quarterback Nicco Marchiol — plus former Grandview star running back Noah Schmidt and others arriving. The new additions helped the Huskies play for a state championship in Arizona’s open division.
In Colorado, approval finally got reached after several exchanges between CHSAA and Gov. Jared Polis’ COVID response team, but only happened if the sport was offered in fall and spring, when it had been moved (Tale of Two Seasons cover story, here).
Six Aurora teams chose the former in Regis Jesuit plus five Cherry Creek Schools programs in Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest, Grandview, Overland and Smoky Hill. Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest and Regis Jesuit all qualified for the eight-team 5A state playoffs, but all three lost their first postseason games.
Aurora Public Schools programs (Aurora Central, Gateway, Hinkley, Rangeview and Vista PEAK) will play in the spring and were divided among two conferences in the 5A classification (story, here).
CROSS COUNTRY CHAMP KIDUS BEGASHAW WINS LOTUS SCHOOL FOR EXCELLENCE’S FIRST STATE TITLE
Kidus Begashaw took the cross country world by storm in his debut season and capped it off with the ultimate prize.
A tireless guard on the basketball floor and midfielder in soccer, Begashaw’s fitness translated perfectly to his foray into competitive running — sparked by watching the state cross country meet the year before — and he transformed a young program at Lotus, a school of less than 1,000 students in grades K-12 in Aurora.
Begashaw went undefeated in races held in Colorado, and he also got to experience elite competition at a race in Arizona that he didn’t win, and he capped his impressive debut season as the Class 2A boys state champion.
Begashaw crossed the finish line in 16 minutes, 7.8 seconds, nearly 30 seconds in front of his closest competitor to become the first-ever state winner for Lotus. (full feature, here).
REGIS JESUIT BOYS TENNIS TEAM SWEEPS SINGLES TITLES AGAIN, FALL SHORT OF CHERRY CREEK IN 5A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP CHASE
The Regis Jesuit boys tennis team fell short in its quest to win a third straight Class 5A state team championship, but it had plenty to celebrate at the end of its coronavirus-shortened season.
Coach Laura Jones’ team qualified all three of its singles players and four doubles teams — a feat made more difficult by altered regional tournaments — and all seven positions made it to at least the semifinals of the two-day state tournament at Gates Tennis Center, which was played in front of a restricted number of spectators allowed inside.
Regis Jesuit gained big points from its singles ranks as it swept the three singles state championships for a second straight season. Senior Morgan Schilling qualified for his third No. 1 singles state championship match in four seasons and won his second straight title in finish fashion over friend and rival George Cavo of Cherry Creek, while junior Conor Kaczmarcyzk won No. 2 singles and sophomore Cameron Kruep took the No. 3 crown.
It was the second career titles as well for Kaczmarczyk, who won No. 3 singles as a freshman and played doubles last season, as well as Kruep, who won his position for a second straight season and joined Schilling in finishing the season undefeated.
The Raiders were held without a singles championship, with the No. 3 team of Aidan Sobolevsky and Alexander Samuelson the lone duo to make the state final at their position.
The state tournament was held with some modifications (full story, here).
CHEROKEE TRAIL FALLS SHORT OF SOFTBALL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP WITH LOSS TO FOSSIL RIDGE, BUT GRATEFUL TO PLAY TO THE END
Cherokee Trail took the shortened softball season all the way to the final day, making it to the semifinals and eventually the championship game of the Class 5A state tournament Oct. 10 at Aurora Sports Park.
Coach Caley Mitchell’s Cougars — seeded 10th in the 16-team playoff field due to the Colorado High School Activities Association’s seeding formula — knocked off three higher-seeded opponents to earn a chance to play Fossil Ridge in the title game, played in front of a limited number of fans (full story, here).
Cherokee Trail had a run on the scoreboard after just two batters after junior Ryleigh Cruz reached and scored on junior Brooke Scott’s single, but that would be all the Cougars would get offensively in a 5-1 loss to the SaberCats. Eight of the nine players in the lineup had a hit for Cherokee Trail, but the Cougars couldn’t make Fossil Ridge starter Nikki McGaffin pay for the traffic on the bases.
Junior Jenna Medhus, whose all-around performance had been a big driving force in Cherokee Trail’s run, held Fossil Ridge down with the exception of a four-run fourth inning rally fueled by some defensive miscues and a late home run.
“We didn’t even know there would be a softball season, so the fact we got to have a season and we extended it as much as possible and playing in the last game is amazing,” senior shortstop Kelsey Bell said. “I’m so grateful we all stayed healthy and playing this many games is way better than nothing. We practiced every day that we didn’t play, so we were all together so much. It was great.”
Cherokee Trail played in the state championship game for the third time in five seasons and is now 1-2 in title games.
REGIS JESUIT’S RYAN OCCHIONERO MAKES RUN AT 5A BOYS GOLF TITLE, BUT IS BESTED WITH REMARKABLE FINISH
Regis Jesuit senior Ryan Occhinero made a birdie on his final hole at the Class 5A boys state golf tournament Oct. 6 to end a marvelous final round that gave him a chance to win an individual state title.
Occhionero moved up from 10th place into a tie for first with his play in the second round at The Club at Rolling Hills in Golden, only to see Valor Christian’s Lucas Schulte drop in an eagle putt minutes later to steal the individual title away and also lift his team to the championship as well (full story, here).
Coach Craig Rogers’ Regis Jesuit team moved up from ninth place after the first round to third place and very nearly ended up as state runner-up.
Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest and Grandview (including junior Kenny VanWormer, a three-time state qualifier) also had representation at state.
CHEROKEE TRAIL’S CAMERON MCCONNELL REPEATS RUNNER-UP FINISH IN CLASS 5A GIRLS STATE CROSS COUNTRY MEET
Another season, another runner-up finish at in the Class 5A girls state cross country race for Cherokee Trail junior Cameron McConnell.
For the second straight season, McConnell crossed the finish line at the Norris Penrose Events Center — which was empty of fans due to the coronavirus pandemic — with only Cherry Creek’s Riley Stewart in front of her (full story, here).
McConnell, who finished with a time of 18 minutes, 0.5 seconds, has never finished outside the top three in her three career trips to the state meet.
Only eight Aurora runners competed in the 5A girls race this season — six from Cherokee Trail, which finished fifth — plus two individual qualifiers from Regis Jesuit. Qualifying numbers were greatly reduced this season because the pandemic, with only 100 runners (divided into four waves of 25) in the state field.
COUGARS’ CADEN SMITH EARNS 5A BOYS STATE CROSS COUNTRY MEDAL
For a whole slew of reasons, the 2020 boys cross country season look much different for Cherokee Trail senior Caden Smith.
The coronavirus pandemic changed the schedule and structure of competition, but Smith made the most of it and had the most successful season of his prep career. After winning the Centennial League championship, Smith was the second league runner across the finish line at regionals and at the state meet — behind Cherry Creek star Parker Wolfe in both cases — and he earned himself a medal with a ninth-place result Oct. 17 in the Class 5A boys state race.
Smith traversed the course at Colorado Springs’ Norris Penrose Events Center, the same one on which he finished 38th in 2019, in 16 minutes, 6.70 seconds, to get onto the medal podium (full story, here).
With greater restrictions on the amount of state qualifiers (only 100 total, divided into four waves of 25), Aurora had two teams (Cherokee Trail and Grandview) plus two individual qualifiers.
SMOKY HILL QUARTERBACK LESLIE RICHARDSON III RACKS UP 747 TOTAL YARDS, THROWS EIGHT TOUCHDOWN PASSES IN FINALE
Even though his season ended with five fewer games played than the previous season, Smoky Hill senior quarterback Leslie Richardson III’s statistics looked like a full season, especially in the wake of his performance in the Buffaloes’ Week 7 contest against Fossil Ridge (full story, here).
Richardson III put himself in Colorado state and school recordbooks for his play in Smoky Hill’s 52-26 win over the SaberCats at Stutler Bowl when he racked up 747 total yards — 634 passing, 113 rushing — and threw for eight touchdowns.
The total yards put him second all-time in CHSAA’s online recordbooks, while his passing yardage and touchdowns each established Smoky Hill program records, knocking Robert Felberg out of the top spot in both categories.
Other notables from the second half of the 2020 Aurora prep athletic year:
• Tari Wood didn’t get to coach the Grandview girls soccer team in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, but she and her family made a major impact on the school as they hand-made more than 700 custom masks that were distributed for Grandview graduation ceremony July 27 at Stutler Bowl (full story, here).
• By June 25, Aurora’s two school districts — Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek Schools — plus Regis Jesuit High School were all able to return to outdoor workouts at district facilities, following number restrictions and safety protocols including social distancing, mask wearing and temperature checks for all participants.
• Boys golf was among the first fall sports in Colorado cleared for participation in the coronavirus pandemic, owing to its play in vast expanses outdoors and built-in social distancing. For those reasons, golf became a very popular activity over the summer because of those things, making course time more scarce than usual. Boys golf began practice on Aug. 3. Softball and boys tennis also were in the first group of fall sports cleared by CHSAA (full story, here). Cross country was added later, then football.
• The annual Colorado High School Coaches Association (CHSCA) All-State Games were set to celebrate their 64th anniversary and held out hope for awhile they could be played on the campus of Colorado State-Pueblo in July, but eventually had to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Aurora seniors in football, boys basketball, wrestling, softball and spirit all had been selected to compete (full story, here).
• Regis Jesuit girls swimmers received All-American honors from the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (NISCA) for the season they completed in February, as the times they recorded landed among the 100 best across the country. Outgoing seniors Sophia Bradac and Jada Surrell-Norwood each received All-American honors individually, while Parker Biley, Isalina Colsman, Ariana Mitsuoka, Grace Dale and Greta Leege also earned accolades as part of relay teams (full story, here).
• Michael Rogers, who led the Grandview boys basketball team to the Class 5A state championship in 2018 and had the Wolves in the semifinals that were scrubbed by the coronavirus pandemic, stepped down from his post in July (full story, here). Rogers led the Wolves to 107 wins in six seasons, but felt the “wear and tear of everything,” was enough for him to step down. Assistant coach Ryan Turk was tabbed as the interim coach for Rogers, who then announced his intention to return after the 2020-21 season (full story, here).
• The only Aurora high school to change athletic directors between seasons was Aurora Central, which tabbed Ryan Widemon to take over the post previously held by Rob Harrison, who was promoted in the school (full story, here). Widemon faced an immediate need to hire a football coach after Austin Able’s surprise resignation and move to another state and made a hire a few weeks later former Overland interim coach DaVaughn Thornton Sr. accepted the job (full story, here).
• The Smoky Hill girls swim team earned the eighth-highest team Grade Point Average in the country and that earned coach Scott Cohen’s group the NISCA/Swimoutlet.com Gold award for the season. Four Buffaloes (Gabriella Goris, Blythe Iverson, Katie Power and Maggie Robben) were NISCA Academic All-Americans as well. The Grandview girls swim team earned a Silver award, while Regis Jesuit had six Academic All-Americans (full story, here).
• Although cross country got the OK to compete, the annual Aurora City Championship meet had to be canceled. The size of the meet — which annually includes double-digit city teams — would have exceeded maximums allowed for the season and the Aurora Sports Park venue had been set up as a COVID-19 test site (full story, here).
• Along with football, field hockey received late approval to play with the choice of a fall or spring season. Feelings were different among the 15 programs in the state — including Aurora teams at Grandview, Regis Jesuit and Smoky Hill — but the sport decided as a collective to move to the spring (full story, here).
• The Cherokee Trail boys tennis team scored a point at the Class 5A state tournament for the first time since 2015 when senior No. 1 singles player Shawn Springer won his opening round match at the Gates Tennis Center. Springer (who had been really looking forward to his second state tournament, full story, here) topped Lakewood’s Jake Haas in the first round before he lost to eventual state champion Morgan Schilling of Regis Jesuit.
• The Smoky Hill softball team clinched its first Centennial League championship since 2003 with an explosive 13-0 road win at Cherry Creek Sept. 23. Showing great growth (full story, here), coach B.J. Kingsbaker’s Buffaloes finished the league slate undefeated and nearly made it through the regular season undefeated before losing to rival Cherokee Trail in the championship game of the Centennial League Challenge tournament (full story, here). Smoky Hill qualified for the 5A state tournament along with Cherokee Trail and Regis Jesuit and won its first round game before it was stunned in the quarterfinals on a walk-off home run against eventual state champion Fossil Ridge (full story, here).
• The Eaglecrest and Grandview football teams added another memorable chapter to their continually deepening rivalry, as their Oct. 15 contest at Legacy Stadium went all the way down to the final seconds (full story, here). Senior JP Luketu followed his own touchdown by crashing into the end zone for a two-point conversion that gave the Raptors a 43-42 lead, which ended up standing when the Wolves missed a 42-yard field goal on the final play. Nine of the last 11 meetings between the team since 2012 have been decided by a touchdown or less (full story, here).
• The Eaglecrest football team was the only one of the six Aurora programs to miss a game during the season due to its own quarantine, as the Raptors were forced out of their Week 5 matchup with Prairie View (full story, here). Two positive COVID-19 tests of students at the school caused the quarantine of 26 others (including football players) and looked like it would end the Raptors’ regular season, but they were later cleared to play their finale against Cherry Creek (full story, here).
• The Smoky Hill football team earned possession of the Wagon Wheel traveling trophy for a third straight season with a 49-39 victory over rival Overland Nov. 5 at Stutler Bowl in a game that also served as the Cherry Creek School District’s Veterans and Military Appreciation event (full story, here). The Trailblazers still own the all-time advantage in the series with the Buffaloes, who kept the trophy with help from a six-touchdown passing day for senior quarterback Leslie Richardson III.
• Four of the five Aurora Public Schools football teams that will play in the spring season will have first-year head coaches on the sidelines, with Rangeview the latest after Brandon Alconcel stepped down in November after three seasons (full story, here). Mike Holmes, an assistant coach at Vista Ridge High School in Colorado Springs in the fall, got the job (full story, here), as he joins DaVaughn Thornton Sr. (Aurora Central), Robb Wetta (Gateway) and TC Newland (Hinkley) as new APS head coaches, with Vista PEAK’s John Sullivan the lone holdover.
• Senior quarterback Jacob Burr took over the top spot in career touchdown passes for the Grandview football team, as he tossed his 37th touchdown in a win over Horizon Nov. 13 to knock former great Ryan Walters into the No. 2 spot (full story, here).
• Local coaches don’t know exactly how Season B sports (basketball, wrestling, girls swimming, ice hockey, skiing and competitive spirit) will look, but they posited some ideas — including virtual swim meets — for the Sentinel cover story Pandemic Game Plan, here.
• Former Aurora prep stars continue to make noise at the college level, as Eaglecrest graduate Colbey Ross assumed the top spot in Pepperdine’s all-time scoring list (full story, here), former Regis Jesuit dunking sensation Fran Belibi threw one down to help Stanford coaching legend Tara Vanderveer to a historic win (full story, here) and former Grandview star Michaela Onyenwere was voted to the Associated Press’ Preseason All-American first team (full story, here) and then became one of a select number of UCLA players to score 1,500 career points (full story, here).