In 2020 the sports world came to a halt.

The cancellation of high school, college and professional sports on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic – and the gradual return to sports during the pandemic in the late summer – was the overwhelming choice by the Daily News sports staff for the top story of 2020.

Normally, the staff selects the top 10 stories and ranks them in order but this was no normal year.

Instead of 10 stories, the staff has divided the year into three groups – the shutdown of sports, the deaths of four key sports names in the area, and the return to sports and the return to championship runs. Here is our recap of the year that was:

Pandemic shuts down sports world

March 12 began like any other sports day. The Western Kentucky men’s and women’s basketball teams were about to take the floor in Frisco, Texas, for the Conference USA tournaments. The Bowling Green girls’ basketball team was about to play in the Sweet 16 in Rupp Arena, with the Warren Central boys’ basketball team a week away from its own appearance in the Sweet 16 after winning the Region 4 tournament two days earlier.

But none of those teams would play again in 2020.

Conference USA canceled its tournaments, with the NCAA tournament canceled shortly after due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus.

“Really felt like it was coming down the pipe,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said from the lobby of his team’s hotel in Plano, Texas, shortly after the announcement. “Disappointed for players, fans and everybody involved, but at the same time we understand this is something that’s much bigger than athletics right now. Most of the time, we all get wrapped up in athletics and it’s the only thing that matters, but there are moments when other things in life are bigger than athletics. This is one of them.”

The girls’ Sweet 16 was postponed after one game was played, and eventually canceled. The boys’ Sweet 16 was also canceled before it even started.

“You work for it and you get to this point and you’re hours away from having a shot at advancing, it feels like it slips away from you,” BG girls’ coach Calvin Head said shortly after the tournament was postponed. “We are still excited about the season that we had. We are going to celebrate it like we won the state championship.”

The cancellations continued with all spring sports – high school and collegiate – wiped out by the emerging pandemic.

The high school athletes, especially the seniors, who were denied a season were honored by area schools by turning on the lights at the facilities for 20 minutes and 20 seconds in April. People were encouraged to drive by and honk their horns to honor the athletes, with some people parking and sitting in their cars for the duration of the event.

The cancellations stretched to the professional level, with the Bowling Green Hot Rods’ 2020 season wiped out due to the virus. The Hot Rods not only lost the 70 game home season, it was scheduled to host the Midwest League All-Star game in June.

In memoriam

Sports fans mourned the loss of three WKU greats – John Oldham, Chris Marcus and Alyssa Cavanaugh – and hall of fame high school coach Vanous Lloyd in 2020.

Oldham, who made his mark on WKU as a player, coach and administrator, passed away in November at age 97.

“We are very saddened to learn of the passing of John Oldham,” WKU Director of Athletics Todd Stewart said in a news release. “Coach Oldham is one of the all-time iconic figures in Western Kentucky University Athletics history who impacted the Hilltoppers as a player, head coach, athletics director and developer of the Red Towel athletics logo.”

Oldham scored 1,006 points as a player and helped the Hilltoppers to 102 wins, four conference championships and three NIT appearances – earning a selection to the WKU Basketball All-Century Team in 2018.

He was named head coach in 1964 and compiled a 142-40 record, with WKU earning five postseason trips, four conference championships, a Sweet 16 berth and a trip to the 1971 Final Four.

Oldham also served as athletics director from 1971-86 and, in 1971, conceptualized the Red Towel logo, which has evolved into one of the most easily recognized and historic athletic logos in the country. WKU’s Big Red mascot was also created during his tenure.

His time as AD aligned with the creation of Title IX, the revival of women’s athletics and the football program’s move to Division I-AA, and his coaching hires included some of WKU’s best in Paul Sanderford (women’s basketball), Joel Murrie (baseball) and Curtiss Long (track and field).

During his tenure as athletic director, WKU won six OVC All-Sports Championships and one Sun Belt Conference All-Sports Championship.

Marcus passed away in April in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., at age 40.

Marcus scored 1,113 career points and pulled down 795 career rebounds, including 649 in his first two injury-free seasons. He was part of three NCAA Tournament teams and ranks first in Western Kentucky history in blocks in a season (97, 2000-01), second in career blocks (214), fifth in career double-doubles (38) and sixth in career field-goal percentage (55.8 percent).

Cavanaugh died in December at Norton Hospital in Louisville at age 24.

A four-time All-American during her career from 2014-17, Cavanaugh helped lead WKU to four NCAA Tournament appearances but was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia following her playing career in 2018. She received a successful bone marrow transplant from her father, Eric, on Feb. 19, 2019.

“It is with profound sadness that we deal with the loss of Alyssa Cavanaugh,” WKU volleyball head coach Travis Hudson said in a news release. “She left a mark on WKU that very few athletes will ever make. She was a fearless competitor who achieved things personally, and helped our program achieve things as a team, that had never before been done on The Hill. WKU Volleyball is a program that is now respected on the national stage and Alyssa and her extraordinary competitiveness are a big reason why.

“In this world, we cannot keep from dying, but we can make sure that we truly live and Alyssa did that in a big way. She never lived in fear at any stage of her life: as a person, as an athlete and definitely not during her fight with cancer. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Cavanaugh family during this most difficult time. Alyssa will always be a symbol of what being a part of the WKU Volleyball family represents.”

Lloyd passed away at age 72 in January.

An inaugural member of Warren Central’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011, Lloyd was the first Lady Dragons basketball coach – winning 327 games in 20 seasons. Lloyd guided the Lady Dragons to the school’s only girls’ basketball state championship in 1983. That team was voted into Warren Central’s Hall of Fame in 2012.

“He was just a larger than life figure,” former Warren Central player Melinda Carlson Logic said. “He loved me. I feel like, because we spent so many years together and I was so young when he first met me, we had a very special connection. There is not enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe what he means to me.”

Sports returns with championship runs

As spring turned to summer, slowly the sports world began to restart.

Professional sports started at the end of July, with golf the first high school sport to return and football returning at WKU.

After the KHSAA approved the start of fall sports, soccer, volleyball and football returned with some stops and restarts.

The South Warren girls’ team earned a second straight runner-up finish at the state golf tournament, but it wasn’t the only Spartans team to enjoy success. South Warren’s boys’ soccer team advanced to the state finals, losing to St. Xavier 1-0 in the championship game.

“If you had told me that we would get all the way to the state championship game in July, we would have taken it,” South Warren coach Tom Alexander said following the loss. “This season had so much uncertainty. We weren’t sure what games we would be able to play and how long we would be able to play. We were really fortunate to get to this level and I am glad we were able to get to this level, but I hate that it ended this way for our boys and I hate that it ended this way for the seniors especially.”

The Bowling Green football team took it one step further, winning the program’s seventh state title with a 17-7 victory over Owensboro in the Class 5A finals.

The Purples used a dominating defense that forced 23 turnovers during a four-game postseason run that included wins over South Warren and Covington Catholic and the final game played at El Donaldson Stadium against North Bullitt.

“What a crazy season and what a great end for us,” Bowling Green coach Mark Spader said following the win. “When we knew we were going to have a season, and then we knew we were going to have a playoffs, we as a team said, ‘It’s gonna be a strange, special season. We have had some special teams in the history of our program. I think you will earmark yourself as one of the most special ones because of all the things they have had to go through to get to this game.’ ”

And while the Hot Rods didn’t play a game this season, the franchise was able to watch nine former players lead the Tampa Bay Rays to an American League pennant and a World Series berth.

The Rays would lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.

“It’s been a lot of fun to (watch) the Rays with former Hot Rods players – and a lot of them do extremely well in the playoff run,” BG Hot Rods GM/COO Eric Leach said before the World Series began. “Without a season, this is our highlight. So it is pretty cool and pretty special.”{&end}

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