No. 1: COVID-19 cancels and postpones prep sports
The COVID-19 cancellations in sports began when the National Basketball Association began shutting down March 11 and the sports world hasn't been the same since.
It only took a day for the cancelations to come locally, as Kankakee's boys basketball season, the winningest in school history, was ended prematurely a day before the Kays' sectional championship game against Morgan Park.
Since the winter sports season was canceled prematurely, the Illinois High School association also canceled the 2020 spring season and created a four-season calendar for the 2020-21 school year. In the fall, seasons were held for boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, girls tennis and girls swimming and diving, although those seasons all concluded at the sectional level and no state series.
The winter sports season has yet to begin, while fall sports football, boys soccer and girls volleyball are set to be played in the spring. All future decisions from the IHSA will be made in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Public Health and Gov. JB Pritzker.
Initially, the IHSA was preparing to go against Pritzker in the IDPH, when the organization announced on Oct. 28 that winter sports, including basketball, would start on time. The announcement came one day after Pritzker and the IDPH reclassified basketball as a high-risk sport, which contained it to individual workouts according to the state's Return To Guidelines. On Dec. 15, the IHSA announced plans to align the start of the winter sports season with the lifting of statewide restrictions.
Elementary sports are in just as much, if not more, question. The Illinois Elementary School Association has seen the financial woes that come with a lack of revenue hit so hard that the organization created a GoFundMe page to try and stay afloat. Earlier this week, the IESA announced sports will keep their current starting dates and will simply not be played if restrictions are not lifted by those times.
No. 2: Bishop McNamara graduate Jonathan Ward becomes latest local athlete to make NFL
The biggest local sports news not related to COVID-19 is also perhaps the happiest, as the area officially produced its newest professional athlete, 2016 Bishop McNamara graduate Jonathan Ward.
Ward, a running back who racked up more than 2,000 rushing yards at Central Michigan University, went undrafted in the 2020 NFL Draft but signed with the Arizona Cardinals immediately after.
“I’m excited. ... [playing in the NFL] is something I’ve been working for and envisioned all my life,” Ward told the Daily Journal in April. “Slowly but surely, it’s coming true.”
Ward completed training camp with the Cardinals and began the season on the practice squad. He made his NFL debut on special teams in the Cardinals' Week 3 26-23 loss to Arizona. He's recorded two solo and four assisted tackles as a special teamer and saw three snaps in the backfield in the team's Week 5 30-10 win against the New York Jets, his first game after being signed to the team for the rest of the season.
The former state champion has a chance to make the NFL playoffs as a rookie. If the Cardinals win their Week 17 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers defeat the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Ward and the Cardinals will have the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC.
No. 3: Chicago Bears officially leave Bourbonnais
The Chicago Bears' 18-year relationship with Olivet Nazarene University officially ended in January, when the Bears announced they were moving their training camp to the team's headquarters at Halas Hall in Lake Forest.
The Bears came to Bourbonnais in 2002 and saw hundreds of thousands of fans flock with them over the ensuing 18 summers. During the time ONU served as the Bears' summer home, the team went 139-160 and made four playoff appearances, most notably a Super Bowl XLI appearance that resulted in a 29-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
“Olivet Nazarene University continues to be a valued and committed partner,” Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said when the decision was made. “But with the recent investment in our campus expansion and state-of-the-art facilities in Lake Forest, we feel it is important to stay home for training camp. We would like to thank Olivet Nazarene University, including president John Bowling, and the Bourbonnais community for their 18 years of partnership and hospitality.”
Retired ONU administrator Gary Griffin knew as well as anyone what the Bears meant to Olivet and the community, as he served as the camp's director for the first 16 years it was in town.
“I’m sad, but totally understand the Bears going in this direction,” Griffin told the Daily Journal. “I want to join with the university and community and thank the Bears for the experience and being gracious guests. The Bears will always be a part of Olivet and Olivet will always be a part of the Bears.”
No. 4: ONU men's basketball national tournament canceled; school wins CCAC Cup
Olivet Nazarene University men's basketball coach Nick Birkey was ready for he and his top-seeded Tigers to take the court in the first round of the National Intercollegiate Association Men's Basketball National Tournament when the game, and subsequently the tournament, was suddenly canceled because of COVID-19 on March 12.
"We were in the doorway of the locker room waiting for the game to start; I found out seconds before we were going back out to warm up," Tigers coach Nick Birkey said. "We were set to play at noon and they canceled at about 11:55 [a.m.]"
The Tigers were ranked fourth in the nation entering the postseason, led by the program's new all-time leading scorer, Nic Reed.
Their success was reflective of the Tigers' season as an entire athletic department, as the school won the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Cup, an award given to the school that has the best cumulative conference success throughout all sports.
No. 5: KCC women's national tournament canceled; Denson stuck on 499 wins
Like the Tigers, the Cavaliers' women's team saw their season before they could make any postseason noise. The same day the NAIA canceled their tournaments, the National Junior College Athletics Association first postponed theirs. After multiple attempts to reschedule and eliminate fans, the postseason was officially canceled March 16, along with KCC's hopes of a Division II title.
Cavaliers coach Donnie Denson, who announced earlier this winter he will retire at the end of the 2020-21 season, entered the tournament one victory shy of the 500 career win mark. While a monumental win in the national tournament would have been a happy coincidence, Denson was more concerned that his team wouldn't have the chance to bare the fruits of their labor.
“They created the opportunity for them[selves] to play in the national tournament, and that’s what they should get [it], but it’s going to be taken away because of things that are outside of our control,” Denson said. “And that’s the biggest issue at hand. Its not about me getting 500 wins; I could care less about that.”
No. 6: Momence native Branka makes state bowling history
Brandi Branka, a Momence native and 2008 Bishop McNamara graduate, solidified her name in the bowling record books on Nov. 18 when she recorded the best three-game score in Illinois women's bowling history, an 868, which she bowled at Bel-Air Bowl in Bellerville, an Illinois town near St. Louis.
“I’ve been bowling pretty well in that league, but I didn’t expect to shoot what I did, especially with a new ball I got about 20 minutes before league started,” Branka said. “I called my driller and asked if he could get it drilled before the shutdown.
“I didn’t expect it and was honestly more nervous to bowl an 800 (in a three-game set) than to bowl a 300 (in one game).”
Branka has been a member of the Professional Women's Bowling Association since 2016. She was a 2011 NAIA national champion at McKendree University and is the current women's bowling coach at Maryville University in St. Louis.
No. 7: Eastside Bulldogs win multiple tournaments in travel-filled season
Tackle football may have been barred in Illinois this football season, but that didn't stop the Eastside Bulldogs in Kankakee from putting together an impressive season.
They 14U squad went 14-2-1 and won a pair of tournaments, including the Tennessee Thanksgiving Bowl National Championship in Gaitlinburg, Tenn., over Thanksgiving weekend.
“Me and the board of directors felt like we needed to continue to provide some type of structured recreational activity for our youth in our area,” Bulldogs athletic director Theodis Pace said. “It was a mandate from our board that we continue to provide activities like we’ve been doing since July of 1965.”
No. 8: Sangamon Valley Conference dismantles
It's currently waiting for sports to resume to finish out its final ride, but once the 2020-21 school year ends, so will the Sangamon Valley Conference.
The conference crumbled this year when Paxton-Buckley-Loda announced it was leaving for the Illini Prairie Conference and Cissna Park, Iroquois West and Watseka announced in May they would all be moving to the Vermilion Valley Conference at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
That left Dwight, Central and Momence to find a new home, which all three did for football in the VVC. The Trojans will play in the Tri-County Conference for other sports, while the Comets and Momence are returning to their roots in the River Valley Conference.
No. 9: Area products finding success in college
The lack of prep sports since the spring allowed the Daily Journal some extra time to catch up with former area standouts who are now excelling in college. The opportunity couldn't come at a better time, as local products have been making their footprint all over the country and in a variety of sports.
While stars such as Wisconsin's Taylor Johnson (Beecher, softball), Minnesota's Chris Autman-Bell (Bishop McNamara, football) and others continue to excel at the highest level of college athletics, several seniors who graduated in 2020 or will be graduating this school year made their college commitments in 2020.
More than a dozen local student-athletes committed to NCAA Division I college athletic programs in 2020. Most notably, three area players will play their respective sports at the University of Illinois: Payton Hutchings (Coal City, baseball), Josh Gesky (Manteno, football) and Tonya Faulkner (Bishop McNamara, softball) are now Fighting Illini.
No. 10: Coaching icons depart; Weigt returns
The comings and goings of high-profile names in the coaching community was as wild as the year 2020 was itself. Two of the area's most well-respected coaches in their sports, boys basketball coach Alex Renchen and softball coach Laura Harms, both decided within a week of one another in June to leave their respective posts.
Renchen, who spent 13 seasons at Bradley-Bourbonnais after a 14-year tenure at Kankakee, announced in June he was leaving the Boilermakers, currently putting his nearly 30-year head coaching career in the area on at least a temporary hold. Harms, who guided the Irish to a state title in 2013 and took them to state two additional times during her decade leading the team, also left in June to move to California with her family.
Both coaches impacted hundreds of young student-athletes during their tenures, much like now-retired McNamara assistant football coach Jack Roney and Jo Grogan, who took a step back from her head coaching role with the Kankakee swim and dive program to an assistant job after 47 years atop the program.
But it wasn't all departures that filled the area coaching world, as Kurt Weigt, a former boys and girls basketball coach at Bishop McNamara, returned to Kankakee County to take over the girls basketball program to replace hall-of-famer John Maniatis, who resigned in January.