ROCKFORD (WREX) — The sports world shut down for some of 2020, with some seasons not even getting played due to COVID-19. But there were plenty of big moments involving Rockford-area sports, and we're continuing our tradition of looking back and counting down the top local sports stories of the past year.
13. Super Spartan Wins a Title - Sycamore High School grad Ben Niemann plays linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, helping them win the Super Bowl in February. He had a tackle and a big hit on Jimmy Garopolo to help Kansas City clinch the title.
12. A Thrilling Finish - Hononegah's Owen Hart was maybe the last guy anyone expected to get the ball in the final seconds of a Regional championship game, but coach Mike Miller drew up a beautiful play and the Indians executed to perfection, with Hart hitting the buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the corner to lift Hononegah to a Regional championship win in what proved to be the final Friday night of the high school basketball season.
11. Baseball Staying in Beloit - Beloit survived Minor League Baseball's chopping blocks by starting construction on a new stadium. They won't be the Snappers next year, so they'll have a new stadium, a new name and a new affiliation in 2021, making for big-time excitement for baseball in Beloit next summer.
10. Sister Act to Sectional Title - The high school golf season ended without a state tournament this year, but Boylan would have contended had there been one. Sisters Ella and Eva Greenberg put together a strong postseason, leading the Lady Titans to a Sectional title, backed by a clutch performance from freshman Eva. On any given day, either sister is capable of winning a tournament, and with both of them underclassmen, the future is bright for Lady Titans golf.
9. Tennis Dominance from Lady Knights - Auburn won a third straight Sectional championship, coming off a perfect run through the NIC-10 schedule. Since there was no state tournament, senior Belen Nevenhoven had to settle for a Sectional championship, and didn't get a chance to avenge her state title match loss from the previous season. Still, she cemented her status as one of the best to ever play high school tennis in Rockford.
8. Youth Movement at City Championships - The Greater Rockford Men's and Women's City Championships both featured young players against savvy veterans in the final round. The women's title match came down to Rochelle High School senior Megan Thiravong against former champ Hui Chong Dofflemyer, with Thiravong claiming her first City title. On the men's side, Winnebago High School grad Marcus Smith edged 9-time champ Jamie Hogan in a playoff, showing that the talent never stops coming through the Rockford courses.
7. Boylan in the NFL - A couple of former Boylan High School standouts continue to shine in the NFL. Dean Lowry has three sacks, all coming in Nov. and Dec., for the Packers as they look to make a run at a Super Bowl. Dan Arnold, who played three years at Boylan before his family moved, has caught four touchdowns for the upstart Arizona Cardinals, who still have a shot at making the playoffs in the final week of the season.
6. Corey Anderson's Return to MMA - The Rockton native's year got off to a rough start with a loss in his final UFC fight and a subsequent injury. Anderson then asked for his release from UFC in favor of Bellator, another MMA promotion. Anderson came back with a vengeance, scoring a TKO victory in his Bellator debut, and looks to be in line for a title shot in 2021.
5. Running Away with Trophies - The Winnebago girls cross country team was something special this year, and likely would have won a state championship if the IHSA held a state minute. Instead, the Lady Indians won a Sectional title, then won an unofficial state meet that featured teams that would have qualified for the IHSA state meet under normal circumstances. They also won the open division of a national meet, proving once again that cross country is a way of life in Winnebago. On the boys side, Rockford Christian put its distance-running tradition on display with a Sectional title as well.
4. Back on Top - Dakota wrestling won the program's sixth state championship, and first since winning four straight from 2013-2016. It marked the 7th time in 8 years an NUIC team won the 1-A dual team state title. It happened on Leap Day, shortly before the sports world shut down due to the pandemic, giving the community something to celebrate.
3. Eastland's Dream Season - Also on Leap Day, the Eastland girls basketball team finished off a dream season, winning a state championship with the school's all-time leading scorer Erin Henze leading the way at state. They wouldn't have been there without Lydia Coatney's heroics in the Sectional championship game against Amboy in which she hit a game-winning pull-up 3-pointer, a shot that landed her on SportsCenter's Top 10, and popularized the phrase, "We're going to Applebee's," in Lanark.
2. Fred VanVleet Gets Paid - A championship in 2019 and a new contract in 2020, Fred VanVleet continues to achieve new heights, signing the biggest contract ever for an athlete from Rockford. VanVleet signed a 4-year, $85 million deal to remain a Toronto Raptor. He signed the contract at a small ceremony with close friends and family at his FVV Shop in downtown Rockford, proving once again how much he values his hometown.
1. James Robinson Emerges as NFL Star - From undrafted to 1,000 yard rusher, JR's emergence as a star running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars may have surprised some people around the NFL, but for those who watched him grow up breaking the IHSA rushing record at Rockford Lutheran, then put together a prolific career at Illinois State, his success comes as no surprise. He's rushed for more than 1,000 yards his rookie year, tallying more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage to go along with ten touchdowns in 14 games played. He was one of the few bright spots for the Jaguars this year, but with the top pick in next year's NFL Draft, the Jags could turn things around with a solid young core featuring the Rockford native.
2020 had its share of challenges, and many sports didn't even get to play. We missed covering Friday Night Football, state championships in all sports, Friday Night Nets and everything else that got canceled this year. But there was still plenty to celebrate and enjoy, all while keeping one eye ahead to 2021, where excitement and optimism loom for more big moments in the local sports world.