By Earl Vaughan Jr.
It was a frustrating year for high school athletics as the COVID-19 pandemic either totally shuttered or severely limited just about every sport available to local athletes and coaches.
But in spite of all the misery there were still some memorable events from the year 2020. We polled a number of local athletic directors and high school administrators and here are some of their top events from the past year.
- COVID-19 shuts down sports.
It was the middle of March. Basketball season had reached the championship stage ,and spring sports were just beginning when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the high school athletic season to an early end for most schools in the Cape Fear region.
Cumberland County Schools began a slow return to normal toward the end of the year with boys and girls cross country and girls volleyball finally starting.
Basketball started practice but took another hit when the county decided to suspend all practice and games for winter sports until at least Jan. 18 because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
- Westover boys, girls share state titles.
The Westover boys and E.E. Smith girls were days away from playing for N.C. High School Athletic Association state 3-A basketball titles when the pandemic forced the NCHSAA to cancel all of its basketball championships and declare all the state finalists co-champions.
D’Marco Dunn led the Westover boys to a 30-0 record. He averaged 20.8 points per game. He was named Patriot Athletic Conference Player of the Year while Westover head coach George Stackhouse was honored as Coach of the Year.
Smith’s girls notched a 31-1 record, losing only to Knightdale in a non-conference game.
Miya Giles-Jones led Smith with 13.4 points per game. She was the lone Smith player on the Patriot Athletic Conference first team.
- Westover’s D’Marco Dunn signs with Tar Heels.
Westover basketball star D’Marco Dunn put Cumberland County directly in the sites of major college basketball recruiters, eventually signing with the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
A 6-foot-4 junior shooting guard, Dunn is scheduled to return to Westover this season for his senior year.
The NCHSAA basketball season is currently scheduled to begin the first full week of January, but Cumberland County Schools won’t be allowed to play until at least Jan. 18, making it uncertain how they will be able to make up enough games to compete for conference championships.
- Cape Fear wrestlers win state titles.
High school wrestling was one of the handful of winter sports that got in a full season before the pandemic hit. As usual, Cumberland County wrestling power Cape Fear made the most of it.
Dallas Wilson joined a select group of county wrestlers by winning his third NCHSAA individual wrestling title. He finished the year with a 48-2 record, winning the 145-pound state title in the 3-A tournament.
He was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler in the 3-A tournament.
His Colt teammate Nick Minacapelli won the state title in the 3-A 220 pound class. He posted a third-place finish the previous year.
Minacapelli’s record for last season was 36-2.
The Cape Fear team is coached by Heath Wilson, Dallas’ father, and himself a former state champion.
- Gray’s Creek extends exemplary school tradition.
For the third year in a row, a Cumberland County high school was awarded the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s Exemplary School Award.
The NCHSAA honored Gray’s Creek High School with the award in 2020. The award is presented in recognition of high schools that have what’s described as a total program of athletic and academic success, along with qualified coaches.
County schools Terry Sanford and Cape Fear won the award the previous years. A fourth school, Jack Britt, was the county’s first winner of the award in 2009.
- Quartet of top female athletes land college offers.
Four standout female athletes from non-revenue sports earned college scholarships to pursue their careers at the next level.
Carlie Myrtle of Jack Britt and Jaden Pone of Gray’s Creek signed to play softball, Myrtle at the University of North Carolina and Pone at Longwood College.
In her last full season of softball, Myrtle batted .483 with 12 extra base hits and 14 RBI.
Pitching Myrtle was 14-5 with a 1.82 ERA. She led Cumberland County Schools in strikeouts with 147.
Pone led county school hitters in batting with a .700 average. She had 19 extra base hits and led the county with 45 RBI. As a pitcher she was 7-1 with a 1.95 ERA and 29 strikeouts.
Kylie Aldridge, among the county’s top players in both volleyball and softball, elected to pursue volleyball at the college level, signing with Virginia Tech.
Through Dec. 22, Gray’s Creek is 10-0 and leading the Patriot Athletic Conference volleyball standings.
Aldridge had 73 service points and a 94 percent serve percentage. She has 24 aces, 114 kills and 10 blocks.
Cape Fear’s Toni Blackwell committed to play golf for UNC-Pembroke. Last fall Blackwell led the Colts to the Patriot Athletic Conference title. She won the 3-A East Regional tournament and finished third in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-A state tournament. Her average for the season was 77.9 per round.
- Push for rubberized tracks continues.
By the end of 2022, all 10 senior high schools in Cumberland County should have a rubberized track for its school.
For years, the county schools have lagged behind other areas of the state with many of them having unsurfaced dirt tracks both for athletic competition and physical education classes to use.
Vernon Aldridge, student activities director for the county schools, began a push to correct the problem. South View was the first school to get a rubberized track with Cape Fear and Terry Sanford getting their new tracks this year.
If the plan continues on course, E.E. Smith, Douglas Byrd and Jack Britt will get their new tracks next summer, with Seventy-First and Gray’s Creek on the schedule for 2022.
- Terry Sanford football facelift.
The oldest football stadium in the county, and the only one with a towering home side of brick-and-mortar bleachers, finally underwent a long-anticipated overhaul.
The aging home stands at Terry Sanford High School were torn down a year ago and replaced with an updated metal set of bleachers.
Add to the package one of the new rubberized tracks the county schools are getting, plus a fresh power washing of the visitors’ bleachers, and the facelift of the oldest stadium in town has been complete.
- Sad loss of familiar faces.
Two well-known and popular figures from the Cumberland County athletic community passed away in 2020.
The first was Jason Norton, athletic director at Pine Forest High School and an outstanding placekicker at Catawba College in Salisbury where he earned All-American honors.
Norton lost a long battle with cancer in June.
The second to pass away was veteran high school football and basketball official Bruce Stephens, who died earlier this month after several years of declining health.
Stephens won numerous state and local honors as a member of the Southeastern Athletic Officials Association and was praised by his peers, coaches and athletes for his fairness and easy-going demeanor as an official.
- County bowlers dominate.
Cumberland County introduced high school bowling as a team sport years ago and continued to enjoy statewide success this season.
The Gray’s Creek boys and Terry Sanford girls brought home state championships in team competition.
Gray’s Creek was led by regular season MVP C.J. Woodle and Gio Garcia. Also in boys’ bowling, Terry Sanford’s Rolf Wallin earned the individual state title.
For the Terry Sanford girls, Zoe Cannady paced the Bulldog team to victory.
The Fayetteville Academy boys’ soccer team fell just short of winning the school’s 18th boys’ state title, losing in the final seconds of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 2-A title game to Westchester Country Day 3-2.
The Cumberland County Schools became one of the first systems in the state to offer Unified Bowling, a form of competition that allows special needs athletes to compete.
South View High School wheelchair athlete Isaiah Fultz earned his second consecutive 55-meter wheelchair state championship in 2020 as he set a state record of 14.02 seconds.
Jack Britt’s girls’ basketball team, coached by former South View star Nattlie McArthur, won the school’s first girls’ basketball championship last season. The Buccaneers were 24-4 overall, 14-0 in the Sandhills Athletic Conference.
Nyla Cooper and Kayla Goldsby led Britt in scoring with 12.3 and 11.2 points per game respectively.