Casa Grande Union vs. Cactus 12/4/20

Casa Grande quarterback Angel Flores, front, and his teammates watch from the sidelines during their 4A semifinal loss to Glendale Cactus on Friday. The Cougars brought joy to the community during a global pandemic, completing one of the best football seasons in school history.

When looking back on 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the devastation left in its wake, will dominate the conversation. But sports have helped us through, and the Casa Grande Union football team lifted a community.

The 2020 Cougars will go down as the first team in school history to reach the state semifinals.

As others have been quick to remind me, Casa Grande has won a state championship in football. In fact, it has won three “mythical” titles — 1950, 1953 and 1958. The 1950 and 1958 titles were won outright, while the 1953 title was a co-championship shared with Globe and Phoenix Carver.

But that was before state playoff games were played, so the achievement of the 2020 team is indisputably historic.

The season came to an end Friday, when Casa Grande lost 35-13 to Glendale Cactus in the 4A semifinals.

Just having a football season at all was a blessing. Of course it was important for the players, not just because they are passionate about the game and because it was beneficial for their mental health during a pandemic, but because several of them are chasing college scholarships.

The Casa Grande Union High School District was prudent in its approach to having fans at games this season. It limited ticket allotment to two per person involved in the game — whether that was a player, cheerleader or band member.

Visiting fans were mostly not allowed. Face masks were mandatory for fans.

During the play-in round, the state quarterfinals and the semifinals — all played at Casa Grande Union — adjustments were made to allow more fans. But it was never reckless. Health and safety guidelines were still followed.

I bring up those points not just to commend the district and athletic director Randy Robbins, but also to acknowledge that several school districts were not nearly as smart. Those districts put the safety of their fans, and their family members, in unnecessary jeopardy. Casa Grande did not.

During the pandemic, people have lost jobs and savings. Isolation has been cruel to many. Most importantly and most sadly, thousands of lives have been lost. Family members and loved ones are no longer around.

For me and for millions of other people, sports provides a respite during these difficult times, a small sense of normalcy in a turbulent time where almost nothing is normal.

In Casa Grande, the hometown Cougars provided a little sunshine through the darkness. They also helped bring a community together — sports have a miraculous way of doing that — at a time when seemingly no one wants to come together on anything.

“We get to forget for two hours on a Friday night that there’s a global pandemic going on,” Casa Grande coach Jake Barro said. “The fact that we got to play (a season) is huge. We don’t take that for granted. And the fact that we were able to go on this ride, and distract the community from what’s going on in the world, that’s huge.”

As a member of the sports media, it was great to be on the field every Friday night during the football season. For selfish reasons, it’s just something I really enjoy and always have.

But I also know that not everyone was able to come to the games this season. That made my job even more important to bring all the news of the Cougars and other Pinal County teams to you, our readers.

I’m proud of our team of staff writers and freelancers that worked hard to bring you coverage of Pinal County teams all season. And we’re not done yet, as Santa Cruz Valley is playing for the 2A championship Saturday.

I hope our coverage has brought our readers a slice of normal, something to distract from all the distress this year has wrought.

The word “distraction” normally has a negative connotation. But as Barro put it, sometimes distractions can be a beautiful thing.

“The letters that we get from people in the community, the support — it’s a distraction,” he said. “And people, it just means so much to them because everybody’s going through hard times right now.”

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.