CASA GRANDE — The page has turned to 2021, thank goodness. 2020 was one of the strangest years in history with a global pandemic, and the world of sports looked unlike anything ever seen.
Sports did happen; they just happened in ways that were foreign to everyone. The high school level was also greatly affected. In Arizona, high school sports came to a grinding halt in March, and the spring season was later canceled entirely, leaving many seniors with an empty feeling in the pit of their stomachs.
After a summer full of uncertainty, fall sports eventually came back. Football began in October.
Any discussion of top sports stories of the year would probably have COVID-19 at the top of the list. Since that seems too obvious, it has been left off this list.
Here’s a look at the top five Pinal County sports stories of 2020.
5. Vista Grande’s McQuillen signs with Nebraska
The best distance runner the county has seen in a very long time, Vista Grande’s Brynna McQuillen had to deal with a roller coaster of emotions in 2020.
Her final high school track season was cut short and canceled by the pandemic. She did not have an opportunity to compete one last time at the state championships, something she wanted badly.
But there was a happy ending to her story.
McQuillen became one of just a handful of Pinal County athletes in any sport to receive an athletic scholarship from a Power 5 school when she signed with the University of Nebraska in April.
Since it was the age of COVID-19, Vista Grande track coach Cristina Salcido-Grigg orchestrated a grand signing event in true social distancing style.
McQuillen was brought blindfolded to Mission Royale II Park, where she signed her letter of intent as about 10 cars full of her friends and teammates circled the park, honking horns, ringing cowbells, waving signs and cheering for her.
“It’s awesome, it’s more than I could have asked for,” McQuillen said. “I kind of didn’t get the closure I needed for high school, and this kind of gave that to me.”
4. Poston Butte RB Burns signs with Nevada
Poston Butte football star Zion Burns was among many seniors who hoped and prayed to be able to play their senior season. He got the opportunity, and he didn’t waste it.
The electric running back had another sensational season, rushing for 1,248 yards and 15 TDs in just eight games. He averaged 156 yards per game and gashed defenses for 11.5 yards per carry.
Burns rushed for more than 100 yards in all eight games, as the Broncos went 6-2. They had hopes of a playoff run, but their season was ended prematurely in a 14-7 upset loss to Phoenix St. Mary’s in the 4A play-in round. Burns went for 152 yards and a score in the game.
Burns, who had already given a verbal commitment to the University of Nevada before the season, made it official by signing his letter of intent Dec. 17. He will likely play defensive back for the Wolfpack.
3. CG Union has historic football season
For a time during the summer, there was real uncertainty if a football season would be played at all. Neighboring states such as California and New Mexico had already pushed back their high school football seasons until January or later.
But Arizona played, starting its regular season Oct. 2. It was the start of a memorable season for Casa Grande.
While the Cougars won three state championships in the 1950s, it was before the advent of state playoffs. The 2020 team entered the 4A playoffs as the No. 1 seed and advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in school history.
Casa Grande went 8-2, scored 38.4 points per game and had outstanding production from junior quarterback Angel Flores and junior running back RJ Keeton.
Flores had 29 total touchdowns (13 pass, 16 rush), threw for 1,794 yards and ran for 948 more. Keeton was a TD machine, finding the end zone 18 times on just 80 carries, rushing for 868 yards.
“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.”
2. Santa Cruz wrestling wins 2nd straight championship
Ah, the pre-pandemic days.
The Dust Devils wrapped up their 2019-20 wrestling season in February by winning their second straight state championship in Prescott Valley. To go along with the team championship, five individual wrestlers won the state title in their weight class.
Santa Cruz Valley went a perfect 5-0 in championship matches and finished with a final team scoring margin of 199.5-151.5 over runner-up Morenci.
The Dust Devils competed in Division IV, but their dominance was not relegated to small schools. They wrestled at big tournaments throughout the year, proving their best wrestlers could compete against, and beat, the best Arizona has to offer.
“It gets us prepared for big stages like this,” Santa Cruz coach Ray Belloc said. “Once again to be champions and be the best, you have to beat the best. That’s our goal. We want to beat the best that’s out there.”
Individual state champs for Santa Cruz included Davian Guanajuato (113 pounds), Emilio Ysaguirre (126), Wyatt Ogle (138), Hunter Ogle (160) and Diego Chavez (182).
“It feels great. I want to go undefeated again next year,” said Guanajuato, who finished his junior year 43-0 after he went 60-0 as a sophomore.
1. Santa Cruz wins first football state title since 1990
All they do is win.
Many of the Santa Cruz Valley wrestlers on the state championship wrestling team followed up their title with a long-awaited championship in football.
The Dust Devils capped a remarkable pandemic-shortened football season by winning the 2A state championship with a 42-7 win over Benson on Dec. 12 at Coronado High School in Scottsdale.
It was the first football state title for Santa Cruz since 1990, and its eighth overall.
Chief among those wrestlers was Hunter Ogle, who won the wrestling state title at 160 pounds.
Ogle set a goal of rushing for 2,000 yards, despite a truncated regular season. Santa Cruz ended up 9-1 (its only loss to 4A Casa Grande), and Ogle rushed for 2,096 yards and 25 touchdowns in those 10 games. He led the state in rushing, posting 318 more yards than the No. 2 rusher.
Ogle’s younger brother Wyatt, also a state champion wrestler, was the quarterback and a star defensive back for the for the football champs.
The Dust Devils outscored their opponents 448-144.
“It’s a great feeling, obviously, to win state,” Hunter Ogle said. “I just give that to my team. All year we worked hard and since our freshman year, since seventh grade, we’ve all been together ... I’m just happy we finally broke the barrier and got it done.”