Sports Editor Justin Kline looks back at some of his favorite local sports stories from the past year.
The pandemic may have taken a lot of sports away from us, especially during the first few months, but there was still plenty to read (and in my case, write) about in 2020.
I’m still a little shocked. It wasn’t that long ago, at least not in the grand scheme of things, that there was so much uncertainty about when — or if — sports would be back this year that I was pitching the folks above my pay grade on covering more of the other stuff just to avoid being another casualty of the layoffs that gutted far too many newsrooms and their sports departments in 2020. I had no idea what I was going to do.
Well, I got lucky. I did more work outside of sports than I ever have and wrote some stories I’m really proud of. More importantly, sports did come back and I was able to get back in my writing wheelhouse. Since we’re using almost all of this issue to look back on this crazy year we all had, I guess there’s no time like the present to look back on some of my favorite sports stories in a year where fans learned to never take sports for granted again.
“Remembering Arthur Cox” — July 30
If we’re being completely honest here, I’ve never enjoyed writing tributes or feature-length obituaries. It was never a strong suit of mine. So if you would have told me back in late March that I’d be writing tributes nearly every week for a decent chunk of time in the summer, I wouldn’t have been a happy camper.
But this summer’s experience totally changed that for me. Maybe I just got lucky with who I got to memorialize, because we lost some very interesting, beloved people this year.
One of them was Arthur Cox, a native son of Plant City who made it to the NFL and never forgot his roots. I realize a small-town sportswriter who was born just before Cox’s last year in the pros probably won’t change the minds of the nationally syndicated writers who styled him as a villain in the 1980s and 90s, but learning what kind of person Cox really was and getting the chance to put that out there for anyone in the world to see was an experience I’m always going to be grateful for.
“‘Can’t stop six,’ and then some” — February 13
Isn’t it wild that one of the great Florida high school sports dynasties of our time is not only here in our back yard, but at a school that’s not even old enough to get a learner’s permit to drive?
I’ve written about Strawberry Crest winning a state championship in almost every year I’ve been at the Observer. This year’s story was even more special because the Chargers were able to take home a historically significant national championship. The run these cheerleaders have made in four years with the program has been incredible and had more obstacles to overcome than some might suspect from a team that constantly wins at the state’s highest level. Crest cheer is our top team of 2020 for good reason — which you can read about in full online.
“PCHS wins state Special Olympics hoops title” — March 5
You know how in every feel-good sports movie ever made, there’s some big moment at the end where something incredible happens during a game and the team you’re rooting for does the unthinkable?
OK, maybe Plant City’s Special Olympics Unified basketball team winning the state title this year wasn’t “unthinkable.” But it did have that movie moment: Taylor Teeden’s off-balance buzzer-beater from three to beat St. Cloud in the Feb. 28 championship game. It even took the kind of dramatic bounce where, in a movie, the music would stop playing and there would be a cut to the fans in the stands holding their breath. These kids were treated like heroes when they came back to Plant City, and deservedly so.
“Back in black (and scarlet)” — November 25
When I started working at the Observer in 2013, Aliyah Gregory was dominating on the basketball court in her senior season and also making an impact off of it by creating a fundraiser to help victims of domestic violence. Now she’s back on the sidelines as the second head coach in program history.
One of La’Tosha Lewis’s greatest labors of love was building Crest into a regular playoff contender and Gregory’s teams were the ones that really got the ball rolling on that front. So it made perfect sense for Lewis to consider Gregory, who knows Crest’s culture as well as anyone, to take over the program in 2020. What’s not to love about an all-time great from the school giving back to the program where it all began?
“Comeback season for Plant City Boxing Gym trainer” and “Rodriguez wins pro boxing debut” — October 1 and 22
There were quite a few sports moments this year that I really wish I could have seen in person. Several are mentioned above. But one very cool thing I did get to see for myself was the pro debut of 51-year-old Jose Rodriguez, who was previously best-known around Plant City as the owner of and trainer at Plant City Boxing Gym.
Chevelle Hallback’s big comeback inspired a heck of a lot of people. Rodriguez was one of them. But to fight again for the first time in 31 years, for the first time above the amateur classification? I’ve known Rodriguez since the gym opened and I didn’t even see that coming. But he was extremely confident in himself when I interviewed him for the fight’s preview article and when he walked up to the ring on Oct. 17, scowl on his face and eyes locked on his opponent, I had a good feeling Rodriguez really was going to be A-OK in there.