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The year sports stopped: Effects of covid-19 touched all levels across state

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | December 25, 2020 at 8:14 a.m.
Bridgestone Arena sits empty after men’s basketball games were canceled at the SEC Tournament on March 12 in Nashville, Tenn. (AP/Mark Humphrey)

The University of Arkansas men's basketball team was preparing for a second-round SEC Tournament game in Nashville, Tenn., against South Carolina after beating Vanderbilt 86-73.

The Arkansas women's basketball team was awaiting a sure NCAA Tournament bid with a 24-8 record, including 10-6 in SEC play.

After winning the Sun Belt regular-season championship, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock men's basketball team was on a bus driving to New Orleans for the conference tournament.

The Razorbacks men's and women's track and field teams, fresh off sweeping SEC indoor titles, were in Albuquerque, N.M., practicing for the NCAA Championships.

The Arkansas baseball team, going for a third consecutive College World Series appearance, was getting ready to head to the airport for a charter flight to Starkville, Miss., to open SEC play at Mississippi State.

This was all happening on the morning of March 12.

By the afternoon, college sports in Arkansas -- and all over the country -- had come to a sudden and shocking halt because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

The stoppage of sports due to the national health emergency is the No. 1 story of 2020 in Arkansas sports, as voted on by the sports staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Every conference tournament, including the SEC and Sun Belt, was canceled. The NCAA canceled the national track and field meet.

The Arkansas baseball team was told not to go to the airport because there wouldn't be a series at Mississippi State, or anywhere else in the conference that weekend. The Razorbacks gymnastics team's senior night meet against Penn State was canceled, as was a softball series against Georgia.

By late that afternoon, the NCAA had canceled all spring semester sports.

High school sports in Arkansas also were canceled, which in some cases resulted in basketball teams sharing state championships.

There was only going to be March Sadness.

"I've been in college athletics for 27 years, and I've been walking on this Earth for 51 years," Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said. "There's nothing that compares to this in my opinion, at least during my lifetime.

"This isn't something in an AD's manual. This isn't something you learn in graduate school. It's not something that you are prepared to deal with, quite honestly."

Mike Neighbors, the Arkansas women's basketball coach, wanted to make sure the accomplishments of his team would be remembered.

"I'll stand on the top of Old Main and shout it if I have to," Neighbors said. "It's unprecedented things and unprecedented times, but that's not going to get lost in the coronavirus debate."

Eric Musselman, coach of the Arkansas men's basketball team, got emotional when he told his players the SEC Tournament was canceled.

"I thought we could win this tournament. I really did," Musselman, his voice cracking, said in a video posted on the Arkansas basketball program's Twitter account. "I just feel bad for you guys. It's not fair. You guys, you sacrificed."

UALR needed two victories in New Orleans to win the Sun Belt Tournament and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

"Safety has to come before winning something. You're dealing with people's children, and you have to try to keep them safe," Trojans Coach Darrell Walker said. "Everybody's being careful, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

UALR finished 21-10 in Walker's second season after being 10-21 the previous season.

"I just told those guys what we accomplished this year cannot be taken away," Walker said. "I feel like we're champs. The chemistry on this team was just unbelievable. Fun group to coach, man."

After a summer filled with uncertainty, college and high school sports returned in Arkansas in the fall.

Arkansas, Arkansas State University and the University of Central Arkansas played football, and the schools also competed in other fall sports.

All five of the state's NCAA Division I basketball programs for men and women are playing this season. State champions were crowned in high school football, volleyball, golf, tennis and cross country.

Going into the Christmas break, Arkansas had completed all 70 of its scheduled sporting events in the fall semester.

"I can't praise our student-athletes, our coaches and our entire athletic department team and our medical doctors that provided great care and guidance to us enough for getting us through that," Yurachek said. "Because there are a lot of colleges that canceled full seasons, that cancelled games, and we have been able to compete in every single event that's been scheduled.

"I mean, it's been a fight. It's been a challenge and we've had to grind through it.

"But it's very rewarding, I think, for all of us to sit here today knowing we have played every competition that we were able to do."

No. 2

Pittman effect

Sam Pittman's rise from assistant head coach and offensive line coach at Georgia to head coach at Arkansas was a bit extraordinary. Pittman joined the exclusive 14-man fraternity of SEC head coaches without having served as a coordinator.

Now, a year later, his hiring is seen as an extraordinary move by Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek.

Arkansas navigated what Yurachek called "the toughest schedule in college football history" during a global health crisis with a 3-7 record that was a few favorable bounces away from being 6-4.

The Razorbacks are going bowling for the first time since 2016 with a date against TCU in the Texas Bowl on Thursday.

En route to the postseason, Arkansas snapped a 20-game SEC losing streak by knocking off No. 16 Mississippi State. Two weeks later, after a bum officiating decision cost the Hogs a road victory at No. 13 Auburn, Arkansas snapped a 12-game SEC home losing streak with seven takeaways in a 33-21 win over Ole Miss.

The Razorbacks were an underdog in every game, and many analysts projected an 0-10 season in Pittman's debut.

"I think we're headed in the right direction," Pittman said. "Certainly if there's disappointment in the year there is because we just didn't get enough wins.

"But I am happy our kids played at least six games close and that we were in position to win all six of those games. Certainly we'll learn how to finish that up one of these days and hopefully it comes soon."

Pittman's slow delivery, self-deprecating humor and often professed love for being head coach of the Hogs play well with a fan base that has been suffering.

"The coaching staff believed in our student-athletes and the student-athletes believe in our coaching staff," Yurachek said. "I think the student-athletes were willing to play hard and that old cliche of 'run through a brick wall' for Sam Pittman and the coaches who shared that belief in them."

-- Tom Murphy

No. 3

Sutton's Hall call

Eddie Sutton, in failing health for three years after suffering a stroke, held on long enough to learn he finally had been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Sutton -- who as the Arkansas coach led the Razorbacks to a 260-75 record in 11 seasons from 1974-75 through 1984-85, highlighted by nine NCAA Tournament appearances and a 1978 Final Four appearance -- was elected to the Hall of Fame on April 3 in his seventh time as a finalist.

The honor capped a career in which Sutton had an 806-326 record in 37 seasons as a college coach with 26 NCAA Tournament teams at Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State. He led Oklahoma State, his alma mater, to the Final Four in 1995 and 2004.

"Coach Sutton is getting the ultimate honor because he was the ultimate coach," said Joe Kleine, an All-Southwest Conference center for Sutton at Arkansas. "He meets every criteria for a coach who should be in the Hall of Fame."

Sutton died May 24 at age 84 at his home in Tulsa, surrounded by his three sons and their families, who also were together for his Hall of Fame election news.

Steve Sutton said his father was able to understand and appreciate the news of being elected to the Hall of Fame.

"He immediately closed his eyes, and I think part of that was a sense of relief and just feeling, 'Finally, I got across the finish line,' " Steve Sutton said. "Then right before we got off the phone, he looked up and kind of pumped his fist.

"To me, that was confirmation he was absolutely with us and knew exactly what was going on."

-- Bob Holt

No. 4

Anderson era ends

Six years and 356 days after he arrived, Blake Anderson left.

On Dec. 10, Anderson resigned from his role as the head coach of Arkansas State football, leaving Jonesboro for Utah State at the end of a 4-7 season. Two days later, the Red Wolves secured his replacement in Alabama assistant Butch Jones on a five-year deal.

After seven seasons with Anderson in charge, the Red Wolves will have a new face leading the program in 2021.

"Being able to have this opportunity present itself, especially at a great place like Arkansas State and working for a great boss in Terry [Mohajir], it's a great opportunity," Jones said the night he arrived in Jonesboro.

Anderson compiled a 51-37 record with the Red Wolves, winning the third-most games in program history. He led ASU to back-to-back Sun Belt Conference titles in 2015 and 2016.

He guided ASU to six consecutive bowl games, picking up wins in 2016 and 2019, before missing out in 2020 during Anderson's only losing season in Jonesboro.

"Seven years in Jonesboro," Anderson said in his introduction at Utah State. "It has been a wonderful ride."

Mohajir, the ASU athletic director, moved quickly in a coaching search he said began one year ago when Anderson nearly left in 2019.

Jones was in Jonesboro just hours after Alabama -- where the 52-year old former Tennessee head coach spent the past three seasons -- topped the Razorbacks on Dec. 12. He secured an early signing day class of 10 players in his first week on the job.

"I believe that what we needed right now is someone who had experience coaching," Mohajir said of Jones on Dec. 16. "And not only did he have head coaching experience, but he had championship head coaching experience.

-- Eli Lederman

No. 5

UCA's adventures

The University of Central Arkansas rolled the dice and was rewarded with a football season like no other in program history.

The Southland Conference board of directors decided in the summer to postpone fall sports in favor of a spring schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic. The league did allow its 13 member institutions to proceed with a nonconference schedule in the fall if they chose to do so.

UCA took full advantage of that opportunity.

"I just feel like football is a fall sport, you need time in the spring to rest and recover," UCA Athletic Director Brad Teague said in August. "Plus, I'm not real sure we're going to play in the spring, either. It's just still so unknown. If we can play now, let's try to. We're going to try as long and hard as we can until the virus tells us we can't."

With extensive weekly testing in place and strict safety guidelines applied, the Bears joined Stephen F. Austin, Houston Baptist and Abilene Christian as the only schools from the Southland to play during the fall.

Teague put together a challenging 10-game schedule that put the Bears in the national spotlight.

UCA played in the first college football game of the season when it beat Austin Peay 24-17 on Aug. 29 in the FCS Kickoff Class in Montgomery, Ala., on ESPN. The next week, the Bears faced the University of Alabama-Birmingham in what was the year's first FBS game.

The Bears also traveled to face perennial FCS power North Dakota State in the Bison's only game of the fall. It was a showcase for potential first-round NFL Draft pick Trey Lantz, who is the North Dakota State quarterback. UCA also played home-and-home series with Eastern Kentucky and Missouri State, who was guided by first-year Coach Bobby Petrino.

There was some schedule shuffling involved, such as a game against Arkansas State that was pushed back three weeks as well as a contest against Louisiana-Lafayette that was scrapped all together due to the Ragin Cajuns' covid-19 problems.

UCA managed a 5-4 record without having to alter a game because of covid-19 issues within in its program.

-- Erick Taylor

No. 6

Baffert's troubles

Even in a crazy year, 2020 was shaping up as routine for Hall of Fame horse trainer Bob Baffert.

He entered a horse in each of two divisions of the Grade I, $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort on May 2. And in true Baffert fashion, both of his horses prevailed with ease to qualify for the September running of the Kentucky Derby.

In the first race, Charlatan -- off at 2-5 with jockey Martin Garcia aboard -- took control at the start and maintained it throughout to win in 1:48.49. Charlatan finished 6 lengths in front of second-place Basin.

Then Nadal, ridden by Joel Rosario, took the lead late in the last turn, then responded in the final 1/16th to a brief challenge from King Guillermo to pull away and win by 3 lengths.

The rest of Baffert's year wasn't as smooth.

First, it was reported May 26 that Charlatan and Gamine -- another horse who won at Oaklawn on May 2 -- both tested positive for lidocaine, a local numbing agent, after their Oaklawn races.

Nadal was pulled from the Triple Crown two days later when he injured an ankle while practicing. So neither winner of the Arkansas Derby divisions participated in a Triple Crown race this year.

On July 15, Arkansas stewards suspended Baffert for 15 days because of the positive tests from Charlatan and Gamine.

Don't feel too sorry for Baffert. He still managed to win the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic with Authentic after his Arkansas problems.

-- Jason Yates

No. 7

Jones' big year

Mason Jones came to Arkansas as an unheralded junior-college transfer. He left as the SEC's top scorer and with All-American and SEC honors.

Jones, a 6-5 junior guard, averaged 22.0 points during the 2019-20 season to become the first Razorback to lead the SEC in scoring since Arkansas joined the conference for the 1991-92 season. The media voted him Associated Press co-SEC player of the year with Mississippi State forward Reggie Perry, and Jones also was an honorable mention AP All-American.

"Great accomplishment for Mason," Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. "He had an incredible year."

Jones averaged 5.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals. He was the second player to lead the Razorbacks in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals along with Sidney Moncrief.

Jones hit 68 of 194 three-pointers (35.1%) and led the nation in free throws made (233) and attempted (282) for 82.6%.

Rather than return to Arkansas for his senior season, Jones entered the NBA Draft. He wasn't taken among the 60 picks, but signed a free agent contract with the Houston Rockets.

Jones opened last season by scoring 32 points against Rice. He scored 20 or more points in 18 games -- including a career-high 40 against Tulsa and Auburn -- and 30 or more in nine games. In SEC play, Jones averaged 23.6 points.

In the few games in which Jones didn't score well, he piled up other stats. When he was held to a combined 14 points in back-to-back games at Ole Miss and against Vanderbilt, he had 17 assists, 13 rebounds and 4 steals.

"Mason Jones does everything well," Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said. "He's just a complete player."

-- Bob Holt

No. 8

Traditional powers

The six 2020 high school football state championships in December at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock were all won by some of the state's most tradition-rich programs.

Bryant won its third consecutive Class 7A state championship with a 27-17 victory over North Little Rock on Dec. 5. The Hornets finished 13-0 and have won 29 consecutive games, the state's longest winning streak. Senior quarterback Austin Ledbetter threw 42 touchdown passes and five interceptions in 2020. He has signed a national letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Arkansas.

After missing the Class 6A state championship game in 2019, Greenwood returned this season and knocked off Lake Hamilton 49-24 on Dec. 5. It was the Bulldogs' third state championship in four seasons and 10th since 2000. First-year Coach Chris Young, a longtime assistant under former coach Rick Jones, guided the Bulldogs to a 14-0 record.

Pulaski Academy played in its seventh consecutive Class 5A state championship game, defeating Little Rock Christian 64-27 on Dec. 12 to repeat as state champions. Junior running back Joe Himon earned MVP honors for the Bruins, scoring four touchdowns, including three on the ground. The Bruins earned their ninth state title since 2003, all under Coach Kevin Kelley.

Shiloh Christian won its first state title since 2010 with a 58-20 rout of Rivercrest on Dec. 19 in the Class 4A state championship game. The Saints won their eighth state title overall.

Senior quarterback Caden Sipe threw a state title game record eight touchdown passes in Harding Academy's 71-44 victory over McGehee in the Class 3A state championship game Dec. 19. The Wildcats earned their second state title in a row and eighth crown overall.

Class 2A was won by Fordyce for the second consecutive season as the Redbugs held off Des Arc 35-32 on Dec. 12. The Redbugs won their fourth state title and repeated for the first time since 1990 and 1991.

-- Jeremy Muck

No. 9

Kjerstad a high pick

The finally tally on Heston Kjerstad's monster 2020 season will never be known.

Kjerstad, the junior outfielder for the University of Arkansas, was hitting .448 with 6 home runs and 20 RBI through March 11, the final game of the season before the coronavirus shutdown.

The Baltimore Orioles bet big on Kjerstad's future, making him the No. 2 pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. That made the always smiling, unassuming native of Amarillo, Texas, the second-highest drafted Hog ever behind No. 1 pick Jeff King.

"We are very excited in particular about Heston's role in our organization's future and what we feel is ultimately going to be his place in the middle of our lineup one day," Baltimore General Manager Mike Elias said. "What we saw that led us to select Heston with this pick was a rare combination of power and the ability to hit for average, and what we feel is a swing and approach that will convert that production to the professional game and ultimately to the major leagues."

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn saw the potential in Kjerstad when he was a gangly 5-10 high-schooler, who added 5 inches and some muscle to his teenage frame.

"I changed a lot just because I wasn't done growing and maturing," Kjerstad said. "Van Horn originally ... saw me as a leadoff hitter, hit for average and maybe a little power.

"But I grew, put on some weight and ended up 6-3 and 200 pounds. I definitely grew as my power came and then settled in to the corner outfield"

Orioles area scout Ken Guthrie nailed down his high evaluation of Kjerstad.

"What attracted me to Heston initially was just his ability and his knack for squaring up a baseball routinely," Guthrie said. "He can do damage with pitcher's pitches."

Kjerstad was a cornerstone on the Razorbacks 2018 and 2019 teams, the first back-to-back College World Series teams in Arkansas history.

-- Tom Murphy

No. 10

UALR's title run

Darrell Walker and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock men's basketball team brought magic to Jack Stephens Center on Feb. 29, securing the program's seventh regular-season Sun Belt Conference title with a 91-69 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.

"How bout them Trojans?" Walker, in his second season as head coach, said after the game.

UALR rattled off a 15-5 conference record and finished two games ahead of South Alabama and Texas State to earn the regular-season championship one year after finishing tied for last in the Sun Belt.

"I didn't think we would get to this point," Trojans guard Markquis Nowell said. "I knew we would be a pretty solid team, but I [didn't] believe it would get to this point at all."

Picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the Sun Belt after recording a 5-13 conference record in 2018-19, the Trojans won their first three games of conference play.From there, UALR stormed the Sun Belt, including a seven-game winning streak from Jan. 16 to Feb. 8. The Trojans also claimed a pair of in-state victories over Arkansas State on Feb. 8 and Feb. 22.

"I really feel good for my guys, all of them, especially the guys that were here last year that returned that went through that season that we went through," Walker said Feb. 29. "These guys put the work in, man. They deserve to win. We're a solid basketball team. This is a good turnaround for this university."

UALR secured the No. 1 seed and a triple-bye in the Sun Belt Tournament, leaving the Trojans two wins away from the sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.

Covid-19 cancelled both the conference championship and March Madness, but UALR's season marked a program turnaround.

-- Eli Lederman

More News

Top 10 stories

  1. Covid-19 in sports
  2. Pittman’s 1st year
  3. Sutton’s Hall pass
  4. Anderson leaves ASU
  5. UCA’s crazy season
  6. Baffert’s missteps
  7. Jones’ breakout year
  8. State powers prevail
  9. Kjerstad second to one
  10. Trojans’ big year

Coach Eric Musselman had to break the news empty after men’s basketball games were canceled at the  SEC Tournament to his team before their second-round game. 
(AP/Mark Humphrey)
Coach Eric Musselman had to break the news empty after men’s basketball games were canceled at the SEC Tournament to his team before their second-round game. (AP/Mark Humphrey)
Markquis Nowell (left) and the UALR men’s basketball team that day were preparing for the Sun Belt Tournament, which likewise got canceled. 
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Markquis Nowell (left) and the UALR men’s basketball team that day were preparing for the Sun Belt Tournament, which likewise got canceled. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
The Arkansas baseball team also had to change  plans. Before long, college and high school sports around the state and the nation were halted by the coronavirus pandemic. The stoppage of sports because of the national health emergency is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s No. 1 story of 2020 in state sports.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
The Arkansas baseball team also had to change plans. Before long, college and high school sports around the state and the nation were halted by the coronavirus pandemic. The stoppage of sports because of the national health emergency is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s No. 1 story of 2020 in state sports. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
Greenwood defenders Daniel Langley (left) and Angel Hernandez tackle Lake Hamilton quarterback Grant Bearden during the Class 6A state championship game Dec. 5. The Bulldogs won 49-24 for their third state title in four seasons and 10th since 2000.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Greenwood defenders Daniel Langley (left) and Angel Hernandez tackle Lake Hamilton quarterback Grant Bearden during the Class 6A state championship game Dec. 5. The Bulldogs won 49-24 for their third state title in four seasons and 10th since 2000. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Quarterback Breylin Smith and the University of Central Arkansas football team took advantage of the opportunity to play a nonconference schedule this fall after the Southland Conference gave its 13 member institutions the option to do so. The Southland decided to postpone fall sports in favor of a spring schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Quarterback Breylin Smith and the University of Central Arkansas football team took advantage of the opportunity to play a nonconference schedule this fall after the Southland Conference gave its 13 member institutions the option to do so. The Southland decided to postpone fall sports in favor of a spring schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Sam Pittman
Sam Pittman
Eddie Sutton
Eddie Sutton
Blake Anderson
Blake Anderson
Arkansas guard Mason Jones against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
Arkansas guard Mason Jones against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
Heston Kjerstad
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF)
Heston Kjerstad (NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF)
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