For two months to start 2020, high school sports proceeded as normal, with basketball, swimming and wrestling seasons crowning their state champions like clockwork.
In mid-March though, COVID-19 came knocking on Utah’s door and high school sports haven’t been the same since. Spring sports were completely canceled, and fall and winter sports teams had to make unprecedented accommodations to compete.
Here’s a look at the top 10 storylines from a COVID-dominated 2020 for high school sports.
1. Uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 leads to cancelation of spring sports
Just one week into the high school spring sports season back on March 12, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced the state was closing all schools for two weeks with the increasing presence of COVID-19 in Utah. It also meant a two-week moratorium on high school sports.
Two weeks later, that suspension for school and sports was extended to the end of May. On April 14, Herbert officially canceled the remainder of in-person learning for the 2019-20 school year.
It was a stunning reality for high school students across the state, who finished up their schoolwork virtually.
There were no virtual sports, however, and with the cancellation for the high school sports season 42 state champions were not crowned in spring 2020. For the thousands of seniors, it was a rough way to end their high school sports careers.
Those lost championships occurred in baseball (five), softball (five), boys soccer (five), boys and girls track (12), girls golf (6), boys golf (1), boys tennis (4) and boys and girls lacrosse (4).
The 2020 season was supposed to be the first for lacrosse as a UHSAA-sanctioned sport, but those inaugural titles will now be pushed back to the 2021 spring season.
For baseball, it was the first time since 1943 that a state tournament wasn’t held. For each of the other spring sports, it was the first time they didn’t have a conclusion to their season.
Cottonwood baseball coach Jason Crawford had this to say about the decision.
“Although we completely understand and support the decisions, I am saddened for all spring sports athletes. Coaches, athletes, parents, officials and communities have all been looking forward to the spring sports season. They had prepared and were striving to achieve their goals,” said Crawford.
The Deseret News paid tribute to the senior athletes in those sports, including honorary all-state status in the sports it would’ve normally selected an all-state team.
2. UHSAA forges ahead with fall sports, all championships awarded on schedule
While 14 states across the country elected to postpone their fall seasons into next spring, the UHSAA and its member schools elected to forge ahead with its scheduled fall calendar despite the complications of COVID-19. It was a decision many expected, but one the UHSAA and school administrators really pushed for, knowing the impact the canceled spring season had on student-athletes.
In the end, all 38 fall sports state championships were awarded as scheduled, but it was far from a normal season for any team competing.
For football, the 6A/5A/4A championships were moved away from the University of Utah for the first time in nearly two decades, with limited attendance at many schools throughout the regular season. Several teams (Fremont, Kearns, Layton Christian) even had to forfeit their playoff games.
Volleyball state tournaments were held at local high schools instead of the traditional UVU site. The same went for cross-country, where state meets weren’t contested at Sugar House Park for the first time in as long as anyone could remember.
Boys golf, girls tennis and girls soccer were the least impacted sports in terms of their playoffs and state tournaments, but all athletes in all sports had to make very drastic changes to their daily practices and competitions to adhere to COVID-19 protocols put in place by Gov. Herbert.
3. State creates path forward for youth sports by setting up return-to-play protocols
Fall sports teams were given the green light the day after Memorial Day to begin practicing for their 2020 season, but it wasn’t until July 9 that those seasons were given the green light to actually play their seasons.
It was a glorious day for athletes across the state, many of whom were multisport athletes who had their spring seasons canceled.
The decision to allow fall sports to play was decided unanimously by the UHSAA board of trustees.
“It’s going to be messy,” Brighton principal Tom Sherwood said at the time. “This is going to be unique and there are going to be challenges.”
Two weeks after the BOT said sports will continue, the UHSAA officially released its return-to-play guidelines for each of the seven fall sports in a detailed nine-page memo that would be the foundation for how schools across the state handled high school sports during a pandemic.
It created numerous extra hoops for teams to jump through for their respective seasons, but one that teams were happy to adhere to knowing the alternative was no sports.
4. Utah makes national news as first state to play high school football
When Davis and Herriman kicked off Utah’s 2020 high school football season Thursday, Aug. 13, it also marked the first high school football game played anywhere in the country.
It was a story that was picked up by several national media outlets, signaling a slight return to normal for high school students.
Attendance was very limited, with all ticket sales handled online. Herriman principal Todd Quarnberg even added extra security, not knowing if COVID-19 protocols would be handled.
“I feel like I might be overcompensating with staff at this point as far as numbers and ushers and security, but until I know that, I feel safer with them,” said Quarnberg.
Davis went on to win 24-20, and a night later most of the rest of the teams in Utah kicked off their seasons.
“It’s really the mantra of 2020, win the day. You don’t know when you’re going to get another. We really don’t. We could have our game canceled next week,” said Davis coach Mitch Arquette.
Opening weekend wasn’t a perfect start as the Bingham vs. Weber contest was canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests. Cancellations were minimal the first month of the season, but in the final month of the regular season cancellations ranged between four and 12 per week.
5. Corner Canyon football steps into national spotlight
Corner Canyon’s football team extended its winning streak to 40 straight after a perfect 14-0 campaign, and it was dominance that national media outlets picked up on early.
Corner Canyon began the season ranked in the MaxPreps top 25 nationally, and climbed the polls all season.
Even though MaxPreps hasn’t finalized its national football rankings yet with some teams still playing, the Chargers are currently ranked No. 8 in the MaxPreps rankings and will likely finish in that same spot. It’s currently ranked No. 9 in USA Today national rankings.
Regardless of where Corner Canyon finishes, it will be the highest final ranking for a Utah team as long as MaxPreps has been ranking teams nationally.
Bingham finished the 2017 season No. 18 and the 2013 season ranked No. 19.
6. Recruiting goes virtual
When Corner Canyon quarterback Jaxson Dart committed to USC on national TV on Dec. 16 during early signing day, it wrapped a wild recruiting season for Dart that all occurred digitally.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions by the NCAA, Dart was never allowed to take official recruiting visits to USC, UCLA or Arizona State, the teams in his top three.
The scenario was the same for many, many high school seniors from the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes who did most if not all of their recruiting through Zoom and Facetime and other digital platforms.
The NCAA halted in-person recruiting on March 15 and it hasn’t been permitted since.
College athletic departments created virtual recruiting visits for prospective recruits to try and give them a small sample of the campus life they would experience, but nothing can accurately replace in-person recruiting as athletes were forced to gamble a bit more on the best college choice for them.
Athletes could tour campuses on their own, as always.
A total of 747 seniors from the 2020 graduating class received some type of scholarship to play college athletics, with many of those committing before the pandemic.
When the Deseret News publishes its 2021 list of scholarship athletes next summer, the vast majority will have never taken an official recruiting visit to the college of their choice.
7. Realignment finalized, big changes ahead
UHSAA realignment is always a hot-button issue every two years when the board of trustees finalizes regions and classifications for the next two years.
That was again the case in December when the BOT finalized realignment for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.
The alignment for 6A, 3A, 2A and 1A remained mostly unchanged, but big, big changes are ahead in 5A and 4A. The number of teams in 5A expanded from 29 to 33, while the number of teams in 4A fell from 21 to 13. There will only be two regions in 4A during the next realignment cycle, a Southern Utah region and a Northern Utah region.
This particular realignment will likely be the last of its kind as the BOT signaled a change is likely coming in future years.
“We need to address this in larger fashion and hopefully this is the last time we need to do this by regions,” Brighton principal Tom Sherwood said.
8. RPI formula irons out kinks
The UHSAA started using RPI rankings to seed teams for the playoffs beginning with the 2019-20 school year, and it became clear throughout that inaugural season tweaks would be necessary to create more realistic rankings.
Those adjustments were indeed made for the 2020-21 season, and through the fall season it appears they made a difference.
One of the biggest adjustments involved how nonregion games against teams from higher or lower classifications were counted. Last season, after your first game against a team outside your classification, on your second game you got less credit or more credit in the RPI rankings based on the classification of that team.
For the current school year the UHSAA set things up in two classifications for RPI purposes, 6A-3A and then 2A-1A.
The overall formula of the RPI also changed. In the inaugural school year, the RPI index was calculated based 40% on a team’s winning percentage, 40% on an opponent’s winning percentage and 20% on an opponent’s opponents’ winning percentage. This school year the format has been adjusted to 45-45-10.
The changes led to more higher seeds making deeper runs into the playoffs, which should be the norm if the rankings are accurate.
The average seed of the eventual state champion in football last year compared to this year was 4.2 to 1.2. In volleyball it went from 3.3 to 1.8, while in soccer it shifted the other way just slightly, 2.0 to 2.4.
9. Winter sports see delayed start, dozens and dozens of cancellations
With a surge of COVID-19 cases in Utah, Gov. Herbert put a two-week moratorium on all extracurricular activities — including high school sports — from Nov. 9 to Nov. 23.
He allowed for football to finish its season if athletes had a negative COVID-19 test before competition, but the moratorium paused the swimming season and delayed the start of wrestling and boys and girls basketball.
The COVID-19 testing for football even forced several athletes and coaches to miss their semifinal and championship games.
Winter sports were allowed to resume Dec. 3 after delayed tryouts, but it’s been far from smooth sailing. Several dozen basketball games have been canceled each week since the season resumed as numerous teams have struggled to keep COVID-19 out of their programs.
How well winter sports teams deal with that reality heading into the new year will determine how uninterrupted the season and playoffs will be.
10. Girls football lawsuit
With only a handful of girls even attempting to play football on high school teams, the story of prep football in Utah has been almost exclusively male.
But after 122 years, that changed in 2020.
The fight wasn’t on the turf, however; it was in a nearly empty, COVID-proof, federal court room.
Led by Little League standout and Mountain Ridge High soccer star Sam Gordon, several girls in three districts sued those Salt Lake County school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association saying it was a violation of equal protection and of Title lX for schools not to do more to offer athletic opportunities, including football, to girls.
Their lawsuit began three years ago, and over time, some of the girls involved graduated or moved, allowing at least one district to be dismissed from the suit. But Jordan and Granite, along with the association that oversees all high school sports, defended the number and type of opportunities offered to females, and even argued that football was a co-ed sport. Gordon and her attorneys offered that just calling a boys sport co-ed didn’t amount to a meaningful opportunity, and they wanted real inclusion in a sport that calls itself “a brotherhood.”
The two-week trial featured testimony from girls who played and suffered a range of experiences, including assault and exclusion. With districts and the UHSAA sharing details of how they add new sports and why a sport needs to have widespread interest before it can be sanctioned. U.S. District Court Judge Howard C. Nielson Jr., has taken the case under advisement with a decision expected in early 2021. There is a wide range of remedies Nielson could consider if he sides with Gordon and the other girls. Either way, Gordon will likely never get to suit up for her high school, but she said she felt compelled to push the issue — and lawsuit — because girls deserve the same athletic opportunities offered to boys.
Gordon’s father started a girls tackle football league that attracted more than 300 players before COVID, and they were invited to play during the NFL’s 2020 Pro Bowl last January.