NEWLAND — The past 12 months have been unlike any other in all walks of life. In the world of high school sports, schools and athletic programs have been challenged during the unprecedented year of 2020, as health and safety protocols have forced numerous postponements, rescheduling and cancellations.

From the cancellation of the NCHSAA state basketball championships in March to the rescheduling of the entire fall football season in most North Carolina high schools this past autumn, high school athletic directors, parents, coaches and players have been required to adapt for a different kind of normal.

Despite the adversity and challenges of 2020, the year did provide a number of compelling local stories that are worth recollecting. Since it is said that “hindsight is 2020,” why not put that to the test in looking back at some of the top stories and themes of the past calendar year?

Wrestling celebrates greatest season in school history (February)

Avery High School’s wrestling team captured the hearts and attention of local residents as the juggernaut club captured its first team state championship in any sport for the school when it defeated Uwharrie Charter School in the 1A State Wrestling Duals in February, adding the hardware after dominating its Western Highlands Conference opponents in the regular season.

“These guys have worked so hard and the community embraced them. It has taken everybody to win this championship,” Avery head coach Matthew Dunn said immediately following the Vikings’ clinching of the state duals title. “Everybody from the start of the year has pushed us to do this.”

Following that performance, the Vikings went on to win the 1A Western Regional title in Mount Airy, followed by a second team championship in Greensboro that boasted five individual state champions in the process.

The Big Red became the first 1A school and only the fifth school since 1989 to boast five individual state champions in a single state tournament.

A total of seven overall Vikings wrestled for state championships at Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday, Feb. 22. Avery emerged victorious with multiple pieces of hardware, including five state individual titleholders in Ethan Shell, River Griffith, Seth Blackledge, Lucas Andrews and Levi Andrews, as well as a pair of runner-up finishers in Bradley Parker and Dalton Towe, and a third-place winner in Jonah Hayes.

The combined cumulative performance that day also garnered the team the overall 1A team championship, as Avery scored 157.5 team points to outpace second-place Uwharrie Charter, the team it defeated in state duals two weeks earlier.

“This weekend was the payoff for years of hard work,” Avery head wrestling coach Matthew Dunn said following the event. “We tied the state record for state champions and scored more points than any school from any division. We’re hoping this helps get more kids out and this is just the first of many state titles.”

Thanks to the pandemic, the Vikings will have to wait a bit longer than expected to begin defense of its state championships, as wrestling season is scheduled to gear up in April.

Girls basketball sweeps Madison, earns state playoff berth

Avery girls basketball returned to the state playoffs during the 2019-2020 campaign, winning a pair of matchups over conference foe Madison along the way.

The Lady Vikings showed resilience and poise in staging a second-half rally to defeat the Lady Patriots in one of the team’s strongest performances of the season on Friday, Jan. 10.

Trailing for much of the game, the Big Red mounted a comeback from an eight-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter to earn a two-point win on its home floor.

The Lady Patriots led by an 8-2 margin after one quarter, and managed to withstand a stronger second quarter from Avery to lead 18-13 at halftime.

As the second half unfolded, Avery attempted to cut into the Madison lead. Addie Beck scored three baskets in the quarter as part of her team-high 10-point performance, with a pair of free throws by Mari Maya and a point from Alexis Stines accounting for the Big Red offense for the period. Madison countered to take a 27-22 entering the fourth quarter.

The Patriots expanded its lead to 34-26 with 5:08 to play in the game thanks to five straight points from guard Nakaila Marler. Avery battled back, however, as the Lady Vikings forced Madison into a number of bad shots while capitalizing on its own offensive end. Stines found a hot hand with a pair of three-pointers, the latter of which gave the Big Red the lead at 35-34 with 2:27 remaining. Stines then scored and was fouled seconds later on Avery’s next possession to extend the lead to three at 37-34.

A Marler basket cut Avery’s lead to one with 1:40 to play, but a Reagan Hughes free throw in the final minute extended the Lady Viking lead to two. The Avery defense then finished the game strong, holding Madison scoreless the rest of the way to take the victory.

“Against Madison we were confident, but was afraid that our inability to put the ball in the basket could hurt us… We made some halftime adjustments and really started working the ball inside more, and once Addie got going it opened everything else up for our guards. Mari Maya and Cora Lee Hollifield lit a spark in our defense in the second half and we were able to affect Madison with our pressure…I was very proud of their effort and for everything that the team did to win that game,” Avery head coach Allison Phillips said following the win.

The Lady Vikings went on to win an overtime game at Owen in the Western Highlands Conference Tournament and also qualified for the state 1A basketball tournament, where it fell in an opening-round matchup at Gray Stone Day on February 25.

Rosato’s four blasts lifts Vikings baseball to lopsided win at Cloudland

In what proved to be the final day of athletic competition for Avery High School for the 2019-2020 academic year, Avery first baseman Noah Rosato made sure that it would be a memorable finale, as he blasted four home runs to lead the Big Red to a 25-4 victory at Cloudland on Wednesday, March 11.

Rosato, a junior co-captain, was 4-for-5 at the plate with four home runs, to go with nine runs batted in. He grounded to second base in his first at-bat, then proceeded to slug four consecutive dingers over the right-field fence, including his final two round-trippers in the top of the fourth inning.

Avery sent 14 batters to the plate in the top of the second inning, scoring 10 runs. Center fielder Lucas Andrews scored twice in the inning, belting base hits in both of his at bats during the frame. Left fielder James Russ belted a two-run homer as part of the scoring barrage to go with Rosato’s first blast, helping the Big Red to lead 12-1.

Vikings right-handed starting pitcher Nick Banks stifled the ‘Landers offense on the mound. Banks struck out the side in the second inning and held Cloudland hitless while retiring the side in order in the third inning as well. Banks picked up the win by giving up one hit over three innings, hurling six strikeouts.

Boys hoops works overtime (five to be exact) in 24-hour span

Avery boys varsity basketball players should have bypassed their leg day in weightlifting class for the week of February 10, as ACHS played a four-overtime thriller at home against Mitchell, followed by an overtime contest against Polk and conference tournament game at Mitchell.

In one of the wildest and most seesaw affairs seen in Viking Gym, the Vikings and Mountaineers played a memorable matchup that featured a 50-point performance by Avery junior Silas Barinowski, a combined 80 points by the teams in the overtime sessions alone, and unlikely heroes on both teams forcing extra basketball with clutch shots.

Prior to the game, the Vikings paid tribute to its pair of senior players, Jonas Bowman and Jesse Jones, for their contributions to the ACHS program. As for the game itself, seven combined players fouled out by the end of the matchup, and the squads combined to sink 21 three-pointers, with Avery making 15 of the triples.

The contest was a nip-and-tuck contest throughout the marathon contest. Avery started strong and built a narrow 21-17 lead after one period behind nine points on three 3-pointers by Logan Gilliam, seven points from Barinowski and a pair of Trent Whitelock field goals. Mitchell countered with six points from Caius Peterson and four from Noah Pitman.

Offenses cooled somewhat in the second quarter, with Mitchell making the most of its opportunity in outscoring the Vikings 14-8 to take a narrow 31-29 advantage into halftime.

Mitchell scored the first six points of the third stanza to extend its lead to nine, and the Vikings responded as Barinowski scored four field goals for 10 points in the frame and Whitelock added six points to pull the Big Red within 53-50 after three quarters.

Midway through the fourth quarter, a Zeus Ponder basket helped the Mountaineers rebuild a lead at 61-53, but the Vikings chipped away late in regulation, outscoring MHS 10-5 over a four-minute span to draw within a point at 66-63. A MHS technical foul with less than 30 seconds to play and two subsequent Whitelock free throws brought Avery within a point.

Seconds later, with the game tied at 66, Mitchell’s Tyler McKinney drove and scored to give the visitors the lead, but Barinowski answered by being fouled on the in-bounds pass. The junior sank both free throws to tie the game and send it to overtime tied at 68.

Midway through overtime, the Mountaineers again took control, leading 75-69 with 2:20 to play, but Avery again clawed back behind the hot-shooting Barinowski, who scored 11 points in the first overtime, including a pair of three-pointers. Trailing by three in the final half-minute of the session, Barinowski was fouled on a three-point attempt and made all three foul shots to knot the game at 82 and enter a second overtime.

The game became a battle of attrition as the third extra session transpired, as multiple players on both teams were called for their fifth personal foul and fouled out of the contest. Avery’s Whitelock, who scored 27 points, fouled out in overtime, leaving the scoring burden to Barinowski, who obliged in the third session with another nine points in the frame that eventually concluded with a 91-91 deadlock.

Unlikely heroes stepped up for both teams as the game wore on. David McCollum sank a jumper to put Avery on top in the closing seconds of the third overtime, only to see Mitchell’s Ty Pitman answer by connecting on a baseline jumper with defenders in his face as time expired to tie the game at 100, forcing the fourth overtime.

Although both clubs were playing portions of the final four minutes without multiple starters due to foul-outs, the game remained a one-possession affair throughout. Barinowski added four points in the final overtime for a game-high total of 50, but Ty and Noah Pitman combined for eight points in the period to push Mitchell over the top for the 110-106 win.

Besides Barinowski and Whitelock, Gilliam was the only other Viking in double figures with 11 points.

Less than 24 hours later, Avery was back on the court to host Polk. Avery trailed 15-12 after one quarter, as Bowman and Gilliam scored nine of the Viking points. As the second quarter unfolded, the Vikings outscored the Wolverines 16-10 to take a 28-25 halftime lead.

Polk found its shooting rhythm out of the locker room to open the second half, outscoring Avery 18-11 behind eight points from Bryson Edwards, who led the Wolverines with 25 points in the contest. AHS made only four field goals in the period, as PCHS rallied to lead 41-39 after three stanzas.

Avery trailed by as many as nine with less than two minutes remaining before mounting a comeback, using an 8-0 scoring run capped by an offensive rebound and tip-in by Bowman to close the period and force overtime tied at 57-57.

In the four-minute overtime, Avery took control as the defense limited the Wolverines to a single basket. Barinowski scored four of his 20 points in the frame, with free throws late by Gilliam and Troy Hoilman to secure the Viking victory.

Avery basketball fell to Mitchell in a rematch later in the week in a rematch in Ledger to end its season.

New conference, new opponents? NCHSAA releases initial realignment draft

As the final weeks counted down in 2020, the state high school athletics association released its initial draft of realignment and its criteria for placement of teams into respective regions, classes and conferences.

On Thursday, Dec. 10, the NCHSAA released its first draft of realigned conferences to member schools. From the initial draft comes a number of changes to Avery and other nearby schools.

From the preliminary draft, Avery High School will remain as a 1A classification school.

Enrollment figures are used to determine which classification a school would belong to for the next four years. Average daily membership (ADM) numbers, the enrollment data used by the NCHSAA, are still the top consideration for realignment, but unlike previous alignments, additional criteria were included in assessing a school’s classification and placement, including a three-year average of the state cup points for each school and three-year average of the Identified Student Percentage (ISP) figures for each school. The state cup points illustrate overall athletic department excellence, while the ISP numbers is reflective of the number of students at a school who receive some form of government assistance.

With the release of its initial realignment draft, Avery is slated to remain in a yet-to-be-named conference with familiar Western Highlands Conference schools Mitchell, Mountain Heritage, Madison and Owen. The lone change among the schools remaining from the most recent WHC is that Mountain Heritage was reclassified as a 1A school, dropping from its longtime 2A designation.

The Realignment Committee also added three new schools to its initial conference proposal for “Conference 42,” as Draughn and Patton high schools from Burke County, as well as West Caldwell High School are assigned to the new conference. Draughn is classified as a 1A school as part of the new split conference, with Patton and West Caldwell joining Madison and Owen as 2A representatives in the proposed eight-team conference structure.

The new proposed conference would mean the departure of Polk County, which has been part of Avery’s conference since entering the league in 2005.

Conference teams are far from final, as a final determination of Avery’s conference fate will not be determined until sometime in March, with the final realignment taking effect in August 2021 for a four-year period.

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