Year of the Pandemic Still Had So Many Great Stories



FINE WAY TO FINISH – Despite an otherwise weird sports year, it ended in a joyous way for several teams, including the Southern Regional field hockey squad. (Photo by David Biggy)
Wild and wacky. That’s the easiest way to summarize the sports year of 2020.
Still, every January we come up with our best 20 sports stories, and despite the wildness and wackiness of 2020 we didn’t merely scrounge up 20 fantastic stories from the past 12 months, but, rather legitimately, had enough to easily fill 20 spots – completely thwarting the idea we’d barely manage to conjure a top-10.
The reason for that is simple: Southern Ocean County sports teams and athletes had such an amazing winter season, they took up 12 positions by themselves. Filling the other eight actually wasn’t much of a chore. Wow!
Here are The SandPaper’s Top 20 sports stories of 2020:
20. The Big G – Mike Gesicki has been among the top 10 for a couple years and rightfully so. But now a third-year pro with the Miami Dolphins, Mike’s place on our list naturally has worked its way downward, mainly because whatever he does going forward isn’t big news around here. His football career now is all about how many times he catches the ball and how many touchdowns he racks up.
R.J. Petrozzino, third from left, and the Southern Regional boys bowling team take two spots among the top five on our Top 20 sports stories of 2020. (Photo courtesy of Southern Athletics)
Nonetheless, Mike’s still on his way up in the NFL, and he had another excellent season as Miami’s top receiving tight end, which wasn’t quite over heading into 2021, given the delay in the NFL schedule due to the pandemic. With one game left on Jan. 3, Gesicki had snatched 48 receptions for 656 yards – an average of 13.7 yards per catch and the most yards by a Miami tight end since Randy McMichael set the franchise’s single-season record (791) in 2004. Mike’s 130 yards against Buffalo on Sept. 20 was the most for a Dolphins tight end in a single game.
19. Taking Over at the Top – Because the pandemic shut down college sports early at the back end of the winter season in March, Liam Maxwell didn’t get the chance to close out his stellar career at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina with a solid tournament run by the Crusaders. For sure, that was a bummer for him. However, Maxwell, a Stafford Township native and former Southern Regional star volleyball player, managed to accomplish some big things in January and February.
The Conference Carolinas Co-Player of the Year, Maxwell on Jan. 11 set the program’s career kills mark, once held by current head coach Nolan Albrecht (1,185), and simply added to it during the rest of the season, which ended with a win over Lees-McRae on March 4. Maxwell finished the season with 290 kills and an average of 4.53 kills per set, which topped all of Division I-II for the season. Liam accumulated 1,450 kills and 138 aces for his career.
The Southern field hockey team not only captured a first-ever state sectional championship this past fall, but went undefeated doing it. (Photo by David Biggy)
18. Time to Step Away – Anybody who knows even a little about high school football around here knows how much Rob Davis poured his heart and soul into the Barnegat program. For 18 years, as he built the program from scratch, he lived, breathed and bled the Bengals’ orange and black. So, when he stepped down as Barnegat’s head coach at the end of this past season, it sent shockwaves through the local football community.
Always ready to talk up his program even during its early years and when the team wasn’t particularly good, Davis proved one thing year and year out – he was always about the players going through the program and helped prepare them for their adult years post-high school. During his 15 years as a varsity head coach, the Bengals were a .500 or better team through most of his stretch, capturing four division titles along the way and earning a spot in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship in 2013, when the Bengals finished 10-2.
17. Repeat for the Rams – At the end of September, Southern Regional seniors Jackson Braddock (more on him later), Tim Sincavage and Lindsey McLean didn’t really know what to expect of the upcoming cross-country season. Well, Braddock knew he wasn’t going to be running for at least a few weeks, but the uncertainty was more centered on how the ongoing pandemic was going to affect things.
Southern runner Jackson Braddock didn’t just lead the boys cross-country team to another Ocean County title in the fall, but capped an incredible year personally. (Photo by David Biggy)
Surprisingly, the Rams made it through the season without any cancellations. Still, the Ocean County Championships were not permitted at Ocean County Park and another course was required. Southern stepped up to host the meet and both the boys and girls were slated as the favorites. True to form, and for a second straight season, the Rams swept. Braddock, running for the first time all season, won the boys’ race to lead Southern along with Sincavage, while McLean, not even a varsity runner her first three seasons, had the race of her career to lead the girls with a personal-best 20:14.
16. Squeezing Their Way In – The Southern Regional girls bowling team is in one of the toughest divisions of the Shore Conference, always battling alongside perennial powerhouses Brick Memorial, Brick and Toms River North. Trying to win matches during the regular season is a chore for the Rams every winter. But sometimes, the tough schedule means they’re prepared for the NJSIAA sectional tournament.
On Feb. 8, the Rams didn’t bowl great, but Ed Costa’s crew bowled well enough to place second in the South Jersey Group IV sectional and qualify for the state finals for the first time in program history. Led by Cristina Ciborowski, Jordan Rizzo, Kaitlyn Gonsaves and Olivia Wilbert, Southern swiped second ahead of Egg Harbor Township by 37 pins – using a first-game effort of 806 to give itself enough of a cushion to hold off a late charge from EHT during the second and third games.
15. Solid Finish for Xiques – Qualifying as an individual for the NJSIAA’s bowling state finals has a fine line to it – a spare here and there, instead of a strike, through the course of three games often is the difference. On Jan. 29, Barnegat’s Matt Xiques, a junior at the time, led the Bengals’ team effort with a 655 series but still needed a ninth/10th-frame roll-off to break his tie at 19th place with Southern’s Cole Johansen and Lacey’s Michael O’Sullivan.
Xiques scored a 47 to advance to the individual Tournament of Champions and two weeks later climbed the ladder even farther, finishing in 14th place overall with a three-game set of 694 to start the tournament, easily qualifying for the top 16. During the Round of 16, Xiques rolled a 587 series and missed qualifying among the top five for the stepladder championship rounds, but it was a fantastic finish for Barnegat’s high roller.
14. A Long Time Coming – Everybody who follows soccer locally knew the Southern Regional boys team was loaded with talented and experienced seniors going into fall. The big question was whether the Rams not only would step onto the pitch due to the pandemic but for how many games, or whether they’d get the chance to finish the season. Whether they’d have a shot to win the ever-elusive Shore Conference Class A South title was solely on them.
Not surprisingly, Southern ended up with the chance it had been hoping for on Nov. 14 – the last day of the regular season and following a 4-3, overtime win against Toms River North just days earlier. The Rams and Mariners met again that week, this time to decide the division championship. It ended up a 3-3 tie, but the Rams had captured a division crown for the first time in 31 years. A week later, following a shortened and atypical sectional tourney, Southern and TRN met in the final and again played to a 3-3 tie by the end of regulation. The Mariners won in overtime, but the Rams finished 14-2-1 – the team’s best season in program history.
The Southern girls swim team first won the Ocean County title for the first time, then completed an undefeated regular season. (Photo courtesy of Southern Athletics)
13. Awesome Way to End Career – COVID-19 had just begun to wreak havoc on the sports scene in early March, but the NJSIAA Indoor Track Meet of Champions somehow became the last major event of the winter season to be completed. Good thing, because Pinelands Regional senior thrower Liz Makar had a major goal to accomplish – capturing the state shot put crown.
Interestingly, the meet was not held at the John Bennett Center, aka “The Bubble,” in Toms River for the first time in many years, but it didn’t matter. Makar’s top mark of 44 feet, 2½ inches was, by far, enough to win her first MOC title. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the chance to contend for a state title during the spring outdoor season, but ending a career with a state title is a great way to finish.
12. Big Stuff for SRHS Girls Swimmers – Talent doesn’t always win a swim meet for a team. In fact, depth is a much bigger factor. That’s what the Southern girls program had been built upon through 20 years, and the Rams’ depth is what carried it throughout the 2020 season – so much so that they not only finished undefeated (10-0) for the regular season but also pulled off what some would have considered the “impossible.” They won the Ocean County championship for the first time.
“We brought 20 girls to the meet, and all 20 swam great,” said coach Bill Entrikin of the 286.5-point effort by his squad, enough to edge Point Pleasant Borough by just 3½ points but powering past perennial power Donovan Catholic by 35½ points. “This was completely unexpected.” Several weeks later, the Rams crushed Brick Memorial, 103-67, to win the Shore Conference Class A South division title outright to complete the perfect regular season – another first in the program’s history.
After going 5-5 the year before, the Southern boys swim team had an incredible turnaround in 2020, first winning the Ocean County championship before reaching the state sectional semifinals for the first time in program history. (Photo courtesy of Southern Athletics)
11. Southern Boys Have Huge Turnaround – What’s better than going undefeated for the regular season and winning the second county title in program history? Well, in the world of boys swimming, particularly within NJSIAA South Jersey Group A, going deep into the state tournament is a big deal. The Southern boys, who went 5-5 in 2018-19, cleared the first hurdle by beating Atlantic City in the first round – the first time the Rams ever accomplished that feat.
But then fifth-seeded Southern had to travel to Voorhees for a quarterfinals clash against typically tough Lenape, the fourth seed. When the Rams dominated the last few races to complete a 99-71 victory over the Indians, coach Patrick Craig had very few words for what had just occurred. The Rams earned a spot in the semifinals – incredible! They got waxed by many-times-over defending sectional champ Cherry Hill East a few days later, but it didn’t matter. Going from 5-5 to 13-1 (11-0 during the regular season) and winning both the division and county crowns was far more than anybody expected.
10. Woodcock, Hummel Finish Big – The Southern Regional wrestling team had another incredible season in 2020, and when it came time for the individual state tournament the Rams knew a bunch of their guys had enough talent, experience and mental strength to place high among the state’s best inside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. Senior Robert Woodcock and junior Eddie Hummel, who had transferred from Roselle Park prior to the season, were two of them and they didn’t disappoint, each placing third in the state at their respective weights.
In the first round, the fifth-seeded Woodcock pinned Delsea’s Asa Walton, before scoring a 15-4 major decision over Wayne Valley’s Elijah Lugo in the second round, and advancing to the semis with a 3-0, quarterfinals victory against Camden Catholic’s Harrison Hinojosa. After losing a 5-4 decision to Delbarton’s Dante Stefanelli in the semifinals, Woodcock rebounded with a 3-0 decision against Rumson-Fair Haven’s Shay Addison – the 100th win of his career. He concluded his career with a 6-4 win over Manalapan’s Matt Benedetti in the 160-pound third-place contest.
Meanwhile, the seventh-seeded Hummel not only rebounded from a first-round loss to Darren Jones of West Essex, he won seven straight to place third at 138 pounds, concluding with an outstanding, 4-2 win over Long Branch’s Ryan Zimmerman. On the way to the third-place match, Hummel defeated Morris Knolls’ David Turner (17-10), pinned Colts Neck’s Logan Walter (1:51) and Seton Hall’s Connor Decker (1:51), then edged Woodstown’s Hunter Gandy (3-1), Shore Regional’s Al De Santis (6-3) and Paulboro’s Jacob Perez-Ell (6-4).
Barnegat native Dean Peterson became St. John Vianney’s first back-to-back state champion. (Photo by David Biggy)
9. No Points for His Opponents – A year after he became the first St. John Vianney wrestler to win a state individual wrestling championship, Barnegat native Dean Peterson was the top seed and the favorite to win a second straight state crown when he entered Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall for the final weekend of the season. But he may not have been considered a clear-cut favorite, even though he was undefeated.
In the Region V championship, the junior Lancer was tossed to his back by Shore Regional’s Jack Maida and barely won an 11-9 bout. It was the first time in his high school career he had been thrown for such loop. Well, the short version of his state-title run is this: Dean didn’t give up a single point in five bouts, as he completed a 37-0 campaign and increased his personal winning streak to 72 matches.
In the first round, Peterson won a 15-0 technical fall against Jackson Memorial’s Luke Temple in 2:12, before scoring an 8-0 major decision against Brearly-Dayton’s Patrick Phillips in the second round and reaching the semifinals with a 7-0 win over Paulsboro’s Georgio Mazzeo in the quarters. Peterson won a 3-0 decision over Bergen Catholic’s Nick Kayal to reach a third straight state final, where he edged Brick Memorial’s Vincent Santaniello, 1-0.
The Southern wrestling team added to its trophy case with another NJSIAA Group V title. (Photo by David Biggy)
8. Just Another State-Title Run – Sometimes when it seems the Southern Regional wrestling team may not reach the NJSIAA Group V state final, the Rams somehow find a way to do it anyway. In January, the Rams lost to Toms River North and at that point it looked as if the Mariners were the favorite to win South Jersey Group V and go on to the state semifinals. But once February rolled around, the Rams picked up steam, as they always do.
Southern caught fire, went on nine-match win streak, then beat TRN by nine points Feb. 12 in the section semifinals, earning a shot at top-seeded Howell two days later. The second-seeded Rams were tied with the Rebels going into the last bout of the sectional final, and freshman Cole Velardi stepped onto the mat to square off with Nick Acque. The bout lasted about a minute and a half – Velardi ran an arm bar and pinned his opponent amid thunderous applause from the Southern faithful who filled half of Howell’s gym.
With arguably the two best teams other than Southern out of the way, the Rams went on to win a second straight state crown, easily beating Passaic Tech, 63-6, before bouncing Shore Conference foe Manalapan, 38-24, in the group final on Feb. 16. It was the fifth state title in program history.
7. Big Guy in Barnegat Delivers – It’s hard to imagine any local wrestler accomplished more than Barnegat’s Griffin Jackstadt. The Bengals’ heavyweight entered the season with big goals and he scored them all. On back-to-back weekends, Jackstadt defeated Southern’s J.T. Cornelius to defend his District 29 title and then become the program’s first region champ. But, of course, the state finals inside Boardwalk Hall was where Jackstadt really wanted to cement his place in Barnegat history.
Barnegat’s Griffin Jackstadt was the happiest wrestler to not win a state title on March 7. (Photo by David Biggy)
No, Big Griff didn’t win the state title. He finished eighth. But that was enough for him, as he became Barnegat’s first state placewinner in its 14-year history. The sixth-seeded Jackstadt won a 3-0 decision over Somerville’s Richard Herrera in the first round, then bounced Colts Neck’s Thomas Lidondici with a 4-2 decision in the second round. In the quarterfinals, Jackstadt had a tough time scoring on Dwight Morrow’s Hector Lebron, falling 3-2 after four overtime periods.
In the wrestlebacks, he won a 9-5 bout against Fair Lawn’s Jakob Shapiro, before losing his next bout, 3-1, to Franklin’s Marcus Estevez. He ended up eighth after a 2-0 loss to North Hunterdon’s Liam Akers in the seventh-place contest. Despite the loss, Jackstadt ran to the opposite end of Boardwalk Hall, heaved his head gear into the stands and then ran back to the other end of the hall with eight fingers lifted in the air as his family and fans cheered from the other side of the arena – no doubt the best celebration we’ve seen for an eighth-place podium spot.
6. Going Out with a Bang and a Smile – Southern senior wrestler J.T. Cornelius was one of those dudes you had no choice but to smile about. Every time he went out onto the wrestling mat, he was there to do his best, help his team win and have fun doing it. But on March 7 in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, there was no more helping his team. It was J.T. against St. Joseph-Montvale freshman Jim Mullen and the NJSIAA heavyweight state final on the line.
He may not have won the state heavyweight title, but Southern’s J.T. Cornelius capped a great career on March 7. (Photo by David Biggy)
In short, Mullen, the 13th seed in the 285-pound bracket, was the better wrestler that day, working an early single-leg takedown into a near-fall en route to a 7-3 decision. But Cornelius, the seventh seed who fell short of winning the District 29 and Region VIII titles, had an amazing run to close out his career and, yes, he had a lot of fun while reaching center mat for the season finale.
After knocking off Passaic Tech’s Yosue Gomez, 4-2, in the first round, Cornelius pinned Point Pleasant Beach’s Liam Buday in 5:31 during the second round and scored a huge, 8-2 victory over second-seeded Marcus Estevez of Franklin in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Cornelius won a 3-1, overtime battle against 14th-seeded Hector Lebron of Dwight Morrow, who just happened to beat Barnegat’s Griffin Jackstadt in the quarters. Despite losing in the championship bout, Cornelius had a smile on his face afterward.
5. He Did What? – It’s safe to say Jackson Braddock has become the best male runner in Southern’s history. After winning the NJSIAA Group IV championship the previous fall, Braddock went into the indoor season expecting to get better as he streaked toward the spring season. After taking second in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the South Jersey, Group IV meet, he placed third in the group meet 3,200 and ended up fourth in the Meet of Champions on March 8.
Of course, the spring outdoor season never happened, thwarting any opportunity he may have had to lower his times and win any of the big meets. However, that didn’t stop him from training, and on Aug. 15 Braddock toed the starting line of the Music City Distance Carnival 3,200 in Nashville, Tenn. – his first race in five months. Eh, no big deal. He won the race, but winning the race wasn’t the only thing he did. He also crossed the finish line in 8:54.02 to break the meet record.
Interestingly, his training for that race set him back a bit for the cross-country season. He was banged up and needed to rest. Fortunately, the Rams had enough experienced runners to get through the shortened regular season, so Jackson’s timetable to return was the Ocean County Championships. Yeah, he won that race for a second straight season, then won the sectional final again as well. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the fall’s group meet and Meet of Champions were canceled for 2020. Still, it was a great year for Braddock, who also signed with the University of Virginia right before his senior year started.
4. Southern Senior Makes Bowling History – For those who believe bowling is a simple game and not really hard, it’s OK – that’s an opinion that works for a lot of people, hence the reason many bowling alleys are typically filled on Saturday evenings during “Glow Bowl.” But the truth is bowling is a very difficult sport at highly competitive levels. On top of that, bowling houses don’t make it any easier with their oil patterns designed to challenge every bowler who steps onto the approach.
So when Southern senior R.J. Petrozzino walked into Deptford’s Bowlero on Feb. 1, his main goal was to help his team be competitive in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament. However, a 257 in the first game, eight consecutive strikes for a second-game score of 268, and a third-game finish of 269 didn’t simply give the Rams a boost (see our No. 2 entry for more on that), it gave Petrozzino a whopping 794 series – a Southern series record.
It also landed him atop the individual leaderboard – 66 pins ahead of Group II Pemberton’s Jacob Boise and 81 pins ahead of Group IV Lenape’s Ryan Delozier – to become Southern’s first individual sectional champion. Three days earlier, Petrozzino did something else no Southern bowler had done. He reached the semifinals of the Shore Conference Tournament and finished fourth overall.
3. Southern Hockey Team Ends Up Perfect – Every year, the Southern Regional field hockey team graduates some prominent seniors and it just reloads the cannons for the next season. This has been going on for decades. However, the Rams graduated some 75 percent of their goals output, along with several excellent defensive players, the previous June. And without much of a preseason because of the pandemic, there was some uncertainty about how good this year’s squad might be.
That uncertainty didn’t last but a few weeks into October, as the Rams – largely under the direction of assistant Denise Logue because head coach Jenna Lombardo had just given birth to a son earlier in the month – not only were beating teams but doing so with relative ease and defensive suffocation. When the NJSIAA Central East Group D tournament started, the Rams were the top seed and favored to win, especially since perennial South Jersey Group IV power Eastern was in some other group this past fall.
Well, let’s make this simple. Southern gave up no goals in three tournament games, culminating with an outstanding defensive effort in a 2-0 final victory against seventh-seeded Scotch Plains-Fanwood. The Rams not only captured the program’s first-ever sectional title, they went 17-0 to become the first field hockey squad in the program’s history to go undefeated for a full season. Of course, the NJSIAA wasn’t giving out the standard trophies this year, but that didn’t change the fact the 2020 field hockey team made history.
2. Southern Bowlers Pull Off a Shocker – There’s truly not much difference between second and third on our top-20 list, but in this case the difference is in the shock value. While the team in the No. 3 spot was expected to have an great season, the team here simply did something nobody saw coming – not even the coach. The date was Feb. 1 and the place was Bowlero in Deptford, where Tony Salvatore’s boys bowling team competed in the NJSIAA South Jersey sectional tournament.
Let’s preface this with one simple fact – the Rams had never in their history come close to winning a team sectional crown. But this was the day that changed. The only senior on the team, R.J. Petrozzino, rolled a 794 series to win the individual section crown and lead the way, but other Rams were stellar as well. Freshman Andrew Christensen hammered a 705, while junior Cole Johansen fired a 655 as they joined Petrozzino as qualifiers for the state finals.
Junior Collin Wilkinson and sophomore Joe Wilkinson bowled well enough to give the Rams a 3,184 team total, and with that Southern ended up at the top of the overall standings, 164 pins ahead of second-place Eastern Regional – the first time a Southern bowling team captured a section title. “I’m thrilled, but I’m still in shock over it,” Salvatore said about the feat. “This is new territory for us, and it’s a lot of fun.”
1. A Sports Year Unlike Any Other – During a normal top-20, this space is occupied by some team or individual that reached incredible heights and accomplished some big things. But “normal” doesn’t describe 2020 in any way, shape or form. Even the word “abnormal” doesn’t seem to fit. Perhaps the better words to describe the year that just ended (thankfully, for many) are “heartbreaking” and “discouraging” and “odd.” Let’s face it: when the goal is to get teams back into action and get through even half of a shortened season, that’s just plain weird.
It was the Year of the Coronavirus Pandemic, after all – when life changed for so many and athletics of any kind truly became secondary to life and death.
Still, an entire spring sports season tossed in the can, a summer without lifeguard tournaments, and a fall season drastically altered and only provided as a means of giving athletes some outlet to physically exert themselves and prevent the possibility of some of them becoming distraught beyond mental repair … unfathomable before March 15.
Everybody thought when COVID-19 started making its rounds in late February – yes, national officials recently changed that starting point to December 2019, but that’s a sidenote now – the beginning and end of what wasn’t going to be normal would be over by mid-April or so. But that didn’t happen.
May arrived, COVID-19 cases continued to rise and the NJSIAA soon afterward said, “No way … we’re not putting kids, coaches and officials at risk” – so many seniors’ careers ended with one press release. So much anger, so many tears, so much heartache followed. But, somehow, they expressed their grief and moved on.
As the summer began, the hope of lifeguard competitions, swim meets and sailing events was knocked down by gathering restrictions imposed by Gov. Phil Murphy and a relatively high coronavirus transmission rate. A little bit of baseball managed to make an appearance with the “Last Dance” Tournament, but that lasted a couple of weeks.
As the fall arrived, the NJSIAA moved cautiously, pushing back the start of the season and squeezing everything into about seven weeks – no official state sectional or group tournaments, no football playoffs, no competition outside the division until mid-November. The girls tennis season was a measly four weeks. The girls volleyball and gymnastics seasons were postponed until March 2021.
Every day a team was able to compete proved to be a victory. Some teams didn’t finish their seasons because of coronavirus outbreaks. Fortunately, most of the local high school sports programs completed their “odd” fall seasons – a few with incredible triumphs.
But with the winter season not starting at its normal time in December – swimming and indoor track were pushed back to February 2021, while wrestling was dealt a tough blow by being postponed until March as well, and everything else scheduled to begin in January – the sports year ended with a whimper.
To suggest 2021, or at least the first half of it, will be anywhere close to normal is foolish. The pandemic continues to rage as the new year begins. But as Southern Superintendent Craig Henry said during a brief conversation on Dec. 30, “It has to be better than 2020. Right?” We’ll find out at this time next year.
biggy@thesandpaper.net

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