2020: A Month By Month Look at This Year in Sports
Oh, what a year 2020 has been.
Before we say goodbye to one of the strangest, most eventful (or event-less) years we've had to experience, let's take some time to reflect back on what happened in sports this year.
Going month-by-month, let's revisit some of the highs and lows from this year in local and national sports.
Roller coaster month for UTEP men’s basketball – The month of January was a tumultuous one for the Miners. It started with guards Nigel Hawkins and Jordan Lathon each entering the NCAA transfer portal at the midway point of the season. The team suffered losses against Boise State, Hawaii and Houston through the month of December and the group lost momentum from their 8-1 start. On top of all that, coach Terry was hospitalized during the trip to Florida and was forced to miss the road C-USA opener. On Jan. 15, the Miners erased a 24-point deficit en route to a come-from-behind victory against UTSA, 80-77, in overtime. It became the largest comeback win in program history.
2020 Calabasas helicopter crash – The moment when the sporting world stopped came on Jan. 26th, when we discovered that Kobe Bryant, one of the most iconic basketball players of all-time, had died in a tragic helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. It’s still hard to cope with the fact that Kobe is really gone. His presence felt immortal and he now leaves a lasting legacy that will flow through generations of athletes.
This happened this year? Joe Burrow, Ed Orgeron and the LSU Tigers put together a dominant 15-0 season capped off by a College Football National title victory against Clemson (42-25).
Chiefs win 1st Super Bowl in 50 years – Andy Reid finally got over the hump and superstar Patrick Mahomes cemented himself as one of the league’s fiercest competitors after Kansas City won their first Super Bowl in 50 years, defeating San Francisco 31-20.
NBA suspends season — I’ll never forget seeing this tweet. Where I was, what I was doing and the surreal feeling that came over me. We just wrapped up SportsTalk, as the topic revolved around whether or not there should/would be fans at the NCAA Tournament because of the growing concerns involving the coronavirus pandemic. But then, the NBA took measures into their own hands after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. No one truly understood the magnitude of the suspension by the NBA. Looking back, it was the domino that caused the rest of the sporting world to seize activities.
NCAA Tourney is suspended – Locally, the UTEP basketball programs had to deal with the suspension of the Conference USA tournament following concerns with handling the coronavirus pandemic, which was starting to spread across the U.S. Then, the NCAA Tournament suspended action. Other sports like baseball and soccer saw leagues suspend all activities too. There was so much uncertainty across the country. We truly had no clue whether or not sports would return in 2020.
Don Haskins Hour Debut – Due to the sporting world being at a standstill for the foreseeable future, Steve Kaplowitz came up with a brilliant idea that local sports fans in El Paso appreciated in a huge way. The Don Haskins Hour closed out all of our shows on 600 ESPN El Paso, featuring archived shows that The Bear would host on KROD. From the summer of 2006 through the spring of 2008, the two-hour program originated at Fuddruckers West, moved to The State Line and finally went east to the Three Legged Monkey. We brought on many different guests to SportsTalk this year to remember the incredible legacy that Haskins left, including Mike Price, Keitha Adams, Billy Gillespie, Pat Knight, among many others. Haskins also interviewed many of his former players in his show such as Nolan Richardson, Harry Flournoy, Jim Forbes, Quinton Gates, and Tim Hardaway.
Fans Vote ‘UTEP 2-Step' as GOAT – Another project that we took upon 600 ESPN El Paso was putting together the 64-man bracket of the greatest UTEP basketball players of all-time for fans to vote on. With hundreds of votes cast over the course of several weeks, fans voted Tim Hardaway as the greatest UTEP basketball player of all-time, defeating Bobby Joe Hill in the final round of the voting, with 56% of the fan votes.
Vegas Raiders in the Sun Bowl? - For a brief second, El Pasoans got excited at the news that the Las Vegas Raiders were exploring other alternate playing sites for their 2020 season if their new stadium wasn’t completed on time. Among the several cities, which included the likes of Phoenix and San Diego, the Sun Bowl became a possibility to host games for the Raiders. Whelp, here’s to fantasizing over the next rumor that will come in the future, which probably won’t amount to much as we saw here.
NFL Draft goes virtual – It felt like the entire country watched together as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league made the 2020 Draft virtual this year due to the pandemic. It added a unique twist to the annual event, seeing draftees take the phone calls from home and watching the players react alongside family members.
What a flop! The NCAA Board of Governors seemed to make headway on coming up with a roadmap to allow college athletes to benefit from sponsorships and endorsements, marking the first step to college athletes getting paid in some form. Those talks soon fizzled in the summer when the NCAA prioritized things like maintaining television revenue in the fall and strategizing a way to get college athletes back to playing their sports amid the pandemic. Will this ever get resolved finally? Or, will the NCAA fold in another key area of focus?
Best sports docu-series: The Last Dance – As sports were still on pause, there was one series that helped keep fans entertained during the quarantine period: The Last Dance. I would get home every Sunday evening, order some food with my roommate at my apartment and would watch intently each week for a pair of episodes as part of the 10-episode documentary about Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls. As a self-proclaimed LeBron guy, I was a little weary of the series before it was released. After the first episode, the hoops fan in me kicked in and I enjoyed every second of the docu-series. For someone that never watched Jordan play on the Bulls, and for someone that only read about his incredible legacy, The Last Dance helped to provide unbelievable insight into what kind of competitor he was and how great of a legacy MJ left in the sport.
Roll Tide in El Paso – Tavorus Jones, a sophomore sensation tailback at Burges High School, was starting to pick up some momentum in his recruiting over the offseason. The class of 2022 prospect impressed the likes of Alabama enough for the SEC powerhouse to offer the El Pasoan. Following the Bama offer, a frenzy of schools was interested in Jones, including Michigan, Florida, Texas, Texas A&M, Auburn and much other Division I programs. He became a 4-star rated prospect by 247 Sports and he was ranked as the 14th best running back across the country in the class of 2022.
Bieniemy signs at UTEP – Following the departure of six players over the offseason – Jordan Lathon (Miluawkuee-Wisconsin), Nigel Hawkins (Stephen F. Austin), Deon Stroud (Fresno State), Kaosi Ezeagu (Kansas State), Kaden Archie (Georgia Southern) and Anthony Tarke (Coppin State) -- UTEP landed its best recruit of the Rodney Terry era when they signed Oklahoma transfer point guard Jamal Bieniemy. The Miners were able to supplement a lot of the talent they lost with other incoming Division I transfers like Christian Agnew (North Alabama) and Kristian Sjolund (Georgia Tech).
It almost happened! Amid the growing speculation that New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans could follow Steve Forbes as the next East Tennessee State coach, Jans had a message on Twitter for Aggie fans—“Let’s run it back”—silencing the rumors of his potential departure from the program.
EPAHOF Announces 2020 Class – The El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame announced their 2020 class, which was headlined by some great sports figures, featuring Ernie Bautista (Track); John 'Rocky' Coppinger (baseball); Monica Townsend (golf); Tony Grijalva, football coach (Franklin H.S.); Milton Henry, football coach (Franklin H.S.); Oscar Leeser; Robert Hemphill, Jr., referee; and Salvador "Gory" Guerrero (wrestling).
Remember this? The debate on whether or not high school athletes should go back to campuses for voluntary summer workouts amid the pandemic. On June 15th, not only did local prep school kids return back to school for workouts, but UTEP student-athletes also returned to campus in phases for summer strength and conditioning programs.
Black Out Tuesday — Social media was flooded with a nationwide movement called "Black Out Tuesday,” and local sports organizations, coaches and players voiced their support for justice amid the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The sporting world reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement in a huge way by joining peaceful marches, to organizing voting centers in underprivileged cities, to spreading awareness in their own sports.
Rhinos join NA3HL & NAHL - The El Paso Rhinos had a great 2020, kicking off with the news that the club will join the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) for the 2020-21 season. Moreover, starting in 2021-22, the Rhinos will have clubs in both the NA3HL and the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
Local home run - Nick Gonzalez became the highest drafted player in the MLB from the Las Cruces-El Paso area when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected the former NM State infielder seventh overall in the 2020 Draft.
Let’s not forget Sean Kugler – Could the ex-Miners coach and current Arizona Cardinals offensive line coach be the most underappreciated coach in UTEP football history? Steve Kaplowitz posed the statement in an article on 600 ESPN El Paso and former players, current players, fans and social media followers were torn by the question. Some beamed that Kugler never got the credit he deserved and developed some great athletes, while others argued that his record never lived up to expectations.
Lou Henson dies at 88 — Lou Henson, who led NMSU to the 1970 Final Four and came back 20 years later to coach the Aggies, died late July at the age of 88. Henson was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2003, but he stayed active on and off the court until the end.
It went viral - The UTEP women's basketball team launched a video in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with players giving their own testimonies in the video. The project went viral on social media, seeing thousands of people applaud the team for spreading awareness.
Milwaukee protests game – The NBA postponed three playoff games and the sporting world was shaken after the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to boycott a playoff game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man in Kenosha, Wisc.
By the numbers – UTEP announced in a press conference that they would allow only 18 percent capacity at the football games for attendance. The Miners ended up hosting only two home games all season due to cancelations—Stephen F. Austin (6,047 fans) and Abilene Christian (6,056 fans).
Locomotive FC becomes first sports club to allow fans - For the first time in 2020, fans were able to watch El Paso Locomotive FC at Southwest University Park. The club announced limited seating numbers totaling 800 fans (11% of the stadium) for the team's home match against Real Monarchs SLC on Saturday, August 29th. They were also the first local sports club to promote cardboard cutouts of fans.
NM State forgoes fall season – NMSU announced in mid-August that they would not play fall sports due to "COVID player health & safety concerns as well as 14-day quarantine requirement when traveling back into (New Mexico)." Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico urged both NMSU and New Mexico to forgo their fall seasons due to the pandemic. While the Lobos ended up playing a conference only schedule and finished 2-5, the Aggies became one of the few FBS schools to not compete this fall.
1 year anniversary of Aug. 3 - The first anniversary of the Aug. 3 El Paso Walmart mass shooting took place, as the community continues to heal from the traumatic event that took place in 2019.
El Paso is Hockeyville! After thousands of votes and multiple rounds in the contest, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made the announcement that the El Paso Rhinos earned the Hockeyville USA title, receiving $150,000 for rink upgrades and having the ability to host a future NHL preseason game.
Steve celebrates 25 years - On Wednesday, Sept. 16, Steve Kaplowitz celebrated 25 years of his hire date at 600 ESPN El Paso. It was awesome seeing family members and friends wish Steve a happy 25 years at the radio station.
This happened this year? The West Texas Buccaneers became the city’s latest arena/indoor football team. They will face teams in the region and the Lone Star State, including Allen, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio.
Lakers win No. 17 – At the conclusion of the NBA’s restart in the Orlando Bubble, it was a LeBron James-led Lakers squad that prevailed over the feisty Miami Heat in the Finals.
LA wins again – The city of Los Angeles had another world championship to be excited about as the Dodgers won their first title in 32 years, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays. There will be two especially memorable events that took place as the Dodgers took the crown: (1) Rays manager Kevin Cash removed starting pitcher Blake Snell from the game during the sixth inning, which ultimately cost them the game; and (2) Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner learning that he tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to the field to celebrate with teammates after the game.
El Paso high school football pauses – Having endured a ton of cancelations and postponements already, most high schools in the El Paso area joined together to announce a two-week suspension in all prep activities to try and combat the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases that the city was experiencing. Looking back at 2020, the high school football scene never got off the ground and the season was more of a throw-away than anything. The majority of the schools in the area played nowhere near the number of games that were originally on their schedules.
Locomotive FC reaches Western Conference Final – For the second straight year, the Locomotive FC reached the Western Conference Final in the USL playoffs. The club fell to Phoenix Rising FC (4-2) in a penalty shootout. It was a back-and-forth battle but El Paso simply couldn’t hang on in PKs.
Aggies move to Phoenix – In order to get their basketball season going, the NM State men’s and women’s programs were forced to relocate outside of Las Cruces to practice and play. All student-athletes would conduct their schooling away from the state of New Mexico. The Aggies men’s basketball team relocated to Phoenix and practiced at the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa. The total cost for the move was originally set at $78,000 over the five-week period, which includes the rooms, practice floor and other facilities, COVID testing, and disinfection.
What never was: Aaron Dumas becoming the all-time city rusher – I truly believe the COVID-19 pandemic robbed the Americas senior running back of the city’s rushing record, which was recently broken by Deion Hankins in 2018, totaling 7,491 rushing yards over his varsity career at Parkland. Dumas was on pace to break the record if he replicated another big year like he was set up to do. But he and the Trailblazers only played six games this year. The New Mexico Lobos signee finished his high school career with 6,083 rushing yards over three seasons. This year, he finished with three games played, 567 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Sun Bowl canceled – As the bowl season drew closer, we ended the month with the unfortunate news of the Sun Bowl canceling its bowl game this year due to uncertainties with the pandemic. As more and more bowl games ended up being canceled through the month of December, it was evident that the Sun Bowl made the right move to cancel early on and be back for next year.
Three years ago, Tim Floyd retired – Friday, Nov. 27, marked the three year anniversary of former UTEP basketball coach Tim Floyd entering the press room after a loss to Lamar and announcing his abrupt retirement from the program. Almost five months later, Rodney Terry would take over at the helm of the program.
UTEP football finally finishes season – The way the UTEP football season finished was beyond frustrating — to no fault of the Miners. The 10 false positives that led to the cancelation of the Rice game, which then led to the Southern Miss cancelation in early December was how the month was started. Then, North Texas refused to come to the Sun Bowl, forcing the Miners to play a “home game” in Denton against UNT. To cap it all off, the Miners were without their starting quarterback Gavin Hardison for the last game due to COVID-19 contact tracing. UTEP ended the season 3-5, having gone winless in C-USA play. After the end of the season, head coach Dana Dimel fired offensive coordinator Mike Canales and defensive coordinator Mike Cox. The improvements that the 2020 squad showed were evident from previous years, and we'll see if the Miners can show more improvements in year four of the Dimel tenure.
KJ Lewis earns national spotlight - The ESPN class of 2023 prep basketball rankings were revealed and El Paso's own K.J. Lewis was featured as a top-25 prospect. Aside from the plethora of offers coming in for the Chapin standout shooting guard, Lewis was named the 21st overall prospect in the class of 2023. Lewis, a 5-star prospect, is ranked as the third-best in Texas, fourth overall among shooting guards and fourth in the region. The two other Texas players on the list include Ron Holland (Duncanville) and Tyler Smith (Houston).
Showtyme makes the pro bowl - Aaron Jones was selected to his first Pro Bowl of his career in December after putting together a pretty special season. Jones eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive year and has been a key weapon in the Packers offense.
Miners upset Sun Devils - For the first time in nearly seven years, UTEP won a road non-conference game, upsetting Arizona State (76-63) in Tempe, Ariz. It was Rodney Terry’s best win at the program by far. The Miners (4-2) weren’t able to get as many non-conference games in this season due to scheduling troubles with the pandemic, but a huge road win against ASU is a good way to get ready for C-USA Play.
2021 Quick Sports Predictions
- Aaron Jones will choose to go for more money and signs with one of the following: Arizona, Miami or Los Angeles (Rams or Chargers) during free agency
- UTEP football wins four or more games in 2021
- UTEP men’s basketball finishes fifth overall in C-USA
- Katia Gallegos makes First Team All-Conference
- Locomotive FC goes back to Western Conference Finals for a third straight year