Local sports teams will have to continue to deal with COVID-19 in 2022.

As long as it’s not as challenging to deal with as it was in 2021, they’ll take it. Administrators, coaches, players and fans were thankful to see sports return in 2021, but it’s not a year they ever want to see repeated.

COVID-19 was The Winchester Star’s No. 1 sports story of the year in 2020 because, after March 10, not one scholastic sports event took place over the remainder of the year due to the disease.

COVID-19 repeats as The Star’s No. 1 sports story in 2021 for myriad reasons.

Athletes did their best to combat COVID-19, sometimes even wearing masks during competition as part of the mitigation protocols put in place. But programs had to be shut down for stretches to limit the spread of the disease, and events had to be canceled or postponed as a result of those shutdowns.

The time of year in which certain sports were played was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

In the 2020-21 school year, most indoor events were played without fans, and the ones that did only featured a limited number of family members.

And the 2020-21 high school seasons were much shorter than usual — at the high school level, no team was able to exceed 60 percent of a normal Virginia High School League season.

The VHSL allowed schools to begin participating in winter sports events on Dec. 21, 2020, but each of the three local schools divisions elected to delay their decisions to participate until the first full week of January in 2021.

On Jan. 4, Clarke County received clearance from its school board to begin winter sports on Jan. 8. On Jan. 7, Winchester Public Schools allowed Handley to compete in winter sports immediately. As a result of those moves, Clarke County and Handley had opportunities to compete in the postseason for winter (the VHSL season would run from December through February) fall (February through April) and spring (April through June).

In between, Frederick County announced on Jan. 6 at its school board meeting that it would delay all interscholastic competition until March 1. (Four of the seven board members agreed with Frederick County Public Schools’ recommendation to delay.)

The plan called for James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando to compete March 1-27 for winter sports, March 29-April 24 for fall sports, and April 26-June 26 for spring sports. That decision resulted in no VHSL postseason for the Frederick County winter sports teams and most of the fall sports teams.

Over the ensuing three days, Frederick County athletes staged two protests outside of the FCPS building, but no changes were made to the Frederick County sports calendar. Frederick County athletes were at least given the chance to play — as of Dec. 18, 2020, 40 schools representing 23 schools divisions had opted out of winter sports entirely.

Later in January, Frederick County announced that the fall sports of cross country and competition cheer would get to compete in the VHSL fall season. Cross country was given the opportunity for a longer season because Frederick County did not field indoor track teams. Cheerleaders were given the opportunity because of the VHSL spectator rule. The VHSL counted cheerleaders as spectators and Frederick County announced it would not allow spectators at indoor events. As a result, winter sideline cheerleaders could not cheer at basketball games like they did in the past, which freed cheerleaders to compete in the VHSL fall season.

Frederick County did its best to maximize playing opportunities for its athletes, but the March 1-27 winter sports window proved to be particularly challenging. On March 12, the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission ruled that they considered the Frederick County schools to be club teams after being made aware that the VHSL winter sports season was finished, so the remaining West Virginia-Frederick County events were canceled.

COVID made it difficult to get events completed in general. In the 2020-21 school year, several different sports were affected with shutdowns, but it stood out in particular with football. Football features fewer games than other sports, and it’s difficult sport to reschedule games. Clarke County and James Wood each lost two football games from their schedules, leaving the Eagles with only four games and the Colonels with just two.

Though the circumstances weren’t ideal, there were plenty of things to celebrate even before the spring, when all five local schools competed in the VHSL season in front of sizeable crowds made possible by the loosening of COVID restrictions (some of these accomplishments are mentioned in the remainder of the Top 10 and honorable mention.)

Some of the highlights included the Millbrook volleyball team (11-0) and James Wood football team (2-0) celebrating wildly after completing perfect seasons in April. They didn’t get to compete in the postseason, but they were grateful for the chance to compete. The Colonels hadn’t beaten Sherando in football since 2008 and hadn’t defeated Millbrook since 2014.

In the 2020-21 school year, the Shenandoah University winter and fall sports teams didn’t get to enjoy seasons that were as long as the ones for the spring sports teams. But they too got to enjoy competing, something that numerous college athletes across the country were denied.

The 2021-22 school year has featured a return to normal schedules for local schools and Shenandoah University, and area schools haven’t suffered many disruptions to their schedules. Millbrook was able to play a full football schedule after having to cancel one game. Clarke County’s boys’ and girls’ basketball teams have each had to make adjustments to their schedules due to shutdowns.

2. Handley boys’ basketball falls in state finals

In the many years that Handley has played boys’ high school basketball, the Judges had yet to come home with a state title. It took an outstanding second half by Smithfield in February to keep it that way.

Led by Class 4 state Player of the Year Demitri Gardner, Handley made a run at a state title that few fans had a chance to see.

Thanks to the COVID-19 restrictions, gyms were basically empty for the shortened basketball season, which Handley did not start until early January.

The Judges had no trouble in Class 4 Northwestern District play, rolling through the abbreviated regular season with a 6-0 mark and cruising in a pair of tournament games to the district crown.

Handley whipped Dominion by 18 points in the opening round of regional play, but then ran into trouble against Loudoun County in the Region 4C title game. Gardner’s basket with 32 seconds left snapped a tie and gave the Judges a 55-53 win over the Captains at Maddex-Omps Gymnasium.

Advancing to the state’s Final Four, Handley had to make the long trip to Halifax County for the semifinals. They’d have to play longer than four quarters to win it. Halifax County nailed a late 3-pointer from just inside the halfcourt line to send the game into overtime, but Handley would hold the Comets to just two points in the extra period. Gardner’s 3-pointer with 40 seconds left gave Handley the lead for good in a 52-49 triumph.

Hosting the state championship game, Handley raced out to a 12-point lead in the first half only to see Smithfield rally. The unbeaten Packers outscored the Judges 42-27 in the second half to pull out a 61-54 victory.

The Judges, also led by Chaz Lattimore, Ke’Mani Curry, Ethan Schwantes, Emerson Fusco and Stephen Daley, would finish the season 11-1 and drop their third state title appearance since 2014.

3. Clarke girls’ soccer claims state title

With seven juniors, five seniors, five freshmen and two sophomores, Clarke County girls’ soccer coach Jon Cousins said before the season started that he loved his team’s talent level. But he added, “we’re old and young, so we just have to figure out how to play as a team and play for each other.”

The Eagles proved to be a perfect mix.

Led by freshman forward Madison Toone (36 goals), the Region 2B and Bull Run District Player of the Year, Clarke County won its nine regular-season games by a combined 72-8.

After a 7-0 win over Stuarts Draft in the Region 2B semifinals, the Eagles beat Stonewall Jackson 4-3 in the Region 2B championship game when Toone scored three goals in the last 12 minutes with Clarke County down 3-1. It was a must-win game, as the 2020-21 school year featured only regional champions advancing to the state tournament.

After beating Poquoson 4-0 in the Class 2 state semifinals, the Eagles hosted Radford at Feltner Stadium before a crowd of more than 600 people in the state championship game without Toone or her twin sister Summer, who were in California due to a club soccer commitment.

Mayo Marasco scored 11 minutes in and Alison Sipe scored five minutes later. Ella O’Donnell put the finishing touches on the 4-0 win with two goals 45 seconds apart with seven minutes left in a game that also featured a superlative performance from the Clarke County defense. The Bobcats rarely threatened Eagles goalkeeper Emma Rogers.

The state title for Clarke County — which finished 13-0 — was its first since the 2006 season.

4. Clarke girls’ state title highlights year in cross country

With two seasons in a span of eight months, area cross country runners covered a lot of miles in 2021.

No local team collected more hardware over that time than the Clarke County girls.

In the spring, the Clarke girls placed third in Class 2, with Ellen Smith earning All-State honors. Earlier, the Eagles won the Bull Run District title.

In the fall, the Clarke County girls were even better, sweeping the Bull Run, Region 2B and Class 2 state titles. The Eagles won their first state title since 2018 by scoring 90 points to runner-up Alleghany’s 101 points at Green Hill Park in Salem. The senior Smith, junior Julianna Pledgie and senior Ryleigh Webster placed 31st through 33rd as the team’s 3-4-5 runners to finish ahead of Alleghany’s No. 4 and 5 runners. Freshman Teya Starley earned All-State honors by placing seventh and freshman Abigail Cochran placed 18th.

It was also a banner year for the Clarke County boys’ program. In the fall, the Eagles boys placed second in Class 2 for the program’s highest state finish since 2009. The Eagles had three All-State performers — sophomore Cal Beckett placed fifth and freshmen Jackson Ellis and Aidan Kreeb placed 13th and 15th, respectively.

The area’s Class 4 cross country runners left their mark as well. James Wood’s Nathaniel Woshner earned All-State honors in the spring (13th) and fall (14th) to lead the Colonels to seventh and ninth place, respectively. Nico Schianchi placed ninth in Class 4 to lead the Handley to sixth in its first state meet appearance since 2014. On the girls’ side, Millbrook’s Madison Murphy earned All-State honors in the spring (fourth) and fall (15th) while James Wood senior Lauren Beatty accomplished that feat in the spring (13th).

5. Simonelli selected in MLB Draft

Former Millbrook High School standout Anthony Simonelli’s long baseball sojourn yielded a big reward in the end — being selected in the Major League Draft in July.

The Kansas City Royals selected the 2017 Millbrook graduate and Virginia Tech junior pitcher in the 16th round with the 469th overall pick. No baseball player from Millbrook had been drafted since the school was established in 2003.

Simonelli’s road to professional baseball was filled with many speed bumps along the way. He lost two years of his career with the Pioneers because of injuries (knee, Tommy John surgery) and went to a pair of college programs (Coastal Carolina and St. John’s River State) before landing at Virginia Tech.

In his junior season for the Hokies, Simonelli made 13 starts. Over 66.2 innings (second on the team), he posted a 5-2 record, a 3.91 ERA (second on the team), .176 batting average against (first), struck out 77 batters (third) and walked 28.

Those numbers attracted interest from the Royals, whose team president is former Winchester Royals manager Dayton Moore. Simonelli would sign a contract and head to Arizona, where he pitched a total of 10 games for three of the Royals’ minor league teams, including four with the Low-A East Columbia Fireflies in South Carolina. He’d compile a 1-1 record with a 1.37 ERA. In 19.2 combined innings, Simonelli allowed just 12 hits and struck out 24 batters.

6. Daley’s performance highlights football season

Stephen Daley entered his final season with the Handley football team having already accomplished some big things in 2021. He played in a state championship basketball game and finished third in the 100 meters and fifth in the discus in Class 4.

But he’d save some of his most outstanding work for his sport of preference — football.

Daley would become one of the state’s most feared players at two positions — defensive end and running back.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior would rush for 1,785 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first full season as a running back for the Judges and continue upon his excellent career on defense with 84 tackles (27 for loss) and 14 sacks.

Daley would receive numerous accolades, including First Team All-State and All-Region 4C on both offense and defense and earning The Winchester Star’s and Class 4 Northwestern District’s Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year honors. He’d also land a full scholarship with Division I Kent State.

Daley’s play helped the Judges go 9-2 and for the first time since 2009 earn the Barr-Lindon Crimson Apple, awarded by The Winchester Star to the team that fares best in Winchester-Frederick County games. Handley finished second in the Northwestern District, which featured three area teams earning one of the four regional playoff spots.

James Wood, led by the explosive Jaden Ashby, would finish third in the district and earn its first regional playoff spot since 2014 in finishing 7-4. Sherando, 5-6 under first-year head coach Jake Smith, would overcome an 0-3 start to finish fourth and earn the final regional spot.

Clarke County’s season would last longer than any area team. Led by Bull Run Offensive Player of the Year Kyler Darlington and District Defensive Player of the Year Cordell Broy, the Eagles (10-2) would advance to the Region 2B semifinals. Clarke County won its first outright Bull Run District championship since 2015 and won 10 games for the first time since 2017.

7. James Wood, Clarke make soccer state semifinals

To say it was a historic season for the James Wood boys’ soccer team would be an understatement.

The Colonels won their first regional title ever and even in a shortened pandemic season set marks for wins (15) and shutouts (11). Seth Hammond set a school mark with 24 goals in a season and Chris Garcia broke the school mark for career goals with 50.

The Colonels rolled through the Class 4 Northwestern District regular season and took their first tournament title since 2011 to advance to the regionals. In Region 4C competition, James Wood took out Loudoun County (6-2) and Park View (2-1) for its initial regional crown to set up a Class 4 semifinal showdown between the Colonels (15-0) against Jefferson Forest (14-0).

Played in Forest, the state semifinal would turn into an evening where 100 minutes of action wouldn’t separate the two schools. Garcia had two goals in regulation, but the Cavaliers would tie the contest with about 12 minutes remaining. After two overtime periods, which were interrupted by a 30-minute lightning delay, Jefferson Forest prevailed 4-3 on penalty kicks.

The Colonels weren’t the only local team to make history with a state semifinal run. Clarke County advanced to the Class 2 semifinals, capturing its first regional title since its state title season of 2006.

Led by Justin Toone’s 31 goals and Brendan Haun’s 21 tallies, the Eagles lit up the scoreboard during the season, including a 15-1 pasting of Buckingham in the opening round of the regional playoffs.

Haun would score twice as Clarke County rallied past Staunton 3-1 in the regional title game.

Hosting Nandua in a battle of 11-0 teams in the Class 2 semifinals, the Eagles would outshoot the Warriors 19-10, but were stymied by a hot goalie. The contest was tied 1-1 at the half, but Nandua scored in the 49th and 62nd minutes in the second half to pull out the win. The Warriors would go on to rout Graham 6-1 in the state title game.

8. Millbrook volleyball advances to state semis

Millbrook’s combination of talent and grit produced one of the best seasons in school history this fall.

The Pioneers went 23-3 for the winningest season in head coach Carla Milton’s seven seasons at the school. For the first time since 2017, Millbrook won the Class 4 Northwestern District regular-season and tournament titles. Also for the first time 2017, the Pioneers advanced to the Class 4 state semifinals.

Led by three Class 4 All-State players in setter Madison Koeller, libero Autumn Stroop and outside hitter Madelyn White, Millbrook proved it could win in dominant fashion (13 three-set wins) but also showed its resolve by winning all six of its five-set matches.

Two of those five-set victories came in matches that could have ended Millbrook’s season. In the Region 4C semifinals, Millbrook rallied from a 2-1 deficit in sets and a 14-13 deficit in the fifth set to win 16-14. In the Class 4 quarterfinals, the Pioneers trailed 11-5 in the fifth set and won 15-13.

The Pioneers’ only three losses came to 10-time defending state champion Loudoun County (the Region 4C final and 3-0 in the state semis to end Millbrook’s season) and West Virginia Class AAA state runner-up Hedgesville. The Pioneers won their first matchup with Hedgesville.

9. Limoges signs pro hockey contract

Winchester native Alex Limoges ended a record-setting college career for the Penn State hockey team and now is playing professionally.

While he went undrafted out of Penn State this past spring, Limoges was signed by the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls, an affiliate of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. Limoges is now in his second season with San Diego.

Limoges had his stellar career at Penn State come to an end in March. Limoges had 51 goals and 74 assists for 125 points in 128 games and his 0.98 points per game ranks first all-time for the Nittany Lions.

As the team’s captain in 2020-21, he led Penn State in goals (10), assists (12) and points (22) while playing in all 22 games.

After signing his contract, Limoges made an immediate impact for San Diego, which still had games to play. In 23 games, Limoges had 11 goals and 10 assists.

Starting a full season this year, Limoges has four goals and two assists in 17 games.

10. Longtime coaches step down from positions

Three men with almost 60 combined years of head coaching experience at their respective schools resigned from their positions in 2021.

In 18 seasons, Bill Hall compiled a record of 150-52 and never had a losing season as Sherando’s football coach. The Warriors captured eight Northwestern District championships and four Region titles (2005, 2007, 2013, 2017). The 2007 and 2013 teams each played in state championship games. Clarke County’s 2015 team is the only other area football team to play in a state championship game in the 21st century. Sherando advanced to the playoffs 13 times and recorded two undefeated regular seasons (2006, 2007). Hall stepped away in May to take a job as an assistant coordinator of student activities at Sherando.

Rob Kilmer stepped down as Sherando’s girls’ soccer coach in November after 22 seasons at the helm. During that time, Kilmer compiled a 207-129-28 record, with his victory total ranking third in VHSL history. Kilmer averaged double-digit wins in his 20 full seasons. Kilmer led his teams to two district regular-season championships (the Group AAA Commonwealth District in 2000 and the Northwestern District in 2010), three district tournament championships (Commonwealth in 2001, Northwestern in 2009 and 2010) and nine regional tournament appearances, the most recent in 2018.

In June, Kilmer’s brother Keith resigned at Millbrook. Keith was one of Millbrook’s original head coaches when the school opened in 2003. He spent six years coaching the girls’ team before taking on the boys’ team prior to the 2010 season. Kilmer posted a record of 110-71-14 over 11 seasons and guided the Pioneers to five regional tournaments, including four straight from 2011-14. Millbrook also won the Northwestern District tournament championship in 2012 and the regular-season title in 2014, both for the first time in school history.

Honorable mention

The Shenandoah football team earns its most wins since 2004 by posting a 7-3 record .... Shenandoah adds freshman defensive back Haley Van Voorhis to the football team. Van Voorhis doesn’t see any varsity action but she does play with the JV team. She’s the first female who isn’t a kicker or punter to play at the college level. .... SU senior linebacker Ben Burgan leads the nation in tackles and earns American Football Coaches Association NCAA Division III All-America First Team honors. ... Clarke County graduate and Ithaca College junior Nick Bahamonde also earns AFCA and Associated Press First Team honors after leading Division III in field goals made with 18 in 22 attempts. Other local athletes who earned All-America honors this year include Handley graduate and Cincinnati high jumper Taylor Beard (Second Team for NCAA Division I women’s indoor and outdoor track), Middlebury College senior outside hitter Maggie Wise (Third Team for D3 volleyball) and SU’s Colby Martin (First Team baseball), Kelsey Jones (Third Team for field hockey) and Alyson Bittinger (Third Team for women’s lacrosse). ... Sherando graduate and Morehead State long snapper Brady McKnight (FCS Division I football) and SU field hockey player Mairead Mckibbin (field hockey) earn Freshman All-America honors ... Handley graduate and Christopher Newport sophomore Emma Ricci helps the Captains win their first NCAA Division III women’s soccer championship, highlighted by her assist on a sudden-death overtime goal in the national semifinals. ... Clarke County’s boys’ swimming team places fourth at the Class 2/1 state meet and Eagles junior Kayla Sprincis wins the girls’ 500-yard freestyle swimming event for the second straight year. ... Clarke County’s girls’ track team places fourth in Class 2, led by first-place finishes from Sara Murray in the discus and Teagan Lowery in the triple jump. ... Other local track state champions this year were Clarke County senior Ellis Nei in the 110 hurdles, Handley senior Mary McKay (indoor pole vault) and junior Will McKay (outdoor pole vault) and Sherando junior Ella Carlson (discus). ... SU begins the process of upgrading Bridgeforth Field and Rotary Field for its baseball and softball teams, respectively. Improvements include installing an artificial turf infill system. ... The Winchester Royals’ Austin Bulman is selected as the Valley Baseball League’s MVP.

— Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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