With the book about to close on 2019, it’s time to look back on the year that was in Plano-area athletics.
This year was clad in noteworthy moments across all sports at the public and private school level, including playoff success and championships won at the district and state levels.
The Plano Star Courier sports staff has compiled its top 10 sports stories of the year.
10. Resurgent Lady Wolves take state silver
The Plano West girls golf team announced a return to prominence in 2019, which culminated in the program’s best-ever team finish at the state tournament.
The Lady Wolves placed second overall at state, with all comers playing catch-up to a dominant showing by Austin Westlake. Making its first appearance at state in more than a decade, West fired a collective score of 597 over two days of tournament play — a number buoyed by a nine-stroke drop on the second day of action.
West’s Michelle Zhang logged an eighth-place finish with a 145 to pace the Lady Wolves’ individual efforts, while Plano East’s Megan Winans also impressed in her appearance at state by taking sixth overall (143).
West figures to again be in the mix for a state title in the spring, with the 6A runners-up graduating just one golfer (Ale Toyos) from its core lineup.
9. A year to remember for John Paul II football
Not long removed from a 33-game losing streak and multiple 0-10 seasons, the John Paul II football team turned in its best year ever in 2019, posting a 10-4 record that culminated in the program’s first-ever appearance in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools state championship game.
Along the way, the Cardinals shattered a myriad of program milestones and even garnered some national headlines following their 11-overtime thriller against Bishop Dunne in October, which nearly set a national record. The win doubled as John Paul’s first district victory since 2008.
Another first came in the playoffs when the Cardinals edged San Antonio Central Catholic, 21-16, for their first-ever postseason victory, followed wins over Fort Worth Nolan and San Antonio Antonian to advance to the TAPPS Division I title game.
Although a 42-14 loss to Parish Episcopal spelled the end of the road for John Paul, the Cardinals return five players named to the TAPPS all-state team — Jerand Bradley, Myles Parker, Braxton Myers, Caden Kitler and Brandon Tucker — and should be in the title mix once again next fall.
8. Accolades aplenty for West tennis
Plano West turned in another banner year on the tennis courts, highlighted in the springtime with a state championship won by Caden Moortgat and Emma Gener in mixed doubles. The two dominated the field all spring en route to a pair of 6-3 verdicts over Round Rock Westwood’s Kiana Graham and Gaurav Singh in the 6A final.
With the win, Gener concluded her high school career as a back-to-back state champion — winning girls doubles with Jo Jo Thai as a junior — and a state finalist in three different brackets, a rarity in UIL tennis history.
Moortgat is in the midst of his senior season and helped lead the Wolves to the state finals in the fall, a run that fell three match wins short of the program’s sixth state title in a 10-7 loss to Houston Memorial.
West positioned itself for a successful afternoon in College Station, leading 7-6 late in the match before a quick surge of Memorial surge swayed momentum for good. The Wolves ended 2019 with a 22-4 record.
7. Wolves make history on wrestling mats
February’s Class 6A state wrestling meet was a historic one for Plano West.
The Wolves exited the tournament with a fourth-place team finish for their boys team and the program’s first two individual state champions. Tagen Jamison captured gold in the boys’ 132-pound division and Ashley Lekas concluded her high school career atop the podium after winning the girls’ 165-pound weight class.
“When I won, it felt surreal, and I had so much excitement. I felt tears of joy coming, but was a bit dehydrated, so nothing really came out,” Lekas said after the tournament. “I immediately turned to my coaches … to share the moment with me, because I would not have been where I am now without them.”
West’s two gold medalists headlined a contingent of six state qualifiers from the program. Brian Pollard added third place at 170 pounds and Jacob Aragon took fifth at 138, further cementing the Wolves as one of the state’s rising wrestling programs.
6. “The Plano Super Bowl”
Super Bowl LIII, played on February between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, carried plenty of local fanfare with each team sporting a former Plano Senior football star — New England running back Rex Burkhead and Los Angeles offensive lineman Joseph Noteboom.
The matchup guaranteed that Plano’s eldest high school would have its first-ever Super Bowl champion — an honor seized by Burkhead and the Patriots, who won a 13-3 battle for the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Burkhead was plenty instrumental in the effort as well, highlighted by a 26-yard run late in the fourth quarter that helped up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to grant New England a 10-point lead with 3:05 to play.
“It’s something you dream about as a little kid and to get there and accomplish that with such a great team and a bunch of great guys, it really is a thrill,” Burkhead said during his annual Team Jack Trifecta fundraiser in April.
5. The streak is over
It’s been a tough few years on the gridiron for Plano West, which entered the season as losers of 26 consecutive games and fresh off a pair of winless seasons.
The hiring of former Hebron offensive coordinator Tyler Soukup raised the program’s competitiveness throughout the 2019, including spirited efforts against Frisco Reedy and rival Plano Senior, but the elusive win never came as the Wolves’ losing streak swelled to 34 games.
On Nov. 1, West’s progress was finally rewarded with an improbable 36-35 comeback win over Plano East — the program’s first victory since September 2016. Soukup and Co. couldn’t have scripted a more dramatic manner to accrue win No. 1 of his tenure, as the Wolves overcame an 18-point, fourth-quarter deficit to prevail in the game’s closing seconds on a touchdown pass from senior Danny Davis to senior Wyatt Johnson.
4. The wrong side of history
For the first time in three decades, there was no playoff football in Plano ISD.
The school district took its lumps in 2019, with its three senior high schools combining to win just seven football games to leave PISD without a postseason representative for the first time since 1989.
Plano East and West both mustered just 1-9 records, while Plano matched its 5-5 finish from a year earlier but incurred a three-game losing streak to close out the season and ultimately one win shy of a playoff spot for the second straight year.
Of the three, Plano mounted the most realistic push toward a postseason berth, stringing together three straight midseason wins to climb into second place in district before injuries and ineligibilities piled up, which, coupled with a challenging schedule to close the season, kept the Wildcats out of the playoffs once again.
3. Lady Wolves submit signature season
After having its state championship ambitions dashed in the state semifinals in 2018, Plano West responded with the best season in program history this fall. The Lady Wolves advanced to the state finals for the first time ever before having falling in five sets to national No. 1 Trophy Club Byron Nelson.
Led by a star-studded senior class, headlined by all-state selections Jill Pressly, Iman Ndiaye and Noelle Piatas, West tallied a 41-5 record in 2019 that included a share of the district championship and a dominant run through the Region II-6A portion of the playoffs. Winning 15-of-16 sets over the first five rounds of the playoffs, the Lady Wolves scored a dramatic measure of redemption in eliminating Fort Bend Ridge Points in a five-set semifinal thriller before going the distance once again against Nelson.
Although falling short of its ultimate goal, West’s produced PISD’s benchmark year on the volleyball court in 2019.
2. Brence retires
After 39 years in Plano ISD, longtime athletic director Gerald Brence announced his retirement on Nov. 18. Brence has been PISD’s athletic director since July 2007, a post he rose to after donning a myriad of coaching hats throughout the school district — most notably serving as Plano’s head football coach from 1992-2007, where he won a Class 5A Division I state title in 1994 and posted a 120-70 record.
Brence’s promotion made him just PISD’s fourth-ever athletic director. During his tenure, the school district captured state championships in baseball (Plano West, 2008), boys basketball (West, 2015), boys golf (West, 2008 and 2016), boys soccer (Plano, 2009), girls basketball (Plano, 2017), girls soccer (West, 2011 and 2012) and team tennis (West, 2016).
Brence’s retirement will take effect Dec. 31, during which he’ll transition to a new phase after accepting a job with EliteX 360, a sports injury prevention company.
“I feel really good about it, I’m really proud, everything is really positive and I’m upbeat about it. I’m really proud to have been associated with Plano ISD and I always will be,” Brence said.
1. Night of tribute
For 24 hours in mid-August, Plano ISD was in the statewide spotlight after the surprising decision to initially cancel the high school football game between Plano Senior and El Paso Eastwood on Aug. 15. The school district cited unspecified safety concerns and the timing of the game relative to the shooting in El Paso earlier in the summer, which was committed by a former Plano student, as reasons behind the cancellation.
PISD’s decision spawned immediate backlash from around the state, with word of the game’s cancellation even generating national news. Thanks to a timely assist from Frisco ISD, PISD reversed course and, 24 hours later, rescheduled the game for Sept. 4 at The Ford Center at The Star.
The spotlight on the game only brightened, with the Plano-Eastwood encounter broadcasted around the state and drawing a plethora of media attention on a night when unity was at the forefront.
Prior to kickoff, both teams gathered in their entirety at midfield for the pregame coin toss and then stood side-by-side, spanning nearly one sideline to another in a moment of tribute and an emotional display of togetherness between the two football programs.
“It felt great to be able to honor those people. It was a special feeling,” said Jaydon McCullough, Plano head coach.
The Wildcats went on to win the game, 43-28, on a night that was about far more than football.