Steve Thomas

Longtime Plano assistant football coach Steve Thomas passed away at age 77 on Aug. 14.

With the book having closed on 2020, it’s time to look back on the year that was in Plano-area athletics.

This year was like no other in recent memory, with high school sports around the country feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid the trying year, which included the cancellation of numerous UIL sports in the spring and the week-to-week uncertainties that plagued teams during the fall, programs from Plano ISD, Prestonwood Christian and John Paul II still managed to turn in their share of highlight moments.

The Plano Star Courier sports staff has compiled its top 10 sports stories of the year, concluding with the second half of that lineup.

5. Plano West football is back

One of the area’s feel-good high school football stories resided at Plano West where, not long removed from the sting of back-to-back winless seasons and a losing streak that stretched to 34 games, the Wolves clinched a playoff berth in head coach Tyler Soukup’s second year at the helm.

West improved on its 1-9 mark in 2019 by going 6-5 this season and qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2014.

The positive vibes set in early as the Wolves raced out to a 2-0 start on the season and then turned heads around the area after opening district play with a 27-17 victory over a Lewisville team that sported one of the most prolific offenses in the Metroplex.

West hung its hat on defense in 2020, holding opponents to 22.9 points per game, to complement a ball control offense that featured a bruising run game. That combo helped the Wolves pick up additional district wins over Plano East, Flower Mound and Plano — the lattermost coming in a dramatic 31-24 victory on the final night of the regular season to sew up the last playoff spot in 6-6A.

4. Wolves second in state once again

Storied as the years have been for the Plano West tennis team, the Wolves broke new ground in 2020 by posting the first undefeated regular season in program history. West won its first 16 matches of the season, six coming during the playoffs as the Wolves defeated postseason opponents by a collective margin of 65-7.

West met its match in the 6A finals as top-ranked Round Rock Westwood got the better of a 10-4 decision in College Station. The setback marked the second straight year that the Wolves finished the year as state runners-up.

The lone blemish on the team’s 16-1 record, West’s 2020 campaign included a 21st consecutive district championship — won after posting a perfect 7-0 run through District 6-6A. Afterwards, the Wolves picked up playoff wins over McKinney Boyd (11-0), Richardson (11-0), Allen (11-1), Keller (12-1), Southlake Carroll (10-4) and The Woodlands (10-1).

3. Plano says goodbye to ‘Coach T’

For many around the Plano ISD athletics community, Aug. 14 was an emotional day. That morning, longtime Plano assistant football coach Steve Thomas died at age 77.

Thomas was a pillar in PISD athletics, amassing a coaching career of more than 50 years, including nearly 40 in PISD. Coaching offensive and defensive linemen, as well as special teams, Thomas contributed to the Wildcats’ last three state championships, won in 1986, 1987 and 1994.

Thomas’ influence spanned well beyond the gridiron, leaving a legacy of faith, leadership and selflessness that left an indelible mark on PISD athletics. He was a prominent voice for plenty of young coaches who passed through Plano and also helped grow the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes program. Thomas routinely led charitable initiatives during the holidays as well, including around Christmas time when he and members of the Plano football program served food and gave gifts to kids at the Douglass Community Center.

“[Thomas] was a funny guy, a great storyteller, had a great sense of humor and was so much fun to be around. When it comes to coaching, guys like him are what it’s all about,” said Gerald Brence, former Plano ISD athletic director.

2. Changing of the guard

Two of the top jobs in Plano ISD athletics underwent major change early in 2020. Just over one month after longtime athletic director Gerald Brence retired at the end of 2019, PISD named Jeff Smith as PISD’s next athletic director.

Smith returned to Plano after holding prominent positions as McKinney’s longtime head football coach and athletic coordinator followed by a near-two-year run as Prosper ISD’s assistant athletic director.

Not long after Smith’s hiring, PISD announced the reassignment of longtime Plano head football coach Jaydon McCullough, which launched a search for the next person to lead one of high school football’s legacy programs. 

Initially, it appeared as if Cody Moore, who had Denton Braswell’s football program from the ground up, would be the man. Moore’s hiring went so far as to be approved by the PISD school board on March 3, as he met with several players that night.

Things took a surprising turn less than 24 hours later when Moore told his players at Braswell that he would in fact be staying with the program.

With Moore backing out of the Plano job, PISD turned to Todd Ford, former Lovejoy head coach and state championship-winning offensive coordinator at Southlake Carroll, to be the next head football coach of the Wildcats. 

1. The COVID season

The COVID-19 pandemic defined 2020, and that includes a trying year for many involved in high school sports.

With the virus forcing professional and collegiate leagues around the country to suspend or cancel play in mid-March, high schools had the seasons for myriad sports put on hold. The UIL handed down multiple suspensions of play before making the call on April 17 to cancel the remainder of the sports calendar for the 2019-20 school year.

In just over one month’s time, seasons were left without closure and countless high school seniors were unable to end their athletics careers on their own terms.

With countywide shutdowns and stay-at-home policies implemented, athletic programs had to get creative to conduct their offseasons — turning to video conferencing an at-home workouts to keep athletes engaged and active.

Teams began to creep towards normalcy in June when the UIL allowed limited summer workouts — prefacing a school year where coaches, athletes and fans adapted to various protocols as teams tried to play during the pandemic.

Adversity was inevitable, with countless teams around the state battling game cancellations, postponements and in-season shutdowns due to virus outbreaks within their programs. 

The ride was indeed bumpy and riddled with uncertainty, but the UIL remained on track to conclude its fall sports schedule and, in November and December, crowned state champions in football, volleyball, cross country and tennis.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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