After navigating another busy, exhilarating year of high school sports, the last couple of weeks weren't exactly the finish to the school year that I envisioned.
Hopes of making a couple drives south to Austin for the state softball and baseball tournaments, and getting a chance to see Prosper Rock Hill and Celina try and extend their dream postseasons, were dashed by an untimely bout with COVID-19 that instead left me confined to my bed.
Instead, the parting sight of my in-person coverage came on May 27, watching Rock Hill softball edge Royse City 1-0 and its student section promptly storm the field to celebrate a state semifinal berth in just the program's second year of varsity athletics. Still a pretty enjoyable way to wrap things up, even with the illness that followed.
There were plenty of other special mementos from the 2021-22 school year that'll stick with me going forward — snapshots like the Lewisville football team's walk-off Hail Mary win over Hebron, Ja'Kobe Walter's 49-point masterpiece for the McKinney boys basketball team versus Denton Guyer, the dizzying comeback playoff win by the Lewisville softball team against Guyer.
Although I can only be in one place on a given game night, chances are there's something special happening somewhere in the Metroplex, because that's just how high school sports roll in the Dallas area.
I was fortunate to see plenty of those fun times unfold firsthand while covering sports in either Allen, Plano, Celina, Prosper, McKinney, Carrollton, Lewisville or Flower Mound, and here's a look back at some of the highlights.
The Year of the Bobcat
Long revered for having one of the most prestigious football programs in the state, Celina turned in one of the top athletics years in school history in 2021-22.
As the Bobcats' baseball team took to UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin on June 8, they became the fifth program from Celina to advance to at least the state semifinal round of the playoffs during this school year. The Bobcats also achieved that feat in volleyball, football, boys soccer and girls soccer.
Celina won its first-ever state title in girls soccer, while the volleyball and boys soccer teams posted state runner-up finishes.
And back on Nov. 6, it was the school's girls cross country team that got the ball rolling by winning their first state title since 2002.
From Adele Clarke's familiar dominance on the distance-running circuit, to offensive lineman Michael Reemts authoring a district MVP season on the gridiron, and the brilliance of student-athletes like Taylor Zdrojewski, Josten Watkins, RJ Ruais and Grant Williams, the list of contributors to Celina's special year runs deep — all having their say in a year to remember for the Bobcats.
A league of her own
One of the joys in this profession is chronicling the stories of the athletes that we cover. And when thinking of the road that Flower Mound's Natalie Cook took just to get to her senior season, it makes the final year of her high school distance-running career all the more incredible.
Following her sophomore cross country season in 2019, Cook had to step away due to a navicular stress fracture in her foot — an injury that sidelined her during track season that spring and for nearly a year of competition.
As a senior, Cook submitted a run for the history books. She won an individual state championship in cross country during the fall and two more during track season in the spring, winning both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. She helped lead the Flower Mound girls to team state titles in both sports.
Cook also captured three national championships, broke the national high school record in the 5K (15:25.93) and the state records in the 1,600 (4:36.96) and 3,200 (9:48.25).
I understand that we live in an age of hyperbole when it comes to sports, but that feels like a pretty unimpeachable resume for the title of the greatest high school distance runner in Texas history.
High school sports can be cyclical, and one of the hallmarks of a truly great athletics program is the ability to sustain success.
To see how a program like Lovejoy volleyball has navigated classification changes, coaching turnover and the graduation of one star-studded senior class after another, and yet still the Lady Leopards are always in the mix.
That was once again the case last fall, watching Lovejoy sweep its way through the 5A state tournament to capture its third consecutive state championship and its ninth overall title.
A few miles west, that's an exercise that Allen's wrestling team has mastered for the past decade-plus. The Eagles continued their dynastic run on the mats with a 13th consecutive state title for their boys team and a second straight championship for their girls.
And in making their 18th appearance at the state tournament — over a 22-year span, no less — the Plano West tennis team scaled the mountaintop in 6A to win their sixth state title back in October.
Dates with state
There's also the elation that comes with seeing a team make a long-awaited trip to state.
In fact, 94 years had passed since the McKinney boys basketball team's first-ever appearance at the state tournament back in 1928. The Lions made their deepest playoff run ever last season, defeating five consecutive state-ranked opponents in the playoffs — including two on game-winning baskets by Alex Anamekwe — on the way to a 6A state runner-up finish.
And just as basketball season concluded, the Plano boys soccer team was preparing for a magical postseason of its own. After going a decade between playoff wins, the Wildcats rode some clutch goalkeeping from Henry Huffstetler and myriad contributions from a senior-heavy lineup to a state runner-up finish of their own.
Rock Hill softball, meanwhile, performed like anything but a second-year program. A balanced, eclectic lineup and two lights-out pitchers in Grace Berlage and Taylor Hagen spurred the Blue Hawks to a state semifinal berth after outscoring their playoff opponents, 70-11.
And although Frisco is technically outside my specific coverage area, one of my favorite stories to write this year was a feature on Memorial girls basketball coaches Rochelle Vaughn and Devri Owens, two Plano West alums who coached the Lady Warriors to a state runner-up finish in just their program's fourth season.
A sense of community
One visual that will stick with me from this school year came on Feb. 8, settling in along the baseline in the Plano Senior High School gymnasium for the Wildcats' boys basketball game against Plano West.
I've covered Plano athletics since my career began in 2009 and lost count long ago on the number of games I've covered inside that gym. I had never been part of an atmosphere like this one.
The Wildcats were attempting to clinch a district title that night, but that wasn't all that packed the entire home half of the gym. It was for the chance to see something special.
Plano was eying the 30th win of what would become an undefeated regular season, the kind of perfection rarely seen in the state's largest classification. And the community bought in, packing the stands for each home game for one of the area's must-see attractions on the hardwood.
Seeing how the Plano fans rallied around the Wildcats during their 2021-22 season was the kind of communal connection that makes high school sports so unique.
I'm glad I was along for the ride.