It ended as it began.

The year that was started with life revolving around COVID-19 and headed to the history books still dealing with its effects.

No fans, no sports. Masks, restrictions. Slow-burn returns and a hint of normalcy. An orbit around the sun left us with plenty of memories in 2021. Here’s a glance at the top stories that lapped upon our local shores.

Sounds of silence

The new year dawned with hope but not much action. Yes, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State had their basketball seasons in full swing by playing games out of state due to health restrictions at home, but there was growing concern that high school and youth sports might have an entire year wiped out by the pandemic.

Talk in early January circulated around hard deadlines that indicated seasons would be canceled if the state didn’t give approval for youth sports to come back. Social media was flooded with the hashtag #letthemplay as coaches, fans and athletes started to show their COVID fatigue, demand a call for mental health awareness and call upon state leaders to open the doors to youth sports.

Just when it seemed OK to give up hope, the call to return coincided with the launch of a national vaccination program that signaled a turn to action. By late January, a plan was in place. By March, we had prep sports. By the summer, we were back in full swing with youth sports, and by the fall it was as close to normal as we’ve felt since the early months of 2020 before the pandemic swept over us.

Gradual returns

As tough as it was to sit out and watch the sports gear collect dust in the 50 weeks between live events, the return to play felt like it came out of nowhere when the state suddenly reversed course and announced Jan. 20 that college teams could come home if they met certain health requirements. It was followed in short order by the state’s decision to allow high school athletics to resume as long as they offered in-person learning by Feb. 8.

It cleared the path for a mad scramble to get back to the business of playing games. The University of New Mexico women’s basketball team played its final two regular season games in The Pit (sans fans) on March 4-5 while the New Mexico Activities Association cobbled together a full prep season that condensed a nine-month athletic calendar into a four-month window.

Preps returned in late February, making do with temporary district alignments necessitated by a slower return by a number of school districts around the state, namely Albuquerque Public Schools.

It also wiped out a number of rivalry games that didn’t fit into district alignments. The biggest casualty was the intracity trifecta that had Capital and Santa Fe High together in the same district but left St. Michael’s off the schedule. It meant a prep season without the Horsemen against the Demons or Jaguars.

All fall sports were squeezed into March Madness, including the defrosted tundra for spring football that lasted just four weeks. Prep hoops was pushed into May either without fans or with strict capacity limits. Masks. Social distancing. Sports gear sanitized during timeouts. Quarantine scars. Calls for vaccinations.

It led to precautionary measures later in the year, things like online ticket sales to limit in-person contact, seat sections cordoned off with yellow tape or signs, of health protocols for athletes and coaches exposed to the virus.

It was weird and wonderful, but sports were finally back.

Lobos roller coaster

If prep sports weren’t weird enough, the drama surrounding UNM athletics was off the charts. The school shipped its football team to Nevada for a seven-game schedule in the fall of 2020, then had its men’s and women’s basketball teams head to the Texas Panhandle to end the year and start of 2021.

Let’s just say it didn’t go well for the men. The Lobos played (and mostly lost) “home” games in Lubbock, Texas; St. George, Utah; and Colorado Springs, Colo., all hundreds of miles from the friendly confines of The Pit.

En route to a 6-win season, Lobos coach Paul Weir was fired the night of Feb. 26, a full two weeks before the scheduled end of the Mountain West tournament. Word came down late on a Friday night, highlighting one of the worst seasons in Lobos history with the buyout of Weir’s contract.

Richard Pitino was hired less than three weeks later, and he immediately began a complete rebuilding project by re-tooling a roster decimated by transfers and dismissals stemming from Weir’s departure. Within months, Weir was calling high school games for a Rio Rancho radio station and taking over as athletic director at Eastern New Mexico while Pitino used the offseason to find warm bodies to fill out the roster.

Title town

Santa Fe High’s boys soccer team won the Class 5A state championship, a revelation that probably felt like a lightning bolt out of nowhere. The Demons hadn’t made much noise at the state level until this fall.

All they did was win 22 of their 23 matches, allowing a scant 27 goals all season, and riding the cartoonishly dominant play of junior Alex Waggoner. The Taos transfer scored 73 goals, which was more than the combined total of 23 other schools in 5A. It made him one of the highest-profile recruits in the country and helped turn Santa Fe High into a New Mexico powerhouse.

The Demons held on for one-goal wins over Volcano Vista and Atrisco Heritage in the state tournament, the latter against the postseason’s No. 12 seed in the finals.

For coach Chris Eadie, it was the validation his outstanding career deserved. For the Demons, it marked the birth of what could be a return to the top in 2022 since the majority of that team is anticipated to return next fall.

Other notable events:

  • Santa Fe’s SportsPrimo landed a contract to broadcast high school games of Rio Rancho and Cleveland high schools, expanding an online footprint that makes it the state’s second-largest prep sports streaming site.
  • In mid-March, fans were allowed into prep sports venues in Santa Fe for the first time since the pandemic began. A limited number of people ventured into Toby Roybal Memorial Gymnasium to watch Santa Fe High’s volleyball team sweep Capital.
  • On March 25, the state announced it was clearing the way for youth sports (below the high school level) to return. That meant a return of Little League, AABC, YAFL and soccer, to name a few.
  • Luna Community College’s baseball program was shut down for a couple of weeks when the school was unable to pay for repairs to the team’s travel buses. The problem was fixed.
  • The truncated 2021 prep soccer season (spring version) ended with the St. Michael’s girls going undefeated and winning the Class 1A-3A state championship.
  • Legendary UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham announced his retirement in April, ending a career that included a national championship at New Mexico Junior College.
  • The UNM women’s soccer team won the Mountain West title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a win over Navy.
  • The prep wrestling season (spring version) started, stopped and started again in a stutter-stepping journey that was disrupted by COVID-19.
  • Valerie Baca became the first woman to suit up for the New Mexico Highlands football team. Her two extra points in the second half of an April 23 blowout win over Fort Lewis made her just the second female to score in a college game for a team from New Mexico (re: Katie Hnida, UNM).
  • The state tennis tournament took place in mid-June during a typical summer heatwave that launched afternoon temperatures into the mid-90s. Play continued (with masks), but by time the finals rolled around, a number of players succumbed to the heat and withdrew.
  • Santa Fe Little League won the boys’ majors district title and hosted the state tournament in July, while its softball team won the state championship.
  • More than a dozen athletes with ties to New Mexico competed in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. That included Santa Fe’s Sabrina Lozada-Cabbage (women’s basketball, Puerto Rico) and Aliphine Tuliamuk (marathon, United States).
  • Santa Fe’s Jaslene Ramirez and Darrell Carbajal represented Santa Fe Little League in the T-Mobile West Regional Home Run Derby at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park in late July. Ramirez won the softball derby and reached the national finals in Williamsport, Pa., in August.
  • Santa Fe High’s football team ended a 13-year losing skid to St. Michael’s with a Sept. 3 win at Ivan Head Stadium. The game will be remembered for more than the Demons’ win; it was also the night the Horsemen lost quarterback Lucas Coriz to a season-ending knee injury.
  • Longtime Santa Fe sports coach and administrator Tom Manning, the former athletic director at Santa Fe High and St. Michael’s, was inducted to the NMAA Hall of Honor in 2021, roughly a year after he was first named a member. The ceremony was delayed due to the pandemic.
  • A furor over the city transforming a number of tennis courts into pickleball courts at Fort Marcy Park erupted in early October.
  • The St. Michael’s football team reached the Class 3A state title game on Thanksgiving weekend and lost to district rival Robertson. The Cardinals had lost their last four trips to the championship game. Horsemen kicker Milena Keene made history by becoming the first female player to score in a state title game, kicking an extra point in the second half.

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