A look back at the year in sports
FARMINGTON — The sports calendar in San Juan County during 2021 might best be encapsulated in two chapters.
During the first few months of the year, there already had been quite a bit to celebrate on the local sports scene, even if a vast number of spectators weren't permitted to attend or cheer for their favorite athletes or teams.
Farmington High School's football team was coming off a bowl game victory earlier in the spring over Mayfield to culminate the perfect end to an abbreviated season.
Navajo Prep had captured the Class 3A state title in girls basketball, and Piedra Vista took home the Class 5A state title in boys golf, while wrestling championships went to both Aztec and Farmington High School.
Tennis and cross-country championships also were handed out to local athletes.
Still, there was a lot left to do. And there were a lot of people anxious to witness the events unfold.
Perhaps some of the biggest moments of 2021 didn't take place on the field or on the court, but instead were happening in the bleachers, ticket booths and concession stands as fans made their way back to stadiums and arenas across the county and around the state.
Spring football in 2021 was attended by small, sometimes reluctant crowds who had to maintain some kind of distance from one another. Basketball games had no fans whatsoever for much of the season, and instead were played in primarily empty arenas that cried out for fan interaction.
Players, coaches and fans all were asked to follow certain protocols that may have felt more cumbersome than precautionary.
It wasn't until late spring that some normalcy began to return to the local sports scene. It was announced on June 10 that the Connie Mack World Series was a go after being canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and regulations on crowd capacity at events.
The tournament, which was played in a newly renovated Ricketts Park, was attended by mostly full houses and was a welcome sight for many.
“Just to see Ricketts Park packed with people felt good,” said Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett. “It definitely had an economic and emotional benefit.”
And then there was the tournament itself, which featured a first-time entrant coming into Farmington with an unbeaten season and leaving with its first Connie Mack championship.
The tournament was held without any significant concerns regarding crowd capacity or worries about vaccinations for attendees. Richard Neely, president of the American Amateur Baseball Congress, noted that with tournament play occurring at Ricketts Park as well as the Farmington Sports Complex at Worley Field, the logistics of the event played out fairly well.
"I haven't heard one comment regarding (coronavirus) during the event," Neely said. "It's been pretty amazing. We had some families that wanted to make sure kids were vaccinated before they arrived and most of the kids that came here showed up already vaccinated."
The Enid Majors from Oklahoma stormed through their competition all week long before ending a perfect season with a 4-1 triumph over Dallas' D-Bat United in front of more than 6,500 fans.
The story of the Majors was a good one. Coached by Kris Webb, who was as energetic a team leader as you could imagine, the Majors had a combination of timely hitting, smart base running and great pitching.
Their run to the championship was sealed by a pitching staff that allowed just six hits over the course of 18 consecutive innings, capped off when Kaleb Melvin had a marvelous performance, going four innings and leading a trio of pitchers through a seven-inning no-hitter to complete the perfect season and secure the Connie Mack championship.
"The people here have been great," Webb said after the tournament. "Everyone has been so supportive of not just our kids, but everyone in the tournament. It felt really good to play in front of such passionate fans."
Horses, cyclists and drivers return to racing
Between the success of the Connie Mack World Series and the return of the San Juan Open at the San Juan Country Club, it appeared as if sports was ready to fit into place across the county.
Even with specific protocols in place as far as capacities were concerned, fans and participants from across the region were able to take part in the return of live horse racing at SunRay Park & Casino.
There was also a return to regular operations when it was time for the 2021 Road Apple Rally at Lions Wilderness Park, as well as auto racing at the Aztec Speedway, all of which had to be shut down or held in remote fashion in 2020.
"Having people from around the community on the course, cheering you on, made a huge difference," said Farmington's Mike Ziems, who won the Road Apple Rally's short course event.
Following the success of the Connie Mack season, it was time to focus attention on the high school football season.
Farmington and Bloomfield made it interesting in their respective classifications and districts, with both teams having strong campaigns going into the postseason.
Following early postseason victories, the Scorpions and Bobcats were eliminated in the state semifinals, with Farmington losing on the road at Artesia and Bloomfield falling short at home to Ruidoso.
Still, it was a remarkable season for all area teams in terms of coming back to a sense of normalcy, with a few hiccups along the way.
Shiprock was forced to forfeit an early-season game due to COVID protocols, and concerns over the costs of traveling from one end of the state to the other were raised by school districts as the cost of travel was increased due to soaring gas prices and requirements for lodging of unvaccinated players and coaches.
An inspirational return
Perhaps no story in 2021 was more captivating and inspiring than the return to competition for Navajo Prep's Laila Charley.
Whether it was on cross-country courses or basketball courts, Charley's return to action was remarkable.
Just a bit more than one year after having been seriously injured in an all-terrain vehicle crash and going through months of rehabilitation for a traumatic brain injury, Charley was running events for the Eagles cross-country team this past fall. She is currently one of the starters on the Eagles girls basketball team that is working to defend its Class 3A title from last season.
Charley was recognized by the New Mexico Activities Association with the 2021 Spirit of Sport Award last September.
The annual award recognizes individuals who exemplify the ideals of the spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics.
Charley received a standing ovation upon being welcomed back to the basketball court earlier this month during a game against Shiprock High School.
"We're all so excited to see her back on the court," coach Rainy Crisp said. "After all she's been through since the accident, it's an exciting moment for her and the team."
What will 2022 have in store for local and regional sports fans?
Time will tell most definitely, and next week, we'll share some ideas of what might be around the corner.
Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680.