There a lot of sports images seared into my memory from 2020.
One of them was a yard sign.
It was hardly as obvious or dominating the landscape like those LSU billboards of coaches reminding us in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to stay home (hopefully we won’t see a reprise of those messages before the vaccines take the upper hand). It was just a small yard sign on a wire stake in the Westdale Heights neighborhood bearing a picture of Catholic High’s senior baseball players.
Still, it said so much.
Of all the tragedies of 2020 — of the lives lost to COVID-19, of the hurricanes that ravaged our state, of the social unrest — the premature end of sports seasons doesn’t rank very high.
But that yard sign, well, it made me think of all the memories erased we typically take for granted. Those kids will hopefully go on to have long and productive lives. But you can’t get back the memories of your senior year. Of that one final game, perhaps ending in a title, or simply the last time you play organized sports. Or of the prom. Or graduation.
Still, there were moments worth remembering in 2020 from our local sports world. Here’s my take on the 10 most memorable, starting in January with the highlight for LSU fans everywhere:
Jan. 13 — LSU capped the perfect season by overcoming rare adversity, trailing Clemson 17-7 in the second quarter before roaring back for a 42-25 victory. LSU’s fourth national championship team completed a 15-0 mark, tying the record for most wins in the wire-service poll era (since 1936) set by Clemson the year before. The indelible postgame image of Heisman Trophy-winner Joe Burrow coolly smoking a victory cigar would have made “Broadway” Joe Namath envious.
Feb. 8 — Former LSU pole vaulter Armand “Mondo” Duplantis of Lafayette broke a nearly six-year old world indoor record with a leap of 6.17 meters (20 feet, 2.9 inches) at a meet in Torun, Poland. It was the start of a record-shattering year for Duplantis, who eclipsed that mark with a leap of 6.18 meters later that month in Glasgow, Scotland, followed by a world outdoor record of 6.15 meters in Rome in September. The only drawback: Duplantis was denied a shot at an Olympic gold medal when the 2020 Tokyo Games were pushed back to 2021 by the pandemic.
March 12 — The cascade of scrapped sporting events across the nation reached LSU when the Southeastern Conference canceled its men’s basketball tournament after one day’s play. The NCAA then swiftly canceled all of its winter and spring sports championships. It was a stinging turn of events, especially for LSU’s track and field teams and its beach volleyball team, which were all ranked No. 1.
April 23-25 — The NFL draft was held virtually for the first time, but it didn’t keep LSU from dominating the headlines. Led by No. 1 overall pick Burrow to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Tigers had a school-record five players taken in the first round and tied Ohio State for the record with 14 overall picks since the draft was shortened in 1994 to seven rounds. It was a proud moment for LSU football, though the lack of all those players and later opt outs would come back to haunt the Tigers in the fall.
April 25 — Black college football legend Marino Casem died at his home in Baton Rouge at 85. Casem, nicknamed “The Godfather,” was athletic director at Southern from 1986-99 and twice football coach in 1987-88 and again in 1992. His years on The Bluff coupled with previous stints at Alcorn State and Alabama State left him with a record of 159-93-8 and a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Dec. 12 — After a mostly forgettable season, LSU went to Florida a 23½-point underdog and came away with one of it greatest upsets ever, a 37-34 stunner over the Gators. All-SEC kicker Cade York delivered the winning points with a school-record 57-yard field goal through the fog with 23 seconds left. Unforgettably, the winning drive was kept alive when Florida’s Marco Wilson threw the shoe of LSU tight end Kole Taylor, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. “For some reason, a lot of people are asking me for shoes for Christmas,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said the following Monday.
Dec. 19 — By this date LSU’s top three receivers – Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall and Racey McMath – were long gone. But freshman wide receiver Kayshon Boutte made the biggest mark. In a wild 53-48 win over Ole Miss, Boutte set an SEC record with 308 receiving yards on 14 catches with three touchdowns, including the game-winning 45-yard catch-and-run with 1:34 left. “Anything you throw him,” Orgeron said, “he’s going to catch.”
Dec. 21-22 — In a huge football staff shakeup, LSU fired defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, passing game coordinator Scott Linehan and safeties coach Bill Busch. Then offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and defensive line coach Bill Johnson stepped away from on-field coaching to take analyst roles. The moves set up Orgeron for a string of potentially make-or-break hires in the new year after a 5-5 campaign, LSU’s first non-winning season since 1999.
Dec. 27 — Catholic High captured its third state football title in six years with a 35-12 win over C.E. Byrd in the Division I final. The state championship games have been played in Natchitoches, moved from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome because of coronavirus-related issues. Wednesday, Madison Prep joined the championship parade with a 50-0 rout of Union Parish in the Class 3A final.
Dec. 29 — LSU freshman guard Cam Thomas poured in a career-high 32 points in his SEC debut as the Tigers routed Texas A&M 77-54. It was the most points by any LSU player since January 2019 and gave a promise of potential greatness to come for the Tigers in 2021 – despite the specter of an NCAA investigation continuing to hang over the program.