For me, the 2019-20 athletic season was stocked full of stories I had the privilege to cover.
My mind swims with memories, so here’s a few moments that float to the top:
If there were two players I’d want to start a high school football team with, it would be Paducah Tilghman’s dynamic senior duo in Damien Ford and Jayden Freeman.
It’s difficult to really hone in on the exact “moment” each player had, because they combined for more than 3,800 yards of offense and 48 total offensive touchdowns during the Blue Tornado’s terrific 2019 campaign to the Class 3A regional championship game.
Moreover, it was simply the way in which they gained yardage that made them so fun to watch. Ford often devastated defenders with a backbreaking cut against the grain, and had little issue with contact between the tackles or in open space. In fact, he almost thrived on it.
Freeman, despite his smaller size, wound up being Tilghman’s most legitimate threat at wide receiver because his sub-4.5 40-yard dash quickly separated him from most defensive backs and linebackers who drew the unfortunate assignment. And then, just for fun, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards out of the backfield, often living on the edge and burning up the sideline.
From afar, former Murray State Racer point guard Ja Morant has become a national sensation. He’s already snagged a professional triple-double as the point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, and with the 2019-20 season set to resume in late July, it’s somewhat unbelievable to think he and his club are — as the current No. 8 seed in the Western Conference — one of the select 22 teams bound for Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, in a new COVID-19 iteration of the National Basketball Association.
But there are two moments involving the all-but-announced 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year that I was on hand to report on over the last 12 months: his first career win (Oct. 28, 2019), and the retirement of his No. 12 jersey at Murray State University (Feb. 1).
I had already been to the FedEx Forum two nights before, when the Grizzlies fell short in their home opener against a red-hot Zach LaVine, a new rookie Coby White and the Chicago Bulls.
After bouncing to Jacksonville, Alabama, for a tight football matchup between the Gamecocks and the Racers, I about-faced for a Sunday matinee with the Grizzlies and the Brooklyn Nets.
Thank God I did.
Morant became the third player in NBA history to score at least 30 points with nine assists in his first three professional games (Isiah Thomas and Trae Young are the others), and the Grizzlies got a 134-133 overtime, buzzer-beating win courtesy of a Morant pass to Jae Crowder at the top of the key.
An added bonus? Morant hit the game-tying layup in regulation (part of a 17-point fourth quarter), then stuffed his idol, Kyrie Irving (who scored a deft 37 points), on his game-winning attempt before OT.
Three months later in Murray, Morant and his family entourage were serenaded by thousands of fans wearing his No. 12, as one of the greatest to ever wear the Racer jersey saw his fall from the rafters of immortality.
He often looked at his daughter during the ceremony, and his eyes weren’t dry.
Smith saves best for last
For the fifth-straight season, Murray State men’s basketball carved a corner of my mind for memories. The rise of sophomore guard Tevin Brown, the near-claim of the 2020 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship, a 27-point deflation at Eastern Illinois, followed by the season save at SIU Edwardsville. A first-half masterpiece at the University of Tennessee, with youth appearing and execution escaping in the second half.
But for me, the top moment of the 2019-20 Racer season belongs to redshirt senior forward Anthony Smith, who — in his final home game at the CFSB Center in Murray — unloaded for 17 points and 11 rebounds, in what was a do-or-die scenario for a regular-season co-championship with the Belmont Bruins.
MSU topped the talented Austin Peay State Governors, 75-61, and Smith — sidelined most of the 2018-19 season due to a broken ankle — could exhale. He’d done his part, also limiting eventual 2020 OVC Player of the Year Terry Taylor to a season-low nine points with 10 rebounds.
It was one of the best two-way performances by a Racer all year.
Burpo’s basket buries Colonels
In a season full of bumps and bruises, it was Murray State sophomore guard/forward Alexis Burpo proving she belonged in a Division I uniform that should define what the Racers were in 2019-20.
Often struggling and outnumbered, MSU picked up a pivotal 66-65 conference home win against Eastern Kentucky on Feb. 27, with the Hickman County native and former Murray Lady Tigers star erupting for 21 points and the game-winning basket.
In a rare bout of emotion, Burpo threw up her hands at the buzzer, as two Colonels attempts at game-winners fell short.
The Racers would later learn they had qualified for the 2020 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Evansville, despite the multiple hurdles throughout the year.
Marshall, Murray and scintillating soccer
In its quest for the ever-rare clean sweep of First Region competition, the Marshals had to twice get by the longtime Second District nemesis in the Tigers.
This proved difficult in both contests in 2019. Round one was a 2-1, double-overtime win for Marshall County at Colburn Field on Aug. 27.
On Sept. 11 at Mallory France Field in Murray, it took sudden-death penalty kicks to sort out a victor, and the Marshals did it again — as goalie Ben Burkeen managed three PK saves, and midfielder Tyler Treas buried the winner behind the stout Bradley Dawson (who already had 11 saves in the game).
Jarrett Wiles, Collin Riley and Caleb Nicholls had also scored for the Marshals in PK. And, fittingly, it’s this balance that eventually led the Marshals to the 2019 First Region crown, as the team played most of its highly-anticipated season without the services of prolific goalscorer Bryson Penn, who returned late after suffering an early-season injury.
The Death of David Barnes
Not all memories of the 2019-20 season are happy ones.
The death of Caldwell County football’s longtime, stable sideline presence didn’t just rattle the region’s gridiron greats. It sent shockwaves all across the state and country, as Barnes’ impact on the game was perhaps even broader than he ever imagined.
Acknowledging his malady, Parkinson’s disease, wasn’t anything he owed to anyone at any time. And while his admittance brought no excuses along with it, it did increase regional awareness of the debilitating, and often progressive, neurological disorder.
Princeton will always be “Barnes Strong,” as will those who were closest to his legacy.