It was a year in which sports largely came to a standstill because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But nothing could stop La Plata County athletes from putting together impressive accomplishments in 2020.
It would be easy to focus on the bad news in 2020. But with every setback, local athletes found ways to push through and make the best of their situation. And though apart, it was that attitude and commitment to persevere that united the sports community when public health guidelines dictated they stay socially distant.
While what was lost in 2020 - from the death of professional cyclist Benjamin Sonntag to senior athletes having their careers cut short with the cancellation of spring sports - will never be forgotten, memories of the year’s accomplishments against all odds made it a historic year for many.
With that said, here are The Durango Herald’s 10 best sports stories from 2020:
1. Durango football state championshipThe Demons didn’t think they would get the chance to play football in 2020 because of COVID-19. But when Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado High School Activities Association came together to approve a shortened fall season to begin in October, the Demons’ motto of “Be Ready” was put to use.
Durango rolled through the regular season with a 5-0 record, beating Cañon City 27-13 for the league championship in a game in which star seniors Jordan Woolverton and Ben Finneseth had to sit out after coming into contact with an athletic trainer who later tested positive for COVID-19. Fans celebrated that win from outside the stadium gates without being permitted inside because of a district decision regarding public health, which would be the case again in the state quarterfinals.
When the Demons were back to full strength in the playoffs, they rolled through Lutheran and Holy Family before a 21-14 Class 3A state championship victory against Roosevelt on Dec. 5 at the CSU-Pueblo ThunderBowl Stadium. Senior receiver and defensive back Gage Mestas was named the game’s MVP, as Durango claimed its first outright state championship in school history and first since a 1954 tie in the Class 1A championship against Lamar.
Eleven days later, Woolverton would sign an offer to play quarterback at the University of Colorado, giving Durango High its second Division I college football player in as many years after left tackle Carver Willis signed with Kansas State a year earlier.
It was a historic season for a once in a generation group of players from the small mountain town, as they transformed DHS from a cross-country school into a football school, at least for a year.
2. Tour de KussDurango’s Sepp Kuss made the cycling world remember his name in 2019 with a stage win at the Spanish Vuelta. In 2020, he took his climbing show to the Tour de France for the first time.
The 26-year-old finished 15th overall at his debut Tour de France. He did it as a support rider for Team Jumbo-Visma leader Primož Roglic, who wore the leader’s yellow jersey for most of the race before finishing second after falling behind fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar in the penultimate stage, an individual time trial.
Kuss, the top-American finisher in France, had two top-10 stage finishes, including his fourth place on Stage 17 in which it appeared he might get to go for the win on the Col de la Loze before dropping back to support Roglic.
In his third appearance at the Spanish Vuelta, Kuss had five top-10 stage finishes and finished 16th overall while helping Roglic to a repeat victory to finish a sensational season that included a stage win at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Kuss did it all after a four-month lockdown in Spain because of the pandemic with short time to prepare for the rescheduled Grand Tour events. There’s no doubt he will continue his ascension in the pro cycling world in 2021, when he could also get the chance to represent the U.S. in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
3. Foutz wins wrestling titleNo high school wrestler from La Plata County had won a state wrestling championship since 2012. That was until Bayfield’s John Foutz climbed to the top step of the podium in 2020.
The senior 220-pounder beat Eagle Valley’s Cody Ponce in a 4-1 decision to win the CHSAA Class 3A state title at the Pepsi Center in February. He finished his senior season 44-3 overall and became the first La Plata County wrestler to win a state title since Aaron Velasquez won the Class 3A 160-pound championship for Bayfield in 2012.
4. Blevins’ third silverChristopher Blevins of Durango wasn’t satisfied with his 2019 mountain bike season and was all in for his final year in the under-23 category for 2020. But the pandemic relegated him from racing in World Cups and a potential Olympics to nothing more than training rides.
That was until the fall, when he got the chance to return to Europe for the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Leogang, Austria. Blevins would race to a silver medal behind British superstar Tom Pidcock. The result gave Blevins his third silver in his three years as an under-23 racer with two in cross-country mountain biking (2018, ’20) and one in the 2019 team relay race. With those three medals, Blevins is the most decorated under-23 men’s mountain biker in American history.
Now in the elite pro age group, Blevins will contend with Utah’s Keegan Swenson in 2021 for the U.S. Olympic spot and also will once again compete in road racing and cyclo-cross with his new TRINITY Racing team.
5. Sisters in redThe Ignacio High School girls basketball team went undefeated in league and 18-6 overall during the 2019-20 season. And while the Bobcats qualified for the “Great 8” of the Class 2A state tournament - which was eventually canceled after the quarterfinals because of coronavirus - it was a regular-season home game that resonated with communities far beyond Ignacio.
In a Feb. 1 home game against Nucla, Ignacio played in honor of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement. Ignacio won that day 62-15, but the message sent during pregame brought awareness to the cause and helped raise money for Voices of Our Sisters, an organization that brings education and awareness to thousands of unsolved cased of missing and murdered women from Native American communities.
6. Durango hockey wins titleDurango High School’s club hockey team will forever have a championship banner inside the Chapman Hill Ice Rink.
For the first time in team history, the Demons won the Rio Grande High School Hockey League championship in 2020 with a 3-0 victory against Telluride in the title game.
Durango battled back in the double-elimination tournament from a 2-0 loss to Telluride in the semifinals and got one more chance at the Miners in the championship game. Durango received goals from Everett Howland, Luke Petranek and Zac Wentworth, while goaltender Hunter Houle made 33 saves to shutout Telluride for the championship played at the Chavez Center in Santa Fe.
Senior Braden Lyons was named the MVP of the league, which includes teams from Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Durango finished the season 20-4-2.
7. Thweatt’s trialsFor the second time in four years, Laura Thweatt of Durango ran for her chance to go to the Olympics.
This time, it came in the marathon distance instead of the 10,000-meter run. Thweatt led the U.S. Olympic Team Trials race in Atlanta for 11 of the 26.2 miles but would ultimately finish fifth to miss qualifying for the Olympics by two spots.
And, with the 2020 Olympics postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic, Thweatt may have a chance to return to the track for the 2021 Olympic Trials in the 10K.
8. Simmons’ neo-pro seasonA year after Durango’s Quinn Simmons won the junior men’s road cycling world championship, he became the youngest World Tour pro cyclist, skipping the under-23 ranks to race against the world’s best.
The Trek-Segafredo rookie saw a bit of everything in 2020. His target race, Paris-Roubaix, was canceled in the spring and then again in the fall, both times because of the virus.
After a summer spent in Durango without races in Europe, he returned overseas and placed second at the Tour de Hongrie (Hungary) and sixth at the Bretagne Classic in France. He also had a 16th-place finish at the Tour de Pologne (Poland).
Simmons would serve a suspension because of social media conduct, but Trek-Segafredo reinstated him a little more than a month later, and Simmons is back to training for 2021 and still hopes for a chance to represent USA Cycling at the 2021 Olympics alongside Kuss.
9. Burns second at nationalsDurango High School’s Madeleine Burns saw the 2020 spring track-and-field season canceled without her getting a chance to defend her 3,200-meter state championship her senior year.
But Burns wouldn’t go without a race in 2020, as she would place second at the National High School Trail Championships held in July in Salida. She finished the 5½-mile race in 37 minutes, 29.29 seconds to finish one-tenth of a second behind Joselin Burns of Eagle Valley.
Burns had her freshman cross-country season at Princeton University canceled because of the pandemic but will hope to make her collegiate running debut in 2021.
10. COVID-19 challengesThough official local events such as the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run and Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, among other big events across the world, were canceled by the pandemic, endurance athletes found new ways to challenge themselves and put their fitness to use in 2020.
Durango’s Kyle Curtin attempted the ever-popular “Everesting” challenge on the Hogsback in Durango, as he ran up and down the peak in Durango for 17 hours to reach more than 29,032 feet of elevation gain that represents the height of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. He tallied 34 miles to reach his final total of 29.131 feet climbed. Later in the year, Curtin set the fastest-known unsupported time on the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail.
Payson McElveen did the Everesting feat on his mountain bike in Durango on the Jones Creek Trail before later attempting a Colorado Trail record.
Kira Payer, a Fort Lewis College cyclist, twice set out on the White Rim Trail to set the women’s FKT, which stood for four days as other athletes also went to the Utah desert to challenge themselves.
The Death Ride Challenge cycling route around the southern San Juan Mountains also heated up, as riders went back-and-forth to lower the bar.
Those were just a few examples of how Durango’s top endurance athletes continued to push themselves to new limits despite the lack of official events.
Editor’s Note: While sports reporters around the country were left without much to write for a good portion of 2020, local athletes kept The Durango Herald busy as ever all year. It is a privilege to tell the stories and to have so many positive tales to tell. Here’s to more memories, championships and inspiring moments in 2021.
John Livingston is the Regional Sports Editor of The Durango Herald. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.