In the world of high school sports, a team always needs a sense of unity, a hard-work ethic and a desire to succeed.
Those are key in a normal year. However, the fall of 2020 was anything but normal.
Perhaps, the abnormal challenges of a pandemic proved to be even more of an impetus for the Jefferson City diocese’s three Catholic high schools — Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City and Sacred Heart School in Sedalia — to work even harder.
These three schools posted an impressive four state titles in a variety of sports and a number of second-place finishes.
For the captain of a Missouri state champion football team, the fall of 2020 will go down as an unforgettable experience.
“The greatest sports moment in my Helias career has to be lifting the state championship trophy with my brothers all around me,” said Helias Catholic senior Isaac Lopez, captain of the Crusaders football team. “It was a moment that I had been dreaming of doing my entire football career. It’s a memory I will never forget.”
Is was also quite an experience for longtime Crusader football head coach Chris Hentges. Not only did the Crusaders take the Class 4 title but they went undefeated at 14-0.
It was their first state championship since 1998, when Mr. Hentges’ father, Ray Hentges, was head coach.
“The foundation for our success was laid in our summer program,” Chris Hentges stated. “We had a great turnout as I think the kids were dying to get out and do something.”
He said the team won in so many different ways.
“Despite the adversity we had to face every day, the kids came to practice and gave it their all,” he said. “I’ve never seen a group of kids work this hard.”
Mr. Lopez said that he plans on furthering his education and athletic career in college.
Where that will be he does not know yet. However, one thing he is certain of is the effort Helias puts into connecting all things to the Catholic faith.
“My coaches put in extra effort to connect our team to faith,” he said. “We would always pray before and after practices and games, and go to Mass on Friday mornings of game day. This is truly a special place.”
Gary Link is a proud Athletic Director at Tolton Catholic. Ask him about the fall sports season, and he won’t stop talking.
He is particularly proud of the cross country team and the girls’ softball team which both won state titles.
“We have been very, very fortunate that all 10 of our fall sports were able to play ’til the end,” he said. “As well, we were able to play enough games to compete in districts.”
While the Trailblazers had games canceled, none of them were because their own student athletes were sick.
In fact, their annual homecoming football match-up between Duschene High School had to be canceled while their team was getting on the bus.
“I got the call from the Duschene coach that one of his players was showing COVID symptoms, and I told their coach to stay home,” said Mr. Link. “Talk about a tough decision! However, on Monday, their coach called me and said it was the right decision as the player had tested positive.”
He said the success of the school’s athletic programs began in July with a school-wide meeting among faculty and administrators on how to promote academic and athletic success.
“We put together a plan that would minimize (COVID-19) risk and everyone bought into it,” he said. “We followed the rules and they worked. It was that simple.”
Trailblazer softball head coach Taylor Bartlett was one who bought into the program, and it worked. He and his players set a goal, fought hard and reached it through the thick and thin of the pandemic.
“We realized from the start that we might not get all of our games in,” he said. “We were able to navigate a lot of uncertainty and reach our goal of being state champions. Along the way, we did everything we could to maintain social distancing to avoid a shutdown. None of our players tested positive.”
Coach Bartlett added that he had four girls make first team all-state. Among them was pitcher Paige Bedsworth who brecame the all-time high school strikeout leader for all Missouri high school divisions. She is headed to Drake University on a scholarship next fall. Mr. Bartlett said she and the other seniors really led the team.
“The best moment ever was running to my teammates after the final out of the state championship game,” said Ms. Bedsworth, “and knowing that we finally accomplished our goal of the last four years. The community of Tolton is such a great atmosphere and it is easy to get to know everyone, and they are the most welcoming people. My teachers and coaches to incorporate our faith and allow us to see that in almost everything we do. Before games, just like before every class, we would pray.”
As fall turned into winter, Mr. Link and the Tolton coaches weren’t resting on their laurels.
“We’re rolling into our winter sports schedule,” he said. “It’s amazing what we are doing here. We are in a horrific time in a world-wide pandemic, but we are making it in our little corner of the world.”
Sacred Heart Gremlins
For Sacred Heart High School Athletic Director Amanda Blackburn, the fall of 2020 was baptism by fire.
Not only was this her first job as an A.D., but she had to navigate a nasty pandemic.
“My first impression of the staff and coaches here was that they go above and beyond any expectations we have,” she explained. “During the fall, I saw coaches and student athletes shine in adversity due to the COVID situation. No one allowed it to bring them down.”
She added that there were cases of COVID among the various sports teams, but teammates kept their heads high and remained a team first and foremost.
“They did Zoom practices at times to keep going, and when they came back, they came ready to compete,” Ms. Blackburn added.
Most impressive was the Gremlins girls’ golf team. They won a state title under the leadership of head coach Carla Luchessi. It was a first for girls’ golf in school history.
She quipped that golf by nature is a good social distancing sport.
“We had four seniors on the team,” she told The Catholic Missourian. “So we had a lot of experience. These girls had played together all four years and kept working and working on it.”
Caten Luchessi was one of those seniors.
“We won the state championship as a team,” she stated. “Many people consider golf an individual sport so it was very exciting to work together and win as a team this year. My greatest moment was getting second at state individually. It was something that I had never even dreamed of happening.”
Ms. Luchessi added that she and fellow teammate Kelsey Hudson had a tradition of reciting a special prayer together before each test and before any matches or tournaments.
“This is our final way to prepare ourselves for whatever we are doing and to calm our nerves,” she said.
On the volleyball court, senior Kiley Beykirch shared a similar sentiment.
“Not only did we pray before every volleyball game, but we are constantly being encouraged to have good sportsmanship and attitudes,” she said.
Prayer and hard work paid off as the Gremlins had a very successful season, according to their coach, Marlo Siron. They took second place in state as they lost to Santa Fe.
“I was almost certain that we would get a month into the season and COVID would shut everything down,” she noted. “But we got through the season with just one match that we couldn’t play. But otherwise we played our full season which was pretty awesome.”
“Before all else ...”
Father Stephen Jones, chaplain of Helias Catholic, said state championships are exciting and that he’s super-proud of all the student athletes at Helias and elsewhere who have achieved that level of success.
“It showcases what is most important about sports: hard work, perseverance, trust in teammates and coaches, and the willingness to give of yourself for the betterment of others,” he said. “These qualities reflect so well the life of faith that we are all called to share and put at the center of our lives.”
Father Michael Coleman, a chaplain at Tolton Catholic, thought back to a moment in 2016 when he prayed in the school’s chapel with the boys’ varsity basketball team before they left for Mizzou Arena to win the state championship.
That team included Michael Porter Jr., who now plays professionally for the Denver Nuggets.
“After that game, Michael told the press that ‘before all else we play for God,’” Fr. Coleman recalled. “That is truly the theme of our sports at Tolton Catholic.”
This year, when the girls’ softball and boys’ cross country teams both won state championships, players on both teams echoed the same thing.
So have student athletes on teams that competed at state in past seasons.
“Win or lose, prayer is at the heart of all our sports at Tolton Catholic,” said Fr. Coleman. “Everything we do is so that we can use all our gifts and talents for His glory.”