2020 Sports in Review

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Posted December 31, 2020 | Ainslie Lee, Ocala Gazette | Photography by Bruce Ackerman and Alan Youngblood

All had some, some had all

But regardless if their seasons were cut short or not, Marion County’s high school sports teams produced some great stories through 2020. Here’s the Gazette’s top 10:

Forest volleyball makes it to region final

Photo by Bruce Ackerman

Jimmy Collins and the Wildcats’ volleyball program continued its reign of dominance in 2020, despite the many moving factors to the odd season.

After sweeping through county competition and beating each of the other Marion County programs twice, Forest entered the postseason with a flawless 12-0 record. Remarkably, the Wildcats didn’t drop a single set in the regular season.

Junior outside hitter Emma Truluck led her team in kills and punished opponents all season long. With a tally of 225 kills, Truluck defied all odds after suffering a stroke in February.

Forest’s successful season came to an end on Halloween afternoon as the Wildcats dropped three, painfully close, sets to St. Petersburg. In the 3-1 loss, just a combined seven points across three sets kept Forest from the Class 6A final four.

With a junior-heavy roster in 2020 Forest’s volleyball team will have eight seniors leading the way in 2021.

Vanguard football has nice playoff run

Photo by Alan Youngblood

Each year when high school football rolls around, you can bet that the Vanguard Knights will be one of the leading programs in Marion County. This season made that especially prevalent as the Knights and the rest of the county played in an all-county regular season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Knights finished the season 8-2, with both losses coming from in-county foe, Dunnellon. The Knights’ pair of losses to the Tigers were decided by a combined five points, with the regular-season loss to the Tigers coming from a last-second touchdown.

The Knights saw their season end in the region final against a familiar opponent: Dunnellon.

Nonetheless, Edwin Farmer and the Vanguard football program displayed a lot of promise with its mature roster that featured 17 seniors.

Senior athlete Trevonte Rucker, who is slated to play for the University of Florida next fall, was about as dangerous as they come as he flaunted abilities to score with his legs, his arm, his hands and on returns.

Defensively, junior Emile Sancho posed a huge threat to opposing quarterbacks as he hauled in six interceptions on the year.

Belleview’s Sierra Harris makes history… again

Just three years after Belleview’s Sierra Harris became the first female to score a point in varsity football in Marion County, the Belleview student-athlete struck the record books again in July when she inked a scholarship to Webber International University to play flag football.

In putting pen to paper, Harris became the first Marion County flag football player to take her talents to the next level. And while most of the feat is attributed to the Belleview quarterback and safety, the other part comes from the fact that up until May, flag football didn’t exist in college.

But Harris’ junior season, which featured 1,009 passing yards and 17 passing touchdowns, in addition to 351 rushing yards and two scores on the ground, was all college coaches had to see of the Belleview competitor.

Jeff Melesky, Webber International’s head flag football coach, said that Harris was at the very top of his list when it came time to build his team.

And on July 1, Melesky got his wish and Harris, once again, made history.

North Marion’s Sterlin Thompson signs with No.1-ranked Gators

The Ocala-to-Gainesville pipeline has always been strong and has been gaining momentum in recent years. And while it’s equally as impressive any time a Marion County student-athlete takes itself to the University of Florida, which is the sixth-ranked public university in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, for North Marion’s Sterling Thompson, the feat was even more impressive.

When Thompson inked his letter of intent to play with the Gators’ baseball team, Florida baseball was the top-ranked program in the nation.

With the reign of dominance Florida baseball has seen in recent years, the Gators carry the privilege of being able to recruit any player in the country and have a legitimate chance at signing them. Which, all things considered, says a lot about Thompson’s talent.

The Colts’ three-hole hitter also had an opportunity to be drafted in the 2020 MLB Draft, but never heard his name called.

John Brantley returns to Trinity Catholic, signs three in first year back

The name John Brantley III rings familiar for high school sports fans in the Ocala area. After coaching at Trinity Catholic from 2008 to 2014 and helping the Celtics to a state title in 2010, and then coaching one year at Belleview in 2016, Brantley took a brief break from the gridiron to focus on an endeavor with Cheney Bros.

However, back in March, the Celtics announced that Brantley would be returning to Trinity Catholic to lead the Celtics’ football program once more. Brantley replaced Andrew Thomas, who, after a short stint with the Celtics, took the head coaching job at Union County.

To date, anywhere Brantley goes, success follows. And such was true in 2020.

In his first season back, Brantley saw three products of the Celtics sign scholarship offers to Power 5 programs. Offensive linemen Jake Slaughter (Florida Gators), Caleb Johnson (Notre Dame Fighting Irish) and Garner Langlo (Auburn Tigers) were all a testament of Brantley’s ability to get athletes to the college level.

Trinity Catholic makes deep run, knocked off by state champs

Photo by Bruce Ackerman

Keeping true to the Trinity Catholic theme, the Celtics were the second of three Marion County football programs to make a deep postseason run.

After posting a mundane 4-3 regular season record, which included a three game-skid in the middle of the season, the John Brantley-led Celtics peaked at the right time.

Following a three-point loss to Sandalwood (Jacksonville) on October 16, Trinity Catholic went on to win five straight, including three playoff games. However, everyone knew that a matchup against the Trinity Christian Conquerors was likely on the docket somewhere down the road.

The Conquerors visited the Celtics on December 4 with a record of 10-1, with the lone loss coming in week one of play.

Trinity Christian, now ranked the eighth best team in the state of Florida, left Ocala with a 56-33 victory.

However, Trinity Christian, the same team that ended the Celtics’ season, would go on to claim the Class 3A state championship.

With an odd preseason in 2020 and a new head coach, the Celtics did the most with the fluid situation handed to them.

Belleview softball’s hot start ends due to COVID-19

When the seasons of Marion County’s spring sports were scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic, every program around the county was crushed.

However, when you’re ranked at the best softball team in the state and the 24th-best program in the country, the sting of not finishing a season is intensified. That was the case for the Belleview Rattlers’ softball team in 2020.

After sprinting out to an 11-0 start and outscoring opponents 111 to 46, the Rattlers were slated to dominate their schedule. In their shortened season, the Rattlers were batting with a team average of .391. Meanwhile, senior pitcher Autumn Oglesby had given up just 40 hits out of her 208 at-bats pitched.

While falling in love with potential is a risky move, looking at Belleview softball’s talented roster, it was hard not to wonder what could’ve been.

Dunnellon football reaches Final Four

After earning the unofficial title of the best football team in Marion County in 2020, it’s only fitting that the Dunnellon Tigers were the last Marion County team standing this season.

Photo by Bruce Ackerman

Posting a perfect 6-0 record in an all-county regular season, the Tigers continued on its streak well into the postseason. In its opening four playoff games, one of which was a forfeit, the Tigers outscored their opponents 76-17, including a 13-10 victory over crosstown rival Vanguard.

Following Dunnellon’s win at Booster Stadium in the playoffs, the Tigers traveled to Tallahassee to take on Rickards in the Final Four.

Despite a 26-24 heartbreaking loss to the Raiders on December 11, Dunnellon had a lot to be proud of for simply returning to the Final Four for the second time in three years.

Forest’s Elise Bauer qualifies for Olympic trials, signs at Florida

The Olympic swimming trials were slated to take place in June in Omaha, Nebraska. However, like many other sporting events, the trials were just one more casualty from the coronavirus pandemic.

And for Forest graduate Elise Bauer, the cancelation meant she wouldn’t be making the trip to Nebraska in the summer.

Despite not even graduating from high school, Bauer qualified for the Olympic trials in two events: the 800- and 1500-meter freestyle. Bauer’s qualifying times came during the Phillips 66 National Championships in Stanford, California.

In the 800-meter, Bauer touched the wall in 8:45.42, which not only qualified her for the trials, but was a personal best. The former Forest Wildcat and current Florida Gator set another personal best and qualifying time with a 16:39.87 effort in the 1500.

Though Bauer will have to wait for her shot in Omaha, being just a freshman on the Florida Gators’ swim team, she has plenty of time.

Trinity Catholic volleyball wins state title

For Trinity Catholic’s volleyball program, championship expectations are had each year. And more often than not, the Celtics live up to the expectations. After all, two championships in three years are good by anyone’s standards.

Photo by Bruce Ackerman

A November trip to Fort Myers for the Celtics meant one thing in 2020: bringing a state title back to Ocala.

The Celtics won the championship in 2018, and were an eyelash away from repeating in 2019. However, when head volleyball coach Jeff Reavis’ mother fell ill during the postseason in 2019 and Reavis couldn’t travel to the championship match, it threw a wrench into the Celtics momentum.

However, in 2020, despite all the uncertainty, the Celtics knew they weren’t going to let the runner-up bid define them this season. Instead, all eyes were on a state championship.

Through 24 matches, the Celtics won 52 of the 76 sets played.

But a 3-0 sweep against Westminster Christian on November 14 was all it took for the Celtics to shake the runner-up status from the year prior and bring home their second championship in two years.

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