The Year in Sports

By Justin HAGER

If 2020 was remarkable for the absence of sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 was remarkable for the myriad ways in which athletes refused to be relegated to the sidelines and instead returned in creative, innovative and remarkable ways.

The year kicked off with a game for the ages as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena hosted a college football playoff match between two blue-blood legends of the sport: the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. While the Tide’s dominant victory was a familiar sight to any college football fan, the empty stadium, was a reminder that even “the grandaddy of them all” was not immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the NCAA, MLB, and NBA had all either begun play or announced plans to return. However, with the pandemic far from over (the omicron variant continues to ravage Southern California), 2021 was undeniably set to be among the most chaotic and interesting years in sports history.


The California Dept. of Public Health released a highly anticipated youth-sports update on Feb. 19 creating a path for high school sports to resume and for certain fall and winter sports to take place in a truncated spring season. The result was a whirlwind three-month period from late-February to mid-May in which more than a dozen sports held competitions simultaneously. Multi-sport athletes like Crescenta Valley’s Brendan Pehar (below) were especially taxed. Pehar found himself pitching five-innings of baseball then throwing touchdowns as the starting football quarterback, all in less than 48 hours.


Despite the chaos of scheduling, the Falcons soared during the shortened 2021 spring season. The Falcon boys’ baseball team demonstrated both high-flying offense and stout defense, going 17-11 overall and 11-4 in the Pacific League. The boys’ 10-game winning streak through the middle of the season gave them the opportunity to compete for the Pacific League title as they found themselves in a three-way tie with Burbank and Arcadia with just two weeks remaining. They would be forced to settle for second place but still qualified for the CIF Southern Section tournament and are well equipped for next season.

Another impressive performance came from the girls’ soccer team, which won 11 matches in a row including a 3-0 rout of the U.S. top 500 ranked La Cañada Spartans, leading the girls to their first CIF state tournament  berth in 19 years. The girls’ play was so strong that it earned the attention of national prep sports writers and a top 350 national ranking and top 100 state ranking.

The boys’ lacrosse players finished their season 14-4, earning the highest overall winning percentage in the Gold Coast League and a MaxPreps CIF Southern Section top 50 ranking. The group, which only became a recognized CVHS team in 2019 and then had its 2020 campaign interrupted by COVID, was so dominant that it outscored opponents by more than 120 goals, 232-110.

As successful as CVHS was in team competitions, the most impressive athletic performance came from a single individual. In her senior season, Mia Barnett recorded the nation’s fastest prep times in the 1600- (4:37.58) and 3200-meter run (9:52.23), with both ranking among the top 10 performances in U.S. girls prep history. She also ran the nation’s second-fastest mile of the year and a top 10 in California history (4:39.41) and in the spring had a state-best finish of 2:07.31 in the 800, the seventh-fastest prep time in the U.S. Her performance in the 3200-meter race at the Laguna Beach Distance Carnival was almost 50 seconds ahead of the next-closest runner that day. Barnett was named the Gatorade Player of the Year, becoming the first CVHS athlete to receive the honor since Michelle Greco in 1998.

Beyond prep sports, the first part of 2021 was also an exciting time for local adult athletes. CVHS alums and cousins Drake Barron and Eric Greco Jr. rose to national prominence in mountain biking and stock car racing, respectively, with impressive performances in several races including first place victories within 24 hours of each other.

And the UCLA Bruins made history when the team entered the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as the 44th seed in the country and made it all the way to the Final Four after upsetting No. 5 Alabama and No. 4 Michigan. Unfortunately, the Bruins fell three points short in an exciting overtime matchup to No. 1 Gonzaga that ended in a game winning buzzer beater by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs. The Bruins’ historic run included back-to-back outstanding performances by sophomore Johnny Juzang, who scored 28 points against Michigan and 29 points against Gonzaga. The USC Trojans also made the Elite 8 with an upset over No. 12 Kansas but, like UCLA, could not overcome the Gonzaga juggernaut.


With the end of prep sports and the arrival of summer, some of the biggest names in professional sports took center stage.

Major League Baseball (MLB) opened with the long-anticipated debut of a healthy Shohei Ohtani, who wowed Southern California audiences as the first successful dual-threat baseball player since Bobby Reis in the 1930s. Unfortunately for fans, Ohtani’s ability to throw 100mph and hit 450 feet wasn’t enough to save the Angels from having a losing season.

Slightly farther north, the boys in blue were making history of their own, becoming the first team in MLB history to win 105 or more games and still not win their division. The 106-win Dodgers fell one game short of its rivals from the bay, the San Francisco Giants, which won 107 games. The Dodgers did make the playoffs, defeating the Cardinals in the one game wild card race and even got the better of the Giants, taking the Division Series 3-2. But the Dodgers could not repeat its 2020 World Series run when it lost to the Atlanta Braves in the league championship series.

In other professional sports, La Cañada’s Collin Morikawa won the 2021 Open Championship on his debut attempt and took the golfing world by storm as he combined his victory at the British Open with wins at the 2020 PGA Championship, 2021 WGC-Workday Championship, 2021 DP World Tour Championship of Dubai, 2021 Ryder Cup and his second place finish at the PGA Memorial Tournament.

Despite his youth, Morikawa has been so dominant that he has already become the No. 2 ranked golfer in the world, only behind Spain’s Jon Rahm.

Joining these well-known professional athletes was local crossing guard John Raddich. An ultramarathoner and advocate for safe streets, Radich ran 67 miles on his 67th birthday and competed in the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, also known as the world’s toughest footrace, to raise money and awareness of the need for safer streets in Southern California.

Despite these many amazing stories, the sports world was undeniably dominated throughout the summer by the much-anticipated 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. Delayed by a year due to the COVID, the Tokyo Games were fraught with uncertainty as the delta variant left the Olympic Village closed to outsiders and athletes on high alert. Despite the uncertainty, the Games went on and the U.S. unsurprisingly continued its run of Olympic domination. The USA earned 113 medals, 39 of which were gold. The next closest competitor was the Russian Olympic Committee, which earned 71 total medals, Great Britain (65) and host country Japan (58).

One of the gold medals the U.S. took home was won by Glendale native and WNBA legend Diana Taurasi. Once referred to by Kobe Bryant as the “White Mamba,” Taurasi helped lead the women’s team to gold at the Olympics while also leading the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA finals and herself to a record-breaking 9000 career points.



With the Olympics over and the COVID-19 pandemic appearing to be on its last legs, athletes at every level of competition entered the fall season with expectations of a return to normalcy. And, for the most part, those expectations were fulfilled.

The CVHS boys’ cross-country team soared to a top 10 finish at the state championship while the girls finished 11th at the CIF Southern Section tournament, falling just four spots short of a state tournament berth. Both teams appear to be headed for even better performances next year as many of their top performers will return as upper classmates with a year of non-COVID interrupted experience under their belts.



The boys’ water polo team competed for a Pacific League championship and qualified for the CIF tournament but fell just short in both.

And the girls’ volleyball team won its CIF wild card play-in, its first CIF playoff victory in 20 years.

Winter sports are currently underway with the boys’ basketball team poised for a run at the state title. The boys are currently 11-2 overall and ranked in the top 20 in the CIF Southern Section, according to MaxPreps.

Boys’ soccer is also flying high. With a 5-0-2 record overall and a 3-0-1 record in the Pacific League, the Falcons are the favorite to win the league, are ranked in the top 20 in the CIF Southern Section and in the top 40 in the State of California.

Although less dominant than its spring performance, girls’ soccer is also well situated for another CIF run. The team currently holds an 11-3 record overall, is 7-0 in the Pacific League and is ranked 33rd in the CIF Southern Section.

Beyond prep sports, Southern Californians are also getting excited about the hiring of Lincoln Riley as the new head coach of the USC Trojans football team. In his first few weeks on the job, Riley has already brought in four ESPN top-300 recruits, including the top player in California – five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson – cornerback Domani Jackson (No. 6), and running back Raleek Brown (No. 60). Whether Riley’s enthusiasm and recruiting prowess will be enough to turn around the now decade-long struggle for USC remains to be seen. But the excitement surrounding the new coach is bringing in not only top recruits, but also top dollar donors, giving the Trojans and the Pac-12 a greater sense of optimism about the future.

Unfortunately, 2021 is ending much as it began. UCLA’s abrupt withdrawal from the Holiday Bowl in San Diego earlier this week resulted in the fifth COVID-19 related bowl game cancellation of the 2021-22 campaign. As of publication time, the 108th playing of the Rose Bowl Game is expected to continue as scheduled, on New Year’s Day, as the Ohio State Buckeyes of the Big-10 Conference take on the Utah Utes of the Pac-12 Conference.