As 2021 comes to a close this Saturday — or Friday evening at midnight, if you can stay awake that long — we thought it’d be fitting to take a look back at the top Chatham sports headlines of the last year.
This year has been defined by title-winning performances, championship runs, perfect regular seasons and even an addition to the Chatham sports family.
Here’s a look at the top 5 stories of 2021:
As cliche as it may sound, the biggest storyline in all of sports — locally, nationally or internationally — was the fact that sports were actually played throughout 2021.
While they technically returned from their pandemic-forced hiatus in 2020, this year marked the re-emergence of most local sports and the playoffs/championships for high school sports that began in late 2020.
The early part of 2021 was hectic, eerie and a tad muted as crowds were limited in indoor events with the pandemic raging on, sometimes swapping potentially electric atmospheres for toned-down shells of themselves.
The NCHSAA crammed the start of 14 sports into a four-month period, causing multi-sport athletes to either choose what sport they’d rather play or multi-task a little more efficiently.
There was football in February, men’s soccer in the dead of winter and a plethora of sports that went well into the summer just to fit them all in.
Yet, despite all of the challenges that arose with teams not having a typical offseason, games being postponed or canceled due to either COVID or weather issues and things being all out of wack, Chatham and its student-athletes prevailed.
Seaforth freshman Jack Anstrom strolls along the sideline of Northwood's football field after taking first place in the men's race at the Chatham County Championships cross country meet on Aug 26 in Pittsboro. This was Anstrom's first official race since he was in 7th grade. / Staff photo by Peyton Sickles
Even with the distractions, many teams found their way into the postseason, plenty of individual athletes qualified for regional and state championship events and some programs had their best seasons to date.
Whether you’re a Bear, Charger, Hawk, Jet, Knight, Wolf or weird concoction of more than one, you had something to cheer about in 2021, even if it’s just that your team actually got to suit up and play again.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more impactful sports story in Chatham than the creation of the Seaforth Hawks, who played their first-ever varsity contests — a volleyball match (3-0 win over Southern Wake Academy) and a men’s soccer game (5-0 loss to Northwood) — on Aug. 16.
In 2021, Seaforth became the first public high school to open in Chatham since Northwood in 1970, completely altering the sports landscape of Pittsboro and the county at-large.
Led by Jason Amy, N.C.’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2021, the Hawks have thrived athetically in their first semester.
While the school’s only housing freshmen and sophomores for its inaugural season, that hasn’t prevented the Hawks from taking off this year, with successful seasons in cross country, women’s golf, women’s tennis and volleyball.
Hawks freshman Jack Anstrom (16:24.09) stole the show with a state runner-up finish in the 2021 NCHSAA Men’s Cross Country 2A State Championships, just seven seconds away from a state title. He was the only 9th grader to place inside the top 23 of the men’s race.
Seaforth had two state qualifiers — freshman Avery Fauth (41st, +56) and sophomore Olivia Dennis (T-62nd, +72) — in women’s golf, while the Hawks’ women’s tennis team had one state qualifier (sophomore Evelyn Atkins) and made an appearance in the 2A dual-team playoffs.
And as great as the student-athletes have been competing at a varsity level as underclassmen, Seaforth deserves even more kudos for its ability to foster an already tight-knit community, create a ton of excitement around every sport and cultivate an environment that allows athletes to blossom as soon as they step foot on campus.
That Northwood-Seaforth rivalry — no matter the sport — is going to be a thing of beauty for years to come.
While there have been more than 100 individuals/teams around Chatham that have competed for a state title, only two of them took home the gold.
It all started with J-M senior swimmer Jennah Fadely, who made history with a record-breaking, title-winning performance in the women’s 100 breaststroke event at the NCHSAA 1A/2A Swimming State Championships with a time of 1:02.11 (.03 seconds faster than the previous record) on Feb. 12.
After a second-place finish in the same event her junior year — along with a fourth-place finish in the women’s 200 IM — she returned the following season and wrapped up her high school career by winning both a gold (100 breaststroke) and a silver medal (200 IM).
“When I was a freshman, I still had a long way to go,” Fadely said following her win in February, “so when I realized how far I’d actually come, it just made me really happy, really proud of myself.”
Four months later, on a heat-filled afternoon at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, Northwood junior distance runner Caroline Murrell waxed the floor with her competition in the women’s 3,200-meter run at the NCHSAA 3A Track & Field State Championships as she finished with a 3A record time of 10:51.83, nearly seven seconds faster than the second-place finisher, to secure the state title.
In January, she placed in the top 10 of the 3A women’s race at the NCHSAA Cross Country State Championships, but on the track, she ensured there was no way she’d finish anywhere but first place.
“I wasn’t exactly going into this race expecting to be a state champion,” Murrell said after the race in June. “I was really just going for the time, which I got, luckily, but I wasn’t counting it out of my abilities because I’ve dropped a lot of time this year; I’ve gained more confidence.”
When they entered high school, both athletes seemed to have no idea they’d eventually become state champions, but their hard work and dedication to their craft culminated in them reaching the pinnacle.
Unsurprisingly, both Fadely and Murrell plan to race at the next level as members of championship programs.
Fadely committed to Kenyon College last school year — the most decorated swimming program in the entire NCAA — and Murrell announced her decision last month to join the N.C. State cross country team — the 2021 national champions — when she graduates in 2022.
As strange as the pandemic-shortened season was for athletes everywhere, including every corner of Chatham, one school in particular seemed to thrive in gyms with limited capacity: Northwood.
The Chargers made headlines last school year for their dominance in both men’s and women’s basketball, with each team punching its ticket to the Final Four and having a shot at the state championship game.
The men’s team — striking a balance between newcomers and veterans with a trio of jaw-dropping freshmen and a solid upperclassmen nucleus — made it all the way to the 3A state title game, where they lost a heart-wrenching finale to the unbeaten Weddington Warriors, 56-47, in front of a fairly small crowd in Providence Grove’s gym in Climax.
However, while the Chargers didn’t come away with any hardware, their journey to make it to the title game deserved its own award.
After concluding the regular season with a 10-2 record and a Big Eight 3A conference championship, the Chargers got unlucky as they were slotted as the No. 13 seed in the playoffs.
But that didn’t seem to faze Northwood, which rattled off four-straight road wins (as part of its larger 10-game winning streak) against No. 4 Rocky Mount, No. 5 D.H. Conley, No. 1 Terry Sanford and No. 6 West Carteret in a stretch that included late-game comebacks, thrilling overtime finishes and a boatload of resiliency.
The same could be said for the women’s team, which had a much different path to the Final Four than its male counterpart.
All season long, the tight-knit Chargers were undoubtedly one of the favorites to win it all, finishing the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record and a Big Eight 3A conference title of their own.
The Chargers were well-known for their tenacious defense, their intense playing style and their ability to use their size and grit to their advantage.
They earned the No. 5 seed in the postseason and played all but one playoff game at home — a second-round barnburner against No. 4 Terry Sanford, which the Chargers eked out, 46-43, on a late 3-pointer by junior guard McKenna Snively — defeating No. 12 E.E. Smith (home), No. 4 Terry Sanford (away) and No. 16 Person (home) before falling in the Final Four to the No. 7 Asheboro Blue Comets and their team full of seniors in an emotional home loss, 54-44.
While both the men’s and women’s teams fell just short of becoming the first-ever team state champions in Northwood history (in any sport), it was one heck of a ride.
And with the two teams combining for a 17-3 overall record halfway through the 2021-22 season, there’s a decent chance either or both of them will be able to take another crack at it very soon.
Over the last two decades, the most consistent team in Chatham has been Jordan-Matthews men’s soccer.
And it isn’t even close.
The 2021-22 season marked the 20th anniversary of the Jets’ inception, which allowed fans, players and coaches a chance to celebrate the program’s rich history and vast success over 20 years.
Jordan-Matthews senior Alexis Ibarra (19) attempts to knock-in a shot with a header during the Jets' 6-0 win over the Cummings Cavaliers in Siler City on Oct 18. / Staff photo by Simon Barbre
It was important that the Jets make this season one to remember. And they surely delivered.
Jordan-Matthews was a force to be reckoned with for most of the season, putting up near-perfect numbers all the way to the state playoffs, which they entered with a 17-0-1 record.
As the season progressed, it appeared as if the Jets has no weaknesses, scoring at an incredible clip — 110 goals in 18 regular-season games — and shutting down just about every offense they faced, allowing just 11 total goals in that same span.
The Jets hit their peak during a stretch in September and October where they went 12 straight games scoring 6 or more goals while simultaenously shutting out their opponents in eight straight games, both of which came to an end in a 3-1 win over Cummings on Oct. 26.
However, despite their stellar season that saw them crush nearly every team they faced, they didn’t quite have the strength of schedule to stack up with some of the state’s other top teams, earning them the 6th seed in the 2A playoffs.
J-M won its first two playoff games, both at home, against No. 27 Southwest Onslow, 3-1, and No. 22 East Bladen, 9-0, before taking a road trip to Durham for a bout with N.C. School of Science & Math, which the Jets won in overtime, 3-1.
In the Elite Eight, the Jets’ season came to an end with a 3-1 defeat to the No. 2 Greene Central Rams, halting the team’s quest for a perfect season.
Despite not winning it all, though, the Jets’ storybook season — one that will stick with Head Coach Paul Cuadros for years to come — remains perfectly intact and was fitting for the program’s 20th anniversary season, especially since they finished with a 20-1-1 overall record.
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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