By Dan Hardenbrook

I truly believe that the 2021 Year in Sports was defined by the moments and the memories, rather than the championships won, awards received, and records broken. Even the best performances and biggest wins were made that much more magical by the atmosphere they created, and the stories behind them. These are my Top 10 Games and Moments from 2021.

  1. Catching up with college athletes

Our summer series in the Newberry News allowed me to visit with recent grads who have continued to do great things in college. The Next Level series wasn’t just a tribute to the best of the best from recent years and the legacies they’ve left behind, but also put a highlight on the impact they will soon make off of the field. We should be proud of all that they accomplished, and the way they continue to represent all of us.

  1. Indians rally to beat Rogers City

The Indians football team saved their best for last in a week 9 regular season finale at Rogers City. It was a long road trip to take on an undefeated team. The Indians were down two scores in the blink of an eye. You think all hope was lost? Not so fast! The Indians put together one of their finest performances, coming back to secure a 6-3 record and clinch a spot in the playoffs.

  1. Kaylen becomes the cross country queen

I’m not supposed to play favorites. But I can’t help it. I root harder for Kaylen Clark to succeed than just about anyone else. She’s a rare talent: a fierce, hard working, and determined competitor. She’s an even better kid. Nobody did it better in 2021 and nobody deserved it more. Congrats Kaylen. I’m so incredibly proud of you.

  1. Josh Magnusson’s perfect day

It’s called a perfect game because it is almost impossible to achieve. But that didn’t matter to “Mags”. He was just a kid who loved to play the game. And on an early day in May, he did just that. He went out and played. He did so with a heavy heart, having just lost a loved one. And in that moment, for a few hours on the mound he was absolutely perfect.

  1. The story of the Hidden Estates hockey team

They were one of the very best in their sport; a team that couldn’t be denied. But the story behind the scenes of the Hidden Estates hockey team was something you couldn’t even sell to Hollywood. A year removed from being forced to sit back while their state title dreams were wiped away by the earliest days of the pandemic, the group rallied together, added a few new faces, and became a pink-and-black wrecking crew that refused to be kept down. Their captain, Johnny Nutkins, played with a broken back, knowing he wasn’t the only one hurting. Together, they made an incredible run that saw them reach the state final. On a Friday night in Grand Rapids, I sat down in a hotel lobby, which was closed for gatherings, to film a few short interviews for that state tournament. Hours later, players, coaches, parents, and fans were packed around, talking and sharing their stories about what a great group this was. They wanted to savor every last moment together. They played the same way.

  1. Newberry knocks out Pickford

This football game was an instant classic. I called it the game of the year. In 15 years of covering high school sports, it’s still one of the best games in any sport I’ve ever seen. And that was the first time they met. After a regular season showdown went to overtime and left the Newberry football team and their fans in tears, the two teams met up again in the opening round of the playoffs. This time the Indians wouldn’t be denied. It was a statement win over one of the very best programs in the state.

  1. 20 years for Tokar

Very few moments this year meant more to me than the 20-year celebration for Indians Varsity Baseball Coach Jason Tokar. I played for the man. I later coached alongside him. I was there when he won championships and I was there when things looked rough and he was questioning if he could keep going. He rebuilt a program from scratch, took it to new heights, spun off into an offseason program and took a field that you could barely walk on and turned it into the finest facility anywhere. He will go down as the all-time wins leader…but his impact includes much bigger things, and many more lives touched.

  1. The Johnny Nutkins story

Very few athletes that I have covered have had an impact like Johnny Nutkins. I’d need a book to tell you all the great things I think about Johnny. But having a front row seat for his journey over the last 15 months has made me a better man. I’ve said it many times before. Sports is more than just a game. This kid is the definition of why. If I become half the man this kid is right now, I’m doing something right.

  1. State Savings Bank wins state title

What a wild ride this was with a great group of hockey kids. Some had been there many times before. Others got the experience for the first time. Three towns that have always rivaled each other formed a partnership that will last long after these young men are gone. They made you laugh, they made you cry, sometimes they made things more stressful than they had too. But you never forgot where you were when they were around.

  1. Fans back in the stands

Nothing was better in 2021 than seeing fans back in the stands. You could feel the impact, and you could see how much it truly meant to the kids when they were competing. One of the things that makes sports so special is the emotion of the moment. Nobody understands that more than parents and families, who got to see their kids do what they love in person again. It created excitement, brought schools and communities back together, and allowed all of us to share in those magical moments and memories again.