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The first half of 2021 saw the return of high school sports in New York State, and PIAA's perseverance in giving the student-athletes every opportunity to have a somewhat normal season and a postseason.

Picking the top stories in 2021 was not as easy as in past years, thanks in large part to the fact that New York's 2021 truncated seasons featured no postseasons, and therefore, little in terms of storylines.

That said, the 2021 fall season and beginning of the 2021-22 winter season offered up a number of qualifiers.

Without further ado, the "Baker's Dozen Top Stories of 2021:"

13.  The Sports Reports expansion - first-ever All-Region teams: The Sports Reports family grew by two sites in 2021 with the addition of Northern Tier West Sports Report (covering Tioga County, Pa.) in mid-March, and Southern Tier Sports Report (Elmira-Corning) in mid-August.

The Sports Reports family now covers 24 school districts in five counties.

At the end of the fall season, we introduced our All-Region teams in each sport, as well as top male and female athletes and newcomers, and top coaches.

12. Tioga boys soccer, Sayre girls basketball programs re-born: The Tioga boys returned to the soccer pitch in the fall after a five-year absence, while the Sayre girls hit the hardwoods after a year without a varsity team.

Under the direction of former Tioga standout Adam Layman, the Tigers, led by sophomore Tyler Roe, played a non-league schedule against IAC teams. They beat Watkins Glen for their only win of the season.

The Lady Redskins are off to an 0-3 start, but have a young group on the floor that should continue to improve.

11. Classic rivalries renewed in New York: After a truncated 2020 fall season, which was played in the spring of 2021, there was a near return to normalcy this fall.

On the soccer pitch and volleyball hardwoods it was like old times as a pair of old rivals saw their rivalries burn hot.

The Waverly and Notre Dame girls soccer teams played 287 minutes of soccer before a goal was scored. The first 200 minutes - two double-overtime matches - resulted in a pair of 0-0 draws. The third match - a divisional playoff for the IAC South Large School crown, saw Notre Dame's Ava Mustico break the ice in the 87th minute for a 1-0 win.

On the hardwoods, Tioga beat Candor in five sets in their first match-up of the season, but the Lady Indians won their next three matches - all in five sets - including a divisional playoff win for the IAC South Small School crown, and their final collision for the Section IV, Class D title.

10. Valley cross country runners excel - five qualify for States:
It was a good fall for Valley harriers, with five qualifying for their respective cross country state championships.

Athens led the way with three state qualifiers, including the Bronson sisters - freshman Sara and junior Emma, as well as senior Matt Gorsline.

Waverly freshman Harper Minaker and Tioga junior Thomas Hurd also qualified.

It could have been an more impressive fall, but Waverly senior Nate Ackley and Athens junior Ethan Denlinger missed the cut for States by one finishing spot.

9. Tioga football coach Nick Aiello collects 100th career win: On Oct. 2, Tioga rolled to a 55-0 win over Delhi, marking the 100th coaching win for coach Nick Aiello in just his his 123rd game.

Aiello guided the Tigers to a 12-0 season - the first unbeaten season in his career. He has amassed a 108-23 career record, including a 24-2 record in the Section IV playoffs, and a 13-7 mark in the state playoffs.

Aiello's teams have won nine Section IV titles since 2011 - including the last four played, to go along with his two state titles. He has a career record of 108-23.

8. Long-distance records for both Waverly hoop teams:
On Feb. 23, the Waverly girls and boys basketball teams had record-setting nights from behind the 3-point arc.

Playing at home, the Lady Wolverines knocked down a school-record 16 3-pointers in an 84-31 win over Tioga. Eighth-grader Addison Westbrook led the Lady Wolverines with six 3-pointers.

At Tioga, the Waverly boys set a school record with 15 3-pointe sin an 89-41 win. Freshman Joey Tomasso made seven 3-pointers, including a school-record six in one quarter, to lead the Wolverines' effort.

7. Athens Lady Wildcats add two 1,000-point scorers to exclusive club: 2021 turned out to be a pretty good year for the Athens Lady Wildcats, who saw two more players join their 1,000 career points club - bringing the total to nine.

On Jan. 29, senior Kayleigh Miller, who later in the season became the school record-holder for career 3-pointers, scored 13 points in a win over Cowanesque to become the eighth player in program history to score 1,000 points.

On Dec. 23, senior Caydence Macik scored 17 first-half points in a 50-21 win over Sayre to become the 10th player in Athens program history to the 1,000-point plateau.

The Athens 1,000-point club now includes Jennifer Nichols (1,528 points), Maryellen Onofre (1.512), Emily Lunger (1,270), Taylor Clark (1,256), Miller (1,187) Janet Gabriel (1,185), Michelle Shaffer (1,143), Kelly McCarty (1,022), and Macik (1,002).

6. Tioga's Emmett Wood caps brilliant career on the gridiron: Wood rushed for 2,144 yards and 34 TDs, averaging 12.1 yards per carry in leading Tioga to a 12-0 record, and two state titles. He also two interception returns for TDs, including an 85-yarder.

As a sophomore, Wood was the New York State Coaches Association Class D Player of the Year after rushing for 2,356 yards and 37 TDs. He also caught a 50-yard TD pass. Defensively, Wood had two interceptions, including a pick-six, and he returned three kickoffs for TDs.

Despite only playing a half-season in the truncated 2020 "Covid season," Wood finished his career fifth all-time in New York State history with 7,367 yards, and he scored 99 rushing TDs.

5. Waverly football enjoys historic season:
Jason Miller's Waverly Wolverines accomplished something no other team had in program history, which dates back to 1892  - forging a 10-0 record.

The Wolverines opened eyes right off the bat with a 31-7 Week Zero win over Class A East-Syracuse Minoa, and survived close calls against Chenango Valley, Watkins Glen / O-M, and Susquehanna Valley to close out the regular season at 9-0.

After a 35-8 win over Norwich in the Class C semifinals, the Wolverines saw their season end in the Class C title game with a 34-6 loss at Chenango Forks, which went on to win its seventh state title.

4. Covid fallout - Section IV plays all three seasons in first five months of 2021;
N.Y. cancels all 2020-21 state tournaments: New York began the 2020-21 school year by postponing the fall sports season, and canceling all state tournaments for the fall and winter season.

Section IV eventually ended up playing the winter sports schedules in January and February, the fall sports in March, and April, and the spring sports in May and the first half of June.

All postseason tournaments in N.Y. were canceled, even the spring seasons which are played outside, although Section IV did cram postseason tournaments into a one-week format.

3. Sayre baseball wins another District 4 title: The Redskins ended the regular season as NTL Small School champs, with an 18-1 record.

They rolled over East Juniata, 11-1, and Canton, 9-2, in the first two rounds of the District 4, Class AA playoffs. In the championship game, Sayre topped Southern Columbia, 7-3, for their third title in four season (not counting the 2020 season, which was canceled due to Covid).

Sayre saw its season come to an end in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs with a 7-1 loss to unbeaten Riverside. The Redskins finished the campaign with a 21-2 mark.

2. Athens junior Gavin Bradley runner-up at PIAA Wrestling Championships:
Athens junior Gavin Bradley finished the regular season with a 28-0 record, then won his second North Section championship, and his first District 4 crown.

At the Northeast Regionals, Bradley edged Wyoming Area's Jaden Pepe, 5-3, to win the 113-pound title - his second Regional title.

With "Covid protocols" in effect, PIAA added a "Super Regional" round in 2021, and Bradley ran into Pepe again, this time dropping a 9-6 decision.

With just eight wrestlers in each weight class advancing to Hershey, Bradley was already guaranteed of his third PIAA medal before even stepping on the mat at the Giant Center.

In the state finals, Bradley dropped a 3-2 decision to Pepe.

1. Tioga football wins second state title:
The Tigers capped a dominant season with a 27-0 win over Moriah in the Class D championship game - the program's first state title since 2015.

Tioga opened the season with a 56-3 win at Sidney, and followed it up with a 27-14 home win over Watkins Glen / O-M in Week 2, which would turn out to be the closest game the Tigers would play all season. The closest game the remainder of the season was the 27-point win in the state championship game.

The Tigers outscored their opponents by an average of 47 to 8.4 points per game, including a 42-6 margin in the three state playoff games.

The Tigers have won 9 of the last 11 Section IV, Class D titles, and have a 108-23 record since 2010.

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