Polk County sports fans found a wide range of coverage in the pages of the Bolivar Herald-Free Press and online at BolivarMoNews.com in 2020.
Here are the year’s most read articles, ranked according to the most unique website views.
1. Lola Lewis’ last lap
May 20 — When his mother, Lola, died in April, Brian Lewis of Willard said his family wasn’t sure how they’d hold a funeral service.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, social gathering sizes would have to be limited, and Brian Lewis said he knew that wouldn’t be fair to a woman who had positively impacted so many lives in her 75 years.
The Lewises, who share a common love of competitive driving, compete regularly at the Historic Bolivar Speedway, he said.
The day after his mother died, he said he got a text from Historic Bolivar Speedway owner Vicki Benner, who offered to use the speedway to host his mother's funeral service.
Close family members could sit in the stands, Benner told him, while others remained in their vehicles in the track’s outfield listening to a service broadcast over the speedway speakers.
The arrangement would honor social distancing guidelines while also paying respect to his mother, who he said was both a devout Christian and a racing fan.
On Friday afternoon, May 8, about 50 of Lola Lewis’ closest friends and family members spread out in the stands at the speedway, with about another 50 vehicles parked in the outfield.
Funeral home employees placed Lola Lewis’ open casket at victory lane during the service and, afterwards, as family members and friends left the speedway en route to White Chapel Memorial Gardens, a Greenlawn Funeral Home hearse sped through a pair of final laps at the speedway.
For his mother and his family, though, Brian Lewis said the service couldn’t have been a more fitting tribute.
“Our very last race here last season, my son Richard won OctoberFast,” Brian Lewis said. “He was parked here at victory lane. I was third in that race. Mom was right here celebrating with us, even though it was freezing cold. This was a place she loved to be with her family at.”
2. Henenberg reins in state rodeo title
July 1 — After consistently placing among the top five in the event at Missouri High School Rodeos throughout the 2019-20 season, Bolivar high school senior Maude Henenberg was crowned pole bending state champion, securing her third consecutive trip to the high school national championships.
The rodeo event has been the graduating Bolivar High School senior’s specialty for about seven years.
Henenberg’s accomplished rodeo career, which she balanced while being one of BHS’ top soccer players, has been aboard her horse, Judy.
“I’ve been on Judy since I was 6 years old,” Henenberg said, “so we’ve kind of grown up together. Me and Judy have a friendship. It’s kind of like we just know each other. If someone else were to ride her they probably wouldn’t do as good as I would, just because I know her and I can feel what I need to do.”
That’s one of the most critical elements of a good pole bending run, Henenberg said.
“Pole bending is about that relationship between you and horse,” she said.
At first, pole bending with Judy was a challenge, Henenberg said.
“We just couldn't figure it out so it, so wasn't always my favorite thing,” she said. “It came around, and ever since then it's been our thing.”
3. BHS’ Sechler signs with MLB’s Rangers
June 24 — After three years playing at the collegiate and amateur level, 2017 Bolivar High School graduate Connor Sechler is now bound for the major leagues.
After spending time in the Cape Cod Baseball League with the Harwich Mariners, Sechler signed with the Texas Rangers earlier in 2020.
That same sense of direction and purpose guided Sechler as he threw for 6,699 yards and 68 touchdowns at Bolivar — both program records — and was also with him in early June as he sat through five rounds of the 2020 Major League Baseball draft, listening for his name.
In the end, it wasn’t called.
But, the ace said, he had his own ace card. Pre-draft conversations with the Rangers had Sechler confident he’d have a chance in the big leagues.
“They told me that I might not go in the first five rounds, so I wasn't expecting to,” he said. “They were very interested and said they’d want to sign me if I went undrafted.”
On Sunday, June 14, Sechler and the Rangers made it official.
“I will put in all the work I have to, to move up the ladder,” he said. “My goal was to play pro ball, and now I'm here. Now, it's given me more incentive to try even harder.”
For the Bolivar coaches who have been watching Sechler’s rise through the sport, it’s unsurprising to hear him address the topic of hard work that way.
“Just like a lot of people, (Sechler) worked hard and was very competitive,” Roweton said. “He was a very talented person on top of that, which made him exciting to watch. The best compliment I can give him is that he was a team guy — no matter what sport or what situation, he wanted to be a part of it and wanted his team to do well. We could not be more happy for him and his opportunity to be a Texas Ranger.”
4. 2020 spring sports teams miss out
April 15 — With all Missouri schools closing in March due to concerns with the spread of COVID-19, Bolivar High School girls soccer didn’t get a chance to contend for a fifth consecutive district championship this year.
The team’s 2019-20 season ended this year before it started.
A Missouri State High School Athletics Association policy canceled all sporting events and practices as long as schools are closed. Gov. Mike Parson’s Thursday, April 9, order to extend school closings to the end of the academic year effectively canceled all seasons, the association announced the same day.
BHS, along with other schools across the country, lit up their sports fields in April as part of Be the Light, a nationwide celebration of the 2020 senior athletes who will miss their final seasons due to the pandemic.
“None of us seniors were prepared for this,” senior Annie vanHoornbeek said via email. “... I know we were looking forward to having that closure with our teammates, and to think we might have already played our last game together is truly heartbreaking.”
Also hurting was Pleasant Hope softball coach Kevin McVey, whose team would have started its second spring season on the field earlier this year. McVey’s Lady Pirates earned a district championship, advancing nearly to the state title game, last year.
“Not being able to play this spring has been disappointing,” McVey said. “We had the potential to have a very good season, and we were really looking forward to it. I feel bad for my five seniors.”
Aside from the missed opportunities, McVey said he just misses his team.
“I miss not being with the team, seeing them improve throughout the season and being successful — the joy of winning, as well as the sorrow of losing,” he said.
5. BHS joins OC
March 14 — Bolivar High School was approved for full membership in the Ozark Conference for the 2021-22 school year, the district learned Thursday, March 12.
According to an R-1 news release, Josh Scott, athletic director for Springfield Public Schools, told the district the “Ozark Conference principals voted, per conference by-laws, to extend the invitation for membership to BHS.”
R-1 board of education members applauded the news and district activities director Todd Schrader during Thursday’s regular session.
“On behalf of the board, thank you, Todd,” board president Paula Hubbert said.
Late last year, the conference approved an invitation for Liberator football to join in place of Central High School for that sport only, beginning this fall.
CHS football left to become an independent, according to previous coverage.
A statement from Schrader and BHS principal David Geurin thanked “everyone who worked on this to make it happen.”
“We are super excited for our student-athletes, coaches, fans and community,” the statement reads. “We will do our very best to contribute and be a positive addition to a fantastic group of schools.”
6. Legendary coach Jerry Kirksey dies
Aug. 12 — Jerry Kirksey, whose successful, decades-long tenure coaching high school and collegiate basketball touched countless lives, died in August after being hospitalized for COVID-19, according to his family. He was 82.
Kirksey coached at Southwest Baptist University for eight years starting in 1987, leading the team to a 1991 MIAA championship with a 15-1 league record. The Bearcats had a 146-79 record during his tenure. The team also qualified for two NCAA Div. 2 tournament appearances, a regional championship and an Elite Eight appearance in 1991, according to an SBU news release.
The Bearcats were nationally ranked for five of his eight years at the helm.
He also coached teams at Missouri S&T University, Drury University and Henderson State University, as well as several successful high school programs.
He was inducted into the Missouri State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999 and was enshrined as a member of the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2018.
“I think the biggest part of his philosophy as a coach was just caring for your players and understanding that there's a human element to the game of basketball that oftentimes gets overlooked,” local coach Darin Archer, one of Kirksey’s former players at SBU, said. “He paid a lot of attention to that and made each individual feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves.”
7. Super song
Feb. 1 — Bolivar third-grader Hayden Holt penned revised lyrics to popular rap song “Old Town Road,” expounding on his fandom for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Holt’s video, which can be found on YouTube under “Kansas City Chiefs fan sings ‘Super Bowl’ parody of ‘Old Town Road,’” earned nearly 3,500 views in one week, as of Friday, Jan. 31.
The super fan of the Super Bowl-winning team sat down with the BH-FP in January to discuss his writing process, his support for the Missouri franchise and the prized glove gifted to him by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
Holt said Lil Nas X’s original song featured a fun, catchy tune, but its verses were concerning to his parents.
“My mom said that I needed to change the words to it because she didn’t want me to teach it to my little sister,” he said. “I just came up with it in my brain. My dad helped me rhyme some of the words. Now it's a thing.”
8. Baseball returns to Polk County
June 13 — After seeing their seasons disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Polk County’s baseball teams resumed play in the summer.
That meant that, for the first time since its boys basketball team played in the Class 4 District 11 championship game more than three months before, a Bolivar High School team took to the playing field.
And, in front of stands full of fans ready to return to normal, Liberator baseball’s 17-and-under team earned a pair of wins in a doubleheader over a homeschool league team Wednesday, June 10.
The program took time to honor its seniors who missed the opportunity to play this year due to the pandemic before starting play.
Before the first game, each BHS senior took the field one last time.
“Gentlemen, you are champions,” Bolivar baseball coach Brad Roweton said in prepared remarks for the presentation. “Every organization, every group and every team you have been a part of has excelled because you made them better. Things have not always been easy for you, but just like this crisis, when things got tough, you kept a positive attitude and went to work. That is why you are champions, and we thank you for making Bolivar a better place.”
9. Too extreme
July 15 — Area monster truck fans turned out by the thousands to the Historic Bolivar Speedway on Saturday afternoon, July 11, to watch as 2Xtreme Racing’s monster trucks ramped, wheelied and crushed their way across the infield.
Between those who sat in the stands and others who watched from their vehicles in tier parking, around 3,000 attended, the speedway said.
The performance takes skill and talent, said organizer Ron Woodbridge,
“You’ve got monster trucks hitting huge jumps, performing big tricks and racing each other,” he said. “It’s a full blown show.”
The show also featured Woodbridge tuff trucks, along with a race by the baby grand stock cars.
Monster trucks Bounty Hunter, a two-time world champion monster truck, along with Kamikaze, Wrecking Machine and Jekyll and Hyde, were featured.
10. Bolivar football readies for Warrensburg
Nov. 4 — Two weeks after upsetting the No. 2 team in the state to finish its regular season out with a win, Bolivar football prepared for a showdown with another strong team on Friday, Nov. 6.
Bolivar beat previously undefeated West Plains 42-21 on Friday, Oct. 23. The Liberators then lost 27-23 to Warrensburg in the Class 4 District 6 semifinal to end their season.
As the district’s No. 2 seed, Bolivar, which was ranked No. 4 in the state, had received a first round bye, along with district and state No. 1 seed Helias Catholic.
Catholic went on to win the 2020 state title, beating Warrensburg in the district title game.