The 2020-21 school year was not the strongest for Auburn athletics, COVID-19 pandemic or not.
The football, men’s basketball and baseball teams fell short of expectations. Football made a coaching change. So did women’s basketball after losing its final 17 games.
Even the equestrian team, a usual shoo-in to take home a national title, fell short of its ultimate goal this season.
But some Auburn athletes still had incredible individual success despite the relative struggles of their teams, from Tank Bigsby and Sharife Cooper to Unique Thompson, Joyce Kimeli and Ryan Bliss.
Here’s a look at the 10 most impactful performers of the 2020-21 season as ranked by the Montgomery Advertiser:
1. Sharife Cooper, men’s basketball
Auburn’s five-star point guard appeared in only 12 games for a team that finished 13-14, but don’t sell his significance short. His absence during the team’s first 11 games while the NCAA reviewed his eligibility defined the season for the Tigers, who struggled to find an answer at point guard without Cooper. #FreeSharife trended on social media and was chanted inside Auburn Arena. And it was easy to see why when Cooper finally debuted Jan. 9 against Alabama. He shined immediately, scoring 26 points in that game and 28 in the next. He averaged 20.2 points and 8.1 assists per game to lead the team. The Tigers averaged 15.1 more points with him on the floor in SEC games (84) than they did without him (68.9).
2. Tank Bigsby, football
Bigsby arrived with high expectations (he’s the fourth-highest rated running back recruit in Auburn history) and wasted little time exceeding them. After two quiet games to start the season, Bigsby exploded with three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances against Arkansas, South Carolina and Ole Miss. He capped the regular season with 192 yards in a win at Mississippi State. His 834 yards in 10 games were five more than Bo Jackson rushed for as a freshman in 1982 and rank second in program history behind only Michael Dyer’s 1,093 in 2010.
3. Joyce Kimeli, track and field
Perhaps the most decorated Auburn athlete of the 2020-21 school year, Kimeli won the SEC and NCAA indoor track and field championship in the 5,000-meter race. She also won an SEC indoor title in the 3,000 before finishing third in the NCAAs. She continued that success during the outdoor season, finishing top three in both races at the SEC Championships and second in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA Championships in early June.
4. Ryan Bliss, baseball
It was a down year for Auburn baseball but not for its star shortstop. Bliss led the team with a .365 batting average and ranked second behind Tyler Miller with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs. He was the only player in the SEC to rank top five in batting average, slugging percentage, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs and total bases during league play. He was named a first-team All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and a second-team pick by multiple other publications.
5. Unique Thompson, women’s basketball
By far the best story in what was a lost season for the program she starred for. Thompson averaged 17.6 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, with the latter total ranking first in the SEC and fifth nationally. She broke Becky Jackson’s 37-year-old program rebounding record when she recorded her 1,119th against Mississippi State on Feb. 23 and finished her standout career with 1,156. She also became the first Auburn women’s basketball player to get drafted into the WNBA since 2009.
6. Derrian Gobourne, gymnastics
The 2019 national champion on vault continued her sterling career by being named SEC Co-Specialist of the Year. Gobourne won nine event titles, including four on floor, where her national qualifying score of 9.956 tied for fourth-best nationally.
7. Elena Hualde Zúñiga, women’s golf
The fifth-year senior missed the fall portion of the season but more than made up for it with four top-20 finishes in the spring. She excelled during the postseason, capturing the match play point that clinched the team’s first SEC Championship since 2012 and finishing first on the team in stroke play at both the NCAA Louisville Regional (even par) and NCAA Championship (3-over). She was named an honorable mention All-American by Golfweek in June.
8. Taylor St. Jacques, equestrian
Named the SEC Rider of the Year in two of four events for an Auburn team that went 8-0 during the regular season and won its third consecutive SEC Championship.
9. Allen Flanigan, men’s basketball
If Cooper is the “what if?” player, then Flanigan is the “where would Auburn have been without him?” player. Flanigan went from averaging 3.2 points on 39.4 percent shooting as a freshman to 14.3 on 45.5 percent as a sophomore and scored in double figures in 22 of the Tigers’ 27 games.
10. Maddie Prohaska, soccer
Enrolled at Auburn early and became the team’s starting goalkeeper from Day 1. She had a hand in eight shutouts and allowed 14 goals in 17 games. Her .843 save percentage led the SEC, and her 0.8 goals allowed per game was the fourth-best mark in program history and lowest since 2004.