Top 10 St. Louis sports stories of 2018: Matheny, Yeo fired; a PGA Tourney triumph; and a renewed MLS bid

 

Photo Credits: Paul Goldschmidt: Bill Greenblatt/UPI; Tiger Woods: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images; Michael Porter & Jeremiah Porter: Bill Greenblatt UPI; Barry Odom: Bill Greenblatt/UPI

ST. LOUIS, MO- The year 2018 saw the Cardinals and the Blues finish out of the playoffs, and with changes when it comes to who’s in charge on each team’s bench. Mizzou Men’s basketball came in from the wilderness and the dream of Major League Soccer in St. Louis, thought to have been dealt a fatal blow in 2017, re-emerged. Here are your top 10 sports stories of 2018

Change in the Cards

The Cardinals fired  manager Mike Matheny in July. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Cardinals missed the playoffs for the third straight season, a string that had not happened since before the turn of the century and is also the first time since the Wild Card expanded to include two teams. Bullpen woes, sloppy defense, poor starts from Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler, plus newcomer Marcell Ozuna’s inability to fully replicate his slugging numbers from Miami all ended up costing Mike Matheny his job in July. The only true bright spot in the opening months of the season was courtesy of Miles Mikolas, the free agent pitcher who came over from Japan and earned a spot on the All-Star team.

Under Mike Shildt, fortunes changed in the second half. Harrison Bader emerged to play Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field. Powered by homemade salsa, Carpenter put himself in the MVP race. Memphis’ entire opening day starting rotation ended up contributing in St. Louis in some form. But playoff hopes died in the final week of the season.

In December 2018, the team made its biggest acquisition in years, trading Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, a minor leaguer and a draft pick to Arizona for slugging first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. The addition of a perennial MVP candidate should give the team the middle of the lineup pop it has sought for several seasons. Another December addition came with the free agent signing of lefty reliever Andrew Miller, who should make a real difference in the back end of the bullpen.

Remembering ‘Red’

Baseball Hall of Fame members (L to R) Bob Gibson, Red Schoendienst, Ozzie Smith, Whitey Herzog and Bruce Sutter greet Matt Carpenter before Opening Day on April 2, 2017. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

Cardinal legend Red Schoendienst passed away in June at the age of 95.  The “baseball lifer” had been in failing health in recent years. His death brought back a flood of memories of World Series championship clubs he touched which are never far from the imaginations of Cardinals fans. 1946. 1967. 1982. His passing was also a reminder to some of what the organization has lost in recent years, with a decline in fundamentals like baserunning and defense as the team has missed the postseason.

 

Blues To Yeo: Time To Go

Photo Courtesy: Breedon/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Blues fired Head Coach Mike Yeo 19 games into the 2018-2019 season after an offseason makeover designed to get the club back into the playoffs failed to get results in the early weeks of the season. Interim Coach Craig Berube has faced similar problems getting effort out of the club, which has also been beset by injuries. One of the stories to watch in 2019 is who is next behind the bench. Even before Yeo was fired, there was considerable fan interest in trying to bring back former Blues coach Joel Quenneville, who was fired this fall by the Chicago Blackhawks after winning three Stanley Cup titles. The early returns after Yeo’s firing have not been encouraging. A mini-brawl that broke out during a December 10 practice seemed to sum up the frustration that had been building all season. The team won its next game, but still faces a long haul after the new year to get into playoff contention.

St. Louis Makes New Pitch for MLS

A year and a half after St. Louis voters rejected a proposal that would have allowed public financing of a downtown soccer stadium for a Major League Soccer franchise, a new plan backed by Enterprise and the Taylor family, along with Jim Kavanaugh of World Wide Technology emerged in October. The stadium would be on the same site near Jefferson and Interstate 64, but construction would be funded largely with private money. The ownership group is asking for the city to own the facility, and for property and ticket tax abatement. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a non-binding resolution in late November supporting efforts to build a stadium and to bring an expansion franchise here. The hope is that the team would take the field in time for the 2022 season.

Mizzou Hoops On The Move

Michael Porter Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images, Robin Pingeton Courtesy Missouri Athletics

We knew at the start of 2018 that Mizzou men’s basketball was already in a much different place than it had had been for several years. Cuonzo Martin succeeded Kim Anderson as Head Coach. The drama surrounding Michael Porter, Jr.’s status was past the back surgery stage. In an early January news conference he said his “time is coming,” but there was still no real thought that he would return to the court for the Tigers. He did in March at the SEC Basketball Tournament in St. Louis. By then, the Tigers had done enough to earn a return invite to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, thanks in large part to Jontay Porter.  But with a diminished Michael Porter, Jr., and a depleted backcourt, the Tigers bowed out in a first-round NCAA loss to Florida State.

Michael Porter, Jr. would go on to be a first-round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets in June but has not played yet as he continues to try and get fully healthy. Unfortunately, the injury bug would hit Jontay Porter as well, with a preseason knee injury that will keep him out for the 2018-19 season.

Missouri women’s basketball continued to make a mark nationally. The team spent the entire season in the top 25 and earned a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the mid-1980s. Columbia native Sophie Cunningham earned all-SEC honors while burnishing a reputation that will make her a Mizzou legend and the person opponents all hate unless they’re on the same team. It was all enough for Head Coach Robin Pingeton to be rewarded with a four-year contract extension in November.

Billiken Basketball 

Travis Ford’s second season at the helm of Saint Louis University men’s basketball saw the Billikens win five more games than they did during his debut, but it happened in a season full of off-court turmoil for the program. Four players came under investigation for a Title IX investigation over allegations of sexual assault. Three players left school while a fourth was allowed to play while the case was under appeal. The St. Louis Circuit Attorney announced in November 2018 that no criminal charges would be filed in connection with the incident.

With a focus back on the court for the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Ford is seeing results from one of the program’s highest rated recruits. Webster Groves’ Carteare Gordon manning the post, and more hope for the future. Terrence Hargrove Jr. (East St. Louis) and Yuri Collins (St. Mary’s) are already signed for the next recruiting class.

PGA Packs Bellerive for Koepka and Woods  

2018 marked the final time the PGA Championship would be contested in August before it moves next year to a May date, and St. Louis made certain that it would be an event to remember. The biggest names in golf descended on Bellerive Country Club. There were critics who argued the 100th edition of the championship, a narrative the locals were all too ready to rebut. Rain made it’s presence felt, but that’s not what people will take away from a weekend that likely set PGA attendance records (they don’t publicize the numbers). Brooks Koepka became only the fifth player in the last two decades to win two majors in a single season with a two-stroke win over Tiger Woods, whose performance turned back the clock and gave galleries a thrill.

Mizzou Football Makes Another November Push

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

In what has become a pattern in his three years at the helm of the MU football team, Barry Odom’s Tigers got off a less than stellar start, spoiling what the school hoped could be a Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Drew Lock. Three straight SEC conference losses, and then what could have been a soul-crushing defeat on the final play against Kentucky left Mizzou at 4-4 on October 27. But an impressive 38-17 win on the road against a ranked Florida squad started a four-game winning streak to end the season, earning a postseason spot in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Odom’s critics pointed to his inability to land more big fish in the recruiting pool. Missouri high schools produced a bumper crop of high-end Division I talent in the class of 2018 which some considered the best ever. Mizzou landed only two of the top 15, and none from St. Louis. But Odom has five of the top 15 in the Class of 2019, and on December 4, he landed what may be the most important recruit of his tenure, when Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant announced he will transfer to Columbia to finish his career next fall.

That same week, the school announced a contract extension and a raise for Odom.

High Schools Bring Record Number of Football Titles Home to St. Louis

For the first time in Missouri high school history, four schools from the St. Louis area won state football crown in 2018. What is almost more remarkable is that the feat was clinched before two of the classes even handed out championship trophies.

In class 3, Trinity Catholic, powered by a lineup full of soon-to-be Division I football talent like Isaiah Williams, Marcus Washington and Shammond Cooper, won the school’s first state title over Cardinal Ritter.  Ladue won a West County matchup against MICDS in class 4. Vianney, behind Notre Dame-bound Kyren Williams dispatched Fort Osage in class 5 and juggernaut CBC dispatched Kansas City powerhouse Rockhurst for the second time this season to take class 6.

Pro Football Promises A Return

In 2018, St. Louis learned that professional football will return to the Gateway City….in 2020.  Vince McMahon’s rebooted XFL is slated to kick off in the spring of 2020. In December, the league announced St. Louis as a charter franchise, with home games to be played at the Dome at America’s Center. All eight teams will be owned by the league. The question over the next year is if there will be an appetite nationally for two spring pro football leagues. The Alliance of American Football will kick off in February 2019 in eight other cities and has already lined up a well-known group of coaches, including former Rams Head Coach Mike Martz.

One day after the XFL’s announcement, another spring league revealed plans to locate a team in St. Louis. The Freedom Football League, backed by former NFL players including former St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones, former Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, and others. “All teams will be owned by an alliance of fans and players together, as true owners and committed business partners with harmoniously aligned economic incentives coming together to build a league that can bring economic opportunity and unity for all,” the league says on its website. A specific launch date has not been announced.

An indoor team, the St. Louis Stampede of the National Gridiron League, is scheduled to take the field at The Family Arena in St. Charles in the spring of 2019.

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