Counting down the 10 top sports stories in St. Louis for 2019

Courtesy: Mike Shildt (Jamie Squire/Getty), Barry Odom (Bill Greenblatt/UPI), BattleHawks Jersey (XFL BattleHawks), MLS Stadium (HOK & Julie Snow), Colton Parayko & Laila Anderson (Patrick Smith/Getty); Cardinals Celebration Kevin C. Cox (Getty Images)

 

ST. LOUIS, MO- News outlets sometimes shy away from actually ranking stories that you might read in a typical “year-ender” list, but for anyone looking at the sports landscape in St. Louis in 2019, the top spot is a no-brainer. Having said that, we’ll remember the past year for more than Gloria, “Binner” and a Cup. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s review what made sports news here in 2019.

The 2018-19 St. Louis Blues: “History Made”

Let’s be clear…no recap here will do this justice. Everyone will have their own memories from the St. Louis Blues’ historic run to capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

On January 3, 2019 the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the National Hockey League. Weeks earlier, head coach Mike Yeo had been fired, replaced by assistant Craig Berube. Pat Maroon, the South County native who signed to play for his hometown team, was reportedly close to being released. The team’s recently adopted dog, Barclay, was probably more popular than most players at that point.

On January 6, 2019, a group of players in a New York City bar on a road trip hear the song “Gloria” and decide that’s what they want to hear in the locker room after wins. The next night, Jordan Binnington makes his first career start in goal and shuts out the Flyers 3-0 despite facing 25 shots.

The club went on an 11-game winning streak. Ryan O’Reilly, the offseason import from Buffalo, began showing St. Louis what he was capable of doing, Binnington went from former prospect to shutdown force.

Team management could have sold off veterans and spare parts ahead of the trade deadline in February but didn’t. By the end of the regular season, the Blues were second in the division and a team nobody wanted to play in the postseason.

Jaden Schwartz, who endured a rough regular season, came alive in the playoffs. His first playoff hat trick clinched the first round series against Winnipeg.

The series win propelled St. Louis to a matchup with Dallas in the second round. Will you ever forget where you were the night in May when Pat Maroon, the man who was nearly cut months earlier, beat fellow-hometowner Ben Bishop for the series clincher in double overtime of a do or die game 7? Neither will we.

The Blues followed that up by dispatching San Jose in six games to win the Western Conference Championship and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: Colton Parayko #55 of the St. Louis Blues and Laila Anderson celebrate with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Could a franchise that couldn’t get a Stanley Cup with Hull & Oates, Shanny, MacInnis, the Plager brothers and Bernie Federko in more than fifty years of play finally get it done?

With the entire city on pins and needles for every playoff game, with a little girl named Laila cheering on her boys, with Yadi and Waino putting on Blue Note sweaters, the answer was yes, in seven games over the Boston Bruins.

The celebrations which followed, from O.B. Clark’s to the parade downtown, from the individual days with the Cup to the White House Rose Garden ceremony, will live in the memories of Blues fans forever.

 

 

 

 

Cardinals snap playoff drought

It’s a good thing for the Cardinals that the Blues took up so much sports oxygen in St. Louis until June, because the 2019 edition of the Birds on the Bat was tough to read for a while. Were they the Cardinals who had a three game lead over Chicago for first place in the Central on May 1 or t

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 09: The St. Louis Cardinals pose for a team photo as they celebrate their 13-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in game five of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park on October 09, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

he Cardinals who were in third place, just a game out of fourth with a 44-44 record at the All Star Break? Matt Carpenter’s struggles at the plate, a problem in the first half of 2018, were back. Paul Goldschmit, the offseason acquisition brought in to add thump to the lineup, was fairly quiet at the plate. Closer Jordan Hicks was lost for the season in June with an elbow injury, thrusting Carlos Martinez, who missed the start of the season due to injuries and unable to pitch as a starter, into the closer’s role. On the plus side, Marcell Ozuna was team’s best hitter over the course of the first half, after his first season in St. Louis came in under the career best stats that prompted the Cardinals to trade for him. Rookie Dakota Hudson was impressive in the rotation, as was Adam Wainwright.

After the All-Star break, Jack Flaherty was dominant on the mound, and pitched his way into Cy Young contention. Tommy Edman was called up from Memphis and was an instant source of energy on defense, where he became a factor around the diamond, but primarily at third base, and at the plate.  Goldschmidt rounded into form at the plate, finishing with 34 homers and 97 RBI. Kolten Wong put things together in a way that clicked at the plate, and in the field where he won his first Gold Glove.

Everyone expected the Chicago Cubs to get rolling at some point. The Brewers put up a valiant effort, especially after losing Christian Yelich to a season ending injury. But for the first time since 2015, the Cardinals returned to the postseason by winning 91 games to capture the National League Central title, a job that earned Mike Shildt NL Manager of the Year honors.

Ted Simmons

The Cardinals powered their way to a division series win over the Atlanta Braves before getting steamrolled by the eventual  World Series champion Washington Nationals.

More good news continued into the offseason. Ted Simmons, the former Cardinals catcher who was overshadowed by Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench as the best player at his position  during the 1970s, finally had his career achievements recognized by Baseball’s Hall of Fame voters. The Modern Baseball Era Committee announced in December that Simmons will be enshrined in Cooperstown in 2020.

 

 

MLS makes it official

The rebooted bid for a St. Louis Major League Soccer franchise backed by the Taylor family matriculated down the field and found the back of the net in August, with the official announcement that a team would begin play in 2022. The team, as yet unnamed, revealed a revised stadium plan in October that included a larger footprint in the area of Market Street west of Union Station. The team also announced it will own the stadium instead of leasing it from the city.  While it has long been a goal for MLS to have a franchise in a city with such a storied soccer history, the decision to award an expansion franchise did come without two important benchmarks still yet not announced publicly–a jersey sponsor, and a stadium naming rights agreement.

A late 2019 wrinkle emerged in December, when state a state economic development officials said they would not authorize $30 million in tax credits for the project. A smaller amount could be considered in 2020.

 

High School Football Season Marked By Off-field Violence and Coaching Controversies

The high school football season in Missouri started under a cloud, when an 8 year-old child was shot and killed after she and her family attended a St. Louis Public Schools preseason football jamboree. On the same night, panic rang out when at least one shot was fired at a Parkway North jamboree.

Jaylon Mckenzie

In Illinois, the East St. Louis Flyers mourned the deaths of two players in the spring. Jermaine Falconer died after collapsing in a weight room in March and Jaylon McKenzie, an eighth-grader who already had college offers before touching the ball as a freshman, was shot and killed near a graduation party in May. The team went on to win the school’s ninth state title in their memory.

During the season, Clyde C. Miller assistant coach Derrick Mitchell, Jr., a Vashon graduate who went on to play at Iowa, died after a hit and run accident in October.

Less than a year after Trinity Catholic defeated Cardinal Ritter to win the school’s first state high school football title, both schools had dismissed their coaches.

Trinity fired Terrence Curry three games into the season but has not disclosed why, calling it a personnel matter. A suspension handed out as a result of an ejection in that state title matchup is what ultimately caught up with the football staff at Cardinal Ritter. A player who was supposed to sit out the season opener did not; he instead suited up under a different name and number, then played under his own name the rest of the season. The school ultimately self-reported the infraction and forfeited games. The Archdiocese of St. Louis fired Brandon Gregory and his entire coaching staff and took the team off the field for the postseason. The school’s athletic director decided to retire.

Trey Porter, head coach of the resurgent Roosevelt Renegades, was fired late in the regular season, in part for violating a St. Louis Public School District social media policy. Roosevelt went on to win a district championship before losing in the state quarterfinals.

 

Odom era ends at Mizzou; Drinkwitz takes over

File photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

The Missouri football Tigers were fresh off a second straight bowl game appearance under Barry Odom’s leadership. His coaching staff had pulled off a remarkable recruiting feat in getting Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant to commit to Columbia and succeed Drew Lock at QB. Tight End Albert Okwuegbunam was coming back for a potential All-Everything season. The 2019 schedule looked like an 8-0  start was possible.

The season of promise turned tumultuous before spring practice even started. In January, the NCAA announced stiff sanctions against the football program and other university teams as punishment for academic fraud.  Despite having the school’s cooperation in the investigation, including self-imposed suspensions of players, the NCAA came down hard with penalties, including a 2019 postseason football ban along with recruiting and scholarship restrictions.

The school formally appealed the ruling in July but heard crickets for months, which is abnormal in that typical appeals normally take a fraction of the time.

With uncertainty hanging overhead prior to the season, the Tigers did a remarkable job of circling the wagons. Players who could have transferred without penalty, didn’t.

But the Tigers opened the season with a road loss at Wyoming,  put together a five game winning streak, only to then lose five straight. Bryant was forced to play hurt most of the year. Okwuegbunam’s play regressed as he couldn’t stay on the field. The Offensive Line underperformed. Wide Receivers struggled to make plays.

Just days before the season finale against Arkansas, the NCAA denied Missouri’s appeal. The Tigers beat the Razorbacks to finish 6-6, but Athletic Director Jim Sterk decided to make a change.

Sterk’s search for a replacement quickly found controversy when leaks revealed that University leadership was less than enthused with the initial group of candidates who were considered, instead hoping for a hire with more “sizzle”.

Eliah Drinkwitz is introduced as the University of Missouri’s 33rd head football coach during a press conference at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri on Tuesday, December 10, 2019. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

On December 10, Appalachian State’s Eli Drinkwitz was introduced as the next head coach of the Tigers.

 

Lovie Smith gets Illinois Football Bowling

When the Illinois Fighting Illini football squad lost to Eastern Michigan on September 14, few people could have expected Lovie Smith to do something at the end of the 2019 campaign which had not happened since 2014. Smith, in his fourth season as Head Coach, guided Illinois to a 6-6 record and a postseason bowl game appearance. The turning point came when Illinois upset Wisconsin on Homecoming. The last-second win marked the first time Illinois defeated a ranked opponent since 2007. St. Louis area recruits like Trinity’s Isiah Williams and Shammond Cooper have followed their high school head coach Corey Patterson who joined the Illini staff in 2018; Trinity Wide Receiver James Frenchie committed to Illinois for the class of 2020. The question going into this season was if all of these high-profile recruits would be able to make a difference in time to save Smith’s job.

As it turns out, Illinois found a path to a berth in the Redbox Bowl with a heavy emphasis on transfers. QB Brandon Peters (Michigan),WR Josh Imatorbhebhe (USC), DE Oluwole Betiku (USC) have played key roles in 2019, along with returnees like Dele Harding, Tony Adams (SLUH) and Stanley Green (East St. Louis),

The question in 2020 will be how Smith decides to proceed. Will he dabble deep in the graduate transfer market again? How much will Williams hit the field at QB, with Peters set to return for his senior year?

 

SLU Hoops Breaks Through

Travis Ford’s third year at the helm of the Saint Louis University Men’s Basketball program had ups and downs. Carte’Are Gordon, the highly touted forward from Webster Groves, headlined a talented recruiting class. But he surprised many with his decision to transfer in early January. Behind guards Jordan Goodwin (Althoff), Jevon Bess and Tramaine Isabell (Missouri/Drexel), the Billikens won 20 games for the first time in Ford’s tenure, good for a sixth place finish in the Atlantic 10 regular season.  The team then won four games in four days to capture the postseason tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

SLU lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Virginia Tech.

For the 2019-20 campaign, Ford has reloaded with more St. Louis area talent in Yuri Collins (St. Mary’s) and Terrence Hargrove Jr. (East. St. Louis).

 

BattleHawks “Prepare to Engage”

The XFL, Vince McMahon’s reincarnated alternative spring football league, won’t kick off until February, but we spent 2019 learning what St. Louis’ franchise would be called (the BattleHawks), who would coach them (former Cincinnati Bengals assistant Jonathan Hayes) and the players drafted to line up on the gridiron. Former Ole Miss QB Jordan Ta’amu, Missouri WR L’Damian Washington and Texas A&M Christine Michael are among some of the more recognizable  names who will form the nucleus for the St. Louis entry in the 8 team league.

 

 

Albert Returns With a Bang

The Cardinals have faced Albert Pujols on the road in Anaheim twice since the former St. Louis slugger signed with the Angels after the 2011 season, and in 2019 Major League Baseball’s scheduling department finally got it right, having the Cardinals return the favor in a weekend series that will not be soon forgotten.  Busch Stadium was packed each night, and every time Pujols came to bat, the building erupted with ovations.

The drama hit its peak on Saturday June 22, when he hit a solo home run off Dakota Hudson, and got another ovation.

Saying Goodbye to The King

In August, the wrestling world said goodbye to The King. Harley Race, the Quitman, Missouri native who went on to become a staple on multiple wrestling circuits, including later the World Wrestling Federation, where he became a Hall of Famer, died at the age of 76 from lung cancer. Race founded World League Wrestling in 1999 near his Eldon, MO home and later moved those operations to Troy, Missouri. At the time of his death he was feted by some of the legends in the wrestling world, from Hulk Hogan to Ric Flair among others.

 

 

 

 

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