10 in ’22: St. Louis sports stories that we’ll be talking about next year

Sports

ST. LOUIS–As our attention turns to the new year, we’re looking ahead to what could be the ten biggest local sports stories of 2022. There’s a lot we don’t know, especially about Major League Baseball, which has locked out players while the league attempts to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the players association. If there isn’t a season, or the dispute dramatically cuts into a regular season, that would be a top story in our book. Regardless, there’s a lot to look forward to in 2022.

ONE LAST DANCE, BASEBALL EDITION

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, right, and teammate Adam Wainwright prior to a game against the Miami Marlins Monday, June 14, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Joe Puetz)

Assuming there is a 2022 baseball season, it will most definitely be the last for at least one of the St. Louis Cardinals’ ageless wonders in catcher Yadier Molina. It very well could also be the final campaign for pitcher Adam Wainwright. The two have been big league teammates since 2007. They’ll be aiming to set the all-time record for a pitcher-catcher tandem, and start the season just 20 games short of passing Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan, who paired in 324 contests.

MARMOL THE MANAGER

JUPITER, FL – FEBRUARY 20: Oliver Marmol #37 of the St. Louis Cardinals poses for a portrait at Roger Dean Stadium on February 20, 2018 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The youngest manager in a major league dugout to start the season will be Oliver Marmol, who succeeded Mike Shildt after Shildt got sideways with the front office and was fired in a move that stunned the baseball world. How will Marmol handle the Wainwright-Molina dynamic, the expected arrival of the designated hitter, juggling a bullpen? The Cardinals failed to add pitching depth last offseason, and were dangerously shorthanded when injuries struck the rotation. How will Marmol respond if the front office’s major additions stop at pitcher Steven Matz?

STL SC PREPARES FOR THE PITCH

The pandemic forced St. Louis’ debut season in the MLS to 2023, but there will be plenty of news on the pro soccer front in 2022. The stadium is scheduled to be finished sometime in the summer of 2022. We don’t know which company will end up with a naming rights deal for the stadium, and we don’t know who will be the club’s inaugural head coach. The league’s SuperDraft for 2022 is January 11, so fans can start to learn about the league’s calendar pretty quickly in the new year.

‘TOUCHDOWN LUTHER’ LANDS IN COLUMBIA

Wide receiver Luther Burden III from East St. Louis High School talks to Missouri football boosters on National Signing Day in St. Louis on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. Burden is considered the No. 6 overall prospect in the class of 2022 and No. 2 wide receiver by the 247 Sports Composite rankings. Burden is the second-highest-rated commit in Missouri football’s history. Photo by Bill Greenblat/UPI

Eli Drinkwitz enters his third season as head football coach at Missouri with an 11-12 record, but he’s already done something not seen in the modern era of Mizzou football, by signing a top 15 recruiting class for the first time, after bringing in a top 30 class in 2021. The headliner in the 2022 group is East St. Louis wideout Luther Burden, a five-star recruit and the top receiver nationally in his class. Burden’s commitment is already helping Drinkwitz sell future recruits. While Drinkwitz is an impressive recruiter (he also landed Georgia QB Sam Horn, a top 10 national QB talent in the 2022 class) the pressure does mount in year 3 to see if the hype he brings in the offseason can translate into more success on the field. He’ll do it with a new regular season starting quarterback, after Connor Bazelak announced his decision to transfer.

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY

Michigan running back Hassan Haskins (25) rushes for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Washington in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Michigan won 31-10. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

In 2021, two St. Louis area standouts who did leave the area to play their college football excelled in big ways. Michigan running back Hassan Haskins (Eureka) led the Wolverines into the College Football Playoff and a New Year’s Eve matchup against Georgia. If Michigan wins, it could face Alabama and wide receiver Jameson Williams (Cardinal Ritter), who transferred from Ohio State and formed a powerful combination with Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young. Williams is projected as a first round pick if he declares for the 2022 draft. If he returns to the Crimson Tide, he could easily be a contender for the 2022 Heisman. Running back Kyren Williams, (Vianney) who starred at Notre Dame the past two seasons, has also declared for the 2022 draft.

ILLINI REBUILDING

Illinois head coach Bret Bielema celebrates the team’s 30-22 win over Nebraska after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Bret Bielema enters year two of his tenure in Champaign, looking to build on his team’s 5-7 campaign in the 2021 college football season. Bielema has spent a lot of his efforts over the past year focused on reconnecting the school with Illinois high school football coaches, after Lovie Smith’s staff appeared to let those ties fray. It will likely be another year before that manifests itself with one of the most talented high school programs in the state at East St. Louis. Bielema hired Terry Hawthorne, the former Flyer and Illini DB, and most recently an assistant coach at East St. Louis, to an off-field position. According to NCAA rules, that all but means Illinois can’t recruit players in the 2022 and 2023 classes from East St. Louis. Don’t be surprised if Bielema dips into the transfer portal to find a starting quarterback for next fall. Former Trinity QB Isaiah Williams, who switched to wide receiver after parts of two seasons at QB, figures to be a key cog in the offensive attack.

SLU MEN’S BASKETBALL HOPES

Saint Louis University Billikens head basketball coach Travis Ford gives his team direction during the first half against LSU, at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis on Saturday, November 28, 2020. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

The COVID pandemic derailed what had the makings for a magical Billiken basketball run for the men’s squad last season. Infections sidelined the team for an extended period and turned what could have been a deep ride in the NCAA tournament into an NIT invite. This season, there has been another COVID interruption, but the biggest dent in Travis Ford’s aspirations this year was the season-ending injury to Javonte Perkins. The Bills are 8-4 heading into a scheduled December 30 matchup with UMASS, with non-conference losses to Memphis and Auburn. They are not in the early “Bracketology” projections for the NCAA tournament and could need another surprise run through the Atlantic 10 tournament, which likely means upsetting St. Bonaventure, to qualify. The next few years may be critical in the development and direction of SLU basketball. In 2022, the ground will be broken for the O’Loughlin Family Center, which opens in 2023 with the goal of enhancing the school’s position as a basketball-centric school competing at a high level. The ability to field highly-competitive teams that can get over the hump will lure more booster support, and may also boost the school’s standing in the event that the Big East is ready to come calling in a few years.

MARTIN SEEKING SECOND SEMESTER BOUNCEBACK

Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin grimaces while watching the team play Kansas City during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Columbia, Mo. Kansas City won 80-66. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Cuonzo Martin entered his fifth season at Mizzou with a 66-56 record at the helm in Columbia in November. Coming off his second NCAA tournament in four seasons with the Tigers, Martin and his staff went deep into the transfer portal to shape this year’s roster. Kobe Brown, Javon Pickett and Jordan Wilmore were the only holdovers from last season. The results so far in 2021 with a heavy dose of transfers and true freshmen have been disappointing. Offensive struggles and humbling losses at home to Kansas City and on the road at Kansas and Liberty, plus a beat-down in the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois. With a bruising SEC schedule still to come, the next few months will show if new Mizzou AD Desiree Reed-Francois, who helped hire Martin at Tennessee and whose son will walk on to Martin’s team next season, will be pressured into looking for his replacement in mid-Missouri, along with paying a $6 million buyout.

BLUES WEATHER THE STORM

St. Louis Blues’ Justin Faulk (72), Ivan Barbashev (49), Vladimir Tarasenko (91) and Pavel Buchnevich (89) celebrate a goal scored by Tarasenko in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Dallas, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

After seeing its roster decimated by a combination of injury, COVID, and the NHL’s policies that restrict options for replacing those players traced to the virus, the St. Louis Blues arrived at the league’s winter break with a 17-9 record, just four games back of the best record in the league. Here’s hoping the team won’t need to raid their Springfield AHL affiliate again or employ another emergency goalie in the new year. One of the highlights of the year so far has been the inspired play of Vladimir Tarasenko, who last offseason asked to be traded over concerns the team mishandled his shoulder injury, among other issues. The Blues’ front office didn’t rush to make a deal, even though keeping him has serious financial ramifications. The Blues were so far up against the salary cap that the club couldn’t promote goalie Joel Hofer when Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso were sidelined. Fortunately, all Charlie Lindgren did is go 5-0 in goal. The NHL trade deadline is March 21. If Doug Armstrong finds the right deal that takes the remainder of Tarasenko’s $7.5 million cap hit for this season and the full $7.7 next year, will he take it?

NASCAR COMING TO TOWN

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 06: A general view of the NASCAR Cup Series logo during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 06, 2020 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

World Wide Technology Raceway has made a name for itself in recent years hosting a regular stop on the IndyCar circuit. That work paid off when officials announced that the track will host a NASCAR Cup Series in June in an event that has yet to have an official name. WWT will become the only track in the U.S. to host IndyCar, NHRA and NASCAR Cup Series events.

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