A look back: WTOP Sports team’s top sports stories of 2021
FILE — In this Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, file photo, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder listens to head coach Ron Rivera during a news conference at the team’s NFL football training facility, in Ashburn, Va. The NFL has fined the Washington Football Team $10 million and owner Dan Snyder is stepping away from day-to-day operations after an independent investigation into the organization’s workplace misconduct. The team was not stripped of any draft picks as part of the league’s discipline that was announced Thursday, July 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Dan Snyder’s reckoning
Unfortunately for the Washington Football Team and its fans, 2021 will be remembered as the year Dan Snyder’s misdeeds became more than just a local storyline.
Just two weeks ago, Snyder was the subject of a Washington Post report alleging an attempt to silence one of his accusers, which dropped at a time when he’s already in self-inflicted (allegedly) exile after bombshell reports of the toxic workplace culture he fostered.
This was far beyond a Washington story — it was one of the biggest scandals in all of sports in 2021 and sparked a nationwide cry for accountability that’s reached even the halls of Congress.
Unfortunately, the NFL has thus far ignored that cry. But hopefully, the outside pressure will eventually force the league’s hand and save Washington from its worst villain.
— Rob Woodfork
DENVER, COLORADO — JULY 12: Max Scherzer #31, Trea Turner #7, and Kyle Schwarber #12 — all of whom were dealt at the MLB trade deadline — speak with coach Kevin Long of the Washington Nationals during the 2021 T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Coors Field on July 12, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. Three of the Nats’ four All-Stars were traded away as part of a rebuilding effort. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
The Nationals’ fire sale
What a difference 21 months makes.
That’s how long it took the Washington Nationals to go from top of the world to a team rebuilding. On July 1, the Nats were 40-38 and poised to possibly make a run at a division title. What transpired after that changed the direction of the franchise for the next few years.
The Nationals lost nine of their next 11 games, basically forcing general manager Mike Rizzo to unload almost all of the key pieces from the World Series title and free-agent acquisitions prior to the start of 2021.
All-Stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were not immune to the fire sale; the 37-year-old Scherzer was in the final year of his seven-year contract with Washington, so that made sense. But Turner was the one that hurt the fan base — he wasn’t set to become a free agent until 2023, so that signaled to Nats fans that the Lerners were not going to try and keep the All-Star shortstop.
The Dodgers went to the postseason in part thanks to Scherzer and Turner. This offseason, Scherzer signed the largest Average Annual Value contract in league history and became the oldest player to receive a $100 million contract … while staying the NL East with the Mets.
The next couple of years are rebuilding years for Washington and Juan Soto’s turn at free agency is looming. What will ownership do in ‘22?
— George Wallace
Washington Spirit players celebrate after defeating Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championship soccer match Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
Spirit’s tumultuous season ends with a championship
A year filled with high expectations for the Washington Spirit was almost derailed midway through its 2021 campaign.
Spirit head coach Richie Burke was banned following an investigation into abusive behavior toward players. Meanwhile, reports of mismanagement from ownership, including turning a blind eye toward Burke’s actions, drove a fan and player protest calling for the sale of the team. Lastly, the team was forced to forfeit two matches after it violated the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
Despite all the controversies, the players came together to let their play do the talking. Under interim coach Kris Ward, the Spirit went on an unprovable run of eight victories in their final nine games to capture the club’s first-ever NWSL Championship.
Heading to 2022, the Spirit’s depth and talent could have them poised to win it all again. With the league’s top goal scorer (Ashley Hatch), Goalkeeper of the year (Aubrey Bledsoe), and Rookie of the Year (Trinity Rodman) all returning, Washington could become a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
— José Umaña
FILE — Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) dives to score a touchdown against Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebackers Kevin Minter (51) and Lavonte David (54) during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Landover, Md., in this Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, file photo. Washington re-signed quarterback Taylor Heinicke to an $8.75 million, two-year contract, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
The Taylor Heinicke roller coaster
Taylor Heinicke rose to fame in January when he battled Tom Brady and the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the end of the NFC Wild Card game before coming up short. A month prior to filling in for Alex Smith, he was famously sleeping on his sister’s couch and taking classes at Old Dominion University.
He left that game feeling pretty good about himself and figured he had earned another shot in the NFL. Washington thought so too, signing him in February to a two-year contract and put him in the mix to at least be a backup.
Fast forward to the second quarter of the season opener when Ryan Fitzpatrick went down, Heinicke was once again thrust into the game and hasn’t come out since. He’s taken the reigns of the now-competitive Washington Football Team and has it in the mix for a playoff spot. During a recent four-game winning streak, Heinicke threw seven touchdowns with only two interceptions. He also earned himself another $500,000 in incentives during the streak!
We don’t know how this season is going to end, but we do know that Taylor Heinicke is now a household name in Washington and around the NFL.
— George Wallace
Washington Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. talks to his players during a timeout in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
The Wizards’ rapid makeover
The Washington Wizards are fast — not necessarily in their style of play — but the way general manager Tommy Sheppard is doing business.
In the last 12 months, Sheppard traded John Wall to Houston for Russell Westbrook. In his six months in D.C., Westbrook broke the unbreakable record set by Oscar Robertson for career triple-doubles, helped the Wizards to the playoffs and then was gone by summer.
Sheppard sent Westbrook to the Lakers in a five-team deal that yielded six players that has Washington optimistic about the future under the direction of new coach Wes Unseld Jr.
— Dave Johnson
FILE — In this April 17, 2021 file photo, D.C. United head coach Hernan Losada looks on during an MLS soccer match against the New York City FC, in Washington. This is Losada’s first season coaching in MLS. (AP Photo/Will Newton, File)
The Losada era in DCU begins
In 2021, under the direction of first-year head coach Hernan Losada, D.C. United displayed a go-for-goal attitude, but ultimately fell short of its goal to return to the playoffs for the first time in two years.
That does not mean it was a lost season. Losada arrived in D.C. from Belgium, where he had been coaching in January and wasted no time making it clear he lived and breathed the phrase “vamos por más.” (which is “let’s go for more” in the literal translation to English)
From fitness to nutrition to play on the field, Losada wanted his players to do more and give more. The result was D.C. scoring 56 goals in 34 games, tied for third-highest scoring team in the league — trailing only MLS Cup finalists New York City F.C. and Portland. United’s identity is in place and now the challenge is to make it mean something long-term.
— Dave Johnson
WASHINGTON, DC — NOVEMBER 24: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on after the game against the Montreal Canadiens at Capital One Arena on Nov. 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Ovie’s commitment to the Caps, assault on the record books
In what has seemingly become an annual tradition in these parts, the Capitals will hit the New Year competing for the best record in the NHL with Alex Ovechkin in the hunt for another goal-scoring title.
So what was actually new this year? Clarity regarding Ovechkin’s future.
In July, Ovechkin signed a new five-year deal that will keep in Washington through his age 40 season. The term ensures some decent runway as Ovechkin takes aim at Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record. Already up to 750 career tallies (through Dec. 15), Gretzky’s mark of 894 is within reach.
“It’s a doable achievement,” team owner Ted Leonsis said after the contract was signed. “It jazzes everybody up.”
— Ben Raby
Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault watches as his team plays the Minnesota Lynx at a WNBA basketball game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Minneapolis. The Lynx won 93-75. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Mystics miss the playoffs for the first time in 5 years
On paper, the Mystics looked like a potentially dominant team — two former MVPs, a legendary three-point shooter and several players with championship experience.
Unfortunately, injuries didn’t allow that to translate on the court.
The Mystics still had a shot at a return to the postseason in their final game but suffered a heartbreaking loss to Minnesota to finish 12-20, and outside the playoff picture for the first time since 2016.
Coach and general manager Mike Thibault, 70, contracted COVID-19 and missed the final stretch. Face-of-the-franchise Elena Delle Donne had a lingering back injury that robbed her of all but three games.
Prize free agent signing Alysha Clark suffered a season-ending injury before even making her Washington debut.
Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP from the Mystics’ championship season, sat out all of the 2021 campaign. In fact, Theresa Plaisance was the only player to appear in all 32 games for the injury-riddled Mystics.
The biggest bright spot was Tina Charles, who set a slew of records on her way to a league-best 23.4 points per game that also ranks sixth-best in WNBA history. That was arguably topped just last week by the Mystics landing the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft for the second time in franchise history.
If Charles can come close to last season’s monster numbers alongside a healthy Delle Donne and the Mystics can get an immediate contribution from whomever they select with the No. 1 overall pick, a return to the postseason — and maybe even the Finals — is in the cards for the 2022 Mystics.
— Rob Woodfork
WASHINGTON, DC — AUGUST 05: Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a shot during a match against Lloyd Harris of South Africa on Day 6 during the Citi Open at Rock Creek Tennis Center on Aug. 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Nadal’s DC debut
Novak Djokovic has never played in Washington, D.C., and neither has Roger Federer — but for the first time ever, one of the big three took his talents to Rock Creek Park.
Rafael Nadal, at long last, made an appearance at the Citi Open this past summer. Nadal only played in two matches, losing to South African Lloyd Harris in the second round. But for a brief moment, there was a big buzz with one of the greatest ever gracing the courts at 16th and Kennedy Streets.
Nadal attracted a huge crowd just to see him practice and, of course, he sold out the stadium court for his two matches. Although his stop here was brief, it showed D.C. is ravenous for top-flight tennis.
For whatever reason, the Citi Open has failed to attract the biggest names in the game but with Nadal making an appearance, perhaps this lays the groundwork to consistently get more of the top 10 players to post in 2022.
— Frank Hanrahan
PROVO, UT — OCTOBER 30: Bronco Mendenhall head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers watches a replay in the final minutes of their game against the BYU Cougars October 30, 2021 at the LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
Even Steven in college football
Maryland, Virginia, and Virginia Tech each went 6-6 this past season (Navy went 4-8 playing a schedule featuring 11 bowl teams, most in the nation), teaching us there is more than one road to .500.
The Hokies made the biggest opening splash (a 17-10 win over preseason No. 10 North Carolina) before losing four straight games against Power Five Conference teams and wound up firing head coach Justin Fuente after a 5-5 start.
Maryland became the hot team by going 4-0 in September before allowing 51 points on Oct. 1, which started a slide of six losses in their next seven games. Even with defensive issues early (allowing an average of 39 points in their first four ACC games), Virginia was able to start 6-2, and was in control of their path to the Coastal Division title as late as November 20.
Naturally, the Cavaliers finished with an 0-4 thud, Virginia Tech split its two games under interim coach J.C. Price and Maryland beat Rutgers on the final day of the regular season to punch its first postseason ticket in five years. On the suddenly fired-up coaching carousel, the Hokies hired Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry while Virginia hired Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to replace the surprisingly departed Bronco Mendenhall.
But regardless of what happens in December (Maryland meets Virginia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl and Virginia plays SMU in the Fenway Bowl), Navy owns the best finish to the season by beating Army as the two schools are now 4-4 over the last eight years of the series.
Even Stevens, indeed.
— Dave Preston
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA — MARCH 22: Head coach Mark Turgeon of the Maryland Terrapins reacts in the first half against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the second round game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 22, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
College Park’s ‘what if’
Not many who cover Maryland men’s basketball were surprised that this was the final season for head coach Mark Turgeon, but most (myself included) were shocked at the timing. Eight games (25%) into the season? Three weeks removed from being in the Top 25? Six months after signing a contract extension? The parting of the ways Dec. 3 sets in motion several months of intrigue surrounding the next hire, as well as arguing among many the Terps’ pecking order in the Big Ten and nationally.
Maryland hired Turgeon to guide the program in 2011 with the hopes that the up-and-coming coach (four straight NCAA appearances at football school Texas A&M and a Sweet Sixteen previously at mid-major Wichita State) would return things to the golden era of 1994-2004 that saw the Terps make nine trips to the ACC Semifinals (plus the 2004 ACC Championship) and seven trips to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament (including the 2001 National Championship). Never mind that Maryland had made just one trip to Saturday in the ACC’s (2009) and no appearances in the Sweet Sixteen since winning the ACC Tournament in overtime over Duke that March Sunday to qualify for what would be a school-record 11th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Nine complete years under Turgeon saw three conference tournament semifinal appearances (2013 in the ACC, 2015-16 in the Big Ten) and one Sweet Sixteen (2016), plus multiple March meltdowns (3-6 in the Big Ten Tournament, 5-5 in the NCAA’s). While technically an improvement over the last seven years of Hall of Famer Gary Williams, that’s not good enough for a school accustomed to the rare air of 1994-2004.
There will always be the “what if?” of March 2020, when the program tied for the conference regular season championship only to see COVID-19 wipe out March Madness. Unfortunately, the “what if?” was drowned out by the “why not?” by a fan base that expects more.
And unfortunately for the players who are still on the roster, Turgeon and the athletics administration elected to move down the road of “not here.”
— Dave Preston
DAYTON, OHIO — MARCH 14: Nah’Shon Hyland #5 of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams puts up a shot against Jalen Adaway #33 of the St. Bonaventure Bonnies in the second half during the championship game of the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on March 14, 2021 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
VCU derailed by COVID
On March 20, the NCAA announced that the men’s basketball first round tournament game between 7-seed Oregon and 10-seed VCU in Indianapolis was declared a no-contest due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the Rams program. This would end up being the NCAA Tournament’s only cancellation due to COVID-19.
The Rams received multiple positive tests within the 48 hours leading up to the game. The team flew home late Saturday night, with those who tested positive traveling separately.
It was a devastating blow to a VCU Rams team that was coming off a 19-7 regular season and a 74-65 loss to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 title game. The Rams were led by eventual NBA first round pick Bones Hyland, who was also the Atlantic 10 player of the year.
In a season like no other college basketball has ever seen, the Rams had no COVID-related pauses in their own program the entire season prior to the NCAA Tournament, while many of their Atlantic 10 rivals had to go on pause for weeks at a time that ended up either canceling or rescheduling games.
— Scott Jackson
FILE — In this July 27, 2021 file photo, Simone Biles, of the United States, watches gymnasts perform after she exited the team final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo. Biles and Naomi Osaka are prominent young Black women under the pressure of a global Olympic spotlight that few human beings ever face. But being a young Black woman — which, in American life, comes with its own built-in pressure to perform — entails much more than meets the eye. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)
Athletes’ mental health
This wasn’t necessarily a D.C. sports story but it certainly effects area athletes of all ages and disciplines.
At a time when mental health became a crucial topic in America amid a global pandemic that isolated millions, some of the biggest names in sports demonstrated the importance of prioritizing one’s “mentals” (to quote the great philosopher Marshawn Lynch).
The highlight was Simone Biles, who opted out of multiple Olympic gymnastics competitions during the 2020 Summer Games. Before that, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and avoided the stress and anxiety of dealing with the media.
NFL receiver Calvin Ridley took time off during the season to focus on his mental health, just one of several NFL players to work to remove the stigma surrounding the need to get help when struggling and taking the necessary time to do so.
If 2021 taught us anything valuable — and 2020, for that matter — it’s that it’s ok to not be ok. Athletes were at the forefront of that lesson.
— Rob Woodfork
Editor’s note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day in English and Spanish. (800) 273-8255
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