A look back: WTOP Sports team’s top sports stories of 2021

From the Washington Football Team to the Washington Spirit, the D.C. area has had some huge, unforgettable stories during this calendar year.

When we look back on 2021, many will view it as the first step toward normalcy after sports went dark in 2020. This last month of the year would be accurately described if we stick with that metaphor, as stumbling to the finish line but it still represents significant progress, thanks in part to the COVID-19 vaccine and sports leagues adjusting to the so-called “new normal.”

As a sports team at WTOP, we were able to witness it all from different perspectives and convey it to our listeners and readers. So it made sense for us all to weigh in on the biggest deal surrounding the teams we covered in 2021. (Editor’s note: Check out a special episode of the D.C. Sports Huddle for more!)

For example, WTOP digital editor José Umaña — an honorary member of the sports team — has done extensive work covering soccer and high school sports around the D.C. region so it made all the sense in the world to have him talk about the Washington Spirit’s unbelievable year.

Dave Johnson is the longtime play-by-play voice of both the Wizards and D.C. United, Ben Raby is the host of Capitals radio broadcasts for Monumental Sports and Entertainment and George Wallace is WTOP’s Washington Football Team beat reporter. Their insider insights are integral to this gallery.

Without further adieu, here are the top sports stories of 2021, in no particular order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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