The top 10 lo­cal sports sto­ries of 2018

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY TODD ESCHMAN [email protected]

An­other busy year in the metro-east re­flected a di­verse en­thu­si­asm for com­pe­ti­tion of all kinds.

Box­ing, bas­ket­ball, thor­ough­bred rac­ing and even pro wrestling were sub­jects that made head­lines in 2018.

What most cap­tured your in­ter­est?

Ranked by the num­ber of page views each re­ceived at bnd.com, here are the top 10 lo­cal sports sto­ries of 2018:

1. BASE­BALL COACH IN­VES­TI­GATED

Ja­son Portz led the O’Fal­lon Pan­thers to 469 wins over 16 high school base­ball sea­sons, in­clud­ing a school-record 35 vic­to­ries in 2018.

But, af­ter first be­ing placed on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave by the District 201 board, Portz re­signed from OTHS amid an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the con­struc­tion of locker fa­cil­i­ties at a city-owned park and his role in com­plet­ing them. The ad­di­tions to the sec­ond-floor of a dugout and press­box were non­com­pli­ant with fed­eral Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act stan­dards and did not ob­tain proper city per­mits or util­ity tap-in fees.

Pend­ing the out­come of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Illi­nois At­tor­ney Gen­eral, bring­ing the build­ing to code could cost district tax­pay­ers an es­ti­mated $80,000.The school district has since filed a sep­a­rate com­plaint against Portz with O’Fal­lon Po­lice.

2. TIES TO A TRIPLE CROWN

Mount Ver­non na­tive Kenny Troutt has owned 26 thor­ough­bred horses that ran in the Ken­tucky Derby. That in­cludes Jus­tify, the 3-year-old ch­est­nut colt who in June be­came just the 13th horse in the past cen­tury to win horse rac­ing’s Triple Crown.

Es­tranged from his al­co­holic fa­ther, Troutt was raised as the old­est of four in a small apart­ment by his mother, who made ends meet by tend­ing bar. He even­tu­ally turned an ath­letic schol­ar­ship to SIU-Car­bon­dale into a po­lit­i­cal science de­gree and fol­lowed his en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit to Texas.

Troutt, now 70, founded Ex­cel Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which even­tu­ally be­came the fourth­largest telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany in the United States. In 1998, he sold Ex­cel in a $3.5 bil­lion merger and to­day is worth about $1.4 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Forbes.

He rein­vested some of his for­tune into Win Star Farms, which won its first Ken­tucky Derby in 2010 with Su­per Saver. Troutt be­came kind of the

“sport of kings” when Jus­tify cap­tured the Bel­mont Stakes for the third-leg of the Triple Crown.

3. CAR­DI­NALS HOT STOVE

It was an anx­ious group of St. Louis Car­di­nals fans that ar­rived at the an­nual Win­ter Warm-up. The team had missed the MLB post­sea­son for the sec­ond year in a row, and big­name free agents were avail­able to help im­prove the team.

Af­ter months of spec­u­la­tion and ru­mor, the Car­di­nals are said to have dropped a record­break­ing deal on then-reign­ing Na­tional League MVP Gian­carlo Stan­ton, who had blasted 59 home runs with 132 RBIs for the Mi­ami Mar­lins. But Stan­ton re­fused the deal, lever­ag­ing his no-trade pro­tec­tion to nar­row the field and even­tu­ally find a home with the New York Yan­kees.

St. Louis was able to swing a trade with the Mar­lins for Mar­cell Ozuna, who played through arm in­juries dur­ing a 2018 sea-

son that fell short of ex­pec­ta­tions. The Car­di­nals also lifted pitcher Miles Miko­las from the Ja­panese pro­fes­sional league and, in do­ing so, found their new staff ace.

At the Win­ter Warm-Up, how­ever, team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. frosted fans when he told them he an­tic­i­pated no fur­ther player moves. The Car­di­nals missed out on the play­offs again.

4. MA­ROONS WIN STATE CHAM­PI­ONSHIP

Ju­nior EJ Lid­dell, one of the most re­cruited play­ers in the coun­try, brought high ex­pec­ta­tions upon the Ma­roons, who proved to be much deeper than the tal­ented 6-5 for­ward.

Guard Lawrence Brazil III iced a dream sea­son at Belleville West when, as the fi­nal five sec­onds of over­time wound down, he stole the ball from a Whit­ney Young player and rushed un­con­tested to the bas­ket for an easy layup. The fi­nal bucket of Brazill’s game-high 18-point per­for­mance set off the cham­pi­onship cel­e­bra­tion.

The team re­ceived its tra­di­tional fire en­gine pa­rade through Belleville, lin­ger­ing out­side Althoff Catholic High School, which had won the 3A ti­tle just two years ear­lier.

Lid­dell, back for his se­nior sea­son, was named the Ga­torade Illi­nois Player of the Year and Mr. Bas­ket­ball Illi­nois by state sports writ­ers.

5. HOME­TOWN BOY BE­COM­ING AN NFL STAR

The bright lights of the Na­tional Foot­ball League and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing fame of be­ing a pro­fes­sional ath­lete haven’t spoiled Adoree’ Jack­son.

Jack­son, 22, a cor­ner­back and kick re­turner with the Ten­nessee Ti­tans, came home to hang out with fam­ily and friends af­ter the Pro Bowl last Fe­bru­ary. The trip in­cluded lunch with his fresh­man bas­ket­ball coach at Belleville East, Jeff Creek, some high-fly­ing fun at Sky Zone with nieces and neph­ews, and church with his par­ents Chris and Vianca Jack­son.

“It’s rare when your best ath­lete also is your best be­haved and hard­est worker,” Creek said of Jack­son. “You didn’t have to worry about his grades, you didn’t have to worry about him work­ing hard — and he was your best player on the court. It’s such a rare pack­age to have.”

Jack­son is hav­ing an­other stand-out sea­son in Ten­nessee with 63 tack­les and a pair of in­ter­cep­tions for the play­off-bound Ti­tans.

6. EAST ST. LOUIS TRACK SEA­SON CAN­CELED

The Illi­nois State Su­per­in­ten­dent of Ed­u­ca­tion up­held a de­ci­sion to can­cel what was left of the East St. Louis boys track and field sea­son, in­clud­ing the sec­tional and state meets.

The ac­tion re­verses a vote taken in spe­cial ses­sion by mem­bers of the District 189 Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, which was at odds with East St. Louis High School Su­per­in­ten­dent Arthur Cul­ver, who sus­pended the sea­son af­ter a brawl broke out in the stands of Clyde C. Jor­dan Sta­dium dur­ing the South­west­ern Con­fer­ence Meet on May 8.

The ac­tion fol­lows an al­ter­ca­tion that led to the can­cel­la­tion of the con­fer­ence meet af­ter the first event had been run. Spec­ta­tors be­gan fight­ing in the stands and sev­eral

East St. Louis ath­letes be­gan fight­ing as well. At least three East St. Louis track team mem­bers were sus­pended.

“Based on the in­for­ma­tion gath­ered, ten­sion among our teenagers and young adults re­main high,” Cul­ver said. “The al­ter­ca­tion ... may not be over.”

Sev­eral East St. Louis ath­letes were con­sid­ered con­tenders to place at the state meet

7. SMALLMON IS BACK ON THE AIR

Belleville na­tive Michelle Smallmon re­turned to 101.1-FM ESPN and St. Louis ra­dio af­ter two years at ESPN’s na­tional head­quar­ters in Bris­tol, Con­necti­cut.

Smallmon, a grau­date of Althoff, is on the air daily on the “The Bernie Mik­lasz Show,” which she pre­vi­ously pro­duced.

Dur­ing her time at the ESPN head­quar­ters, Smallmon, 31, worked as a pro­ducer for the weekday evening ra­dio show called “Jorge & Jen,” broad­cast na­tion­ally on www.es­p­n­ra­dio.com, the ESPN app, Sir­ius XM, Ap­ple iTunes, Slacker Ra­dio and TuneIn.

When she de­parted ESPN, she was pro­duc­ing the suc­cess­ful “Ryen Rus­sillo Show” on the ESPN ra­dio net­work, lend­ing to the show as a reg­u­lar on-air con­trib­u­tor. In ad­di­tion to her work as a show pro­ducer and on-air pres­ence, Smallmon earned ac­claim for cul­ti­vat­ing pop­u­lar pod­casts and video seg­ments for

ESPN’s na­tional site, said 101.1 pro­gram di­rec­tor Chris Ne­u­pert.

8. SHOT CLOCK FOR HIGH SCHOOL HOOPS?

Three rules changes ap­pear to be on the hori­zon for boys’ and girls’ bas­ket­ball. The most sig­nif­i­cant could be the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a shot clock, ac­cord­ing to Kurt Gib­son, as­so­ciate ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Illi­nois High School As­so­ci­a­tion.

The IHSA will fol­low the lead of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of High Schools, which has been dis­cussing the is­sue for years. A de­ci­sion ap­pears im­mi­nent, Gib­son said.

“If I was a bet­ting guy, I would ex­pect the shot clock to come out of that com­mit­tee, to be ap­proved for ‘18-’19,” said Gib­son last spring, adding that the rule might not be­gin in Illi­nois un­til 2019-20 to al­low time for schools to pur­chase and in­stall the shot clocks and train peo­ple how to use them.

The shot clock likely would be 35 sec­onds — five sec­onds longer than in col­lege.

Gib­son said the shot clock nar­rowly missed be­ing ap­proved by the NFHS last year. In an­tic­i­pa­tion of it be­ing ap­proved this year, he said he emailed sur­veys to 443 coaches, seek­ing their opin­ions about the pos­si­ble change. The vote was 222-221 against the mea­sure.

9. VOICE OF ST. LOUIS WRESTLING FALLS SILENT

Larry Matysik, a long-time Belleville res­i­dent and the voice of pro­fes­sional wrestling in St. Louis, died on Nov. 25.

Matysik, 72, was a pro­moter and ring-side an­nouncer of “Wrestling at the Chase,” which aired Sun­day morn­ings on KPLR-TV in St. Louis from May 1969 to Septem­ber of 1983. The bouts were held at the Chase Park Plaza Ho­tel and in­cluded most of the big names from that era of wrestling, in­clud­ing “Na­ture Boy” Ric Flair, An­dre the Gi­ant, Dick “The Bruiser” Af­flis, Lou Th­esz, “Mil­lion Dol­lar Man” Ted DiBi­ase and oth­ers.

Even af­ter the show ceased pro­duc­tion, Matysik con­tin­ued to pro­mote pro­fes­sional wrestling and helped to es­tab­lish the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame. He wrote ar­ti­cles for wrestling mag­a­zines also pub­lished books on the sub­ject, in­clud­ing

“The In­side Story of Sam Much­nick and the Le­gends of Pro­fes­sional Wrestling.”

10. JEFF THOMAS DIS­MISSED FROM MI­AMI

In Novem­ber, the Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami dis­missed wide re­ceiver Jeff Thomas, a sopho­more wide re­ceiver who helped the East St. Louis Fly­ers cap­ture the 2016 IHSA 7A state cham­pi­onship.

“We have high stan­dards for ex­cel­lence, for con­duct and for the com­mit­ment to team for all of the young men who wear our uni­form, and we will not wa­ver from those stan­dards,’’ head coach Mark Richt said in a re­leased state­ment. “We wish Jeff the very best as he moves for­ward in his jour­ney.’’

In a Tweet, Thomas char­ac­ter­ized his de­par­ture from the team as a mu­tual with Richt “on leav­ing the pro­gram to bet­ter my fu­ture life and fam­ily life.”

Ac­cord­ing to a source, Thomas has clashed with wide re­ceivers coach Ron Du­gans and left the team an­grily this week, choos­ing not to at­tend meet­ings on Tues­day. Thomas sub­se­quently re­moved all ref­er­ences to UM on his so­cial me­dia ac­counts.

On Dec. 21, Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois coach Lovie Smith con­firmed that Thomas would trans­fer and ap­peal to the NCAA to waive the manda­tory sea­son of in­el­i­gi­bil­ity.

BONUS: THE NEXT 10

11. IHSA pro­poses big changes to high school foot­ball sched­ule, play­off for­mat

12. Ed­wardsville’s Mark Smith leav­ing Illi­nois bas­ket­ball pro­gram

13. Harry Statham’s 52-year run at McKen­dree comes to a close

14. Re­la­tion­ship be­tween Dex­ter Fowler and Mike Ma­theny has frosted Car­di­nals club­house

15. East St. Louis hires sev­enth boys bas­ket­ball coach since 2014

16. Dy­ing Grandma was too sick to at­tend, so col­lege base­ball team took the game to her

17. Th­ese sis­ters grew up on farm in Okawville. Now they’re headed to the Hall of Fame

18. Belleville East star Kay­lah Rainey will miss her se­nior year af­ter doc­tors dis­cover heart de­fect

19. The pros and cons of the Car­di­nals trade for first base­man Paul Gold­schmidt

20. High school de­nied him a shot at state. Now this East Side sprinter is a na­tional cham­pion

JIMMY J SIM­MONS Spe­cial to the News-Demo­crat

Belleville West fans are shown dur­ing the IHSA Class 4A state cham­pi­onship game. The Ma­roons beat the Whit­ney Young Dol­phins 60-56 in over­time to win their first state ti­tle. That is the No. 4 story on the list for 2018.

Amy Figueroa of Longines presents own­ers Bobby Flay, left, and Kenny Troutt with a Longines time­piece af­ter their horse Cre­ator won the 148th Bel­mont Stakes on June 11, 2016, at Bel­mont Park in El­mont, NY. South­ern Illi­nois na­tive Troutt has sent 26 thor­ough­bred horses to the Ken­tucky Derby. That in­cludes Jus­tify, the 3-year-old ch­est­nut colt who in June be­came just the 13th horse in the past cen­tury to win horse rac­ing’s Triple Crown.

PHE­LAN M. EBENHACK AP

Ten­nessee Ti­tans cor­ner­back Adoree’ Jack­son is hav­ing an­other stand-out sea­son in Ten­nessee with 63 tack­les and a pair of in­ter­cep­tions for the play­off-bound Ti­tans.

STEVE NAGY [email protected]

Mar­cell Ozuna played through arm in­juries dur­ing a 2018 sea­son that fell short of ex­pec­ta­tions.

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