The Cardinals missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Blues fell in the second round and St. Louis city voters took a pass on a Major League Soccer franchise.
Several metro-east high school teams made a run at Illinois championships, but only the Althoff Crusaders girls volleyball team brought home the big trophy. The region fared better in individual competitions with three Althoff wrestlers, another from Highland and a Waterloo cross-country runner winning state championships.
There was no shortage of sports headlines in 2017.
But what mattered most to readers of the Belleville News-Democrat? Below is a list of the 10 most-read sports stories at bnd.com over the past 12 months:
1) Cardinals Hot Stove
The Cardinals coveted Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton until he leveraged his no-trade authority to land with the Yankees.
But the Cardinals got the next-best thing in trading for Stanton’s former teammate, Marcell Ozuna. The outfielder hit .312 while slugging 37 home runs and driving in 124 during the 2017 season.
Things heated up even further when, at the tail end of the MLB Winter Meetings, word surfaced that the Cardinals inquired about Baltimore’s 24-year-old third baseman Manny Machado and Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Tampa Bay closer Alex Colome and a starting pitcher (Chris Archer?) are other names that continue to churn through the rumor mill. Speculation also has surrounded Kansas City free agents Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas with no apparent interest from the Cardinals.
Will the Cardinals make another deal or stand pat? This story is still developing.
2) Southwestern Conference exodus
The school boards of Granite City and Collinsville, both charter members of the Southwestern Conference, voted to leave the league they joined back in 1923.
Citing concerns about safety at large sporting events — particularly at football and basketball games — the Granite City District 9 School Board voted to pull out of the conference after a student was found to have brought a gun to a Feb. 21 boys basketball game at East St. Louis.
No shots were fired, but the gym was evacuated and the game canceled with both teams taking a forfeit. The Warriors expect a vote from South Seven Conference member schools on their application for membership in January.
The Collinsville High School football program will leave the SWC following the 2018 season. Teams in other sports will remain affiliated. The district cited an ongoing competitive disadvantage — the Kahoks have had just one winning season since 1999 — in its decision to withdraw.
3) 8-year-olds take a knee; Indians take a stand
As protesters assembled in the streets of St. Louis, a team of youth football players staged their own demonstration against the verdict in the trial of former police officer Jason Stockley.
Members of the Junior Comanches youth football team knelt during the playing of the national anthem prior to a game at Belleville’s Citizens Park, emulating an NFL trend started by for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Team coach Orlando Gooden said the idea was initiated by his players, most of them 8 years old, with support from the parents.
The Mascoutah High School football team, meanwhile, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the town’s public-safety workers and retired military members prior to their game against Triad. Athletics Director Scott Battas said the event was in the works before the Stockley verdict but went forward only after he consulted the team’s senior leadership.
4) Tempers flare between Tigers and Flyers
Police had to intervene after Edwardsville took a 15-point lead over the Flyers late in the fourth quarter of a basketball game at East St. Louis.
At the center of the scuffle were Edwardsville’s AJ Epenesa and East St. Louis’ Arthur Carter, who exchanged words after making contact near the Flyers’ basket. Order was quickly restored without further incident, though East St. Louis coach Phillip Gilbert, who has since been replaced, expressed his frustration at the officials for letting the game get too physical.
5) East Side coaches’ controversies
The East St. Louis District 189 School Board hired two basketball coaches at its April meeting — former Belleville East standout Stetson Hairston to lead the boys team and Dwan Prude for the girls team.
Neither one of them lasted until the season started.
Prude was charged by the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office with soliciting a sex act from a 17-year-old girl. According to an affidavit filed by an East St. Louis detective, Prude sent the teenager “sexually-aggressive” texts offering her money and calling her “edible.”
A week after those charges were filed, the board suspended Hairston after an audio recording captured his profanity-laced rant during a Flyers practice. He was the second East Side coach in three years dismissed under similar circumstances.
In October, former East St. Louis football player Demond Hunt Jr. filed a lawsuit against the district and coach Darren Sunkett claiming he was forced to play despite notifying staff of headaches and other concussionlike symptoms.
Hunt ended up having several small strokes and a seizure on the sideline, spent five weeks in a hospital, two weeks in a coma and has been left with permanent brain and neurological damage, the lawsuit states.
6) Remembering John Rheinecker
Gibault Catholic High School graduate John Rheinecker, a left-handed pitcher who spent parts of two seasons in the major leagues with the Texas Rangers, died in July of what medical examiners later confirmed was a suicide. The Hecker native was 38.
Former coaches Neil Fiala, of Southwestern Illinois College, and Mark Vogel, of Waterloo, remembered Rheinecker as a “rare talent.” Missouri State coach Keith Guttin called Rheinecker “one of the most competitive players I’ve ever been around.”
All expressed shock at Rheinecker’s untimely death and sorrow for his wife, Jamie, and their two children and two stepchildren.
7) Molina a lifelong Cardinal
Of the 11 players and managers to have their numbers retired by the St. Louis Cardinals, only Stan Musial and Bob Gibson wore the Birds on the Bat from start to finish of their major-league careers.
Yadier Molina looks like he’ll be the third. In March, the Cardinals kept their popular 35-year-old catcher from reaching free agency with a three-year, $55-million contract extension.
8) “89 Blocks”
This story was in the top 10 of 2016, too. A film crew embedded itself with the East St. Louis football team beginning with the teachers strike that ended their season in 2015 and departed once the Flyers clinched another state championship with their 26-13 win over Plainfield North in the 2016 title game.
Executive produced by NBA star LeBron James, Maverick Carter and Sports Illustrated, the documentary “89 Blocks” aired nationally on Fox in November. It focused on the East St. Louis football tradition and the off-the-field trials its players contend with growing up in a depressed community.
It also cast a bright spotlight on Jeff Thomas, an emotionally withdrawn but talented wide receiver who became a father by the time he was 17. He abandoned the team for two weeks in the middle of the season but was granted a second chance in a decision left to the team’s seniors.
Thomas has since gone on to the University of Miami, where he has been an weapon as a true freshman for the 10-3 Hurricanes.
9) “The Great One” visits
Belleville East assistant tennis coach Dan Skaer has conducted several United States Tennis Association youth events to raise funds for the Lancers’ program. The tournament he staged on the high school’s courts in early September brought a little star power.
USTA member Emma Gretzky raced through the 14-and-under age group bracket to capture the championship in her division. Watching every stroke were her famous parents, the NHL “Great One” Wayne Gretzky and actress Janet Gretzky, a native of St. Louis.
Dustin Johnson was there, too. The No. 1 golfer in the latest World Golf Ranking is the fiance of the Gretzkys’ other daughter, model and pop singer Paulina Gretzky.
The couple handled the attention they drew graciously, Skaer said, and were happy to take several photos.
10) Eversgerd back in the bigs
Bryan Eversgerd, who still lives in Carlyle, was an undrafted free agent out of Kaskaskia College who spent four years as a left-handed pitcher in the major leagues.
He began coaching in the Cardinals organization almost as soon as his playing days were done and eventually became the pitching coach at the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate in Memphis.
He’ll be back in the big leagues in 2018. The Cardinals and new pitching coach Mike Maddux hired Eversgerd to replace Blaise Ilsley as the team’s bullpen coach.
Eversgerd, 48, was considered a candidate to succeed pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who, like Ilsley, was not retained.
“I told (manager) Mike Matheny and (GM Mike) Girsch during the interview, ‘When you’re a player, you want to play in the big leagues. It’s the place to play. When you’re a coach, you want to coach in the big leagues,’” Eversgerd said. “It’s just as neat getting that call as a coach as it was as a player, for sure.”
The Next 10
Below is a list of the next 10 most-read stories at bnd.com in 2017
11) Mizzou lineman Tre’Vour Simms has a shot at the NFL because his mom, East St. Louis’ Toni Wallace, refuses to let him make her mistakes.
12) Pro Football Focus recognized Highland grad and Nebraska lineman Tanner Farmer on all-Big Ten Team.
13) High School Football Preview: Keep your eyes on these electric high school football players
14) Rochester defeats Highland in Illinois 4A football semifinal to end the Bulldogs’ dream season.
15) Former East Louis football star Dan Williams just wanted an NFL shot. He got one with the New York Jets.
16) Belleville East graduate and Illinois star Malcom Hill signs contract with Philippine pro tream
17) Edwardsville’s Mark Smith named Illinois Mr. Basketball then announces he’ll play in Champaign for the Illini.
18) Jimmy Connors played tennis the only way he knew — his mom’s way
19) Because coach Cortez Branch gives them a chance, more than 100 East St. Louis middle school students try cross country.
20) East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas announces he’ll play football at the University of Miami