Sports

Watch List 2016: Sports stories and players to keep an eye on in the year to come

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has made no obvious effort to fill the team’s need for a power hitter. Is he really done with the Cardinals’ 2016 roster?
Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has made no obvious effort to fill the team’s need for a power hitter. Is he really done with the Cardinals’ 2016 roster? BND file

It’s traditional to pause on the occasion of the new year to reflect upon the 12 months prior, to revisit the good and bad, to revel once again in our victories and try to extract some wisdom from our defeats.

But I’ll be doing no such thing. There’s no time.

With so many developing stories on the local sports front and so many top young athletes coming of age in the metro east, 2016 offers an exciting look forward.

So, without further ado, here is a watch list of stories we’ll be following in the coming year:

RAMS SCRAM

Stan Kroenke’s threat to move St. Louis’ NFL franchise to a garish new stadium in suburban Los Angeles, and the obstacles set before him by a local task force intent on building a new stadium on our city’s north riverfront, will likely come to a head in the next two weeks.

David Peacock and the rest of the Missouri governor-appointed task force formalized their proposal to league owners Monday, as did a committee led by Disney CEO Bob Iger that wants to move the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers to a proposed shared stadium in Carson, California.

NFL owners will meet in Houston Jan. 12-13 to consider the future of pro football in Los Angeles and the Rams future in St. Louis.

The NFL’s owners are scheduled to convene in Houston Jan. 12 and 13. They’ll likely decide then which scenario works best for the league.

But the story doesn’t end with that decision.

Even if they approve the St. Louis plan, there is nothing that obligates Kroenke and the Rams to play there. What will Kroenke do? And if owners clear the Rams’ path to LA, might construction of the task force stadium go forward anyway with the hope of luring another team to St. Louis?

REDBIRD REBUILD

Is Cardinals GM John Mozeliak really finished?

Considering the loss of outfielder Jason Hewyard and pitcher John Lackey , Lance Lynn’s season-ending elbow surgery, and strides the rival Chicago Cubs have made on the free agent market, it’s hard to fathom the Cardinals being content with the current roster.

Outfielders Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon and Chris Davis are still available via free agency. The Colorodo Rockies and other teams have reportedly opened the channels for a trade.

The signings of pitcher Mike Leake, utility man Jedd Gyorko, and durable backup catcher Brayan Pena, are a great start. But the lack of a legitimate cleanup hitter remains a void Mozeliak has made no obvious effort to fill or even acknowledge.

Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon and Chris Davis are all still available. The Colorado Rockies and other teams have reportedly opened the channels for a trade.

Is Mozeliak biding his time on a market that’s been slower to develop than expected? Or is the Redbirds’ roster set?

THE CRUSADE

Althoff’s fab four — Marvin Bateman, Brendon Gooch, Jordan Goodwin and Tarkus Ferguson — brought Belleville close to its first ever high school boys basketball championship in 2015. The Crusaders fell four points shorts of Westchester St. Joseph in the Class 3A title game.

But the entire team is back, minus just one graduated player.

Althoff's fab four — Marvin Bateman, Brendon Gooch, Jordan Goodwin and Tarkus Ferguson — brought Belleville close to its first ever high school boys basketball championship in 2015. They are all back for another run in 2016.

With most of the team still committed to Althoff’s run at a state football championship, the Crusaders lost their second game of the season. But they have since run the table and dominated a competitive field to win the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic.

Ranked No. 1 on the state poll since the preseason, the Crusaders must shoulder the weight of expectation. But it certainly looks like the year they’ll get their fire-engine escort down Main Street and Belleville gets its basketball championship.

DECISION TIME?

Edwardsville’s three-sport star A.J. Epenesa could play NCAA Division-I basketball if he wanted to. In fact, he had an offer from Eastern Illinois by the end of his sophomore season.

He can throw the discus on a national stage too, having achieved the seventh best throw in the country and missing a 3A state championship by just eight inches last spring.

But football is Epensa’s future. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end is a five-star prospect and is the No. 12-ranked overall college recruit in the nation. He’s drawn overtures from every major program from Notre Dame to Washington, and from Wisconsin to Florida State.

Just last month, he received an personal offer from Alabama head coach Nick Saban (then exploded for 25 points and 16 rebounds in Edwarsdville’s basketball win over Belleville East).

With his senior season still ahead of him, Epenesa’s options will only mount. When will he make that choice and what will it be?

Edwardsville defensive end A.J. Epenesa and East St. Louis wide receiver rank among the nation’s most coveted college football prospects. Each could make a decision after their senior seasons, but before the April 2017 National Letter of Intent Day.

DECISION TIME PART II

Epenesa isn’t the only metro-east football player with a line of college coaches at his door. East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas is ranked No. 27 overall nationally, No. 5 at his position, and second only to Epenesa in Illinois.

Thomas got his call from Alabama after his sophomore season, during which he caught 57 passes for 1,147 yards and 12 touchdowns. His junior season was derailed by the East St. Louis teachers strike that forced the Flyers to forfeit their last four games last fall.

That didn’t take Thomas away from the spotlight, though. He is the centerpiece in an installment of a Sports Illustrated video series highlighting “inspiring stories from high school football.”

In the meantime, he’s also garnered offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, LSU and Missouri, among others.

National Letter of Intent Day for this season’s seniors isn’t until April of 2017, but with so many offers on the table, Thomas’ decision could come sooner.

HOW HIGH?

Waterloo High School senior Jordan McFarland learned just before Christmas that he was named the 17-under National Baseball Player of the Year by Perfect Game USA, the nation’s largest scouting showcase for amateur players.

McFarland hit .427 with 8 home runs and 42 RBI as a junior at Gibault High School last spring. But he captured more attention during three Perfect Game showcase tournaments in Atlanta, Phoenix and Jupiter, Florida. Against other nationally-rated high school players, he batted .571 (24-for-51) with eight extra-base hits and 13 RBI.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound outfielder already has committed to play at the University of Arkansas. With his stock on the rise, however, McFarland could hear his name called during the 2016 Major League Baseball draft in June.

BLUES’ BLUES

Until the St. Louis Blues make a meaningful playoff run, any success they enjoy during the regular season will be viewed with only with skepticism.

The Notes have finished no worse than second in the Western Conference, Central Division in each of the last four years and currently have the third-best point total in the NHL. But fans are impatient — the team hasn’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2012.

What will be the future of the Blues and coach Ken Hitchcock if they can’t do better this post-season?

ADOREE KNOWS

Adoree Jackson moved from Belleville to Southern California after his freshman year in high school. But he still competes on behalf of his hometown, a point illustrated each time he takes the football field as a member of the USC Trojans with his eye black emblazoned with “618,” our region’s area code.

Adoree Jackson is considered a future Heisman Trophy candidate, but was granted permission by head coach Clay Helton to pursue a spot on the 2016 U.S. Summer Olympics team.

He had a great sophomore season as a defensive back, kick returner and part-time wide receiver at Southern Cal, which considers the versatile athlete a future Heisman Trophy candidate.

But football may not even be Jackson’s best sport. He made a run at the NCAA Track and Field National Championship in the long jump, ending up with a fifth-place finish and All-American honors.

Now Trojan’s head football coach Clay Helton has excused Jackson from spring football commitments so he can pursue an Olympic dream. With a jump of 26-feet, 5-inches at July’s Olympic trials, he’ll qualify for the U.S. team and a trip to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. His best jump to date is 25-11.

There is, indeed, plenty of potential for a very happy new year for metro-east sports fans. In the meantime, stay tuned ...

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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