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:
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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 non-compliant 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 fourth-largest 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 WinStar Farms, which won its first Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver. Troutt became kind of the “sport of kings” wen 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 big-name free agents were available to help improve the team.
After months of speculation and rumor, the Cardinals are said to have dropped a record-breaking 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 season 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, SiriusXM, 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.