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Hickory Hills native Max Strus's hot streak to end 2021 is the Regional-Reporter's favorite story of the year in local sports. Photo by Miami Heat

Hickory Hills native Max Strus's hot streak to end 2021 is the Regional-Reporter's favorite story of the year in local sports. Photo by Miami Heat

The Year in Review: A look at our favorite local sports stories from 2021

STRUS

Max Strus, a Hickory Hills native and Stagg graduate, has been playing well for the NBA’s Miami Heat. Photo courtesy of Miami Heat

By Jeff Vorva
Correspondent

OK, the top local sports story of 2021 is the same top story as it is for everybody.

COVID-19.

The virus, or more accurately, the pandemic caused by virus, changed the landscape of just about everything. Its effect on local sports was huge the first four or five months of the year, with shortened seasons and no playoffs for some high school sports and postseasons dragging into late June for other sports, among other alterations.

But aren’t we sick of COVID-19 yet? Do we really need another wrap-up and reminder about what it did at the beginning of 2021 – especially when sporting events are again being canceled as this is being written?

We think not.

So, instead of a top-10 list, we are going to stick our head in the sand (which right now has a better view than the view the real world is giving us) and pick out 10 of our favorite stories from 2021, rather than what some may consider the newsworthiest top 10. And hope we don’t have to use that COVID word from here on out.

So, here we go with our 10 favorite local sports stories of 2021:

1. Strus Gets Loose
Not since Richards’ grad Dwyane Wade has the area seen a player make it to the NBA and do what Strus has been doing for the Miami Heat.

The Stagg grad scored 20 points for the Miami Heat (one of Wade’s old teams) — in one quarter. He did that Dec. 17 in a 32-point outburst that help the Heat to a 115-105 victory over rival Orlando on the road.

“His confidence never wanes,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra told reporters after that game. “Very rarely do we have to tell Max to shoot it when he’s open.”

As an aside, Strus collided with former Chicago Bulls player Wendall Carter Jr. early in the second period of that game. Carter left the floor in a wheelchair.

Strus wasn’t done doing damage.

In a four-game span, he became the first player in Heat history to score 100-plus points and hit 20-plus 3-pointers while doing so. Even Wade didn’t do that.

Then he played Santa Claus by hitting the game-winning 3-pointer with 40.4 seconds left in a 115-112 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 23. He scored 26 points in that game.

Through Dec. 27, Strus had played in 26 of the Heat’s 33 games, starting two of them. He was averaging 10.9 points — good for sixth on the team — and 3.4 rebounds in 22.6 minutes per game. Three times he has led the Heat in scoring. This is a team that features Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry.

What makes Strus’ success such a fun story is that two years ago he was on the low end of the totem pole with the Bulls, playing for their G-League affiliate the Windy City Bulls. It was during his time with Windy City that he tore his ACL and had to work his way back.

The Heat signed him on Nov. 30, 2020 and he was still a low man on the totem pole, but slowly but surely started to rise and now is playing some dazzling ball.

 

2. Red Hot RedHawks
Marist’s girls softball team had to play two games on a sweltering 90-degree day on June 18 at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex and beat Huntley, 1-0, and Lincoln-Way Central, 3-1, to win the 2021 IHSA Class 4A state championship for the third time in program history.

Abby Dunning, the Gatorade Softball Player of the Year in Illinois, pitched both victories for Marist, which finished 39-1 on the season. Its only loss was to a team from Indiana.

 

Year in Review TroyMcAllister scaled

In his first year at Sandburg, football coach Troy McAllister led the eagles to the Class 8A playoffs, their first postseason berth since 2015. Photo by Jeff Vorva

3. Sandburg Stunner

A 42-0 loss to Lockport on Sept. 24 left Sandburg’s football 1-4, and first-year coach Troy McAllister’s attempt to turn the Eagles team into a playoff contender appeared to be a year or two away.

But the Eagles stunned perennial power Lincoln-Way East 30-27 the following week in Orland Park — the first time the Eagles beat East since 2007. The Griffins had reeled off 13 straight wins in the series by a combined score of 235-21.

Eagles quarterback Christian Evans threw for 306 yards and three scores in the upset. That win on its own merit was huge, but Sandburg went on to win three more games to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2016.

 

4. Shepard’s Spring Fling

The Shepard football team enjoyed the abbreviated spring season, and the Astros did some things they haven’t done since the year “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” disgraced movie screens all over the land.

The Astros finished 5-1 and won their first league championship of any kind since 1993, when they won the South Inter Conference Association North title. It was their first South Suburban Conference championship.

Because of the pandemic, coach John Rone was doused with bottled water after the final game of the year — a 42-15 victory at Reavis on April 24.

 

Year in Review SandburgXC scaled

Sandburg won the boys state cross country championship. File photo

5. Eagles Soar in XC
All year, Sandburg was ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 3A boys cross country by MileSplit Illinois. The Eagles never lost that spot, winning all of their meets.

On Nov. 6, they won the state title for the second time in school history with 130 points while Hinsdale South was second with 175.

Declan Tunney (fifth place), Brock Rice (19th) and Sean Marquardt (20th) were named all-state for their top-25 finishes.

 

Year in Review Naz Vball scaled

The Nazareth girls volleyball team won the program’s first state title in November. File photo

6. Fun Fall
The return of a normal season made this a special fall season already, but the area enjoyed postseason success as well.

Aside from Sandburg’s boys cross country victory, the area had three football teams make it to the semifinals of the state playoffs (Brother Rice, Marist, St. Rita) and three girls volleyball teams (Chicago Christian, Nazareth and Mother McAuley) make it to the semifinals of the state tournament.

In football, St. Rita was the one of the three to advance and finished second in the state in Class 7A.

In volleyball, Nazareth won the Class 3A title on Nov. 13 with a 25-18, 20-25, 25-21 victory over Belvidere North. McAuley took second in Class 4A with a 15-25, 25-18, 25-18 setback to Metea Valley. Chicago Christian place third in Class 2A.

 

7. Red Stars Runner-up

The Chicago Red Stars, who had Orland Park’s Tatumn Milazzo receiving plenty of playing time as a rookie, opened the 2021 NWSL season with a 5-0 loss at Portland.

Between that humiliating blowout and the Nov. 20 NWSL championship, the team was ravaged by injuries, yet still improved. They qualified for the playoffs before losing to Washington, 2-1 in overtime, in the title game.

The Stars’ accomplishments on the field were tempered less than 24 hours later when longtime coach Rory Dames resigned and a story in the Washington Post alleging verbal abuse against his players surfaced.

Soon after that, several name players including Julie Ertz were traded.

 

Year in Review TJ Griffin scaled e1640585933950

Stagg football player T.J. Griffin celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Oak Lawn last September. Photo by Jason Maholy

8. T.J. All the Way

Stagg football star T.J. Griffin did not enjoy a varsity win in his high school career.

But that didn’t stop colleges from noticing him, as he picked up a football scholarship from Illinois and made it official during signing day on Dec. 15. He figures to be playing safety for the Illini.

 

9. Take it Outside

Since the wrestling season took place in the spring/summer rather than winter, Sandburg hosted District 230 rival Andrew outdoors at the Eagles’ stadium on June 3.

Sandburg drew a decent crowd and recorded seven pins in a 53-13 victory.

 

10. Third-place Triumph

Normally, third-place games in a state tournament are not all that noteworthy, but St. Laurence’s baseball team had a third-place victory it could be proud of.

The Vikings lost in the Class 3A state semifinals June 17 in a 6-4 extra-inning heartbreaker to Springfield at Wintrust Stadium in Schaumburg.

After a short break, they were back at it in the third-place game and got into a 6-2 hole early. The deflated Vikings chipped away at the deficit and then exploded, winning the game 10-6 to make the bus ride back to Burbank after the long day a little easier and undoubtedly happier.

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