HOUSTON – Even with COVID-19 hovering like a cloud, the sports world continued to give Houstonians plenty to remember in 2021.
Here’s a Top 10 for the year:
1. The Houston Astros made a magical run to the World Series.
With the 2017 cheating scandal and 2019 MLB ruling on it still fresh in everyone’s mind, the Astros dealt with plenty of booing and opposing fans who were less than cordial. Trash cans were even thrown on the field in an Astros game in Los Angeles. There were fights among fans in the stands. Through it all, the Astros overcame all the insults and all the outside noise to perform on the field. The Astros won 95 games on their way to their fourth American League West title in five years. In the postseason, they continued that success, defeating the Chicago White Sox 3-1 in the ALDS. When they eliminated the Boston Red Sox 4-2 in the ALCS, the Astros clinched their third World Series trip in five years. Ultimately, Houston came up short in the Fall Classic with the Atlanta Braves taking home the title, but it was a magical run nonetheless. Yuli Gurriel won the American League batting title. Carlos Correa and Gurriel won Gold Gloves. Correa won a Platinum Glove. Dusty Baker was named Baseball America’s Manager of the Year.
2021 was so magical for Houston’s baseball fans. What can 2022 bring? Many Houston fans will be keeping an eye on the free agency situation of Correa, but that decision won’t be made until after the MLB lockout, whenever that might be. Only time will tell.
2. The University of Houston men’s basketball team made the Final Four.
Speaking of magical runs, UH certainly had one of their own for their men’s basketball program. Head coach Kelvin Sampson has helped improve the Cougars from his first year in 2015, when the team finished 13-19. In 2021, the team finished 28-4 and was perfect at home. They swept through the American Athletic Conference Championship to earn the conference title and the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. And during the tournament, they kept winning all the way until the Final Four, when they were finally stopped by eventual-champion Baylor. Their run brought back memories of the Phi Slama Jama days of Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and raised excitement for what could be ahead for the program.
Speaking of Baylor...
3. Baylor men’s basketball won the national championship for the first time ever.
The Baylor men’s basketball program has had some dark days from the early 2000′s and it hasn’t been easy to emerge from all of it, but that’s exactly what Scott Drew has done. The Bears absolutely dominated previously-unbeaten Gonzaga in the title game to win 86-70. It capped off a mostly dominating season, when most of the Bears’ wins were by double digits. This was the first national championship for the Baylor men’s basketball program.
4. Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson requests trade, then gets accused by 22 women of inappropriate sexual conduct.
Though Houston had plenty of wonderful sports moments in 2021, the Deshaun Watson saga may be the single biggest Houston sports story based on what Watson was perceived as before anything of his felt like a cloud hanging over the city. Most people would agree that, before all the allegations, Watson was thought of as a young, budding star quarterback for a Texans franchise that had been desperately seeking a QB for years. Watson was supposed to be the guy. Coming off the heels of a 10-6 season, the Texans finished 4-12 in 2020. Watson requested a trade shortly thereafter, with the Texans pondering how to get maximum value for him. Then, the allegations and lawsuits of sexual misconduct from massage and therapy sessions started pouring in. With the case still ongoing, Watson remains a member of the Texans but he has been listed as inactive the entire season. 2022 could bring some closure, whether it be with the lawsuits or if a trade happens. In 2020, before all this, Watson certainly performed, with over 5,000 total yards between passing and running, with 36 total TD’s compared to seven interceptions.
5. J.J. Watt and James Harden depart.
While Watson’s departure hasn’t happened yet, other Houston stars found their way out of the city. J.J. Watt is arguably considered the most legendary Houston Texans figure ever, with his three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards won over four years and his constant giving back to the city, perhaps most notably during Hurricane Harvey. But back in February, Watt and the Texans mutually agreed to part ways. Shortly thereafter, Watt joined fellow former Houston Texan DeAndre Hopkins in Arizona with the Cardinals. Watt’s new team has had an overall strong season so far, but the star defensive end suffered a shoulder injury about midway through the season and is out for the remainder of 2021.
Watt wasn’t the only star to depart. James Harden certainly gave the Houston Rockets some great seasons that had the team on the cusp of the NBA Finals. And the team certainly tried to accomodate Harden by doing their best to surround him with players Harden wanted to play with. This meant trading players Harden no longer wanted to play with and trying to make things work. However, after another postseason run fell short, Russell Westbrook wanted out, head coach Mike D’Antoni was not brought back, and soon after, Harden wanted out. The star guard certainly didn’t hide his desire to no longer be a part of the team before the Rockets traded him to the Brooklyn Nets in January of 2021.
6. Rudy Tomjanovich gets inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
This was a long time coming for Tomjanovich, with much of Houston Rockets nation clamoring for years for their championship head coach to be inducted into basketball’s all-time pantheon. The man affectionately known as “Rudy T” was actually elected as part of the 2020 class, but because of COVID, the actual induction was delayed a year until 2021. Either way, Tomjanovich, with his two championship rings as the head coach of the 1994 and 1995 Rockets, is now forever immortalized in the world of basketball. By the way, another former Rockets head coach, Rick Adelman, was inducted into the Hall of Fame later in the year as part of the Class of 2021.
7. Katy Paetow and North Shore win football state championships.
It’s an understatement to say high school football is big in Houston and all over the state of Texas. So when area teams can win the Texas state football championship, it is a BIG deal.
For North Shore, not only have they mastered being the best at their craft, they do it year after year. For the third time in four years, the Mustangs won the state title when they defeated Duncanville 17-10. What’s remarkable is that North Shore had freshman Kaleb Bailey step in at quarterback after Dematrius Davis graduated to Auburn - and the team still won state. Bailey’s touchdown pass to David Amador late in the fourth quarter was the difference maker.
Speaking of remarkable, Katy Paetow wasn’t just a school determined to show the world how to correctly pronounce their high school’s name. Paetow is only in its fifth year of existence. And already, they can say they are state champions. The Panthers defeated College Station 27-24 in what no doubt will be forever considered a classic. After a narrow 4th-down conversion to get to the College Station 2-yard line, Jacob Brown punched it in up the middle for the winning score to give the Panthers the 5A-Division I title.
8. Local Olympians make a major impact.
This was the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but because of COVID-19, everything was delayed until 2021. Never fear, there was still plenty of glory. And the Houston area certainly did not disappoint.
Morton Ranch High School’s Tamyra Mensah-Stock made history as the first U.S. Black woman to win Olympic gold in wrestling. Nimitz High School’s Brittney Griner scored 30 points in the deciding game to help Team USA win women’s basketball gold. Spring’s Simone Biles helped bring awareness to mental health issues and while having battles of her own, she still won a bronze on the balance beam. Ridge Point High School’s Bryce Deadmon won two medals, a gold and bronze, in different relay events. Raevyn Rogers from the Kinkaid School made a furious finish to take the bronze in the women’s 800 meters. Cat Osterman from Cy Springs High School was her usual dominating self in helping Team USA get a softball silver before her retirement. Three Houston-area athletes - Scott Kazmir from Cy Falls, Shane Baz from Concordia Lutheran, and Simeon Woods Richardson from Kempner - helped Team USA win baseball silver. Fort Bend Austin’s Simone Manuel nabbed a bronze for her efforts. Houston definitely did its part to help America win the Olympic medal count.
9. Texas and Oklahoma leave the Big 12 for the SEC. Houston moves to the Big 12, Rice to the AAC.
As the Olympics were beginning, so were talks that Texas and Oklahoma were thinking of leaving the Big 12 for the powerful SEC. The rumors proved true and the process certainly did not take long after that to become reality. That left the Big 12 scrambling - would they survive? Would all of their remaining teams leave? Well, it also provided opportunity for schools such as Houston to make the jump to a Power 5 conference. UH accepted the invite, leaving the American Athletic Conference, which in turn brought in Rice from Conference USA. There’s still some time before these teams play as a member of their new conferences, so there’s plenty for each school to look forward to.
10. Sam Houston State football wins the FCS national championship.
COVID certainly made the college football schedule off kilter, because in May, when the talk is usually not about football games on the field, the Bearkats won the national championship. And it was won in dramatic fashion. Eric Schmid from The Woodlands High School threw a 10-yard score to Ife Adeyi with 16 seconds left to put Sam Houston State up for good with the winning touchdown.
That may have been our Top Ten sports moments, but some other storylines included all the new coaches: David Culley for the Texans, the big-name baseball hires of Jose Cruz Jr. to coach Rice and another Rice legend, former Astros star Lance Berkman, to lead the HBU baseball program. Also, Steve Sarkisian became the head football coach at UT, albeit with very subpar results in his first year. Time will tell to see how each of these coaches do!
Also, the Houston Gamblers are coming back! And so is the USFL! If retro is fashionable, get ready for the Gamblers to become trendy.
And is Houston the best mascot city or what? It certainly appears so. Clutch the Bear of the Rockets won NBA Mascot of the Year. Toro of the Texans won the NFL Mascot of the Year. And we all know how awesomely lovable Orbit of the Astros is. Champ City, y’all!!
So while the year overall was a roller coaster for Houston sports fans, it’s safe to say there was plenty to celebrate.
Here’s to a new year with new memories in 2022!