Top 10 Baltimore sports stories of 2016

It was a year for brilliant individual performances from Maryland athletes.

Whether we're talking Michael Phelps' valedictory statement at the Olympics, Taylor Cummings becoming the most decorated women's lacrosse player in NCAA history or Zach Britton approaching perfection from the bullpen, these virtuoso efforts were among the best we've seen in these parts.

The teams? Well, they offered a more ambivalent experience.

The Orioles returned to the playoffs after a year away but lasted only one game and saw their manager become the most second-guessed man in America for a night. The Ravens picked higher in the NFL draft than they had in 16 years and strained to right themselves after a lost 2015. The Maryland men's basketball team underwhelmed lofty preseason expectations, losing decisively to Kansas in the Sweet 16. The Maryland women's lacrosse team, undefeated and thought to be among the greatest ever, fell in the NCAA title game.

It was hardly the bleakest of sports years, but it's one we'll remember more for the solo moments. So here they are, your top 10 sports stories of 2016:

Exaggerator upsets Nyquist on gloomy Preakness day

Preakness day could hardly have gotten off to a more ominous start, with a chilly rain soaking Pimlico Race Course and two horses dying after undercard races.

But a record crowd of 135,256 gathered to see whether undefeated Kentucky Derby champion Nyquist could follow in American Pharoah's hoof prints and keep his Triple Crown hopes alive in the muck. Instead, his most dogged rival, Exaggerator, played spoiler.

Exaggerator's victory was a unique triumph for the brother tandem of trainer Keith Desormeaux and jockey Kent Desormeaux, both of whom apprenticed at Maryland tracks. Though their relationship is tense at times, the soft-spoken Keith has always revered Kent's instincts for navigating traffic in the biggest races. His faith was rewarded as Kent found an ideal path through the mud at Pimlico.

Michael Phelps extends Olympic dominance in grand final chapter

He came back because he did not like the taste he'd left as an unhappy, undertrained swimmer at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Phelps was already a happier man — sober after a 2014 drunken-driving arrest, and a new husband and father. But he wanted his happy ending in the pool as well.

He earned it with a five-gold-medal tour de force that commenced with a smashing freestyle relay leg and concluded with Phelps grinning in disbelief as he contemplated his record career totals of 23 gold and 28 overall medals. He even threw in a nod to home when he guffawed on the medal stand after a friend screamed "O" during the national anthem.

Despite repeated questions about competing in Tokyo in 2020, Phelps swore he was finally done and has maintained that stance in the months since. This time, the last taste was sublime.

Maryland Olympians storm Rio

Phelps might have been the headliner, but he was hardly the only Olympian with Maryland ties to strike gold in Rio. In fact, the state claimed more gold medals than all but five countries.

Bethesda teenager Katie Ledecky dominated the Olympic pool even more thoroughly than Phelps, smashing two world records on her way to four gold medals. Phelps' training partners, Chase Kalisz and Allison Schmitt, claimed a gold and two silver medals between them.

On the last night of track and field competition, Matthew Centrowitz, a second-generation Olympian who grew up in Arnold, held stubbornly to his lead to seize an upset victory in the 1,500-meter final.

The next day, just a few hours before the closing ceremony, 20-year-old Woodbine resident Kyle Snyder made good on his promise as the future of American wrestling, beating Azerbaijan's Khetag Goziumov to take gold in the 97-kg freestyle class.

Baltimore products Angel McCoughtry and Carmelo Anthony also won basketball gold medals on a final weekend that shimmered for all athletes Maryland.

Orioles ride power surge to playoffs, lose with Britton on bench

Prognosticators again doubted the Orioles going into the season, noting their lack of reliable starting pitchers and offensive table-setters. And for the third time in five seasons, Buck Showalter's crew proved the doubters wrong, earning a wild-card berth with a homer-happy offense and the best bullpen in the American League.

Led by Most Valuable Player candidate Manny Machado and another Dan Duquette bargain in Mark Trumbo, they hit 28 more home runs than any other team in baseball. Meanwhile, closer Zach Britton led the relief corps with a historic season — 47 saves in 47 chances and a 0.54 ERA.

Which was why the Orioles seemed to hold the advantage when their wild-card showdown with the Toronto Blue Jays went to extra innings. But Showalter never used Britton, a decision second-guessed by fans and commentators around the country, and the Blue Jays won when Edwin Encarnacion homered off Ubaldo Jimenez in the bottom of the 11th inning.

To top it off, Britton finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting.

St. Frances football upends power structure in MIAA football

Gilman had been the 800-pound gorilla of local high school football for almost two decades under coach Biff Poggi. But the balance of power in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference shifted rapidly when Poggi departed his alma mater in January.

Much of Poggi's staff, led by Henry Russell, migrated to St. Frances, which suddenly attracted gifted players from across the state and leaped from 0-6 in the MIAA in 2015 to 6-0 in 2016. Gilman, meanwhile, fell from undefeated to 1-5 in conference.

Poggi took an assistant coaching job at Michigan, where his son, Henry, plays. But St. Frances officials expect him to return and take a more direct hand guiding the Panthers in the not-distant future. Poggi and his assistants think big, and their plans for St. Frances will be an ongoing source of fascination for Baltimore prep fans.

Maryland women's lacrosse upset, but Cummings named sport's best

Undefeated all season, the Terps fell in the NCAA championship game, denied in their bid for a third straight title. It was a bittersweet finish for Taylor Cummings, Maryland's stellar midfielder who, for the third consecutive year, won the Tewaaraton Award as the nation's top women's player.

Cummings (McDonogh) mustered one goal in the top-ranked Terps' stunning 13-7 loss to No. 3 North Carolina in the final. Maryland, the Big Ten champion, entered undefeated, having run the table (22-0), including a regular-season win over the Tar Heels. But Carolina scored six straight times in the first half and turned back the favored Terps, whose seniors ended their careers with a gaudy mark of 88-4.

Cummings, from Ellicott City, settled for an unprecedented third Tewaaraton Award. Her 229 career goals rank third at Maryland. In August, she was named to the 2017 U.S. women's national team. But it was obvious, from Cummings' wrenching comments after the Terps' loss, that she'd like to have traded up.

Tatyana McFadden wins four golds, leads successful Maryland Paralympic contingent

She sought a record seven golds in the Summer Paralympic Games. She won four. Those who know Tatyana McFadden, and that fiery demeanor, understood her disappointment. She's known as "The Beast" for a reason.

A world-class athlete who happens to be disabled, McFadden (Atholton) dominated the track-and-field events, adding two silvers for a total cache of six. She tied Jessica Long, a swimmer from Baltimore, for most medals won by a U.S. athlete in Rio de Janeiro. It raised McFadden's career Paralympic medal count to 17 and earned her the Team USA award as best female athlete. (Baltimore's Brad Snyder, a swimmer, was top male).

Born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, McFadden, of Clarksville, followed her success in the games with victories in both the Chicago and New York City marathons. In July, she copped the ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete with a Disability.

Maryland football begins new era under coach DJ Durkin

He arrived in College Park touted as a firebrand with a flawless pedigree. So what was Maryland's regular-season record in DJ Durkin's debut as football coach? The Terps went 6-6.

School officials said they wanted someone who could "excite the fan base." Does a .500 finish count?

The 36th head coach in Maryland history, Durkin led the Terps to four wins before the schedule stiffened. They lost six of their last eight, including successive blowouts against Michigan (59-3) and Ohio State (62-3). Still, they finished 3-6 in the Big Ten, two wins better than last year under Randy Edsall and interim coach Mike Locksley.

Durkin, who prepped under coaching swamis Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) and Urban Meyer (then at Florida), is reportedly a top recruiter. But, in November, Maryland lost Joshua Kaindoh, a five-star defensive end who decommitted — the third celebrated schoolboy to renege on Durkin's watch.

Ravens rebound from sorry season

Clearly, they are a better team than last year, when the Ravens went a dreary 5-11, the first losing record in coach John Harbaugh's eight-year tenure. By Thanksgiving, they had already won six games, in a season fraught with squeakers. The reason? Part luck: Injuries crippled the Ravens in 2015. But they also addressed a number of critical needs.

Ronnie Stanley, an offensive tackle and the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft, became an instant starter. Likewise, Eric Weddle, a three-time Pro Bowl safety who signed as a free agent. And veteran wide receiver Mike Wallace, another offseason pickup, emerged as one of Joe Flacco's primary deep threats.

Never ones to stand pat, the Ravens — for the second time in five years — fired their offensive coordinator in midseason, replacing Marc Trestman with Marty Mornhinweg.

Maryland men's basketball disappoints, loses in Sweet 16

They ticked off 15 wins in their first 16 games and seemed destined to live up to the preseason hype that had them going to the NCAA Final Four. Even later, in February, the Terps were 22-3 and ranked No. 2 in the country. But then coach Mark Turgeon's team stumbled, losing in the Big Ten semifinals and going 5-6 down the stretch. Though Maryland reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 13 years, it stalled there, losing to Kansas, 79-63 — a game in which the Terps made three baskets in the final 16 minutes.

Hindered by turnovers and outrebounded by shorter foes, Turgeon's team slunk home at No. 18 in the last Associated Press poll. Though guard Melo Trimble, the team's top scorer, tailed off toward the end, he was but one of a chorus of underachievers as Maryland finished 27-9.

"I just wish this team could've done a little bit more," said forward Robert Carter Jr., one of four Terps who entered the NBA draft.

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