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10 biggest Baltimore sports stories of 2018

The top 10 most important stories of the year include the death of University of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair; the Orioles' historic 115-loss season; the miraculous UMBC upset of No. 1 Virginia; and the Ravens' talk of sweeping change.

Some years, it feels like a stretch to find 10 widely memorable stories from the cozy Baltimore sports scene. This was not such a year.

UMBC men’s basketball gave us a dash of the miraculous, and the mighty colt Justify added a dose of the majestic. We celebrated one of the greatest athletes in the city’s history, Ray Lewis, and threw a little love to the hockey team from our neighbor to the south.

But at its core, 2018 was defined not by games but by the complex and sometimes tragic stories that accompany them. From Jordan McNair’s death at the University of Maryland to the stew of racial and class tensions around St. Frances football, Baltimore sports gave us many sobering issues to ponder.

So here they are, the 10 most important sports stories of the year:

Jordan McNair
Late Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair, pictured during a game while at McDonogh in 2016, died June 13, about two weeks after suffering heatstroke during a conditioning test. Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun

Jordan McNair dies, leading to the eventual firing of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin

It began as an intimate tragedy, felt by Jordan McNair’s family, his Maryland teammates and the peers and teachers who loved him at McDonogh School.

The 19-year-old redshirt freshman offensive lineman from Randallstown collapsed after showing signs of heat-related exhaustion during a May 29 workout. He was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center and died 15 days later.

Few guessed at the time that McNair’s death would lead to reports of a “toxic” culture around the football program run by Durkin, who’d been hired in December 2015 to bring renewed intensity and recruiting edge to College Park.

As allegations of humiliating and dangerous practices swirled, Durkin was placed on leave in August and ultimately fired at the end of October.

Such was the coach’s charisma that the university system’s Board of Regents recommended he keep his job after an independent investigation of the program. But that decision could not stand up to public outrage or widespread condemnation from elected leaders, who saw the university as an example of football culture run amok.

Buck Showalter, Dan Duquette
Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette, pictured during spring training in 2018, did not have their contracts extended after the worst season in club history. Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun

The Orioles lose 115 games, leading to the removal of Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette

The Orioles won on Opening Day, a remarkably misleading result that had the exultant home fans dreaming of a fourth expert-defying run to the postseason under manager Buck Showalter.

Instead, the Orioles lost games with numbing regularity — 19 in April, 19 in May, 20 in June — on the way to a franchise-worst 47-115 mark for the season. They traded away many of the young stars who’d carried them in recent years, from shortstop Manny Machado to closer Zach Britton to onetime ace-of-the-future Kevin Gausman.

At times, Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette seemed likely to keep their positions. They were the chief architects of a Baltimore baseball renaissance during which the Orioles won 78 more games than they lost from 2012 to 2016.

But the losing became so pervasive that neither man survived the wreckage.

UMBC
UMBC players celebrate a teammate's basket against Virginia during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA tournament in Charlotte, N.C., March 16, 2018. UMBC became the first 16 seed to upset a No. 1 in tourney history. Gerry Broome / AP

UMBC charms the country with an NCAA men’s basketball upset of Virginia

They were supposed to relish the invitation and exit the stage gracefully. That’s what every other No. 16 seed in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament had done.

Virginia, with its smothering defense and impeccable credentials, did not seem a likely candidate to take an unprecedented fall.

But as a nation of basketball fans watched, transfixed, on a late Friday night, the UMBC Retrievers would not relinquish their lead over the mighty Cavaliers. Led by all-conference guard Jairus Lyles, they not only pulled the upset; they won by 20 in a game that will be remembered fondly as long as March Madness persists in our culture.

Over the wild 36 hours that followed, a nation learned what the letters UMBC stood for and heard about the school’s rise to academic prominence — and college chess excellence — under president Freeman Hrabowski.

In the next round, UMBC hung tough but lost by seven to Kansas State, a defeat that took none of the luster off the school’s improbable story.

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Baltimore prep teams refuse to play St. Frances in football, prompting a race-class debate

In 2017, St. Frances made headlines by establishing a new world order in Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association football under coach Biff Poggi. The upstart Panthers outscored opponents 342-50 and finished No. 4 in USA Today’s national rankings.

Then an odd thing happened in May, as one by one, MIAA opponents said they would no longer play St. Frances. Several of these predominantly white schools cited safety concerns because of the Panthers’ advantages in size, speed and skill. But St. Frances principal Curtis Turner saw racism at play, and others noted that MIAA opponents did not seem to have a problem when Poggi dominated the conference as the coach at Gilman.

The story became a national sensation for several weeks.

St. Frances ultimately decided to play an independent schedule. On the field, the Panthers continued to dominate, rolling to an undefeated record and developing players coveted by the best college programs in the country.

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The Ravens miss the playoffs again, prompting talk of sweeping changes

At his annual “State of the Ravens” news conference, owner Steve Bisciotti said he contemplated firing coach John Harbaugh after the loss and announced that Eric DeCosta would succeed general manager Ozzie Newsome after the 2018 season.

As if all that uncertainty wasn’t enough, Newsome traded back into the first round of the NFL draft to select quarterback Lamar Jackson, the scintillating 2016 Heisman Trophy winner out of Louisville. For the first time in his 11 years in Baltimore, Joe Flacco was no longer the de facto quarterback of the future.

The Ravens began their 2018 season 4-2 with Flacco as the starter, but when he went down with a midseason hip injury, Jackson stepped in to dazzle fans and opposing defenses with his rare speed.

LXG 2018 IAAM CHAMPIONSHIP MCDONOGH NOTRE DAME PREP
As the Notre Dame Prep girls lacrosse team celebrated, McDonogh reeled after its first loss in years. The Blazers beat the Eagles, 10-8, in the IAAM championship, snapping McDonogh's 198-game winning streak. Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun

Notre Dame Prep ends McDonogh girls lacrosse winning streak at 198 games

Just 11 days earlier, Notre Dame Prep had nearly pulled it off, carrying a one-goal lead into the final five minutes before succumbing in overtime.

That’s how things always seemed to go against McDonogh girls lacrosse, one of the great prep-sports empires of recent times.

But on May 11, the dynasty finally crumbled. Given another shot at the queens, Notre Dame Prep won, 10-8, in a scene senior attacker Hannah Mardiney described as “almost like a dream.”

The Eagles’ 198-game winning streak began in 2009, three months after Barack Obama began his first term as president. Adam Jones had just begun his second season with the Orioles, and Joe Flacco had recently completed his first as Ravens quarterback.

The first hint of vulnerability came when coach Chris Robinson, the architect of the program, stepped down before the season to pursue other business opportunities. McDonogh nonetheless won its first 20 games of the season.

When it was all over, Eagles coach Nancy Love brushed past the short-term disappointment, saying: “Let’s have a huge party and celebrate what this was.”

99958192

Ray Lewis enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Clad in purple pants and a matching purple-and-gold tie, Ray Lewis relished his position as the closing speaker for the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction class.

There was never much question that Lewis’ achievements in 17 years as a Raven would send him to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, at the first opportunity. Some observers consider him the greatest every-down defensive force in the history of the NFL.

But Lewis seemed deeply moved by the induction experience, from the thousands of Baltimoreans who traveled for the ceremony to the fellowship he shared with older Hall of Fame members.

Many current Ravens, including general manager Ozzie Newsome, coach John Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco and linebacker Terrell Suggs, showed up to celebrate their former colleague.

As Lewis reflected on his darker moments, including the murder charges he faced in 2000, he said: “God sends you a family that makes sure you’re OK when you’re going through what you’re going through.”

Alex Ovechkin
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin hoists the Stanley Cup after the Capitals defeated the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 7, 2018, in Las Vegas. John Locher / AP

Baltimore embraces the Capitals as they finally win the Stanley Cup

As the Orioles sped toward irrelevance in May, Baltimore looked south for a new team to take into its heart.

The Washington Capitals had tortured their fans for years, crashing out of the playoffs after sensational regular seasons. Many had started to wonder if their star, Alex Ovechkin, would go down as one of the greatest players to never win a Stanley Cup.

Perhaps that battered history made it easier for Baltimoreans to embrace a Washington team. Or perhaps it was simply time for the city’s underground society of hockey fans to take over taverns such as the Hudson Street Stackhouse.

Others made the trip to Washington for games, prompting the MARC Penn line to add extra service. Showalter donned a Caps jersey for one pregame news conference.

Ovechkin and Co. did their part to reward this fervor, seizing the franchise’s first championship with a 4-1 series victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

The clincher drew a record television rating for an NHL game in Baltimore.

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The Orioles begin a new era with Mike Elias at the top of baseball operations

Orioles fans looked with apprehension toward their post-Showalter, post-Duquette future. They weren’t even certain who would pick the team’s next brain trust.

Would it be John and Louis Angelos, the sons of managing partner Peter Angelos? Would vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson have a say?

So fans reacted with a mixture of joy and relief when the club announced that former Houston Astros executive Mike Elias would be the next man in charge and would be given total autonomy to rebuild the Orioles.

Elias — who turned 36 in December — helped the Astros rise from 111-loss disaster to world champions in a four-year rush. He quickly announced that he’d bring analytics guru Sig Mejdal with him to Baltimore. On Dec. 14, he named Chicago Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde, acclaimed for his player-development background, the team’s new manager.

“In its history and its DNA, this organization was once considered the smartest, most forward-thinking, most progressive team in baseball,” Elias said, singing the exact tune fans wished to hear. “The fact that that was the case here before means it's possible for that to be the case here again. We are here to restore that reputation.”

Justify
Justify crosses the finish line first with Bravazo in second and Good Magic in third at the 143rd Preakness at Pimlico Race Course. Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun

Justify wins the Preakness on his way to the Triple Crown as Pimlico faces an uncertain future

He did not make his maiden start until Feb. 18, less than three months before he’d line up as the Kentucky Derby favorite. He ran his last race June 9 in the Belmont Stakes.

But in four months as an active runner, the powerful colt Justify did more than enough to guarantee his place in thoroughbred racing history, winning all six of his races and the Triple Crown.

He came to Baltimore for the Preakness facing questions about his health because he walked uncomfortably the morning after the Derby. And he did look tired for the first time in his career on a foggy, muddy day at Pimlico Race Course, hanging on to win by a half-length over hard-charging Bravazo.

Three weeks later, he gave trainer Bob Baffert his second Triple Crown in three years with a tough but decisive win at Belmont Park.

For yet another year, the Preakness went off against a backdrop of uncertainty for dilapidated Pimlico. The track’s owner, the Stronach Group, made it clear Laurel Park could serve as a future home for the Preakness, even as the Maryland Stadium Authority studied Pimlico’s long-term viability. Then came another twist in the form of a legal battle between Stronach Group founder Frank Stronach and his daughter, the company’s CEO, Belinda. The MSA released its study in December, calling for the venerable track to be demolished and rebuilt at a cost of $424 million.

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