Looking back on 2021 and ahead to 2022 in local pro sports
Here's a recap of what happened in 2021 and what might lie ahead for the local professional teams:
Let's face it, there were plenty of dismal years for this franchise. But finally in 2021, the right combination of head coach, solid veterans and one young star formed to win the team's first WNBA championship.
Player of the year: She wasn't the most well-known player, but 6-1 guard Kahleah Copper was the Sky's leading scorer in the regular season and playoffs. Copper joined the Sky in 2017 as part of the Elena Della Donne trade with Washington.
Game of the year: Hard to top winning a championship as the Sky did Oct. 17 at Wintrust Arena with an 80-74 victory over Phoenix, clinching the WNBA Finals 3-1. Allie Quigley led with 26 points.
The future looks: Decent. Star players used to do everything they could to get away from the Sky. This year the team managed to bring in Naperville native Candace Parker for a winning homecoming, so that in itself was a big improvement.
What's next: Well, the Sky finished the regular season 16-16, so this is hardly a juggernaut. Quigley and Parker are 35, while Courtney Vandersloot is 32. So the Sky may not be favored to repeat, but they seem to have found a quality coach in James Wade, so maybe there's more success in store.
The Sox made serious history by making the playoffs in consecutive seasons, considering it hadn't happened the first 120 years of the franchise's existence. Is three in a row too much to ask?
Player of the year: Liam Hendriks. Signed to a three-year, $54 million contract last winter, Hendriks instantly showed he's well worth the money. The 32-year-old closer helped the White Sox pull away in the AL Central and make it to the playoffs while leading the league with 38 saves, and going 8-3 with a 2.54 ERA.
Game of the year: The Field of Dreams game was pushed back a year due to COVID-19. The Sox and Yankees made it worth the wait. Played in a cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa, shortstop Tim Anderson gave the game a Hollywood ending with a walk-off 2-run homer sending the Sox to a 9-8 win over New York.
The future looks: Competitive. While their window is clearly open, making the playoffs every season is the Sox's goal. They've advanced to the postseason the past two years, but the Sox were eliminated in the first round both times.
What's next: The Sox signed Kendall Graveman, a quality reliever, and brought back versatile veteran Leury Garcia before baseball shut down. When the game is back up, the Sox are hoping to have enough money to add a player like Nick Castellanos, who would fill a big hole in right field. The Sox also need help at second base and could use another starting pitcher and reliever or two.
The Bears stumbled, bumbled and flat-out face-planted their way through the 2021 season. It will be interesting to see just how much house cleaning is done after the season finale against the Vikings.
Player of the year: Defensive end Robert Quinn has 17 sacks and an excellent chance to break Richard Dent's single-season team record of 17.5.
Game of the year: From a sheer entertainment standpoint, it has to be Green Bay's 45-30 victory on national television on Dec. 12. A 54-yard TD pass from Justin Fields to Damiere Byrd and Jakeem Grant's 97-yard punt return helped the Bears build a 27-21 halftime lead. Then the bottom fell out in the second half as Green Bay scored 24 straight points en route to yet another victory over Matt Nagy's sinking squad.
The future looks: Extremely bleak. The Bears don't have a first-round draft pick next year. Akiem Hicks and Allen Robinson are likely gone. The offensive line remains a huge question mark. A new coaching staff is coming in. And on and on.
What's next: A new coach. New assistants. Maybe a new GM? And how about Ted Phillips and George McCaskey keeping their noses out of football operations? (Hey, the fans can dream). From a football standpoint, the Bears need to shore up the O-line, replace Robinson with another No. 1 receiver and fill in some gaping holes on defense. It's a lot to ask. Good luck to whomever is tasked with it all.
No one was sorry to see the rebuilding era end. At the same time, no one seemed to expect things to turn around so quickly. The Bulls are legitimately fun to watch again.
Player of the year: DeMar DeRozan. The Bulls sorely needed a veteran mentor with winning experience to play next to Zach LaVine. Now both players are virtual locks to make the all-star team. DeRozan leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring and if the Bulls stay near the top of the East standings, he could be an MVP candidate.
Game of the year: The defining game of the 2021-22 season probably hasn't happened yet, but the Dec. 19 win over the Lakers, when DeRozan outdueled LeBron James in the fourth quarter, provided the best atmosphere the United Center has seen in a while.
The future looks: Much better than the recent past. Maybe the Bulls still need another move to become a title contender, but the current level of progress is impressive.
What's next: Trying to stay healthy and win the East. The Bulls have passed most every test so far and are 2-0 against Brooklyn. One hurdle still ahead is four games against defending champion Milwaukee. The first meeting isn't until Jan. 21.
The Blackhawks made most of their news off the ice as they've dealt with a sexual abuse scandal that rocked the organization, as well as the firing of their coach and general manager. Things have stabilized of late, but nobody expects the Hawks to contend for a Stanley Cup in the near future.
Player of the year: Alex DeBrincat. Not only does the Hawks' sharpshooting winger have 49 goals and 30 assists over his last 82 contests, but he's also improved his overall game after a disappointing 2019-20 campaign.
Game of the year: Patrick Kane scored 3 goals and passed Steve Larmer for third place on the Hawks' all-time goals list during a 5-1 win over Ottawa on November 1. Kane accomplished the feat after spending 10 days in COVID protocol. "For him to miss 10 days and just step right in, that's a pretty special player," said coach Jeremy Colliton.
The future looks: Bleak. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews aren't playing up to their $10.5 million cap hits, and there's speculation one or both could be moved in the near future. (Assuming they're willing to waive their no-trade clause). Other than DeBrincat and Seth Jones there are no stars signed to long-term deals. And the situation in net will be another big issue once Marc-Andre Fleury's time is up. Returning the Hawks to relevancy won't be easy for Kyle Davidson or whomever replaces him as GM in the coming weeks or months.
What's next: King's on-the-fly interview will last the remainder of the season. The Hawks are a solid 10-6-2 in King's first 18 games, but is he the long-term answer? We'll find out soon enough.
This is very much a franchise at a crossroads. The World Series nucleus is gone and the timeline for a rebuild is unclear.
Player of the year: Patrick Wisdom. Few players stuck around for the full season. Wisdom didn't make his Cubs debut until May 25 and still managed to break Kris Bryant's rookie home run record. Can Wisdom do it again, this time with fewer strikeouts? That's one of many questions for 2022.
Game of the year: The last hurrah for the World Series favorites, a 6-5 walk-off win over the Reds. Javy Baez blasted the game-winner, then waved his bat like a broom while jawing at pitcher Amir Garrett. It was a memorable night at Wrigley, then four days later everyone was traded. Runner-up, the combined no-hitter in Los Angeles.
The future looks: Hazy. The Cubs have money to spend and some promising prospects in the minors, but who knows whether anyone will sign on or how long it will take for the young players to contribute?
What's next: Signing Carlos Correa maybe? As long as the major leagues remain in the lockout, there's always hope the Cubs will make a splash in free agency. If Correa doesn't work out, would they try to bring back Bryant? Will there be a contract extension for Willson Contreras? So many questions lack answers.
This team made a title run, but lost the National Women's Soccer League championship game to the Washington Spirit 2-1 in extra time on Nov. 21 in Louisville. The Red Stars finished the regular season 11-8-5, then beat Gotham FC and regular-season champ Portland Thorns in the playoffs.
Rory Dames resigned as coach of the Red Stars the day after the title game. A report in The Washington Post quoted some players saying Dames was emotionally abusive. The team said it launched an independent review of player health and safety and the team's culture after report.
The Fire changed its logo, but the rebranding didn't help much on the field. The Fire finished 12th in the 14-team Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer with a 9-18-7 record. Striker Robert Beric led the team with 8 goals and 4 assists. Earlier this month he was picked by Kansas City in Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft.