Whether you’re genuinely a fan of the NFL, NHL, NCAA men’s and women’s basketball or simply those local athletes who compete for high school squads locally, the advent of a new year brings ample enthusiasm for spectators and athletes alike.
Although I might only take a peek at the College Football Playoff championship game between Clemson and Louisiana State, I will certainly pay close attention to the NFL Playoffs. Granted, my favorite team, the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, will not have their 10th straight bye into the divisional round, so I will be forced to watch them host the Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round.
When the Patriots won their AFC East title in 1978, I was ecstatic as division titles were few and far between over the next two decades and Super Bowl appearances could easily be counted on one hand courtesy of their 46-10 setback to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX and their 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Boy XXXI. Each one followed their only two appearances in the AFC Championship game to that point.
While they may have won the AFC East for an 11th straight year in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, the Patriots home loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday does not bode well for their playoff chances. Each of their previous Super Bowl appearances during the Brady-Belichick era, including three straight and four of the last five, have come following a first-round bye.
Of course, those of us who follow the 14 SMAC schools will watch those athletes seek titles of their own. Granted, SMAC titles are nothing to brush aside quickly, but it’s the region and state crowns that teams and individuals crave and several SMAC squads and various individuals are seeking to defend state titles they earned one year before.
Several loom very prominent once again. The Northern girls indoor track and field team, led by junior Oakley Olson, is seeking to duplicate its success from one year ago. Northern’s girls also garnered the 3A girls state cross country title where Olson and Great Mills sophomore Cooper Brotherton finished one-two while navigating the hills of Hereford High School.
At the various swim meets that will eventually conclude at the University of Maryland in College Park, La Plata senior Megan Schueller has clearly earned the status as the best 50-yard freestyler in Class 3A-2A-1A and she will seek her third straight title in that event this winter. Calvert senior Ben Voelker could make a push for the 100 backstroke title, while Huntingtown’s Maddie Frick is usually the best female SMAC swimmer not present at the state meet since she typically opts for a club meet that same weekend.
Numerous SMAC basketball teams could make a run for region and state titles this winter and it’s clearly too early to count out any team. Through the first month of the slate, the St. Charles and Westlake boys basketball teams have left the most lasting impression. But its obviously far too early in the season to simply crown either as a respective 3A or 2A state champion at this point, although both have given hints of a potential long postseason run.
While standardbred and thoroughbred racing enthusiasts such as myself are actually decreasing by the day, some of the more memorable days and nights in racing have occurred during the winter. Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington will kick off its 2020 season on Jan. 19, with a meet spanning 37 dates, mainly on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. One of the best drivers on the Rosecroft circuit each year is Jonathan Roberts, who is rapidly approaching 4,000 wins in his career.
Son of trainer William “Bib” Roberts of Yankee Co-Ed fame, Jonathan Roberts graduated somewhat anonymously from St. Mary’s Ryken High School and perhaps merits a spot in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame since he has carved out a good career professionally piloting trotters and pacers.
Each winter also brings the Grade III, $250,000 General George Stakes, the $250,000 Barbara Fritchie Stakes and the annual Maryland Racing Media Association Stakes at Laurel Park, typically on the same weekend and occasionally on the same day. All three races are among my favorite, especially the MRMA Stakes which began the year I joined the organization and has lasted through the six years in which I was president of the group [2012-2018].
But that weekend also gets the remaining gathering of scribes talking about prospects for the Maryland-bred Hall of Fame, which already consists of 20 horses and adds two more each year. Of my original 10 choices, only Devil’s Bag, the champion 2-year-old of 1983 whose career ended prematurely during a modest 3-year-old campaign the next season, remains on the outside looking in.
My early impressions of Devil’s Bag as a 2-year-old were so overwhelming that after seeing him capture the Laurel Futurity by open lengths I actually wrote a term paper for sophomore English at Prince George’s Community College arguing that he should be horse of the year in 1983. At the time, only one 2-year-old, Secretariat in 1973, had ever garnered such a distinction.
But Devil’s Bag yielded horse of the year honors that season to All Along, a talented mare who won numerous Group I stakes on the grass in Europe and later captured the Grade I Washington D.C. International at Laurel. Having seen both prevail in person at Laurel that fall, my vote, theoretically, since I was not a member of the National Turf Writers Association of yet, would have been for Devil’s Bag.
With the Maryland-bred thoroughbred Hall of Fame heading into its second decade and approaching two dozen honorees, standardbred owners and breeders should be on board soon for a Maryland-bred harness racing Hall of Fame. The inaugural list would include racing legends that few actually associate as Maryland-breds, namely Fresh Yankee, No Pan Intended, Muscles Yankee, Muscle Hill, Rainbow Blue, Bettor’s Delight and SJ’s Photo.
Regardless of whether your favorite athlete or team is primed to make a serious bid at a state or national championship this winter, keep in mind the climb to the top of the mountain in any sport is steep and perilous in numerous ways and those who reach the summit deserve respect and appreciation for their performances even if they don’t gain your immediate adoration.