Gold Lot Sports Presents the 2021 Pittsburgh Sports Awards

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It was quite a calendar year for Pittsburgh sports.  There have certainly been better, and this is one that most fans will want to put behind them for good.  We experienced more losses than we are accustomed to and Covid continues to ravage the events we love.

However, among the gloom were several outlying bright spots.  We had a football team win a conference championship, a hockey team rise up through injuries and illness, and a baseball team that….played 162 games.

So to start the new year off right, we’d like to highlight those bright spots with our First Annual Gold Lot Sports Awards.  We will highlight players, coaches, and moments from the five Pittsburgh sports teams we cover: the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, Pitt Football, and Pitt Basketball.  These awards will cover the calendar year of 2021, so some seasons will overlap.

Best Overall Pittsburgh Sports Team:  Pitt Football

This one was easy to give out.  With both the Penguins and the Steelers failing to make it passed their first postseason round, Pitt Basketball failing to make the tournament, and the Pirates losing over 100 games, only one Pittsburgh sports team we currently cover really succeeded to any extent.  However, just because they easily took the award does not mean they didn't earn it.

The Pitt Football program had their best season in decades.  In addition to double digit regular season wins, they won their first ACC championship in football since joining the conference back in 2011.  Additionally, they had a roster full of award winners with Biletnikoff winner, Jordan Addison, and a Heisman finalist in quarterback Kenny Pickett.  It was a truly historic season for Pitt football and the Kedon Slovis transfer to end the calendar year was just icing on the cake.

Coach of the Year: Mike Sullivan

Pat Narduzzi is a popular pick among Pittsburghers after a historic year guiding Pitt football to new heights.  After the Panthers went through a litany of interim and head coaches, following the departure of Dave Wannstedt, Narduzzi finally looks like a guy that might stick around. However, as impressive as this season was, but given the talent Narduzzi had to work with, we can’t help but make the case that Mike Sullivan is Pittsburgh’s coach of the year.  Plus, we wanted to spread the love around.

Sullivan guided the Penguins to the playoffs in the 2020-21 season with a roster that didn’t look capable of making it that far. This season, Sullivan has guided a team full of injuries and illness to nearly the top of the entire league. The Penguins started the season without most of their top liners, and yet they are just seven points back of 1st place, and riding an 8-game winning streak. 

It’s evident that the players buy into Sully’s message and rise to the occasion when necessary. His Penguin teams continue to overachieve despite personnel issues and roster changes on a nightly basis.  He’s an awesome coach and an even better leader which is why we have awarded him the 2021 Pittsburgh Coach of the Year.

Executive of the Year: Ben Cherington

This was another close race.  We really value what Penguins' GM Ron Hextall accomplished in the offseason that is already paying dividends this season.  However, the job that Pirates' GM, Ben Cherington, has done, given the circumstances, is definitely worth noting.  

His greatest accomplishment of the year came just 24 days into 2021, when Cherington traded Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees for Miguel Yajure, Roansy Contreras, Canaan Smith-Njigba, and Maikol Escotto.  This is just one example of how Cherington has turned the bare cabinet of a farm system he inherited into one of the best and most promising pipelines in all of Major League Baseball.  Even with such little resources provided by ownership, GMBC is making moves that will set up the Pirates for success sooner rather than later.  

However, the 2022 season will still be rough.  Hang in there Pirate fans.

Steelers Awards by Brian Torchia

MVP - T.J. Watt

While there were a few other guys that I considered, it's hard to argue the impact linebacker T.J. Watt has had on this team.  He finished the 2020-21 season with 15 sacks and two forced fumbles.  Watt also finished runner-up to Pitt's own Aaron Donald for Defensive Player of the Year.  

In two less games this season, he's already surpassed those numbers, totaling 17.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.  His presence on the Steelers defense not only lifts those around him, but makes life extremely difficult for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks.  As a result, the Steelers signed Watt to a four-year, $112 million contract extension in the offseason, making him the highest paid defensive player in the NFL.  It was scrutinized at first, but it's hard to argue with the level of performance he has provided to this team.  For those reasons, I'm making Watt my most valuable Steeler in 2021.

Also, after last night, he is well on his way to 2022's award as well.

Moment of the Year - Roethlisberger's Retirement

I'm going to cheat on this one a little bit considering it wasn't official for most of the season and his last few games will occur in 2022, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's final season in the black and gold has been far more significant than anything the team has done on the field this season.  We've known this was coming for a while now but for it to finally come to fruition has been surreal.   

For most fans my age, Big Ben has been our quarterback for just about as long as we can remember.  18 seasons at the helm for the Steelers is an incredible feat and that is why he's become so beloved in Pittsburgh.  It's crazy to think about how many teams across the league that have run through dozens of quarterbacks over the time that he's been here.  In fact, Ben will have the longest tenure for any quarterback in NFL history to play with one team.

We've feared what the quarterback play following his retirement will look like for quite some time and it's going to be a tough pill to swallow once that era officially begins.  Therefore, I want to take in his last few games and just recognize the incredible run the Steelers had with him here.  It was an incredible career that deserves to be remembered and it has been by far the biggest "moment" of the Steelers season.  

We wish we could discuss last night, but alas, it happened just over the new year line.

Biggest Surprise - Najee Harris

There were a few ways I could've gone here, including the T.J. Watt contract I mentioned earlier.  But, I think the biggest, and most pleasant, surprise of the Steelers season has been the emergence of running back Najee Harris.  In today's era of football, you don't often see teams using their first round draft picks on running backs, considering the proneness to injury and short career span of the position.  However, Harris has looked well worth the selection for a number of reasons.  

First, he is a physical presence on a team that has been known to lean on the run and may have to do so with the impending transition at quarterback.  He runs the ball hard and is very capable in the passing game.  He's excelled at both at a time when running backs are more involved in the passing game than they ever have.  

Secondly, Harris was thrown right into the fire this season, yet his performance and statistics wouldn't show that.  He's running behind a subpar offensive line and was given top running back responsibilities right from the start.  There was no acclimation period for Harris right out of college and he has been good despite the deck being stacked against him.  I'm excited for what the future holds for him and have been very impressed by his play in his rookie season.

Also, his performance last night gives him a good start to compete with Watt for MVP of 2022.

Penguins Awards by Cody Flavell

MVP - Jake Guentzel

Jake Guentzel has proven that with or without Sidney Crosby, he can be a true goal scoring threat. Guentzel’s ability to shoot and score on a consistent basis along with his fairly tolerable defensive acumen makes him a complete player. 

With players like Crosby and Malkin missing considerable time in the past year, guys like Guentzel got a chance to step up and showcase their standalone abilities without generational talents passing them the puck consistently. Tristan Jarry had a solid 2021 outside of his playoff run which soiled any chance he would’ve had of taking home this award. My vote goes to Guentzel.

Moment of the Year - Jim Rutherford Resigns

This feels long enough ago because it happened in January of 2021. A move that seemingly came out of nowhere saw Jim Rutherford step down as the General Manager of the Penguins. It has had such a profound impact on the franchise already, making it the biggest moment. 

His abrupt step down was met with Ron Hextall coming aboard as the Penguins’ new GM. Hextall had an incredible offseason, with moves that are proving very successful so far in the 2021-2022 season.  If not for GMJR stepping down, the team may have continued in a direction that was becoming unsuccessful.  This team needed a major change, and this one certainly had the biggest impact.

Biggest Surprise - Evan Rodrigues

Evan Rodrigues has made a late push for this award, as his surprise season just started in October of 2021.  However, he’s proven that he just may be a budding star with a late bloom at age 28. 

Rodrigues has been a goalie killer for the Penguins so far, scoring at a career-high rate as he's on pace for over 60 points. Coming into the year, “E Rod” looked like another run of the mill depth piece that always churns out a solid year for the Penguins. Instead, he’s become a vital cog to their top-6 forwards amid all the injuries and COVID issues. 2022 might be a huge year for Rodrigues if he continues to score and play at this overall level.

Pirates Awards by Antonio Wolfe

MVP - Bryan Reynolds

Bryan Reynolds received votes for the National League MVP, so it wasn't a tight race to select him as the team MVP.  This one certainly does not take much explanation as Reynolds batted .302 with 24 homeruns, 90 RBI, 30 doubles, and 5 triples in the 2021 campaign.  He started in the 2021 All-Star game and received 8% of the MVP voting.  He has Pirate fans everywhere demanding a contract extension for the 26 year-old superstar center fielder, including the fan typing this.

Moment of the Year - Stallings Walk-off Grand Slam

The Pirates were down 6-0 in the eighth inning against the New York Mets at home.  The Buccos battled back in the bottom of the 8th, scoring five runs to pull within one run.  Brandon Nimmo of the Mets homered in the top of the 9th to make it a 7-5 score.

However, Ke'Bryan Hayes was hit by a pitch, followed by a Bryan Reynolds walk to start off the bottom of the 9th.  Ben Gamel would strike out before John Nogowski (remember him for a hot second) singled to load the bases.  Gregory Polanco struck out (obviously) bringing up Jacob Stallings with two outs.  On the first pitch, Stallings hit a walk-off grand slam to fully erase the Pirates deficit and win it for the home crowd.  

This moment stood out to me because I think it somewhat illustrates the Pirates this past season.  They were a team of few wins, mostly because of their terrible pitching.  That was clear again in this game as the Pirates took a 6-0 deficit into the 8th.  But the few wins this Pirates team did achieve were on the scrappiness of their hitters, battling back, and never giving up.  That is why I love this moment for the 2021 season.

Biggest Surprise - #RoansyDay

Roansy Contreras made his Major League debut with the Pirates on September 29th of this year.  At just 21 years old, he became the youngest starting pitcher for the Pirates in 17 years.  As Pirate fans we simply were not used to this.  We do not get celebrated around the league with hashtags and excitement for our young stud debuting.  Our prospects typically take much longer than most to debut, with the franchise being overly patient with their minor leaguers.  

However, as surprised as we were that the Pirates made the move, I believe it was a clear tone setter.  This new front office will not be overly patient with prospects and this is a new era of  Pirates baseball under GM Ben Cherington.  This could have just as easily been a candidate for Biggest Moment with the message I believe it sent.

Pitt Football Awards by Antonio Wolfe

MVP - Kenny Pickett

The easiest pick of the year.  Heisman candidate, ACC Champion, came back for one last season to save the day.  A true Pitt Football hero and potentially the best quarterback to ever play at the University of Pittsburgh.  Pickett threw for 4319 yards, 42 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions.  He led the Panthers to the best season of my lifetime.  I'll never forget Kenny Pickett and this Pitt football season.

Moment of the Year - Beating Clemson

I know most would probably say the ACC Championship.  And yeah, that was a pretty incredible moment as well.  Not only did the Panthers win, but I got like a dozen Bojangles chicken strips in Bank of America stadium for around $7.  It was awesome.

However, beating Clemson was the true turning point of the season for me.  Same old Pitt loses that game.  Same old Pitt then loses two of the next three, making the season as a whole worthless.  This was the clear moment for me that this was not Same Old Pitt.  Beating the juggernaut, even in a "down year" (apparently) showed that the best ACC football team in 2021 was, and would be by season's end, the Pitt Panthers.  

It was also an incredible atmosphere and the fans really showed up for this one, making the moment even larger.

Biggest Surprise - Offensive Line

The offensive line had one of the largest question marks branded on them leading into the 2021 season.  They were experienced, but their experience so far was lousy.  They had not played well in 2020 as a unit and two of the better linemen had graduated.

However, the O-line did an outstanding job of keeping Kenny Pickett mostly clean all season and opened up a ton of holes for the Panther running backs.  There were several games this season where I heard the broadcasters say something I did not expect in the preseason, "Kenny Pickett has a ton of time back there."  And he did.  Because this O-line came together despite many preseason worries.

Pitt Basketball Awards by Brian Torchia

MVP - John Hugley

There haven't been too many bright spots on Pitt's basketball team this past year but the player I've been most impressed with is center John Hugley.  Although he missed part of last season, he has been the most consistent scoring option on a team that can be severely lacking in that department.  

This season, he is averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds per game, a big leap from last season.  It shows the development in his game, especially as a scoring presence in the paint.  Due to his progression down low, he has also become one of the most fouled guys in the country, currently residing in the Top 10 in free throws attempted this season.  

For a Pitt team that is looking to get most of their points inside the three-point arc, Hugley has been a refreshing sight for Pitt fans.  His ability to score down low has kept a Pitt team, that struggles to win, in more games than they probably should be.  That is why I firmly believe he is Pitt's most valuable player.

Moment of the Year - Upset over Duke

The calendar year hasn't held too many impressive moments for Pitt basketball.  However, there was one almost a full year ago that I consider the biggest moment for this team in 2021.  

On January 19th, Pitt upset Duke 79-73 at the Petersen Events Center, a game in which then-forward Justin Champagnie showed out in front of the home fans against the premier team in the conference.  Champagnie finished the game with 31 points and 14 rebounds while going up against the top player in the ACC, Duke forward Matthew Hurt.  

It was a tight game throughout, but the Panthers were able to hold off the Blue Devils at the end.  I remember being in attendance at the Pete when Zion Williamson led this Duke team to a resounding win.  While this Duke team was not of the same caliber as that one, it was still a far superior team to Pitt.  Yet, in front of a national audience on ESPN, coach Jeff Capel was able to get the best of his former coach and alma mater behind the strong performance of Champagnie.  While bright spots were few and far between this year, it was encouraging to know that a rebuilding Pitt team was still capable of competing with the big dogs in the ACC, giving us hope for this to continue under Capel for years to come.  

Biggest Surprise - Team Development

After a dismal 2020-2021 season, my expectations of this team could not have been lower.  Pitt came into the 2021-2022 season with a slew of injuries and loss of players to the transfer portal and NBA.  Thus, I was shocked when the pre-season rankings had Pitt projected as the second-worst team in the ACC, as I was fully expecting them to be dead last.  

The beginning of this season had me re-living last season and hope was low.  However, this team has started to turn things around as of late.  They're a far cry from the team they were last season and the beginning of this season, in a positive way.  They've started to find their identity as a team on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.  As a result, they've been much more competitive in games they would have never been competitive in had they played like their old selves.  Their games of late have come down to the final possessions, showing they're able to hang around with teams. 

ACC play is just beginning so it is still yet to be determined if they can hang with the teams in their conference, but I have the most optimism I've ever had with this team that they may able to do so.  Coach Jeff Capel has taken a lot of criticism over the past few years but he may have found something in this team that has them turning around and moving on from the rebuilding phase.  I've been pleasantly surprised with how they have progressed over the last year and it has my hopes up that Pitt basketball may be enjoyable to watch once again.