63°F
weather icon Clear

In search of a more ‘normal’ 2021 in local sports

Stop focusing on what happened and start focusing on what’s next …

Now, more than ever, we should embrace such words.

The sports world wasn’t immune to all that was 2020 and its COVID-19 reality. Little did we know how disjointed things would become after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive.

Sports leagues shut down. Other were put on pause. Major events like the NCAA Tournament were canceled, and some, like the NFL draft, were held virtually. Seasons were abbreviated.

We learned about hubs and bubbles and return-to-play protocols.

But enough chaos. Let’s hope for a better, healthier, more standard tomorrow.

To that end, we look toward 2021 with the hope that the arrival of a vaccine will lead to life returning to some semblance of normalcy.

Here are how we believe things might go when such a time occurs.

Raiders

Normalcy finally will mean Allegiant Stadium welcoming 65,000-plus fans to home games.

Oh, yeah. And owner Mark Davis as well.

Davis kept his word that he wouldn’t attend a home game until the team’s fans could also experience the wonderment of a $2 billion structure.

Finally, there will be more than just team officials enjoying that 85-foot Al Davis memorial torch that spans multiple levels and stands in front of those stunning lanai doors.

Raiders long snapper Trent Sieg (47), Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson (2) and Raiders punter A.J. ...
Raiders long snapper Trent Sieg (47), Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson (2) and Raiders punter A.J. Cole (6) pray before taking the field at Allegiant Stadium before the start of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

As for the product on the field, the fourth season of the Jon Gruden-coached Raiders could be sparked by a true home-field advantage while clinching a playoff spot (one doesn’t appear on the horizon this season), which would be just the second such berth since 2002.

Maybe next time, a 6-3 start will prove good enough.

Golden Knights

A team built to win the Stanley Cup.

We also heard that last season, and then players suddenly couldn’t score against air.

But the Knights will again be among the favorites to finish on top of what will be a 56-game season that is scheduled to begin Jan. 13.

They also went big-game hunting again to improve the product, signing star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year, $61.6 million contract.

This part won’t change: The Knights will offer one of the NHL’s top home-ice atmospheres when fans are allowed back into T-Mobile Arena.

Golden Knights fans cheer from the Hyde Lounge space at T-Mobile Arena at the start of an NHL h ...
Golden Knights fans cheer from the Hyde Lounge space at T-Mobile Arena at the start of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings in Las Vegas on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

A divisional realignment will place the Knights in a group that will also include Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Los Angeles, San Jose and St. Louis.

Owner Bill Foley originally said his team would win the Cup in its sixth season. This is its fourth. Place your bets on the Knights.

UNLV men’s basketball

March Madness. May Madness. Whatever. It doesn’t yet appear the Rebels are at the point of again living for the NCAA Tournament, which they last made in 2013.

T.J. Otzelberger is building the Rebels in an image he prefers — they’re not very big and shoot a lot of 3s — but it might take this latest recruiting class to arrive for UNLV to again be serious Mountain West contenders.

UNLV Rebels head coach T.J.Otzelberger directs his players on the court versus the New Mexico L ...
UNLV Rebels head coach T.J.Otzelberger directs his players on the court versus the New Mexico Lobos during the second half of an NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

You figure once the the likes of Bishop Gorman point guard Zaon Collins and Arizona high school forward Arthur Kaluma are officially in the fold, things will be even better for UNLV.

Until then, the Rebels will hope players like Bryce Hamilton, David Jenkins Jr. and Caleb Grill can make enough shots to allow the Rebels a high enough seed in the conference tournament to make a run.

UNLV women’s basketball

Lindy La Rocque came home to try to revive the Lady Rebels. It won’t happen overnight.

The former Durango High star — who helped lead Stanford to four straight Final Fours as a player and a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight as an assistant coach —was named UNLV coach in March after agreeing to a five-year contract.

It will take some doing to get things right.

UNLV Lady Rebels head coach Lindy La Rocque instructs her players during a time out versus the ...
UNLV Lady Rebels head coach Lindy La Rocque instructs her players during a time out versus the Stanford Cardinals during the fourth quarter of their NCAA WomenÕs Basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

UNLV hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2002 and has just one (2018) regular-season conference title on its resume. It last won a conference tournament in 1994.

We don’t see that changing much this season. Homecomings aren’t always easy.

UNLV football

The 2021 schedule for nonconference games against FBS teams lists a game at Allegiant Stadium on Sept. 18 against Iowa State. The school is working on other games following 2020 cancellations.

The Rebels also will face FCS opponent Eastern Washington out of the Big Sky Conference when kicking off the season at home on Sept. 2.

Need to finally get Marcus Arroyo a win as coach, no?

UNLV went 0-6 in Arroyo’s first season with the Rebels, a COVID-19 existence in which his team didn’t handle all such challenges nearly as well as others in the Mountain West (see New Mexico as one example).

UNLV Rebels players run onto the field before taking on the Wyoming Cowboys in a football game ...
UNLV Rebels players run onto the field before taking on the Wyoming Cowboys in a football game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

But the Rebels will have two highly ranked recruiting classes under Arroyo, causing many to believe he is adding the talent needed to compete in the league.

Like the Raiders, the Rebels, who welcomed a limited number of fans to Allegiant Stadium this season, will welcome even more in 2021.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

If a native son races to one of the most fulfilling victories of his career and there’s nobody there to witness it, did it still happen?

You bet, said Kurt Busch, who won his first NASCAR Cup Series race in 22 starts on his hometown track in front of empty grandstands in September.

Kurt Busch (1), of Las Vegas, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Cup Series ...
Kurt Busch (1), of Las Vegas, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @ellenschmidttt

The hope is that Busch and younger brother Kyle will be trading paint in front of a percentage of spectators in the March 7 Pennzoil 400 and, provided the vaccine does its job, before the usual tens of thousands at the South Point 400 in late September.

Gentlemen, start your positive thinking.

Aviators

After christening a new ballpark and breaking attendance records in 2019, Las Vegas’ Triple-A baseball club was thrown a nasty health curveball.

COVID-19 precluded the renamed Aviators from building on the momentum generated at the box office and on the playing field, where they won the Pacific Division title. There would be no runs, hits and errors. No peanuts, Cracker Jack, or premium nachos served in a plastic batting helmet.

No root, root, rooting for the home team, or even a Bronx cheer for the visitors from Albuquerque.

The entire 2020 minor league season was canceled, forcing major league farm clubs into survival mode. It was as if Joltin’ Joe had left and gone away all over again.

Las Vegas Ballpark in Las Vegas, Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Erik Verduzco / Las Vegas Review-Jou ...
Las Vegas Ballpark in Las Vegas, Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Erik Verduzco / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

So when Dr. Fauci and Gov. Sisolak say it’s finally OK to throw out the first pitch, expect the Aviators to swing for the fences and the swimming pool beyond the one in right-center field.

Perhaps they’ll even lower beer prices.

Las Vegas Aces

When star center Liz Cambage sat out the 2020 WNBA season after falling ill while hooping it up in China, it did not bode well for her teammates’ playoff hopes.

But the Aces bade well anyway. Just three years removed from compiling the worst record in women’s domestic pro basketball as San Antonio Stars, the Aces made their second straight trip to the postseason.

Las Vegas Aces forward Tamera Young (1, left) looks center Liz Cambage (8, right) as teammates ...
Las Vegas Aces forward Tamera Young (1, left) looks center Liz Cambage (8, right) as teammates celebrate their victory over the Chicago Sky 93-92 after their WNBA playoff game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Sunday, Sept.15, 2019 in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

With irascible coach Bill Laimbeer calling the shots and league MVP A’ja Wilson making them, the Aces made it to the WNBA finals before being swept by the Seattle Storm.

With a healthy Cambage and guard Kelsey Plum (Achilles injury) back on the court, the maintenance crew at Mandalay Bay may not have to remove the nets from the rims at the end of next season.

The Aces might wind up cutting them down instead.

Prep sports

Bishop Gorman (107 state championships) finally encountered an opponent it could not beat when COVID rendered the 2020 high school seasons unplayable.

Bishop Gorman students cheer before the start of a football game against Orem at Bishop Gorman ...
Bishop Gorman students cheer before the start of a football game against Orem at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

In July, the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association announced that high school sports would be played during six-week windows in the winter and spring, presumably after the virus had run its course.

But with the pandemic yet to begin its finishing kick and the Clark County School District already have canceled the abbreviated winter sports campaign that was to begin after the holidays, it looks like that well-intended plan could be scuttled, too.

Perspective is called for; perspective is acquired. The eyesight of referees and umpires no longer seems like such a big deal.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

THE LATEST