As 2021 comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on what was an exciting year in the D.C. sports world.
Four of the region’s professional teams reached the playoffs in 2021, including a championship run. Records were broken, stars emerged and several Washington franchises took steps toward building for the future. Though some teams will look back more fondly on this year than others, there were plenty of exciting moments to go around.
Here are the top 10 greatest D.C. sports moments of 2021, presented in order of occurrence.
Jan. 9: Taylor Heinicke dives for the pylon in NFC Wild Card round
The Washington Football Team started the 2020 season 2-7 before winning five of their final seven games to clinch the NFC East title. However, the release of quarterback Dwayne Haskins and injuries to Alex Smith and Kyle Allen forced Washington to start the unproven Taylor Heinicke in its playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Heinicke, a 27-year-old undrafted QB with just one NFL start to his name, rose to the occasion by throwing for 306 yards and a touchdown with one interception as Washington fell just short 31-23. With nothing to lose, he left it all on the field and earned the respect of D.C. sports fans by diving for the pylon to give Washington life in the third quarter.
The performance would earn Heinicke a new, two-year deal with Washington, only months after he enrolled in college courses because he thought his NFL career was ended. Heinicke then stepped for Washington again this season, taking over for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 1 and starting 13 games before the calendar year was up.
March 13: Georgetown makes Cinderella run in Big East tournament
The 2020-21 Georgetown men’s basketball team had unremarkable regular season, finishing the year 13-13 with a 7-9 record in Big East play. It was just enough for the Hoyas to make the conference tournament as the No. 8 seed, but expectations were low in a field that consisted of three eventual March Madness participants.
Then Patrick Ewing’s squad did the unthinkable. Georgetown beat ninth-seeded Marquette, No. 1 seed Villanova and No. 5 seed Seton Hall to set up a conference title matchup with No. 2 Creighton. It turned out to be a blowout, as the Hoyas cruised to a 73-48 win to clinch the program’s eighth Big East championship — a conference record.
Georgetown’s win came after basketball legend and former head coach John Thompson died just before the start of the season. The Hoyas got an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed with the victory but were bounced by No. 5 Colorado 96-73 in the first round.
May 5: T.J. Oshie records hat trick in first game since father’s death
The day began with the NHL still reeling from the news that the New York Rangers had fired their president and general manager over a disagreement on whether to release a statement condemning the league’s department of player safety for failing to suspend Capitals' forward Tom Wilson, who injured New York star Artemi Panarin during a brawl two days prior.
Washington and New York faced off again just 48 hours after the first game and six fights broke out in the first 4:14 of game time. However, the physical side of the contest was eventually overshadowed by T.J. Oshie, who recorded an emotional hat trick in his first game back following the death of his father. Tim Oshie was both dad and coach to T.J., and he felt his father’s presence when retaking the ice.
The Capitals won 4-2 as Oshie’s empty netter sealed the victory. With the win, the Capitals moved into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for first place in the division. They eventually finished second before being knocked out by the Boston Bruins in the first round 4-1.
May 10: Russell Westbrook breaks Oscar Robertson’s triple-double record
Russell Westbrook only spent one season with the Wizards, arriving via trade and departing in similar fashion a year later. Yet his tenure in Washington proved to be an exciting one, as the future Hall of Famer went on a second-half tear to lead the Wizards to their first playoff berth in three years.
After dealing a quad injury, Westbrook recorded triple doubles in 34 of his final 51 games to pass Oscar Robertson for the all-time record. The nine-time All-Star officially set the new record May 10, recording the 182nd triple double of his career with 28 points, 13 rebounds and 21 assists against the Atlanta Hawks.
Though he’s no longer in Washington, Westbrook’s presence continues to be felt by the return the Wizards got by trading him to Los Angeles. Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Spencer Dinwiddie and Aaron Holiday all landed in D.C. thanks to the five-team deal. Those players have helped form a new nucleus in Washington as the Wizards aim to return to the postseason in 2022.
May 20: Wizards dominate Pacers to win play-in game, advance to playoffs
In a normal year, the Wizards would’ve automatically made the playoffs after finishing the regular season as the No. 8 seed in the East. However, the NBA introduced the play-in tournament to account for teams hit hard by COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the year. The Wizards had two shots to make the playoffs: either beat the Boston Celtics or take down the winner of Indiana Pacers-Charlotte Hornets.
Washington fell to the Celtics 118-100, forcing them to take on the Pacers after they handled business against Charlotte. The Wizards swept the regular season series 3-0, including an overtime win just 12 days prior. After a close first quarter, the Wizards stormed ahead and never relinquished their lead.
Bradley Beal led all scorers with 25 points, Russell Westbrook went for 18 with 15 assists and Daniel Gafford dominated the class with a game-high 13 rebounds. The win set up a best-of-seven series with the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers, who eventually won in five games.
June 29: Kyle Schwarber hits 16th home run in 18 games for monster June
The 2021 season was a tough one for the Nationals, who started the year slow while dealing with a coronavirus outbreak and never recovered. By June 1, Washington was eight games under .500 and seven and a half back of the New York Mets in the NL East. The big problem? Offense. Only two teams had scored fewer runs than the Nationals up to that point.
Enter Kyle Schwarber, the former Chicago Cubs outfielder whom the Nationals signed to a one-year deal after he was non-tendered early in the offseason. Schwarber started off the year slow but manager Davey Martinez moved him up to the leadoff spot. The results were immediate. He hit 16 home runs in 18 games, joining Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa as the only players ever to achieve such a feat.
During that stretch, Schwarber had five multi-homer games and seven of the long balls came in the first inning. The Nationals finished the month 40-38, only two games back for the division lead. Alas, Schwarber suffered a significant hamstring injury a few days later and Washington’s season fell apart. The slugger was traded to the Boston Red Sox as part of the Nationals’ massive fire sale in July and the team shifted its eyes to the future.
July 12: Juan Soto knocks out Shohei Ohtani in Home Run Derby
The story of the year across MLB was the dominance of two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who shook off his injury history to win unanimous AL MVP honors. By the time the Home Run Derby had arrived, all eyes were on Ohtani to see if he could slug his way to the finals. Standing in his way was Nationals phenom Juan Soto, who entered the Derby with the fewest home runs of any contestant.
Soto and Ohtani then had a battle for the ages, needing two overtime periods before Soto emerged with the victory 31-28. Along the way, Soto set a new Derby record by hitting a ball 520 feet — albeit while playing at Denver's Coors Field. Soto’s victory was short-lived after he lost to eventual champion Pete Alonso, who also won the event in 2019. But the Ohtani-Soto battle was easily the best of the evening.
After hitting just 11 home runs before the All-Star Break, Soto carried over his momentum from the Derby into the second half. He 18 homers in 72 games to finish the year, crediting the Derby for helping him rediscover his power stroke. Despite the Nationals finishing with one of the worst records in the majors, Soto’s strong second half helped him finish second in NL MVP voting behind Bryce Harper.
Nov. 12: Alex Ovechkin passes Brett Hull for fourth-most goals in NHL history
These days, Alex Ovechkin seems to set a new record every time he steps on the ice. If it has to do with scoring, the Great 8 is somewhere near the top of the leaderboard. None is more significant than the all-time scoring list, which Wayne Gretzky leads with 894.
Ovechkin began the 2021-22 season with 730 goals to his name and a hot start allowed him to move past Hall of Famers Marcel Dionne (731) and Brett Hull (741) for the fourth-most in NHL history. He passed Hull with a first-period goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 12, giving him 12 goals in 14 games to begin the year.
With 50 games left to go in the regular season, Ovechkin has the chance to move past Jaromír Jágr (766) for third place all time by the end of the year. After inking a new five-year extension with the Capitals last offseason, Gretzky’s record is certainly within range.
Nov. 20: Spirit win NWSL championship with comeback win in overtime
Few professional teams faced more adversity in 2021 than the Washington Spirit. Their outgoing head coach Richie Burke was accused and investigated for verbal and emotional abuse of his players, their majority owner was pressured to sell his stake in the team and a COVID outbreak forced them to forfeit two matches.
Despite the turmoil, Washington remained a force on the pitch. Including the playoffs, the Spirit finished the year 9-0-3 in matches they participated in. Top draft pick Trinity Rodman, daughter of NBA legend Dennis Rodman, emerged as a rookie sensation. The Spirit clinched the NWSL title with a 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars on Nov. 20 for their first championship in franchise history.
Goalie Aubrey Bledsoe took MVP honors with one goal allowed in 120 minutes of play. Trailing 1-0, Andi Sullivan got the Spirit on the board on a penalty kick in the 67th minute before Kelley O’Hara secured the game winner in extra time. Though there remains questions about their ownership moving forward, the Sprit are on top of the USA women’s soccer world.
Dec. 19: Mystics awarded No. 1 overall pick in WNBA draft lottery
The Mystics have had a rough couple of years ever since winning the WNBA Finals in 2019. Several key players have missed time whether due to injury or opting out as a result of the pandemic. After being bounced in the first round by the Phoenix Mercury in 2020, the Mystics finished tied for the third-worst record in the WNBA this season.
That put Washington in the draft lottery, an unfamiliar place for a team that had reached the playoffs in seven of the previous eight seasons under head coach Mike Thibault. Despite having just a 17.8% chance of landing the No. 1 pick, the Mystics did exactly that with star Natasha Cloud in-studio for the announcement.
It’s unclear who the Mystics will end up taking with the pick, but NCAA stars Rhyne Howard (Kentucky) and NaLyssa Smith (Baylor) are the early favorites to land in Washington. As the Mystics look ahead to 2022, there’s optimism abound for team that expects to be at full strength for the first time since it celebrated a world championship two years ago.