Year In Review

The year 2016 in Pittsburgh sports: The impressions

This year has been taking its fair share of heat from the world, and rightfully so. But 2016 was great for me.

Antonio Brown stretches for the AFC North crown. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

This year has been taking its fair share of heat from the world, and rightfully so. Christmas was spent revisiting Wham! holiday jams due to the death of pop icon George Michael. The 27th? It was spent mourning the loss of feminist icon, best selling author and galactic princess Carrie Fisher. And those were just the losses tolled in the final week of the calendar.

The year 2016 stole culture, it stole our sound and it stole our icons.

But 2016 was a great year for me. I joined the most amazing staff I could ever imagine working with. I’ve traveled to cover the NFL’s iconic franchise. I’ve shot all but three of the Stanley Cup champions’ home games (and one on the road). I’ve been to Nova Scotia to document Sidney Crosby’s day with the Stanley Cup. Heck, that was my first assignment. Who knows, I might have even been at Andrew McCutchen’s final home game with the Pirates?

Yesterday, we went over the best quotes from 2016. Tomorrow, we’ll rank the top 25 moments.

But today, with one crazy year of a ride in the books (technically started in July), let’s take a look at the year’s best photos.

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Knowing that we’d be doing some year in review pieces, Ron Ledgard and I asked the rest of the staff to submit their favorite photos from the games they covered. Of course, no one spends as much time with the photos as I do, so the big decisions come down to a personal preference. However, it was really nice to see that the photos everyone submitted lined up with what I believed was my best work of the year.

Let’s start with the colleges, shall we?

PENN STATE

I only saw Penn State in action twice in 2016. Once was in Pittsburgh to take on Pitt and the other at infamous Beaver Stadium to see a stadium striped against the Temple Owls. But, two times seeing Penn State was enough to recognize how incredible Saquon Barkley is. The guy has the prettiest gazelle-like stutter I’ve seen since Tavon Austin, and he might be the most talented back in the NCAA after the departure of Stanford and LSU’s premier players.

But, the best photo I shot of Penn State this season wasn’t a gazelle-step. It wasn’t even a glorious moment for the No. 5 in the country, Big Ten Champion Nittany Lions. The best photo I shot was in Pittsburgh when the game literally slipped through the hands of DaeSean Hamilton. At the time, it was just the game. But, that loss told by the wide-eyed Hamilton may be the single identifiable play which kept Penn State from the College Football Playoffs.

DaeSean Hamilton's eyes widen as he watches a touchdown slip through his hands. -- Matt Sunday / DKPS

DaeSean Hamilton’s eyes widen as he watches a touchdown slip through his hands. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

WEST VIRGINIA

I’ve lived in Morgantown, W.Va., for most of my adult life, but moving to Pittsburgh (home) was incredibly easy for me. If I could find one negative to having so many teams to cover is that I lose the intimate familiarity to a single program like I’ve had with West Virginia’s football and basketball programs over most of my professional career.

This year, however, I was fortunate enough for West Virginia to exceed expectations and force me to cover a team flirting with destiny more times than expected. When the season started, I don’t think any member of our staff pegged any of our three football programs as national storylines (outside of James Conner’s amazingness), but all three teams managed to make their mark in 2016.

The best West Virginia photo I took this year is a no-brainer. Vertical threat Shelton Gibson beat Kansas State’s D.J. Reed by coming back to an underthrown ball. Reed took exception to this, however, and decided to keep Gibson’s helmet as a souvenir. Gibson kept the ball, though, and hauled in one of the year’s best catches as well as a spot in my best photos.

Shelton Gibson loses his helmet but hangs on to the ball in this circus catch. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Shelton Gibson loses his helmet but hangs on to the ball in this circus catch. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

PITT

Pitt. Oh, Pitt. I went to West Virginia. I’ve covered West Virginia. But, boy did I love covering Pitt. Rivalries and allegiances stop mattering when you start covering teams, so I ditched any hatred for the Panthers when I started covering the Mountaineers years ago. Journalists aren’t supposed to root for teams either, but when you learn about James Conner, it’s hard not to at least hope the best for him.

I don’t care if you bleed Blue and White, Old Gold and Blue or any other collegiate combination. But, if you didn’t root for Conner, you’re not someone I care to talk to in a Starbucks, a bar or any other social environment.

My best Pitt photo is, of course, a Conner photo, but it comes from a game no one should have really cared about on a normal schedule. Let’s be honest, if Pitt couldn’t handle Villanova to start the season, how would they ever fare against Clemson when that time came? Well, we know that the Panthers handled both games, but Villanova was always an asterisk on my schedule. No, not that Barry Bonds kind, but the one where James Conner returns from a victorious bout with cancer and would lead his team to the field once again for the 2016 season.

In case you missed it, ladies and gentlemen…. the emotional James Conner.

James Conner bellows as he leads his team onto the field, marking the final step in his comeback from cancer. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

James Conner leads his team onto the field, marking the final step in his comeback from cancer. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

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Let’s move to the pros, shall we? This section gets a little funny because what you’ll see in the Pirates and Steelers sections will be runners-up, and you’ll see why shortly.

RIVERHOUNDS

I’ve played hockey since I knew what ice skates were, but the sport I find myself loving most as I age is soccer. I love to shoot it, I love to watch it. Heck, when I have the time, I love to kill it playing FIFA on Xbox One.

Pittsburgh might not have a Major League Soccer franchise quite yet, and the lack of a promotion/relegation system in the United States means it won’t for the foreseeable future. But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t wake up every day hoping for that to change.

The best Hounds photo of the year is one Dejan had an affinity for as well. Following a Willie Hunt goal, he tweeted this:

What can I say? Sometimes you’re shooting a US Soccer youth product playing goalkeeper for the Hounds and you make an image you love on the far side of the pitch. The full image for enlargement’s sake:

Willie Hunt celebrates a goal in front of the Steel Army. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Willie Hunt celebrates a goal in front of the Steel Army. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

PIRATES

Man, I had a lot of fun with the Pirates this year. I know they’re a team who breaks hearts, and I know there are a lot of readers displeased with the way they are managed financially. That doesn’t change what this season meant to me as a photographer, though, as you may have read just a few weeks ago in Sunday’s Best.

If any one member of the squad was as representative of the Pirates’ fall from a 98-win club, it was Andrew McCutchen and his fall from perennial MVP candidate or winner to middle-of-the-road centerfielder struggling to find his bat and his glove.

You’ve no doubt seen this photo of McCutchen. It’s been all over our site since I took it (thanks, Matt Gajtka), and I think it is the most representative image of the Pirates’/McCutchen’s collapse I could have captured in the season. It’s certainly not a stretch to say McCutchen would have… stretched for this ball in seasons past.

Neither Andrew McCutchen or his shadow could haul in this ball hit to the centerfield wall. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Neither Andrew McCutchen nor his shadow could haul in this ball hit to the center field wall. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

STEELERS

Another runner up, but the premier runner in the NFL. Le’Veon Bell torched the Buffalo Bills during a beautiful (for photos, not my cold tolerance) snowfall at New Era Field. The running back pranced through the Bills defense, dashed into the endzone thrice, and danced his way back to the bench each time.

Bell made the photos, but the snow made them special.

Le'Veon finds daylight by leaping into the snowy sky. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Le’Veon Bell finds daylight by leaping into the snowy sky. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

PENGUINS

The best photo is a personal choice, and it’s one where the stars need to align. No, literally, Evgeni Malkin needed to align his slash with my photo position.

Where some of the photo choices in this article were chosen based on their significance, either to a game or historically, this Malkin photo is from a preseason game of zero significance. But, check out this intensity. I mean… the guy is tied for second in the league in scoring with his teammate Sidney Crosby — he’s doing something right.

Evgeni Malkin is his best Woolrich shirt from a job as a lumberjack. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Evgeni Malkin is his best Woolrich shirt from a job as a lumberjack. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Oh, you think the Penguins are important enough for a duo of photos as well? Yeah, me too. As Dejan documents regularly, the Penguins and their success drive some heavy traffic our way. I wonder if it has anything to do with the team winning the Stanley Cup?

This additional Penguins photo is from the season opener against the Capitals of Washington. Yeah, they raised a banner that day.

Sidney Crosby didn't play in the opener, but it didn't keep him from bringing Lord Stanley's Cup home. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Sidney Crosby didn’t play in the opener, but it didn’t keep him from bringing Lord Stanley’s Cup home. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

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On to the best of the best of the best, sir! This is where things get hard. You didn’t think you’d get this far and just see a single photo, right? Let’s start things off with something different…

BEST PHOTO I LOVED, BUT IT DIDN’T GET THE CHANCE TO BE ALL IT COULD BE

Week Two. Steelers vs Bengals. There’s no Vontaze Burfict in the year’s first rematch of that oh-so-Bengals implosion during last year’s wild-card round, but DeAngelo Williams got his chance to shine glisten in the rain in Bell’s absence.

In this photo, I have Williams tack sharp behind the core of the Steelers’ running game. His eyes, the ball, the action — all framed perfectly between David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey.

This was a game with a lot of grass stained uniforms and general, tough grime. We didn’t use the photo at the top of the page, but we should have. I mentioned it in passing, and it didn’t win the “first glance” test, but I like to think I would have fought for it if this was the photo when the teams met the second time. It grew on me as time passed, it’s all I thought about visually for days, and I still think about it when I think about images I could possibly imagine submitting for the NFL Hall of Fame’s yearly contests. If I remember correctly, it got a little love in the comments following that game’s gallery as well.

So, here we go again. DeAngelo and his leading men.

DeAngelo Williams follows the lead of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

DeAngelo Williams follows the lead of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

BEST PORTRAIT

I shoot a lot of that in-between stuff (“Yeah, Matt, we get it! You tell us all the time!” can be heard from subscribers in the distance.). Ok, that’s well established. But, the reason it’s worth mentioning now is because I had a lot to choose from in the category. But, like the James Conner image, this was ultimately a no-brainer.

Another shout to Matt G. because he immediately recalled this image as well as two others used in this article.

No one likes being pulled from a game, but in the case of reliever Arquimedes Caminero, the pain was beyond evident after failing to earn a hold during one of the mid-summer’s better outings.

Arquimedes Caminero looks at the camera while sitting in the dugout after being pulled from the game. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Arquimedes Caminero looks at the camera after being pulled from the game. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

I still fear for my life when I recall the urge I felt to look away from the pitcher as I captured that frame. That’s the instinctive reaction, by the way. When someone’s face is magnified like they’re right in front of you, you want to look away faster than those caught glances at an eighth grade dance. I’ve always loved this one in black and white, by the way. It’s the way we published it at first, and I’ve never wanted to change that.

BEST PHOTO 2016

Ok, we’re finally here … kind of. I need help.

I couldn’t decide, the staff couldn’t decide. There are two images that just stand out beyond any other I’ve captured at DK Pittsburgh Sports.

First, from my first Pirates game, another well documented image on this site — Josh Harrison’s slide into third base as he watches the ball skip past me earning a Little League home run and a walkoff win. It’s an iconic moment in Pittsburgh’s 2016 sports year, but is it iconic beyond the Pirates’ below mediocre season?

Half of our staff felt that this image was my best work. Harrison is staring me and the ball down, the Brewers are starting to realize the imminence of the loss, and the game is about to end in celebratory fashion. What makes this image really special compared to what you’ll see in the second option — this image didn’t circle the web outside of our site. Others got a tight shot of Harrison, posted images of him being lifted near first base after scoring and got him bounding toward home. But, we haven’t come across another that tells the story of that moment the ball skipped past third, and Harrison knew it was a win.

Josh Harrison slides into third during a Little League homer to earn a walk-off win. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Josh Harrison slides into third during a Little League homer to earn a walkoff win. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

What did the other half of the staff think? Well, there was a small play on Sunday that once again crowned the Steelers the ‘King in the North.’ We saw fans dubbing Antonio Brown’s touchdown effort the ‘Immaculate Extension,’ critics praised Ben Roethlisberger’s surgical game-winning drive (but, what did Plaxico Burress think?) and Mike Tomlin ‘cheerleaded’ his team into an ideal playoff path.

This might be unfair because it’s so fresh, but whatever you call Brown’s touchdown has the feeling of an instant classic and iconic moment in franchise history. Would it be the same if it wasn’t to win the division against the team’s nemesis? Would it be the same if it didn’t keep the Steelers from a playoff-free 2016?

Those questions may not be answered until the season’s fate is determined. If this team somehow manages a path through New England and a seventh Lombardi Trophy, the term ‘immaculate’ could actually stick, and that single player effort to cap off a team effort final drive would go down as truly special.

Call it what you will, but Antonio Brown called upon himself to make the game-winner happen. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Call it what you will, but Antonio Brown called upon himself to make the game-winner happen. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

So, maybe co-photos of the year?

What do you have to say about these two photos or any other?

I’m anxious to hear the reaction and thought that our readers have about these two images that define my 2016 of shooting, and I want to know if you think we missed any photos from my time with the staff here at DKPS.

Finally, thanks to you readers for making 2016 one of the best years of my life, and undoubtedly the best of my career. See you down in those comments.

PART 1: The stuff they said
PART 3: Top 25 memorable moments