Panther girls' success will be tough to duplicate
The calendar has already flipped to 2008 - but we at the Pilot (or rather, me at the Pilot) would be remiss not to take one last look at the year in sports that was 2007.
The year was filled with countless defining team moments and individual feats - some triumphant, some heroic, some sad - and as with any top 10 list, No. 10 could be No. 1 in the eyes of many, and vice versa.
Here's one guy's take at the area's top sports stories of 2007. Some are single moments; others, season-long achievements. Some of them I got to cover. Others, I wasn't yet in town for. But all helped define the area's sports landscape in 2007, for better or worse.
Countless stories could have, would have and maybe should have made the list. The top 10 covers stories that occurred locally, and therefore doesn't include feats by local standouts such as Eric Wordekemper and Jen Malcom, whose contributions to their respective professional and collegiate teams spoke for themselves.
Other stories, such as the recent developments (or lack thereof) at Buena Vista Raceway, will ultimately be told in 2008. (The Meyers have done their part as track promoters. It's time for someone to step up and save Wednesday nights in the summer. Anyone?)
But I digress. Here's hoping 2008 will be every bit as memorable as the year that just passed.
1. St. Mary's girls basketball:
Last year's Panthers went 20-5 overall for the most wins in school history and 12-2 to tie Newell-Fonda for the Northwest Conference crown. It was the program's first ever league title. The Panthers and coach Ryan Berg were CYO champs for the third straight year, district champs and ranked as high as 13th in 1A, their first ever state ranking. They also put together the school's longest winning streak at 15 games. Senior starters Abby Richardson, Janie Imming, Jess Lussman, Becky Lenhart and Emily Lenhart created long-lasting memories for area hoops fans, and it could be a long time before their achievements are duplicated. St. Mary's bowed out with a 47-41 loss to eventual 1A champ Graettinger-Terril two games before state. It was Berg's ninth and final season at the helm. Talk about going out on top.
2. Storm Lake softball:
The feel-good story of June. And July. And August. After knocking on the state tournament door so many times, this was the year the Tornadoes and coach Jason Stoltzfus finally brought it down. Morgan Darrow was nearly un-hittable down the stretch and the Tornadoes, who closed 37-9, sprayed hits from Nos. 1-9 in the order all season long. They beat 3A No. 2 Sergeant Bluff-Luton in the regional championship and ended up taking seventh at state, for which they hadn't qualified since 1998. At one point they won 15 straight. Next year's state tournament games won't spill into August, but the Tornadoes have enough talent returning to make June and July 2008 just as exciting as last season.
3. The upset of the year:
Sub-.500 Aurelia shocked 1A top-ranked and undefeated Alta 83-79 in a district championship boys basketball game last February at Schaller. Alta, which whipped the Bulldogs earlier that season, trailed by 18 in the fourth quarter before surging back. How do you recover from such a loss? You start by beating Aurelia 78-27 in 2007-08.
4. Storm Lake girls track:
Momentum built early in the season when Darrow broke Deanna Shadlow's school shot put record that had stood for 24 years. Before the season was over, she'd break her own record for good measure and coach John Brostad's Tornadoes would wind up taking fifth place in 3A at state with 45.5 points, the highest point total in school history. Heather Kessler was flawless in winning the 100 hurdles. Michaela Brungardt turned in a surprising third-place finish in the discus. And Darrow, who was nearly disqualified when she didn't have her jersey on while her name was called to throw the shot, wound up with a silver medal thanks to a quick top-swap with Veronica Kurtz.
5. St. Mary's baseball team's improbable playoff run:
The Panthers, frankly, weren't very good when the season started. But Berg's club peaked at the right time, beating league champion Alta 7-5 in a district quarterfinal at Alta after the Cyclones had drubbed them by combined scores of 36-1 in two previous outings. (It was an upset rivaling Aurelia 83, Alta 79.) T.J. Miller and Jon Foell became master escape artists on the mound for the Panthers, who closed 15-15 and won 12 of 15 before dropping a squeaker to Sac City a game before substate.
6. Buena Vista softball - The changing of the guard:
As Bob Dylan screeched, "The times, they are a changin.' " How strange will it be to glance in the dugout and not see Marge Willadsen or Rusty Mohler? In the former case, Beaver fans will know after the 2008 season. Willadsen, the Beavers' head coach since 1979, has over 500 wins and a national title to her credit. Mohler, a volunteer bench coach whose name became synonymous with top-notch pitching talent, was there for many of those wins. In one summer, the two announced their respective departures. Mohler now lives in Minnesota while Willadsen has one final season with BVU. The school's search party picked a gem of a successor in four-time Beaver All-American pitcher Heather (White) Hupke, who will leave her post at Briar Cliff after the '08 campaign.
7. Saturday, May 19 at the 'Blue Oval':
Area tracksters went out in style at Drake Stadium on the final day of the coed state meet. Alta's Jahde Hammer, Megan Suhr, Susanne Jaeckel and Dee Hinkeldey started things off by claiming a title in the 1A girls sprint medley. Before the day was over, Storm Lake's Kessler won the 3A girls 100 hurdles and Alta's boys team clinched third place in the 1A team standings. Alta's 4x100 team placed second that day, one day after Quentin Thomas, Jack Mills, Cody Nesbitt and Mike Huseman teamed up to win the 4x200. All told, Alta's boys took third place despite having just five athletes at state. The Clones placed in five of the six events for which they qualified. Equally impressive that Saturday: Schaller-Crestland's boys 4x400 relay squad of Cody Galvin, Ben Currie, Matt Tielbur and Justin Ronk ran to fifth place, doing so with heavy hearts. They ran in honor of three of their classmates and teammates, barely a month after a snowy car accident claimed their lives.
8. Nick Huber steps down as SID:
Buena Vista's sports information director said all along he knew the day was coming when Lou Gehrig's Disease would prevent him from doing the job he loved up to his standards. That day arrived in late June. Before that, Huber was as good as they came, piloting around in a motorized wheelchair, dictating press releases into a headset and keeping the school's athletic Web site constantly up to date. He also won a national sportswriting award while at BVU. If Huber felt sorry for himself for having ALS, he didn't do it on the job, which is saying something for a guy who worked around the clock.
9. BVU wrestling:
The Beavers placed seventh at nationals in Dubuque last March. Ben Strandberg closed a storied, emotional wrestling career by taking second at 197. He became the 10th wrestler in school history to finish in the top two nationally.
10. Storm Lake cross country reacquainted with state:
In October, Paul Yak and Freddy Mendoza capped stellar individual seasons by becoming the first Tornado state meet qualifiers since Jerry Gallagher in 1993 - when Clinton was president and Iowa was recovering from floods. Mendoza had a disappointing 122nd-place finish, while his comrade ran a career-best 16:51 for 27th place. How's that for a Yak attack?
* Sports editor Tom Renaud can be reached at email@example.com