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A look back at 2016’s top sports stories

As 2016 winds to a close, it’s time to take a look back and recognize the accomplishments of area athletes and teams.

Although the Cubs’ first World Series championship in more than 100 years dominated the professional landscape, we will take a more local look, focusing on high school sports and local athletes.

Following are what we considered the top 10 local sports stories of 2016, starting with the winter sports season:


Cody Baldridge of Morris finishes
as Class 2A runner-up at 182 pounds

One of the most impressive and grandest spectacles in high school sports is the Grand March at the University of Illinois’ State Farm Center.

The march takes place before the state individual wrestling finals, and by itself is worth the price of admission. In front of a packed house, high school wrestlers who have reached the championship match in their respective weight class and division are paraded onto the mat with the house lights down and the spotlights on them and their coaches as they are announced and their achievement as state finalist honored.

Morris sophomore Cody Baldridge saw his brother, Kenny, take part in the Grand March in 2014, when Kenny won the state title at 132 pounds.

Seeing it and being in it were two different things for Cody Baldridge, who finished second in Class 2A at 182 pounds.

“The Grand March was the best experience of my life,” he said. “It was totally different than watching it when my brother was in it. To be down on that floor and look up and see the whole crowd was just awesome.”

While Baldridge wasn’t able to duplicate his brother’s state championship, he has two more years to compete and hopes to return to Champaign and come back with a title. But even though he has two years remaining, the sophomore, who finished this season with a 36-7 record, knows it’s not a given that he will bring home the gold.

“When we looked at the bracket this year, I was in the perfect spot,” he said. “Things went my way. I wrestled a couple of overtime matches against guys that were taller than me, but I was able to put my best effort in and get past them.

“I definitely want to keep working hard and get back to state. I know there is going to be a target on my back, though, being a sophomore and finishing second. I am not sneaking up on anyone anymore. I know I am always going to have guys gunning for me. That will just make me work harder.”

Coal City wresting team takes second in Class 1A

Class 1A wrestling programs from throughout Illinois have had the same mission during the past four seasons: to beat Dakota.

The small school not far from the Wisconsin border has become one of the most-respected in the state in recent years because it has been willing to compete against schools of any size in order to make its athletes better.

Coach Peter Alber’s squad brought a 21-4 record to last weekend’s dual team finals. One defeat came to eventual Class 3A champion Oak Park-River Forest, another was to eventual Class 2A champ Washington and the other two were against Class 3A quarterfinalist Hononegah and also Deerfield, a team that was ranked in the top 10 in Class 3A. Included in their wins over bigger programs was a victory over Class 3A quarterfinalist Montini.

So there are good reasons why the Indians rolled to three-straight Class 1A titles and looked to add to their dominance last weekend. While Olympia and Vandalia both held early leads over the Indians in the first two rounds of competition, Dakota stormed back to capture decisive wins.

Only one team in the past four years had given Dakota a serious run at state, and that was Mercer County in the 2013 finals, when the Indians started their current streak. Dakota trailed by 10 points with four matches left before rallying for a 35-25 victory.

Coach Mark Masters’ Coal City squad met Dakota in 2015 in the semifinals and fell behind, 56-16, before bouncing back to take third place in its first state appearance since 1999. But after being ranked second behind the Indians throughout the 2015-16 season, the Coalers believed that they could beat the champs, and gave it a heck of a shot.

It quickly became apparent that this year’s title meet would also be dramatic after the Coalers (31-3) opened with three straight victories to grab an early 12-0 lead. Coal City still led, 18-15, with six matches remaining but Dakota won the next four and then was able to forfeit the final two bouts to claim a 31-30 triumph.

Despite the narrow setback, Coal City made some noteworthy history. It was the first time that the program had won two straight trophies. And the second-place finish equaled the program’s previous best showings, which they pulled off in 1984, 1995 and 1998.

Newark boys basketball team reaches Class 1A supersectional

The Newark boys basketball team certainly was not ready for its season to come to a close at the Class 1A Illinois State Supersectional. The Norsemen had high expectations for a state run, but they ended up seeing their season come to a close against LeRoy. The Panthers won, 58-50, and advanced to the state tournament in Peoria. Newark capped its year at 28-3.

“This is not how it’s supposed to end,” Newark senior Jack Clausel said. “It was a great year, but (it’s unfortunate) that it’s over.”

The Norsemen played against, perhaps, the most talented player they have seen all season in Matt Chastain. He scored 23 of his game-high 34 points in the first half alone for LeRoy (26-5). Chastain finished 14 of 17 from the floor, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range. He also had a game-high 12 rebounds.

The Panthers led the entire game. The contest was tied twice – at 14 at the end of the first quarter and at 16 two minutes into the second. That’s when LeRoy outscored the Norsemen, 20-5, for the 34-19 halftime advantage going into the break.

Newark’s biggest problem in the first half was junior point guard Will Clausel picking up two uncharacteristic early fouls in the first quarter. He eventually fouled out in the middle of the fourth quarter.

“We just struggled to shoot. I thought in the second half we’d come back,” Newark coch Rick Tollefson said. “I give our kids a lot of credit for battling.”

Jack Clausel led Newark with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Fellow senior Evan Schomer finished with 15 points and five rebounds.


Minooka’s Tutt, Shelton finish second, third at state track meet

CHARLESTON – Getting on the medal stand, whether it’s for first place or ninth, always is a goal when competing at the girls state track and field meet. 

Minooka’s distance duo of junior Ashley Tutt and sophomore Emily Shelton placed second and third in the 3,200 meters. 

Tutt fought from fourth place down the home stretch to run a 10:39.12, while Shelton, who was in the lead or second for most of the race used her own lean at the finish to take third in 10:39.36.

“This is amazing,” Tutt said. “I really was not feeling real good after sectionals last week. I didn’t want to go out real hard today. I got into a rhythm and kept moving up and with three laps to go I knew I had better really go. I’m so happy for Emily, also. She went after it up front.”

“I ran my race,” said Shelton, who also placed 10th in the 1,600.

Minooka finished 18th in the team standings with 15 points.

– Jeff DeGraw

Minooka boys relay teams lead
Indians to seventh-place state finish

Redemption was on the minds of several athletes who competed in relays at the recent IHSA boys track and field finals in Charleston.

For those from Minooka, it was about making amends from the previous year, when the Indians didn’t make the awards stand in any relay after claiming nine medals during the previous four years.

The Indians went on to record their best state showing in two of their three relays.

Minooka turned in its best finish in the 400-meter, which was second to East. St. Louis by just .09 seconds. That relay consisted of junior Colin Marchio, senior Maceo Findlay, sophomore Brandon Adams and senior Justin Wolz, who all came back later to run in the 800-meter, which took third place. The school’s previous-best finishes in both relays were sixths in 2014.

The Indians were hoping to win the title in the 800-meter, but Neuqua prevailed and East St. Louis nipped Minooka at the wire to result in a third-place finish.

Wolz and Adams got back on the awards stand one final time as they were again bested by East St. Louis and Neuqua in the 1,600 relay. Sophomore Aaron Arroyo took the baton from Wolz while Adams ran the third leg; and senior Matt Dlugopolski, who won a medal on the 800 in 2014, finished up. They placed third and posted a new school-best time.

Those efforts played a big role in Minooka claiming seventh place with 29 points, which was its best-ever showing in the large-school meet, two places better than its 2011 finish.


Morris native Zach Petrick plays for Yokohama deNA Bay Stars of Japanese big leagues

Morris Community High School graduate Zach Petrick, who was once a promising pitching prospect in St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, had his rights sold to the Yokohama deNA Baystars in mid-December.

“I had no idea it was coming,” Petrick said about the deal with the Japanese team. “I had some international scouts talk to me in Memphis, but they were from teams in Korea, not even Japan. Yokohama is the second-biggest city in Japan, so it’s at least pretty Americanized.”

In January, he had arrived in Japan for spring training, armed with basically the clothes on his back and, thankfully, the shoes on his feet.

“I came over here in January,” Petrick said. “Spring training starts earlier here. My agent called and said my rights had been sold to Yokohama in Japan and I had 24 hours to give them my answer. I talked with my fiance and my family and decided to take the guaranteed money. I am getting paid much better here than I was in AAA in the USA.

“I’ve been lucky with clothes,” the 6-foot-3,195-pound Petrick said. “I can find clothes that fit. The hardest part has been finding a size 13 pair of shoes. There’s a mall right across the street from my condo, and none of the shoe stores in there carry shoes up to size 13. My mom and my fiance [Adria Wannemacher] have each visited twice and brought me a pair of shoes each time.”

For a big portion of spring training and early in the regular season, the focus for Petrick was just figuring out how to live in a country where he didn’t know the language. He figured that the baseball end would take care of itself, as his job, no matter what country, was to get batters out.

“The biggest thing is that the team hasn’t lost any of my five starts,” he said. “My one loss came when I was coming out of the bullpen early in the season and I think my ERA was around 12 or so after a couple of outings at the start of the season.

“But as I get more comfortable with living here, there are fewer distractions and I can just think about pitching when I am at the park.”

Petrick said he is one of seven international players on the team, and the Baystars employ five translators to help with their transition to the Japanese culture and lifestyle. However, Petrick points to an unexpected source that also helped with his transition.

“Believe it or not, I did watch ‘Mr. Baseball’ with Tom Selleck before I came over here,” he said. “There are parts of that movie that are really similar to what it’s like over here. The Japanese players know some English words, but they speak very broken English, so communication is still hard.”

Another big change for Petrick has been playing in front of a full-sized major league crowd rather than the few thousand that would show in for a AAA game in the United States.

“Half of the crowd is rooting for one team and half is rooting for the other team,” he said. “When the home team is up at bat, their fans are cheering and the other fans are quiet. When the road team is up, their fans are loud and the other fans are quiet, so it’s loud the entire time. Coming from AAA to stadiums full of 40,000 fans is a big change for me, but it’s been fun.

“It’s weird thinking that I come from Morris High School and now I am playing in Japan in front of 40,000 people a night. I certainly wouldn’t have thought that when I walked out of MCHS.”


Knudsens’ father-son cross-country titles an IHSA first

Jim Knudsen briefly lost sight of where his son Soren was late in the Class 3A boys cross country finals at Peoria’s Detweiller Park.

But when the 1981 Class AA champion from Lockport located him, a brief lead had greatly expanded and Soren, a senior at Minooka, was on his way to joining Jim as the first father-son state champions in the 70-year history of the sport. It’s believed that only four other father-son duos have won championships in the United States.

Knudsen posted a time of 14:02 to beat Lyons Township’s Danny Kilrea by six seconds to become the Indians’ first individual champion in the sport. His time was the tenth-best on the course dating back to 1971. Jim Knudsen’s time in the 1981 race was 14:22.

“This was the fruition of all of the work that I’ve put in during the last eight years,” Soren Knudsen said. “The last two years have been completely up and down, a roller coaster. Winning it was a big relief. It feels really good to say that I’m a state champ after all of the problems that I’ve had in the past.

“In the first few minutes after I won, I didn’t have any thoughts, I was completely speechless. The moments after that were ones that I’m never going to forget for the rest of my life. Sharing them with the people who mean the most to me was the best moment of my life.”

Accomplishing the same feat as his father and becoming the first father-son champions in the sport in Illinois is something special to the younger Knudsen.

“Two state champions in one family really speaks to our character and the passion that we hold as a family and the discipline that we’re aware of,” Soren Knudsen said. “It definitely adds a hint of uniqueness to our accomplishments and it’s something that’s going to stay in the history books forever, so it’s really cool. It was definitely the most memorable day of my life.”

Minooka volleyball takes second in state in Class 4A

Every program has a starting point where it puts itself on the radar. For the Minooka volleyball team, that happened this fall.

The Indians never had reached the Final Four before this season, but in the state semifinals, Minooka beat Stevenson, 25-17, 25-13, to earn a trip to the Class 4A state championship match.

Minooka fell to Mother McAuley, 25-19, 19-25, 25-19. Taking the top-ranked team in the nation to three sets is a huge accomplishment, however, and doing that in the championship match is even bigger.

“We get to say we took the No. 1 team in the nation to three in the state championship game,” Minooka junior Alli Papesh said. “Not many people can say that, and having this be our first time down here at state, playing that kind of game, bringing this many fans and having everyone care about each other and want it just as bad ... even though it didn’t turn out our way, we fought hard and I’m really proud of everyone on this team.”

“That’s an incredible feeling,” setter Brooklyn Bachmann said. “The whole feeling, we wanted to push to this point. We wanted to be the first team to make it to state. That was our goal in the beginning of the year. Once we made it here, we wanted to win it all. We knew we could. We knew we belonged here.

“The outcome didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but I don’t think we would have wanted to end in any other situation. We took the No. 1 team in the nation to three. I’m proud of how we performed.”

The Indians did play well overall and actually were stronger defensively and blocking. Offensively, McAuley had only a two-kill advantage. The biggest difference was errors. In Game 1, Minooka had six serving errors and in the third, McAuley scored seven unanswered points.

The second set was a different story. The Indians brought their “A” game.

Outside hitters Papesh and Rocky Perinar were on fire. Defensively, the Indians were lights out. Junior libero Taylor Baranski did not let a ball drop and came out with some miraculous digs, and at the net junior middles Olivia Klank and Sammi Hermann were shutting people down.

Papesh ended the night with a court-high 20 kills while adding 10 digs and four blocks. Perinar totaled 12 kills and 11 digs and Holly Bonde had four kills and three blocks. Bachmann dished out 31 assists and had 14 digs. Baranski dug a court-high 20 digs and Klank and Hermann both had three blocks.

“I’m proud of them. They didn’t give up and took Mother McAuley to three,” Minooka coach Carrie Prosek said. “I know there are some out there thinking that they would just step all over us. It’s unfortunate that we had so many unforced errors in Game 1 and Game 3. When we were errorless in Game 2, it showed how good they could be.”

Morris girls capture school’s first cross country regional title

History was made this fall at Morris Community High School.

For the first time in the school’s history, a cross country team won a regional title as the Morris girls finished with a total of 46 points at the Class 2A Morris Regional. The total was better than that of runner-up LaSalle-Peru’s finishing mark of 58 points.

“It feels really good to win the first title for the school,” Morris senior runner Sabrina Baftiri said. “Especially for us to do it on our own course. It definitely helped to have family and friends here to support us. This has been our goal since May 30.”

Baftiri was the top for the Redskins, earning a fourth-place medal by completing the 3.0-mile course in 19:39. Three other Morris runners placed in the top 10, as junior Madi Mayberry finished sixth in 19:48, junior Mya Shannon took eighth in 20:05 and senior Sophie Tibbott finished 10th in 20:18.

“Last May, we wrote down the goal of winning the regional,” Morris coach Joe Blumberg said. “To watch it all unfold was special. Yes, our girls received the plaque today, but the race was won over the summer. It’s no coincidence that the team that ran the most summer miles in history had the best chance of winning a regional.”

Seniors Meghan Smith (18th, 21:24), Casi Valdes (22nd, 22:10) and Lily Tibbott (23rd, 22:15) rounded out the Morris contingent.

Morris football team reaches Class 5A semifinals

Trying to slow down the first football team in state history to score 700 points in its first 12 games proved to be a mixed bag for Morris in the Class 5A semifinals.

Peoria grabbed a 21-7 advantage just 15:42 into the contest but then the Redskins scored the next three touchdowns while holding the explosive Lions scoreless for over 18 minutes as they moved in front 28-21 late in the third quarter.

But the Lions responded with two touchdowns in the final 2:16 of the third quarter to move back in front for good and added another score in the fourth period to claim a 43-35 win.

Morris (10-3) was hoping to reach the state finals for the first time since 2012 but instead fell to 10-3 in semifinal games after suffering its first defeat in that round since 1997.

Coach Alan Thorson’s squad was also looking to improve to 9-0 in home contests this year but Peoria’s attack of Geno Hess (32 for 276 rushing, five touchdowns), Jaleen James (18 for 132 rushing) and Coran Taylor (25 for 118 rushing) collected 526 yards on 75 carries.

“Their offense is outstanding,” Thorson said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get our offense going early and those early three-and-outs really hurt us because it gave them the ball back and the were able to score again. I knew that we would in it until the end. There were some turnovers and mistakes that cost us, but it was still a great season for these boys.

“This senior class has just been outstanding and these kids are as good of leaders as we’ve had in this program. We were in the state finals in 2012 and the quarterfinals in 2014 but missing the playoffs last year was tough. We put a lot onto this senior class to kind of bring pride back to the program. They did that and I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”

Peoria went up 7-0 just 1:41 into the game when Hess went 49 yards up the middle. He only needed to get one yard for a score with 1:02 left in the opening period to make it 14-0.

Morris struck on its third series when Michael Gerischer (5 for 55 rushing) went 37 yards down the left side to make it 14-7 with 10:25 left in the second period. After Peoria answered with a 4-yard scoring run by Hess 2:07 later, the hosts closed the gap to 21-14 with 1:39 remaining in the half when Kameron Dransfeldt scored on a 7-yard run.

Morris, which finished with 342 rushing yards on 40 carries, tied things up at 21 when Keagan Sobol (16 for 251 rushing) went 60 yards down the right side on the second play of the final half. On Morris’ next series, Sobol went 27 yards up the middle to make it 28-21 with 4:54 remaining in the third quarter.

But Peoria answered right back with a 35-yard scoring run down the right side from Hess with 2:16 left in the quarter and then, after getting the ball on downs at the Morris 44, Taylor covered the distance on a keeper and then he threw a two-point conversion pass to close out the third quarter with the Lions holding a 36-28 lead.

Hess scored his fifth touchdown on a 10-yard run with 5:44 left before Morris made things interesting with a 26-yard strike from Ricky Del Favero to Dransfeldt with 49 seconds left.

“I thought we had them after we came back after halftime,” said Michael Feeney, who shared captain duties along with fellow seniors Gerischer and Sobol. “We were just dominating them in the third quarter but they’re a really fast team that had some really good athletes.

“We always play four quarters and just play hard-nosed Redskins football. The coaches told us to let last year motivate us to do a lot better this year. I loved playing with this team since they’re an awesome group of kids. It was really fun playing with them and I love them all.”

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