MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It was another eventful year in local sports with three local professional teams making the playoffs, a high profile coach getting dismissed and a football team having a turnaround season.
Before the end of the summer, Minnesota had another WNBA title and the Minnesota Twins were on their way to another season of at least 90 regular season losses. Here are the top local sports stories of 2013.
It would be an understatement to call Christian Ponder’s career with the Minnesota Vikings a rollercoaster. After leading the Vikings to an NFC wildcard berth last year, he couldn’t play at Green Bay in the playoffs because of an injured shoulder. The Vikings then started the 2013 season with Ponder at quarterback, then he got hurt again. Matt Cassel led them to a win over the Steelers in London, then they signed Josh Freeman, who got one start and didn’t see the field the rest of the season. It remains to be seen if Ponder will be with the team after this season, if the Vikings will try Freeman or if they’ll try to find a quarterback in the NFL Draft.
The football team at North Dakota State University has a roster filled with Minnesotans that have been overlooked by plenty of Division I teams including the Gophers. But ask any member of the Bison, and they’re just fine with that. After all, the football program at NDSU has been the best at the FCS level the last two years. The Bison have won two straight national titles, including finishing off the 2012 season 14-1 by starting 2013 with a 39-13 win over Sam Houston State. The Bison were 28-2 the last two seasons and were 13-0 entering the FCS Playoff semifinals against New Hampshire. Near the end of the 2013 season, it was learned Craig Bohl, the coach that built the dynasty for the Bison, would be leaving NDSU to become the head coach at Wyoming.
The Gophers men’s basketball team used a strong early start to their 2012-13 season to get to the NCAA Tournament, where they beat UCLA 83-63 to advance to the round of 32. Their season ended in a 78-64 loss to Florida, and shortly after that Tubby Smith was let go as head coach. In six seasons with the Gophers, Smith’s only NCAA Tournament win was against UCLA. He led the Gophers to three appearances in the tournament and one run to the NIT title game. In his time with Minnesota, the best Smith could do in Big Ten Conference play was 8-10. It didn’t take long for Smith to find work after leaving the Gophers. He is now the coach at Texas Tech.
The Minnesota Vikings had a big first round in the 2013 NFL Draft and assessed some needs on defense in the process. With their top draft choice, they took defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd of Florida, who fell to the No. 23 pick after being considered a top-5 choice. With their second pick of the first round, they choose cornerback Xavier Rhodes. The surprise of the draft came late in the first round, when the Vikings traded four draft picks to get back into the first round to take Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee. All have seen significant time on the field in their rookie season.
The athletic administration at the U of M had to act quickly after firing Tubby Smith in March. They wanted a big name and a fresh face to lead the program. Among the names rumored to be in the mix were Shaka Smart, Anthony Grant, Brad Stevens, Fred Hoiberg, Buzz Williams and even Flip Saunders. Norwood Teague eventually hired Richard Pitino, the son of hall-of-fame coach Rick Pitino. Pitino has the Gophers at 9-2 in their first 11 games. Pitino has promised a fast-paced, high-octane approach that so far the players have bought into.
Flip Saunders is a household name when it comes to fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves. After Saunders was offered and turned down the Gophers job, he came back to the Timberwolves on May 5 as he was named the team’s president of basketball operations. He replaced David Kahn and immediately started rebuilding the roster to compete this season. His moves included signing free agents Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf as well as bringing back Nikolai Pekovic and Chase Budinger. They also drafted Shabazz Muhammad out of UCLA with their first-round pick. It remains to be seen how the season will play out, but the energy is clearly back at the Target Center after years of disappointment.
They didn’t make it easy on themselves, but the Minnesota Wild ended a postseason drought by making the playoffs in the 2012-13 season as the No. 8 seed. It was a shortened season because of the NHL lockout, but the Wild made its splash in the offseason by signing free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The reward for getting to the playoffs was a match-up with the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the best teams in the NHL. The Blackhawks won the first game in overtime and ended up winning the series 3-1 on the way to the Stanley Cup. For Minnesota, it was a learning experience for an organization hungry to get back into the postseason.
One of Minnesota’s most famous athletes had to rush back home in July for a moment he will probably never forget, even if it happened on just a few hours of sleep. Mauer and his wife, Maddie, welcomed twin girls to the world on July 24. Their names are Emily and Maren, and Mauer got the call as the Twins were on a west coast road trip. Mauer flew back home in a rush and arrived to the hospital just in time to be with his wife for the arrival of his first two children.
The Minnesota Twins had another rough summer with their third straight season of at least 90 regular season losses. Their starting pitching struggled, Justin Morneau was traded to the Pirates and Joe Mauer missed the last month with a concussion. Shortly after the season, it seemed like manager Ron Gardenhire might be on the hot seat. But management decided to sign him to a two-year extension. Since, the Twins have signed free agent pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, giving some hope that the team will be more competitive in 2014. The Twins also recently announced that Mauer will move full-time to first base in hopes that he will stay healthy and play on a daily basis, keeping one of the best bats in baseball in the lineup.
The NFL has an ongoing push to make its league international, and this year it was the Minnesota Vikings’ turn to go across the pond to play football. The Vikings faced the Steelers in London on Sept. 29 as Matt Cassel got the start at quarterback in place of the injured Christian Ponder. It turned out to be the team’s first win in an otherwise disappointing season. Vikings fans made a vacation out of the experience, and we even had a little fun questioning players on their knowledge of British slang before they left for the trip.
Jerry Kill was having an up-and-down coaching career with the Gophers. The team was getting better, but his health was in question due to issues with epilepsy that resulted in seizures during and after games that kept him from coaching. It came to the front when Kill missed the Gophers first Big Ten Conference road game at Michigan this season, a 42-13 loss, because he had a seizure the morning of the game. It was the first full game Kill had ever missed because of health concerns. In the days to come, Kill took a leave of absence to address his seizures. His situation drew support both on the local and national level.
The Minnesota Lynx breezed through the regular season to earn the top seed for the WNBA Playoffs and took full advantage of it. The Lynx played with a sense of determination after getting to the WNBA Finals last season and losing the series to Indiana. Minnesota didn’t lose a game in the postseason this year and swept the Atlanta Dream for its second WNBA championship in three years. The trio of Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus proved to be too much for most opponents to stop, especially in the playoffs. The team celebrated the title with parade down Nicollet Mall and a ceremony at Target Center to thank fans.
As if a dismal regular season on the field wasn’t enough, at least three Vikings players got in trouble with the law during the season over the span of a month. Already on probation because of a previous arrest for drugs, Jerome Simpson was arrested for drunk driving after heading home from a downtown Minneapolis bar. Not long after that, Erin Henderson was arrested for drunk driving. He planned to file a lawsuit in that case, saying police didn’t have probable cause to stop him. A.J. Jefferson was arrested for domestic abuse, charged and spent several days in jail. Jefferson was cut from the roster just hours after his arrest was made public.
The Vikings hosted the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 13, but Winter Park became a media frenzy that week for something that had nothing to do with football. Adrian Peterson had missed a practice due to personal reasons, and it was learned he was dealing with a family tragedy away from Minnesota. He had a son with his ex-girlfriend, and that woman’s current boyfriend had assaulted the boy badly enough that the child died from his injuries. The suspect in the incident was been charged with murder in the case, and Peterson played that week despite plenty of distraction.
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Minnesota might never have three players in the same high school basketball recruiting class as highly publicized as Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn. All three have consistently been ranked in the top 40 in the country as they head into their senior seasons, and only Vaughn is no longer in Minnesota as he transferred to Findlay Prep in Nevada. The time for a decision came for Travis of DeLaSalle and Jones of Apple Valley before their final season as prep basketball stars started. Gophers fans came away disappointed as Jones signed a letter of intent to play at Duke, and Travis signed to play at Stanford. Vaughn will decide in the spring and still has the Gophers, who are a long shot, on his list.
The Gophers football team is headed to another bowl game this year, but nobody will forget the journey the program took to get there in 2013. After going 4-0 in the non-conference schedule, Minnesota lost its first two Big Ten games to Iowa and Michigan. On top of that, Jerry Kill missed the Michigan game because of an ongoing seizure disorder. It forced him to take a leave of absence from the program. The Gophers finished the regular season with wins against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. The program won four straight Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years and finished the season 8-4. Kill returned to the team doing coaching duties from the press box and having Tracy Claeys move to the sideline. Gophers fans have a renewed hope that the program is stable again and can compete with anybody. Minnesota will face Syracuse in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27, looking for a 9-win season for the first time since 2003.
The Minnesota Twins made a major announcement regarding All-Star catcher Joe Mauer on Nov. 11. The announcement was that he would no longer be a catcher. After missing the last month and change of the regular season with a concussion, Twins officials said he would be moving to first base full-time starting in 2014. Mauer suffered a concussion after taking several foul tips to his catcher’s mask. After consulting with team doctors and physicians from the Mayo Clinic, the move was deemed necessary to preserve his long-term health and productivity as a baseball player. The move also meant the Twins likely wouldn’t push to re-sign Justin Morneau, who they traded to the Pirates.
The University of Minnesota women’s hockey team often doesn’t get enough attention for what it accomplishes on the ice. The Gophers have won two straight national championships and finished the 2012-13 season with a perfect record. That spilled into the 2013-14 season, where the Gophers started with 15 straight wins. A remarkable 62-game win streak came to an end on Nov. 17, when a rally against North Dakota from a 3-0 deficit came up just short in a 3-2 loss. It will go down as one of the most impressive win streaks in Minnesota sports history.
In the final year of the Metrodome, not much changed when it came to the Prep Bowl being there for the final time. Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant seemed to be the favorite to take over as football coach at St. John’s in Collegeville after winning his second straight state title last season. He turned it down and came back to Eden Prairie, where he is also athletic director. The result was the program’s third straight Prep Bowl championship, second in Class 6A, and ninth overall with the program.
The Wayzata girls cross country team had five runners in the top 10 on the way to a state championship at St. Olaf College in November. Little did they know it was the start of something much bigger. The Trojans asserted themselves as the best running team in the nation, winning the Nike Cross Country National Championships in Portland, Ore. They call themselves the “Women of Steel,” and they certainly ran like it.
The St. Thomas football team was looking for its fourth straight MIAC title in 2013, but the Tommies never got the chance to defend it after losing its conference opener to St. John’s in heartbreaking fashion. St. Thomas also lost to Bethel and didn’t receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Playoffs, ending a four-year streak in the postseason.
It was Bethel’s turn in 2013 after the Royals had come close in several previous seasons. They went undefeated in MIAC play and finished the regular season 10-0 to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Playoffs. The Royals were the only MIAC team to get in this year. Bethel won its first two playoff games before falling Dec. 7 to North Central College 41-17 in the quarterfinal round.