After an eventful 2016, Minnesota sports fans were probably ready for things to be a little quieter this year. Fans were ready to focus on how things went on the playing field, rather than arrests, suspensions and coaching changes.
The year brought us a new leader for the University of Minnesota football program, a new on-court leader for the Minnesota Timberwolves and a return to October baseball for the Minnesota Twins. And Minnesota Lynx fans got to celebrate yet another WNBA title.
It was rather refreshing to, for the most part, get away from scandal for a year and be a fan again. Here’s a look at some of the top Minnesota sports stories of 2017.
We weren’t completely without scandal and controversy this year, and it got started early in the Gophers athletic department. Football coach Tracy Claeys was fired on Jan. 3, despite the Gophers beating Washington State in the Holiday Bowl and finishing the season 9-4. Several defensive players were suspended for the bowl game as a result of a sexual assault investigation going back to the fall of 2016. Those suspensions led to a brief team boycott of the bowl game, which ended within a few days.
It was one piece of a much bigger puzzle for Athletic Director Mark Coyle to solve. Coyle cited a need to “shake the tree.” While the sexual assault investigation put a black eye on the program, fan attendance was a big issue with many empty seats at TCF Bank Stadium for key rivalry games. The culture around the program needed a change, and it needed a new leader.
Just days after Tracy Claeys was removed as football coach, Coyle agreed to terms with the man he wanted as the face for Gopher football. PJ Fleck was the hottest name in college coaching after leading Western Michigan to a 13-0 regular season. He’s since brought “Row the Boat” to Minnesota and brought a new energy to Gopher football. The Gophers went 5-7 in his first season, and Fleck is expected to bring in one of the best recruiting classes in recent memory during the early signing period this week. Fans will need to be patient, and they’re tired of being patient, but those close to the program are convinced Fleck will bring Minnesota a Big Ten championship.
Red Bull Crashed Ice Hits St. Paul
It’s grown into one of the biggest winter events in St. Paul, and it certainly didn’t disappoint this year. Red Bull Crashed Ice downhill skating returned, and had thousands coming to the Cathedral of St. Paul to take it all in. More than 100 skaters from around the world compete in the event, and coupled with the St. Paul Winter Carnival, it made for a fun and festive February weekend. It’s coming back for its seventh time in 2018, set for Jan. 19-20.
Gopher Basketball Gets NCAA Tournament Bid
The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team was one of the great stories of 2017. After winning just eight games the season before and having three players suspended, Richard Pitino got his program going in the right direction last season. The Gophers went to their first NCAA Tournament under Pitino, a first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State, but finished the year 24-10 and 11-7 in Big Ten play. It served as a springboard for what fans hope is consistent future success in the Gophers program.
Apple Valley Wins 4A Basketball Title
Tre Jones is one of the best high school basketball players in the country, and he single-handedly led Apple Valley to a state championship in March. He scored 24 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, highly unusual for a point guard, to lead the Eagles past Champlin Park 60-54 in the Class 4A state title game. It was Champlin Park’s only loss of the season. Jones, now in his senior year at Apple Valley, is headed to play at Duke next year, following in his older brother’s footsteps.
Adrian Peterson Signs With New Orleans Saints
Legendary Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said goodbye to the organization in April, signing with the New Orleans Saints. He faced the Vikings in the season opener for both teams and had a rough night as Minnesota got the 29-19 victory. Peterson, not happy with his lack of playing time, was eventually traded to the Arizona Cardinals. Mostly beloved by Vikings fans, Peterson spent his first 10 seasons with the Vikings.
Vikings Draft Dalvin Cook
Just days after parting ways with Adrian Peterson, the Vikings appear to have found a new franchise running back. They selected Dalvin Cook out of Florida State. He was off to a promising start with 354 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns before suffering a torn ACL early in the season. He also had 11 catches for 90 yards before the knee injury. He’s expected to make a full recovery and return next season.
St. Louis Blues Eliminate Wild From Playoffs
The Minnesota Wild was one of the best teams in the NHL during the regular season last year, but that doesn’t matter when you get to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for the Wild, it was a disappointing finish after such a promising start. The Wild was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the St. Louis Blues and former Wild coach Mike Yeo in five games.
Timberwolves Acquire Jimmy Butler, Trade Ricky Rubio
The Minnesota Timberwolves made a splash on NBA Draft night, pulling off a trade that had been rumored ever since Tom Thibodeau took over as coach. The Timberwolves sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick over to Chicago for star Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick. The move gave the Timberwolves one of the best two-way players in the NBA to go with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. The goal, ultimately, is to end a playoff drought that’s going on 13 years.
Timberwolves Draft Creighton F Justin Patton, Trade Ricky Rubio
After moving the assets to acquire Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves took Creighton center Justin Patton with the No. 16 pick. Patton has yet to play an NBA game after breaking his foot in an offseason workout. He just recently got back on the court, and is playing minor league games with the Timberwolves affiliate in Iowa.
The Timberwolves made another splash to finish June. They traded veteran point guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz. Rubio never seemed to be a great fit, especially with Thibodeau, and was never the score-first point guard that’s required among NBA playoff teams.
Twins Clinch American League Wild Card Spot
The Minnesota Twins lost to the Cleveland Indians Sept. 27, but they had every reason to celebrate that night after the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lost. It solidified the Twins’ spot in the American League Wild Card Playoffs. The Twins became the first team in MLB history to go to the playoffs after losing more than 100 games the season before. It was Minnesota’s first trip to the playoffs since 2010.
St. Thomas, St. John’s Fill Target Field For Football Rivalry
St. Thomas and St. John’s made Division III football history back in September. The Tommies and Johnnies squared off in their annual rivalry game in front of more than 37,000 fans at Target Field, a Division III record. St. Thomas held off a late St. John’s comeback and got a 20-17 victory. The Tommies went unbeaten in league play to win the MIAC. They advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals before losing to Mary-Hardin Baylor. St. John’s reached the playoffs as an at-large team and lost their first-round match-up.
Yankees Eliminate Twins From Playoffs
The Twins made MLB history this year, becoming the first team to go to the playoffs after losing more than 100 games the season before. They celebrated the Wild Card playoff berth, but the party didn’t last long. The Twins headed to New York for the Wild Card game, with the winner of the one-game playoff heading to the AL division series. The Twins put up three first-inning runs, but squandered chances to pad a bigger lead. Ervin Santana gave up a game-tying first-inning home run, and only pitched one inning as the Twins’ season ended in an 8-4 loss to the Yankees. It was their 13th straight playoff loss.
That said, it was good to have playoff baseball excitement back in Minnesota. Since that game, Paul Molitor was named the American League Manager of the Year. Brian Dozier and Byron Buxton also received Rawlings Gold Glove awards. The future appears to be bright for the Twins.
Minnesota Lynx Win WNBA Title
The Minnesota Lynx continued its dynasty in 2017 and in the process, continued its legacy of being the winningest professional sports team in Minnesota. For the second straight year, the Lynx and the L.A. Sparks had to go to Game 5 to determine the WNBA championship. The Lynx got the 85-76 victory at Lindsay Whalen’s college home, Williams Arena, in front of a full house of fans ready to celebrate. It was the fourth title in seven years for the Lynx. They were led in the win by Maya Moore’s 18 points and 10 rebounds. Whalen added 17 points and eight assists, and Seimone Augustus had 14 points, six assists and six rebounds.
Eden Prairie Wins Another 6A Football Title
The Eden Prairie football program continued its dominance in Class 6A with a 38-17 win over Minnetonka in the Prep Bow. It’s the 11th state title for the Eagles, whose most recent previous championship came in 2014. That was the last of four straight, meaning Eden Prairie has won five of the last seven titles. Senior running back Antonio Montero led Eden Prairie with three short touchdown runs. The 38 points the Eagles scored was also the most scored in a Prep Bowl since they put up 50 in a 2007 win over Cretin-Derham Hall.
Vikings Clinch NFC North Title
The season isn’t over yet and we don’t know the final destination, but 2017 has already been quite the ride for the Minnesota Vikings. Sam Bradford? Place on injured reserve with knee issues. Teddy Bridgewater? Spent much of the season on injured reserve recovering from a devastating knee injury. He’s since been activated, and took his first real snap in more than 700 days on Sunday. Dalvin Cook? The rookie was emerging as a star before tearing his ACL in a loss to the Detroit Lions. Despite all that, the Vikings are sitting at 10-3, won the NFC North Division title and were headed towards a No. 2 seed and first-round bye in the NFC Playoffs. The Vikings have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and Case Keenum continues to play mistake-free football, while Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray are both excelling in split duties in the backfield.
With U.S. Bank Stadium hosting Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, it’s starting to feel very real that the Vikings could be the team representing the NFC in the biggest game in sports.
It’s already been an exciting year for many teams, it’s far from over. Enjoy the ride.