It was another crazy year on the Minnesota sports scene with plenty of great moments, some tough times and two coaches dismissed. Throw in a national title that nobody will remember on the college scene, and it’s been another very interesting year depending on which sports team you follow most.
Here are the top local sports stories from the year that was 2014.
The writing was on the wall for Vikings coach Leslie Frazier after the team finished the 2013 season 5-10-1. The team played mostly uninspired football, and Frazier appeared detached from what was going on in front of him. After three-plus seasons and a 2012 playoff appearance, the Vikings parted ways with Frazier soon after the 2013 regular season. A few weeks later Cincinnati defensive mind Mike Zimmer was hired to lead the Vikings. He immediately stressed trust, playing with passion and accountability. In his first season among a myriad of issues, the Vikings were 6-8 through 14 games.
In his first season as Gophers’ men’s basketball coach, Richard Pitino patched together a roster that was a made basket or two away from an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Gophers were the top overall seed for the National Invitation Tournament. Minnesota got to the NIT’s Final Four in Madison Square Garden, where it beat Florida State and SMU to win the championship. The Gophers’ 25 wins in Pitino’s first season are a school record, not counting the 1997 Final Four season that was vacated due to the school’s academic scandal. The future is bright for the program with the top Minnesota recruit in Jarvis Johnson staying home and a top 25 recruiting class coming for the 2015-16 season.
The University of Minnesota women’s basketball program had stalled out and was in need of fresh life. Pam Borton was fired in late March after 12 seasons with the Gophers. Marlene Stollings, the coach at VCU, was named her replacement by Norwood Teague. Stollings promised a high-octane, fast-paced scoring attack blended with intense defense, much like what Pitino hopes to accomplish with the men’s team. Minnesota got off to a 9-1 start before star guard Rachel Banham went down with a devastating season-ending knee injury.
The Wild made the Western Conference playoffs this year for the second straight season, but this year the team made it past the first round. Nino Neiderreiter’s goal in overtime of Game 7 got the Wild a series victory over Colorado. The Wild went onto face Chicago and played even with the Blackhawks, but ultimately lost the series in six games. It was the second straight year the Blackhawks knocked the Wild out of the playoffs.
The University of Minnesota men’s hockey program got back to the top in the 2013-14 season, winning the inaugural Big Ten Conference title. The Gophers got back to the NCAA Frozen Four, and Justin Holl’s dramatic short-handed goal with less than a second left in regulation gave Minnesota a 2-1 win over rival North Dakota in the semifinals. Two nights later, Minnesota lost to Union 7-4 in the national championship game. Gophers fans took to the streets of Dinkytown for a short night of rioting, and most players are back this season to take another shot at a championship.
When the Minnesota Vikings had the No. 8 pick in this year’s NFL Draft, Johnny Manziel was still available and they needed a quarterback. The Vikings traded back one spot and chose UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. Minnesota made a trade to get back into the first round, just like it did to get Cordarrelle Patterson, and this time took Teddy Bridgewater. The rookie had to step in after Matt Cassel suffered broken bones in his foot. Bridgewater missed one game with a sprained ankle, but should be the quarterback moving forward barring a serious s injury.
Philip Nelson was destined to take the Gophers football program to another level after the 2013 season. But just weeks after Minnesota’s bowl game loss to Syracuse, he left the program and transferred to Rutgers. Nelson was then kicked off the football team there in May after being arrested for his alleged involvement in a brutal assault in downtown Mankato in May that left former Mavericks player Isaac Kolstad fighting for his life. Kolstad spent more than five months in the hospital. Nelson is accused of kicking Kolstad in the head after he was hit to the ground, knocking him unconscious. Nelson’s attorney wants the assault charges against him dismissed.
If you build new stadiums, the world’s major sporting events will come your direction. At least that’s the general consensus. With the Vikings building a $1 billion stadium slated to open in 2016, the City of Minneapolis made its best pitch to land a Super Bowl. It’s the biggest event in professional sports, and it’s coming back to Minneapolis in 2018. Minneapolis beat out Indianapolis and New Orleans for the bid. Six months later, the 2019 NCAA Final Four for men’s basketball was awarded to Minneapolis. Imagine the atmosphere if either the Vikings or Gophers get there in those years.
Unless they worked out a pre-draft trade, it wasn’t going to be a blockbuster NBA Draft for the Timberwolves. With the No. 13 pick, the Timberwolves chose UCLA guard Zach LaVine. With their other draft choice, they took Michigan guard/forward Glenn Robinson III. LaVine has had to play more than he probably thought he would as a rookie after Ricky Rubio went down with a badly sprained ankle.
After making a free agent splash two years ago by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild did it again in the 2014 offseason by signing veteran free agent Thomas Vanek. A college star for the Gophers, Vanek finished his most recent season with the New York Islanders before signing with Minnesota in July. The contract is a 3-year deal worth about $6.5 million per season for one of the NHL’s most consistent players and scorers. The thought was Vanek’s addition turned the Wild from a playoff team to a Stanley Cup contender.
With two other major sporting events looming off in the distance, the City of Minneapolis got its first real test for the future when the Major League Baseball All-Star game and its events came to Minneapolis in July. Glen Perkins and Kurt Suzuki were selected to play in the game, Ron Gardenhire was one of the American League coaches and Brian Dozier participated in the Home Run Derby. The game ended with plenty of hometown flare as Perkins and Suzuki were the battery in a save for a 5-3 victory.
Kevin Love’s silence over the summer made it clear he didn’t want to be in Minnesota anymore. In August, months of speculation ended as the Timberwolves sent him to Cleveland for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. They also got a draft pick, which they sent to Philadelphia to get Thaddeus Young. It was a move the team had to make. They couldn’t let Love leave in free agency and not get anything in return. In Love’s six seasons with Minnesota, the Timberwolves never reached the playoffs. Love is now teammates with LeBron James, who returned to the Cavaliers in the biggest move of NBA free agency.
The Minnesota Twins made a managerial shake-up in September, shortly after the organization had its fourth straight year with at least 90 losses. After 13 seasons, the Twins parted ways with Ron Gardenhire and his entire coaching staff in September. After an extensive search for a replacement, they stayed in-house and promoted former Twins player Paul Molitor to run the team. The only coaches returning to his staff are hitting coach Tom Brunansky and assistant Joe Vavra. Since, they’ve added Torii Hunter and Ervin Santana to the roster in the hopes of building a more competitive brand in 2015.
Minnesota Lynx Fall To Phoenix In Western Conference Finals
The Minnesota Lynx maintained one of the best records in the WNBA in 2014, but it wasn’t enough to make the season a success by their standards. Winners of two championships, the Lynx failed to reach the WNBA Finals this season after losing to the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference Finals 3-2. It was the first time in four seasons the Lynx were not at least playing for a WNBA title. For a team that has high standards every year, 2014 was largely considered a disappointment.
If you would’ve told Gophers football fans their team would be playing for a spot in the Big Ten title game on the last day of the regular season, jaws would drop. That’s exactly what happened in Jerry Kill’s fourth season at Minnesota. The Gophers finished the regular season 8-4, including a 5-3 mark in the league. But they went to Wisconsin needing a win to claim the Big Ten West division title. The Gophers lost 34-24 after taking an early 17-3 lead, but the 2014 season was a significant step forward for Minnesota. The Gophers are celebrating with their first New Year’s Day bowl game in more than 50 years, and Kill was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year. Tight end Maxx Williams also earned a second-team All-America selection.
Sophomore Daquein McNeil was ready to have a big season and a key role with the Gophers men’s basketball team this year. Instead, he spent his 21st birthday in a Hennepin County jail cell. McNeil was arrested and charged with domestic assault in November in an incident with his girlfriend. He’s accused of hitting his girlfriend multiple times with a large belt, choking her and pouring cold water on her after an argument at her apartment. He has been suspended from all team activities until the legal case is resolved, and his status with the team remains uncertain.
Eden Prairie Wins 4th Straight State Title, 3rd In 6A
Eden Prairie has been the most dominant high school football program in Minnesota in recent memory, and nothing about the changed in 2014. Mike Grant’s Eagles went a perfect 13-0, including a thrilling 28-27 win over Totino-Grace in the Prep Bowl, for its third straight 6A title and fourth consecutive overall championship. Totino-Grace scored late and had a chance to send the game at TCF Bank Stadium to overtime with an extra point, but opted instead to go for a two-point conversion and the win, which failed. Eden Prairie has won 30 straight games dating back to the 2012 season.
It’s been perhaps the biggest sports story of the year, and it has little to do with on-the-field actions. Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson has played just one game for Minnesota this year, the season opener. Allegations of child abuse involving the use of a switch to discipline his 4-year-old son surfaced, and the Vikings deactivated him for their second game of the year.
He was then reactivated, creating a public outcry against the Vikings and their ownership. It led to Peterson being put on the NFL’s exempt list, a suspension with pay, while Peterson addressed his legal issues. He eventually pleaded no contest in the case to avoid jail time, but soon after was suspended without pay for at least the rest of the 2014 season. He appealed the suspension, lost and is now suing the NFL through the NFLPA. Opinions are divided on if Peterson will ever play for the Vikings again, but if he does it will be for far less than the $12.75 million he’s due next year.
Todd Hoffner has had a roller-coaster year with the MSU-Mankato football program. He was reinstated as head coach after having charges of child pornography involving his own children drepped. His team walked out on him on the first day of spring practice, then agreed to return. Now, the Mavericks enter later December a perfect 14-0 and need one more win for a Division II national championship. Amidst all the turmoil last year, Mankato had an 11-0 regular season before losing to St. Cloud State in the first round of the NCAA Playoffs.
St. John’s Wins MIAC Football Crown, Tommies Get At-Large Bid
It took Gary Fasching just two seasons to get the St. John’s football program back to the top of the MIAC after John Gagliardi’s retirement. The Johnnies went 9-1 to win the MIAC in 2014, with a lone loss to Concordia (Moorhead). They forced four turnovers in a win at rival St. Thomas and clinched the league crown with a 31-8 win over Bethel. St. John’s beat St. Scholastica 35-7 in its first round NCAA Playoff game, then had its season end in a 21-10 loss at Wartburg.
St. Thomas earned a surprise at-large bid to the NCAA Playoffs after finishing 8-2 in the regular season. The Tommies’ losses came to St. John’ s and at Bethel. The Tommies gave Wartburg a test, but lost 37-31 in the first round of the playoffs.