Minnesota doesn’t seem to lack anything in having big sports stories over the course of a year, and 2015 was no exception.
Two big-time Twins prospects made their Major League debuts, we said goodbye to a legendary basketball coach, we celebrated another WNBA title and there were several shakeups in the athletic department at the University of Minnesota.
Here’s a look back at the crazy year that was Minnesota sports.
The University of Minnesota football program was rewarded for its second straight 8-4 season with its first Jan. 1 bowl game in 50 years. The Gophers came up short against Wisconsin for a chance to play for a Big Ten title. Minnesota faced Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and had a large fan presence, but lost the game 33-17.
It was one of the most talked about stories of the winter high school sports season. The Faribault Emeralds dance team won the Class AAA high-kick championship in February, but not without controversy. They were accused of copying a routine from a program in Utah. Other teams in the finals, including Wayzata, Eastview, Chaska, Lakeville South and Eden Prairie, were disqualified after they protested in the awards ceremony by refusing to line up in the proper spot. Faribault coach Lois Krinke admitted that they got inspiration out of a routine from a team in Utah, but denied copying it. The Minnesota State High School League enforced discipline on coaches from other teams who orchestrated the protest, and some coaches stepped down from their post.
The Vikings had the No. 11 pick in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and they went with defense. The Vikings selected Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes. So far in his rookie season, he’s contributed on special teams and played in the secondary when starters have been injured. He’s a promising prospect who is still learning the schemes of Mike Zimmer’s defense.
Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones wins NCAA Title at Duke
Apple Valley native Tyus Jones had a huge freshman year at Duke. He helped lead the Blue Devils to a victory in the national championship over Wisconsin. Shortly after, he was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. He announced a short time later he was heading to the NBA Draft, where the Timberwolves traded two second-round picks to Cleveland to take Jones with the No. 24 overall pick.
Blackhawks Eliminate Wild In NHL Playoffs
The Minnesota Wild was a desperate team at the start of 2015, making a trade for goalie Devan Dubnyk to reignite hopes of making the NHL Playoffs. The Wild got there, then knocked off the St. Louis Blues in the opening round. But the Wild couldn’t get past the Chicago Blackhawks, losing the series 4-1. The Blackhawks went onto win the Stanley Cup.
Byron Buxton makes Major League Debut
One of the most talked-about prospects in big league baseball made his Twins debut this season as Byron Buxton came into the fold as a center fielder. His greatest attribute is his speed both on the bases and covering ground in the outfield. He finished the season hitting .209 with seven doubles and two homers in 46 games. Buxton will compete for the starting job in center field at Spring Training after the Twins traded Aaron Hicks in the offseason.
The only good thing that came from winning 16 games in the 2014-15 season for the Timberwolves was winning the NBA Draft Lottery. With the No. 1 pick, the experts said it was down to a pair of centers in Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves went with Towns, who is quickly emerging as a star in the NBA. In his rookie season, he’s averaging more than 16 points and nine rebounds per game. The Timberwolves have already won 11 games.
Miguel Sano makes Major League Debut
The other top prospect for the Twins in 2015 made his big league debut in Kansas City on July 2. Miguel Sano and his power at the plate nearly got the Twins to the playoffs. He spent the season mainly as a designated hitter, but also filled in at third base. In 80 games, he hit .269 with 18 homers, 52 RBI and a .916 on base plus slugging percentage. He was named the team’s MVP at the end of the season and was in considering for the American League Rookie of the Year award.
Big changes in the University of Minnesota athletic department started in August as Norwood Teague resigned as the school’s athletic director. He said it was to seek treatment for alcoholism, and it was soon revealed that he sexually harassed at least two school officials at a function after having too much to drink. Beth Goetz is the interim athletic director.
Adrian Peterson officially returns for Vikings
After missing most of the 2014-15 season with legal issues in a child abuse case, Adrian Peterson returned to the field for the Minnesota Vikings in September. With two weeks left in the regular season, he’s one of the top running backs in the NFL with more than 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. The team also restructured his contract to guarantee him more salary as he works to improve his public image in the community after the child abuse scandal, which resulted in a suspension from the NFL, marred last season.
Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino landed his first star recruit back in September, and he didn’t have to go out of Minnesota to do it. Hopkins star guard Amir Coffey announced in September he will attend Minnesota next fall and play for the Gophers. He’s ranked in the top-40 players in the country in every recruiting website, and he’s the son of former Gophers star Richard Coffey. He’s the best player to stay home and play for the Gophers since Kris Humphries.
Molitor Finishes 83-79 in First Season with Twins
After four straight 90-plus loss seasons, the Minnesota Twins made a change heading into the 2015 season. Ron Gardenhire was replaced as manager by Paul Molitor. Maybe it was his attention to detail, maybe it was fresh face and a new approach. But for the first time in five years, the Twins played relevant baseball all the way until the final series of the regular season. They just missed a wildcard spot with an 83-79 record, but the bar has been raised for next year with a renewed interest in the team at Target Field.
In one of the most emotional news conferences you’ll ever see, Jerry Kill had to retire as Gophers football coach in late October due to complications with battling epilepsy. He stopped taking medication that prevented seizures because it affected his daily routine, and the Gopher football team had hit a rough spot in their schedule. They weren’t handling lesser opponents like they should, and they had just lost at home to Nebraska, a team that finished with a 5-7 record.
Just a few months after announcing he had cancer, Flip Saunders lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The Minnesota sports world was stunned. Saunders was 60 years old and was an even better man than he was a coach. He meant everything to Minnesota basketball, and the Timberwolves held a tribute to him before their home opener that had everyone in tears. Minnesota lost a legend this year. Rest in peace, Flip.
The Gophers athletic department finally had some good news to celebrate after a tough stretch with Teague’s resignation and Kill’s retirement. Officials broke ground on the school’s Athlete’s Village in October. It’s a $166 million project, highlighted by practice facilities for football as well as men’s and women’s basketball to go along with several other improvements. The goal is for U of M athletics to competitive in facilities with the rest of the top programs in the Big Ten. There is still plenty of work to do in fundraising, but it’s a step in the right direction for Gophers athletics.
Minnesota needed some good sports news in October, and we got it in the form of another WNBA championship for the Lynx. Minnesota beat the Indiana Fever 3-2 in a best-of-five series to claim its third WNBA title in five years. The team celebrated with a parade downtown and a celebration for fans at Target Center.
After Jerry Kill’s retirement, the Gopher football program got some stability about a month later as Tracy Claeys signed a three-year contract to be the team’s head coach. Claeys was the interim head coach and defensive coordinator under Kill. This season, Claeys is 1-4 as head coach with a win over Illinois, but the Gophers went to the last play in a loss to Michigan and had chances at both Ohio State and Iowa. Despite a 5-7 season, the Gophers were selected to face Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 28 at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich.
Torii Hunter returned to the Twins in 2015 to provide some leadership and make baseball fun again in Minnesota. He delivered on the field with his bat, but his personality off the field and in the clubhouse made the Twins fun to watch this season. He orchestrated dance parties after victories and made the Twins competitive again after four miserable years. He retired this year after 19 seasons in the big leagues. He has a job if he wants it in the Twins front office, but the more likely scenario is a job in television.
Osseo Stuns Field To Win 6A Prep Bowl
Derrin Lamker was a proud and happy coach after his Osseo Orioles knocked off East Ridge to win the Class 6A Prep Bowl at TCF Bank Stadium. You can’t blame him as few had the Orioles pegged to make a run in the state playoffs. It all unfolded after Totino-Grace knocked off beat Eden Prairie 27-13 in the quarterfinals. Osseo then beat Totino-Grace in the semifinals with a late two-point conversion, 22-21. The Orioles got a late touchdown to beat the Raptors, 14-13, and the celebration was on.
The Minnesota Twins made a rare offseason splash in December, winning the bidding rights to Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. The Twins signed him to a four-year contract worth about $12 million guaranteed. He’ll mainly be a designated hitter but could fill in some at first base in 2016. Park, 29, hit .343 with 53 homers, 35 doubles and 146 RBI in 140 games with the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization last year. Twins fans are just hoping he turns out better than Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a name we’d all like to forget.
St. Thomas Football Reaches 2nd National Title Game
The St. Thomas football program went 10-0 in the regular season to win its fourth MIAC championship in coach Glenn Caruso’s eight seasons. The Tommies were ranked in the top-five nationally most of the season and steamrolled through the NCAA Division III Playoffs. They earned their second trip in four years to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the D-III title game, by beating No. 2-ranked Linfield in the semifinals. St. Thomas met Mount Union for the national championship and took a 14-0 lead, but the Purple Raiders were too much in a 49-35 victory. St. Thomas finished with a 14-1 record.