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As we head into the final week of 2016, we take a look back at the top stories of the year in Eastern Iowa.
And what a year it was.
A total of 18 stories made our final list and all received multiple votes. Four different stories received first-place votes from the 15 members of our full- and part-time staff.
There were the obvious choices — anything Iowa football — but several others garnered interest from our staff, including Ruby Martin of Iowa City just missing a spot on the Olympic swimming team and the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders’ outstanding run in the 2015-16 season and perplexing start to the 2016-17 season.
Former Iowa standout Daniel Dennis’ Olympic wrestling berth after walking away from competition for several years finished just outside our Top 10.
The announcement last week that Paul James will be leaving Cedar Rapids Washington after 40-plus years to take over the Linn-Mar football program didn’t make our list, but only because the voting was done before the news broke. The story definitely would have made our ballot and possibly could have been a Top 10 contender.
The top two stories on our list outdistanced the other eight by quite a bit.
With that said, here is our Top 10. Don't forget to make your picks at the end. Enjoy!
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. This was supposed to be Dubuque Wahlert’s three-peat, not Xavier’s first state basketball title.
But, as The Gazette’s Jeff Johnson wrote that night in March, “Xavier made play after play after play in the fourth quarter to shock Dubuque Wahlert, 62-57, ending the Golden Eagles’ attempt at a championship three-peat.”
“We knew we were capable of having a special year, but never in our wildest imagination did we think we’d be ending it on this night, being able to come out with a win,” Coach Ryan Luehrsmann said.
In September, after months of speculation, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz and athletics director Gary Barta reached an agreement on an extension that will run through the 2025 season and pay the 61-year-old Ferentz $4.5 million a year.
“Giving Kirk a 10-year contract, what I’m saying is I don’t intend to change coaches,” Barta said. “I intend for Kirk at some point, and as he said, no one can predict the future, when the time is right, for him to retire.”
“Kirk Ferentz has the timing of a Rolex, which he can afford. With engraving,” columnist Mike Hlas wrote at the time. “The contract extension Ferentz just signed at Iowa happened to come with the Hawkeyes winning 13 of their last 15 games. Ferentz is again a beautiful swan, not a lame duck.”
Lisbon’s Carter Happel became the 25th wrestler in Iowa history to win four state championships, claiming the Class 1A 145-pound championship in February.
He won titles at 120 pounds as a freshman, 132 as a sophomore and 138 as a junior, finishing his career with 169 consecutive victories and a record of 209-1.
“The standing (ovation) was outstanding,” Happel said after winning No. 4 with a 7-1 victory over Dike-New Hartford’s Trent Johnson. “It was a fantastic atmosphere out there. It was everything I thought it would be.
“Everything that was ever told to me about this journey was right. Everything’s worth it. All the hard work, all the effort you put in.”
Led by seniors Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury, the Hawkeyes got on a serious roll after losing to Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Nov. 27, 2015.
Iowa reeled off three straight wins before a one-point loss to Iowa State, then won nine in a row — including a home win over then-No. 1 Michigan State and a road victory over the then-No. 4 Spartans — and rose to No. 3 in the national rankings before a loss at Maryland. The Hawks continued to shine, winning four of their next five games to improve to 20-5 overall and remain the Top 10 nationally,
Then the bottom fell out.
Iowa lost four straight before a win over Michigan, then was shocked by Illinois in the Big Ten tournament, 68-66.
Iowa beat Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 72-70, in overtime, before ending the season with an 87-68 loss to Villanova.
“The season is a grind,” Gesell said after the loss. “There are a lot of ups and downs during the season, and we kept plugging along, working hard every day, and getting better every day.”
Led by a veteran cast, the Cyclones limped into the NCAA tournament after a 79-76 loss to Oklahoma sent them home early from the Big 12 tournament.
But fourth-seeded Iowa State responded with two lopsided NCAA tournament wins, downing Iona, 94-81, and Arkansas-Little Rock, 78-61, behind senior Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay. Niang scored 28 points in both games.
The win over Little Rock sent the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons.
Niang once again dominated for the Cyclones, scoring 30 points, but Iowa State fell to top-seeded Virginia, 84-71, capping a 23-12 season.
“We just weren’t sharp on defense, and they took advantage of every mistake we made defensively,” ISU guard Monte Morris said after the loss.
The Northern Iowa men’s basketball team saved its best for late in the season.
After a loss at Illinois State in late January, the Panthers stood 10-11 overall and 2-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Then something started to click,
UNI reeled off six straight wins and won nine of its last 10 regular-season games to finish 19-12 and earn a No. 4 seed in the MVC tournament. Three straight wins in St. Louis — capped by Wes Washpun’s buzzer-beating game-winner in a 56-54 victory over Evansville — gave the Panthers their fourth MVC tournament title in eight years and sent the Panthers to the NCAA tournament once again.
“Not a better feeling in the world,” Washpun said.
The dramatics continued.
Paul Jesperson’s half-court shot at the buzzer gave 11th-seeded UNI a 75-72 win over sixth-seeded Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Panthers’ 13th win in their last 14 games.
Then, against Texas A&M with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line, the magic ran out. The Panthers lost, 92-88, in two overtimes, giving up a 10-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation.
“Man, we played our tails off, and unfortunately we were on the wrong side of just a crazy 30 seconds,” UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said. “You know, 30 seconds that we aren’t going to be able to ever have an answer for, nor do we need one, it just happened to go that way.”
It’s not very often an athlete from around here takes his or her team to the brink of a national title.
Former Linn-Mar prep Marcus Paige did that in April.
Paige capped a frustrating senior season that included an injury and shooting slump with a 21-point performance in a 77-74 national championship game loss to Villanova. He almost willed the Tar Heels to a victory, hitting a leaning 3-pointer to tie the game at 74 moments before Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer beater for the win.
A second-team All-American after his sophomore season and a two-time team MVP, Paige finished his collegiate career with 1,844 points, 602 assists and 203 steals. He was North Carolina’s only four-time winner of its defensive player of the year award and only three-time permanent team captain.
“What we saw Monday night was a young man from our neighborhood who seized the kind of moment few of us will ever experience. After Paige had answered question after question in postgame interview sessions, many reporters wrote and tweeted about how gracious he was in such a painful moment,” Gazette sports columnist Mike Hlas wrote a day after the game. “Marcus Paige gave a transcendent performance all the way around. Good for him and his family. Linn-Mar, the city of Marion, Linn County, and the state of Iowa should claim him with pride.”
Talk about a roller-coaster ride.
The Hawkeye football season began with sky-high expectations from fans and pundits alike. Iowa returned quarterback C.J. Beathard and All-American defense back Desmond King from a team that went 12-0 the season before and earned a berth in the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl, plus several other key players on both sides of the ball. Iowa was tabbed the favorite to win the Big Ten West for the second year in a row.
But things didn’t exactly jell as predicted.
Iowa started the 2016 with a rather ho-hum, 45-21, win over Miami (Ohio), then whipped Iowa State, 42-3. The wheels came off on Sept. 17, however, when FCS powerhouse North Dakota State came into Kinnick Stadium and left with a 23-21 win. A pair of lackluster, 14-7, Big Ten road wins were sandwiched around a 38-31 loss at home to Northwestern and the fans were getting restless.
What followed, though, was what most expected in 2016. The Hawkeyes knocked off then-No. 3 Michigan at home, 14-13, shut out Illinois, 28-0, on the road, and capped the season with a 40-10 whipping of then-No. 16 Nebraska at Kinnick.
“Where you ultimately file 2016 probably depends on your point of view,” The Gazette’s Marc Morehouse wrote earlier this month. “On one hand, Iowa lost to an FCS team at Kinnick Stadium. A defense that is now 24th nationally in total defense allowed an FCS program to rush for 239 yards on 49 carries in a 23-21 loss.
“On the other hand, the Hawkeyes held their final three opponents to less than 100 rushing yards.”
As Bob Brooks once joked during an introduction at a meeting at The Gazette, “if you don’t know who I am, the hell with you.”
Brooks was a broadcasting legend in Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa. He started his career in 1943 while still a student at Franklin High School, working for WSIU radio. He later worked at KCRG, KHAK and, until his death on June 25, at KMRY.
He worked everything from Iowa football and basketball games to most high school sports. While many knew him as a passionate Hawkeye fan, he loved high school sports just as much. The press box at Kingston Stadium was named in his honor in 2011.
“He’s a legend in Cedar Rapids sports,” longtime friend Bill Quinby said at the time of Brooks’ death. “When Bob Brooks walked into your gym or your football field, he was recognized by everyone.”
And Phil Haddy, the former sports information director at the University of Iowa, called him a “true gentleman.”
“Probably not a nicer person that I’ve known or dealt with,” Haddy said. “ ... He didn’t say bad things about people. If he did, I never heard them.”
A historic 2015 Iowa football season ended at the 2016 Rose Bowl, Iowa’s first appearance in the “The Granddaddy of Them All” since 1991.
Stanford rolled to a 21-0 lead after the first quarter and was up 35-0 at halftime en route to a 45-16 rout. Iowa allowed 429 yards of offense, getting burned by Christian McCaffrey’s 172 rushing, 105 receiving and 91 return yards.
While the loss — coupled with a 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game — took some luster off the season, getting to Pasadena, Calif., for the first time in 25 years was a quite a prize for a 12-0 regular season.
“We’re all disappointed at the outcome of the game today, the way we played,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said after Rose Bowl. “But that being said, I just say it one more time, just how proud I am of our football team. They’ve been a tremendous group all season long. Thirteen times they’ve prepared well, they’ve competed hard, and today just didn’t work out for us.
“Obviously, very, very proud of the way the guys have done things, and that really goes back 12 months. So this game hurts. We’ll learn from it. We’ll move on. We’ll improve. Right now, it certainly hurts and it’s something that we’ll deal with.”
Here are the other stories that received votes, but didn’t make the Top 10.
• Iowa City teenager Ruby Martin makes Olympic Trials finals in 200 butterfly
• Former Iowa wrestler Daniel Dennis comes out of retirement and earns Olympic berth
• Matt Campbell's first season at Iowa State ends with a 3-9 record and wins over Kansas and Texas Tech in November
• Kirkwood men win NJCAA Division II national basketball title
• Cedar Rapids Prairie ends 2015-16 school year with state championships in boys' track and field and baseball
• Cedar Rapids RoughRiders on top in 2015-16, at the bottom to start 2016-17
• Iowa City West's Mark McLaughlin is Iowa's first 12-event boys' swimming champion
• Iowa baseball team advances to Big Ten championship game