The Gazette's top 10 Eastern Iowa sports stories of 2018

Ogden column: From RPI to #KF144, a look at the year that was

Before we take a giant leap into 2019, let’s reflect.

Isn’t that what we do this time of year, other than set those resolutions we break in two or three weeks?

A new year will bring new challenges, new stories, new success and new struggles.

But before we worry about that, let’s take a look back at 2018 one last time.

What were the top stories of the year? What will you remember most about 2018?

I asked that question several weeks ago and got a few responses. I asked our staff, and below are the results.

It’s no surprise University of Iowa athletics news dominated our Top 10 once again, with four stories coming out of Iowa City. It’s also no surprise three high school stories made the list.

So here you go, before worrying about the Hawkeye basketball or wrestling teams in 2019, or who will capture state soccer titles in the spring, here are our top stories:

 

 

10. IHSAA uses RPI system for playoffs

For the first time in state history, the Iowa High School Athletic Association used an RPI system to determine its playoff field.

The East-West divide was gone.

District champions and co-champions qualified automatically. The rest of the field was picked using Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) formula that included winning percentage, opponents’ winning percentage and the winning percentage of the opponents of an opposing team.

It was met with mixed reaction and the verdict remains out on its success.

“I think (the format) is a little suspect,” Marion Coach Tim Lovell said when the system was announced.

 

9. Cascade sweeps state basketball titles

Talk about March Madness.

The Cougars’ girls’ basketball opened the state tournament season in Des Moines by beating Grundy Center, 41-37, for the Class 2A title on March 3, completing a 25-3 season.

“It’s a dream come true,” sophomore Nicole McDermott said.

Six days later, the boys finished 26-1 under first-year coach Jacob Brindle, taking down top-ranked Treynor, 49-38.

Brindle replaced a legend in Al Marshall after Marshall led Cascade to a 22-3 campaign and state runner-up finish in 2017.

“We envisioned that these guys could do something special when they were younger coming through,” Brindle said after being named The Gazette’s Coach of the Year. “When Coach Marshall retired, that was one of the reasons he thought it was a good time to do it ... For these guys to do what they did, the way they did it ... it’s just absolutely unbelievable.”

It was the first state title for both teams.

 

8. Iowa’s Noah Fant skips bowl, bolts for NFL Draft

After a rather unusual season, Iowa’s star tight end announced after the regular season he was leaving the Hawkeye program and would enter the NFL Draft.

He also would skip Iowa’s bowl game in Tampa, Fla.

A preseason All-American, this was not shocking news. But his season was newsy, first for his immense talent and later when his lack of opportunities caused his brother to question the coaching staff via social media. Fant finished the season with 39 receptions for 519 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns.

 

7. Iowa State goes 8-5 in Matt Campbell’s third season

What Matt Campbell has done with the Cyclone football program in three seasons is nothing short of remarkable.

Iowa State owns back-to-back 8-5 seasons under Campbell that include trips to the Lberty Bowl and, last week, the Alamo Bowl. This year’s team bounced back after an 0-2 and 1-3 start to win five in a row and flirt with a Big 12 Championship berth.

Other coaches have found inconsistent success in Ames, but Campbell appears to have seriously changed the culture.

“What this senior class, what this team did this year, really powerful because I think a lot of people wrote us off at 1-3 — and probably should have,” he said after the 28-26 loss to Washington State on Friday.

 

6. Xavier wins back-to-back state football titles

Dynasty is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially in sports circles.

But what the Saints’ football team has done the past two years is pretty remarkable.

Xavier won its second straight Class 3A state title in November, topping Western Dubuque, 34-20, in the UNI-Dome. It also extended the Saints’ winning streak to 26 games — back-to-back 13-0 seasons.

“It’s been an incredible ride for us seniors to come out and do a job,” senior quarterback Quinn Schulte said after the game. “We’ll have to pass it on to new leaders next year.”

That wouldn’t be a surprise.

 

5. Gary Dolphin gets in hot (mic) water

The “Voice of the Hawkeyes” made headlines during a game against Pittsburgh when, during a break, he made derogatory comments about the Hawkeye men’s basketball team.

Not realizing the mic was on, Dolphin questioned why Iowa can’t get better guards, specifically calling out Maishe Dailey who, he said, would “dribble into a double-team with his head down.”

He immediately apologized and was suspended for two games.

“Gary knows we are extremely disappointed in the comment he made about Maishe Dailey and the impact his remark had on our players and staff,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said in a statement. “The two game suspension is a result of those comments, as well as some ongoing tensions that have built up over the past couple of years.”

 

4. Barnstormers coach arrested for videotaping players

In one of the saddest and most shocking stories of the year, Iowa Barnstormers co-founder and coach Greg Stephen was charged with and later admitted to sexually exploiting and abusing at least 400 minor boys.

Stephen was accused of secretly filming boys, ages 9 to 17, while coaching the AAU basketball team. He pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual exploitation of minors, one count of possessing child pornography and one count of transporting child pornography. He awaits sentencing and could receive up to 180 years in prison.

“He was very nice, would do anything for you,” one of his former players, Jon Keller, told The Gazette. “It was kind of weird because he would always invite us to this town house that he had. At the time, I didn’t think it was weird, because he was my coach, a younger coach. He was a father figure to a lot of the guys who maybe didn’t have a dad in their lives. It was a place for us to hang out and kind of get away from our parents and their rules and stuff.”

 

3. Megan Gustafson’s All-American season

Gustafson’s year started rather quietly with a 15-point, 15-rebound performance in an 80-64 loss at Maryland on Jan. 3.

It ended Sunday with a 30-point, 14-rebound performance in an 84-70 loss at Michigan State — a game where she became the most prolific scorer in Hawkeye history, women or men. She has 2,124 career points, breaking Ally Disterhoft’s total of 2,102. Its also more than the 2,116 Roy Marble finished his career with in 1989.

Quite possibly the best player in the country right now, Gustafson ended the 2017-18 season as the Big Ten Player of the Year (from the media) and a first- or second-team All-American by seven organizations. She averaged an NCAA-best 25.7 points per game and had 28 double-doubles.

In the 2018 portion of this year, she is averaging 26.8 points and 12.6 rebounds. She has 11 double-doubles in 12 games.

 

2. Iowa freshman Spencer Lee wins NCAA title

Like a lot of athletes coming out of high school, Lee carried the weight of being the “next big thing” in a Hawkeye wrestling program filled with some pretty hefty history.

His insertion into the lineup was much anticipated and he didn’t disappoint, putting together a 22-2 season that included nine pins and eight technical falls. At the NCAA meet, he scored bonus points in four of his five matches, beating Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, 5-1 for the 125-pound title.

He is the first true freshman to win an NCAA title at Iowa since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993 and has a shot to become the school’s first four-time NCAA champion.

“I don’t know if it’s really set in,” Lee said shortly after his title. “I got to hug my teammates and my family. That was an awesome feeling. I got the best teammates in the world ,,, They did a good job of making me believe in myself and I think that’s why I’m here.”

 

1. Kirk Ferentz becomes Iowa’s winningest football coach

It wasn’t a matter of if, but when Ferentz would break Hayden Fry’s record and become the Hawkeyes’ winningest football coach.

That he did it right out of the chute in a 33-7 win over Northern Illinois wasn’t a shock, either, but there were some questions floating around this year’s team before the campaign kicked off.

Regardless, it was still big news.

Iowa has had two football coaches since 1979 and they rank 1-2 in school history. That’s pretty cool — and unique these days — and made this a special story. Fry won 143 games in a career that ended in 1998 and Ferentz now sits at 148 going into Tuesday’s Outback Bowl against Mississippi State.

“First and foremost ... I feel fortunate being in my 28th, 29th year here,” Ferentz said after the historic game. “Going back to 1981, I had no idea what I was walking into, I’ve said that many times. What I walked into there is really kind of similar to what we have had the last 19 years. The commonality has been great players to work with and a lot of them were back today, it was neat to see those guys.

“I couldn’t have worked with a better staff of people and personally I am happy that so many of them could be here from the ’83, the ’80 vintage group. That was nice.”

By the way, No. 3 on that list is Forest Evashevski with 52 wins.

l Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com