As the final days count down and the calendar moves on to another year, it’s always a great time to look back and answer the question “Did anything GOOD happen around here during the past year?”
And, of course, the answer as it pertains to sports in Wayne America is — Oh HELL yeah!!!
The Bleacher Bum was going through the list of stories during the past 51 weeks, and Wayne saw a lot of fantastic moments when it came to Wayne High, Wayne State and local sports teams.
The hard part, obviously, is picking out a list of the Top Ten sports moments of the year. We came up with a list of more than 20 stories that were considered, and trying to pick the 10 “best” moments — and then RANK those 10 from 1-to-10 — made for some interesting inter-office discussions. (Kind of scary when you consider this is a one-person operation. The dog just assumed her usual position on the couch, snugly positioned underneath the comforter she had pulled off the back of the couch. Smart dog . . .)
After much consideration, here are The Bleacher Bum’s Top Ten for 2017. Argue amongst yourselves, but here’s how we see it, from No. 10 to the Story of the Year:
No. 10 — The agony of (last-second) defeat
As the emcee of the school’s pre-state tournament pep rallies, I was starting to throw some ideas around in my head as the final minute of last March’s district boys basketball championship game between Wayne and O’Neill was ticking down. Wayne was up 10 with a minute to go, and I think a lot of Blue Devil fans were counting down the seconds before making reservations for the state tournament.
O’Neill, unfortunately, had other ideas.
The Eagles blew up for 33 points in the fourth quarter and outscored Wayne by 11 in the final minute, getting the game-winner with 4.8 seconds to play to win 50-49 and shock the Blue Devils, who suffered a heartbreaking end to what had been a fantastic 19-8 season.
The year DID get better after that . . .
No. 9 — Hammer-like assault on the record books
The year 2017 was a good year for Kylie Hammer. She won two events at the first-ever Nebraska Track & Field Festival that featured the state’s top track and field competitors. She earned medals at the state track meet for the third time in as many seasons. She helped the volleyball team to a district runner-up finish that included an emotional subdistrict final win over Pierce. She hit the 1,000-point mark in basketball as a junior and set the school scoring record as a senior, and has her sights set on a few other marks in the school record book as well. And to cap the year, she signed a letter of intent to play basketball right up the street at Wayne State College. Not a bad year, I must say.
No. 8 — Juniors team piles on for area title
Pitching and defense wins championships in baseball, and the Wayne American Legion Post 43 Juniors proved that theory by dominating the field to win the Class B, Area 5 tournament with a 5-3 win over Columbus Lakeview. They rode the pitching of Josh Lutt and Jacob Kneifl to punch their ticket to state, where they lost an emotional extra-inning affair to defending champion Waverly and were knocked out by a hot-hitting Alliance team to finish 17-13.
No. 7 — Jess Gibson signs with WSC baseball
Wayne State baseball coach Alex Koch has signed a lot of high school kids to play baseball for his team, but none quite like Jess Gibson. Jess was diagnosed with Cerebal Palsy and perinventricular leukomalacia, a form of brain damage. He is also legally blind and wheelchair bound. His love for sports is unmatched, though, and he became a part of the Wildcat baseball team thanks to a partnership with Team Impact, a national non-profit that teams up children with chronic illnesses to be part of a college team. Jess became a regular in the Wildcat dugout and has been welcomed as a member of the team
No. 6 — Kniesche earns national honor, sets state record
Tori Kniesche had quite a fall for the Wayne High softball team and was recognized one week as the MaxPreps/National Fastpitch Coaches Association National High School Player of the Week. She had a phenomenal year in helping the Blue Devils reach the state softball tournament for the 15th time in 16 years, throwing a Class B state-record 10 no-hitters this season, including back-to-back perfect games in the district championship and was among the state leaders in strikeouts during her sophomore season.
No. 5 — Wayne State thrower caps banner year with national title
After just missing out on All-American honors during the winter indoor season, Wayne State thrower Michaela Dendinger left no doubt during the spring outdoor campaign with three All-American performances, capped off by winning the NCAA Div. II national title in the shot put. She set the table early with a career and school-best mark of 54 feet, 9 1/4 inches, breaking the old school record by almost nine inches. She also took second in the hammer throw and sixth in the discus, scoring 21 team points to give Wayne State a 12th place finish at nationals. She’ll be back to see if she can do it again in 2018.
No. 4 — Legion baseball teams pull off rare sweep of RBL titles
Winning one Ralph Bishop League title is a pretty big achievement, but the Wayne American Legion program pulled off the rare double play by winning both the Junior and Senior league titles this summer, beating West Point in both championship games. The Juniors claimed a 7-3 win to take their championship, while the Seniors held on for a 7-6 win to make it a clean sweep for Wayne American Legion baseball.
No. 3 — Rugby team loses one national title, repeats in another
Wayne State’s run of success in women’s rugby hit a rare bump in the road in the spring when the 7-on-7 team’s three-year reign in National Small College Rugby Organization action ended in a 15-12 loss to Colgate. With a young team finding itself late in the fall campaign, the Wildcat ruggers defended their 15-on-15 championship with a 46-26 win over Bentley University, making it 7-for-8 in national championship games over the last five years. They are early favorites to reclaim the 7-on-7 trophy next spring, and the men’s rugby team will also be in the hunt for a national title in men’s 15-on-15 action in 2018 as well.
No. 2 — Legendary coach, athletic director hangs up the whistle
After more than 30 years as a teacher, coach and administrator, Rocky Ruhl hung up the whistle and retired, along with his wife Sylvia, after a long and successful career at Wayne High School. Ruhl won state championships in cross country and took a number of boys basketball teams to the state tournament during his time as a coach, and helped lead an athletic department that has won state championship and runner-up trophies in softball, girls golf, boys golf and cross country. He was honored in the spring with an NSAA Distinguished Service Award for his work with the Nebraska School Activities Association, Nebraska Coaches Association and Nebraska State Athletic Administrators Association.
No. 1 — Football team ends 34-year state playoff dry spell
The last time a Wayne High football team won a state playoff game, the Internet was in its infancy, gas prices were less than half of what they are today, MTV actually played music videos and there was only one ESPN network. Wayne beat Crete 13-10 in the first round of the 1983 state playoffs that year, and it would be almost two full generations later until the next win. Wayne ended a 10-game playoff losing streak with an exciting 30-28 win at Chadron, which was cause for celebration for the players, coach Russ Plager and the fans who made the six-hour trek west to the Nebraska panhandle to watch the win. Wayne’s season came to an end the following week with a 42-8 home loss to Wahoo, ending a 7-4 season that included the team’s first 5-0 start since 1990 and a lot of exciting, heart-stopping plays and wins along the way. The team ended the year with numerous individual honors, highlighted by an all-state nomination for senior wideout Mason Lee.