If it’s the end of December, it’s time for the members of the Tribune sports staff to pick their top five stories of the year. But this time around we’re going to begin putting a new twist on an old tradition. Instead of each of us simply picking our top five local stories, each of us will pick the top stories from our respective beats. That will mean more variety for readers and more deserving stories getting their due. No story will show up any two lists.
A quick breakdown: My top five will be taken from the Dakota Wizards (for the last time), the Bismarck Bobcats, high school hockey, soccer and swimming, boxing, mixed martial arts and other pro sports. Steve Thomas will take all other Class A sports. Mike Weber will look at Class B sports and auto racing. Cindy Peterson will take on the local college teams — the University of Mary, United Tribes and Bismarck State. And sports copy editor Eric Hammond will handle the rest, including UND, NDSU and other local athletes competing outside the area.
1. MOVING ON: After 17 seasons, the Dakota Wizards packed their bags and headed west, relocating to Santa Cruz, Calif. In Bismarck the Wizards became the most successful team in minor league basketball, winning four titles in three different leagues. In their heyday in the CBA, the Wizards drew more than 3,000 fans per game while playing an entertaining and high quality brand of basketball.
But when the Golden State Warriors bought the Wizards in 2011-12, it was essentially a foregone conclusion that the franchise would be moved to a town closer to their home. And just like that, the Wizards are now the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Many memorable players suited up for the Wizards, including Maurice Baker, Renaldo Major, Kevin Rice and Willie Murdaugh, among others.
But the team’s most notable alum is coach Dave Joerger, who won four titles with the Wizards and another with the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Joerger parlayed his success into an assistant’s job with the Memphis Grizzlies. After helping build a winner there, he has drawn attention as a potential NBA head coach.
2. HEADED TO THE HALL: Virgil Hill carved
out his place as one of the greatest light heavyweights in boxing history. Earlier this month, Hill was rewarded by being elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He will be inducted next June.
Hill was a five-time world champion — and even though he turns 49 in January, he is still hoping to make it six-time. Hill put together two long runs with the light heavyweight championship, including an impressive 20 successful title defenses.
He even made North Dakota an unlikely boxing hotbed during his prime, always tirelessly promoting his home state.
3. SPECIAL MEET, TAKE ONE: In the history of North Dakota high school sports, there has never been a finish quite like that of this year’s state boys swimming meet. Four teams were separated by a total of four points, including a tie between Fargo North and West Fargo for the championship. In addition to the Packers and Spartans, Minot — which finished two points back, and Century, which was four behind — had a chance to win it all.
As if the drama of the final event weren’t enough, the meet featured stellar performances from some of the best local talent ever, including Bismarck’s Ian Ballantyne and Century’s Dylan Sether and Mandan diver Jordan Barth.
4. SPECIAL MEET, TAKE TWO: A different kind of swimming history was made this summer when the Bismarck State Aquatics Center played host to the Paralympic Trials.
The achievements of these athletes is remarkable, their stories moving, their determination inspiring and their joyousness infectious. I’ve been in this business for a couple of decades now, and the Paralympic Trials were among the favorite events I’ve ever covered.
5. RECORD-BREAKERS: The Bismarck Bobcats have made division titles seem routine. They finished first in the Central for the third time in four years and won the division playoffs for the fourth time in the row.
But getting to the Robertson Cup still is a big deal, and the Bobcats made each step of that journey memorable.
They set franchise records for points, wins and consecutive home victories. They didn’t reclaim the title they won in 2010, but it was still one of the team’s best seasons ever.
(Lou Babiarz is the Tribune sports editor.)