Lou Babiarz: Peluso on to Blackhawks
1. PELUSO MAKES THE BIG TIME: Championships are special, but there are a whole new crop of winners every year. When Mike Peluso finally lived out his dream by making it to the NHL, though, he became the first Bismarck athlete to ever play in the major league of a professional team sport. Ever.
And because he is the first, Peluso's accomplishment is not only EASILY the biggest local sports story of 2001, it's the biggest story of the four-plus years I've been here and probably the biggest since Virgil Hill won his first world championship back in 1987.
Peluso is also believed to be just the third North Dakotan to play in the NHL, following Cliff "Fido" Purpur and Jason Blake, who in reality grew up in Minnesota. That makes Peluso the first to make it to the NHL by coming through the North Dakota high school system.
2. COMPLETE TURNAROUND: The Dakota Wizards went from the IBA's worst team to its best in two seasons, capturing the league's final championship before heading to the (maybe) greener pastures of the CBA.
It wasn't just that the Wizards won, but how they did it: With a cast of characters that resembled the franchise's all-time all-star team, the Wizards fought back from two games down in the finals to slay the Des Moines Dragons in dramatic fashion.
The number of old Wizards - DeRon Rutledge, Willie Murdaugh, Kevin Beard, Kevin Rice - who came back to Bismarck last year, and the number who returned to play in the CBA this year, shows the bond between team and town is strong.
3. "MINOR" SPORTS, MAJOR VICTORIES: A handful of area teams in sports other than "the big four" not only won titles, but did so in memorable fashion.
Century girls soccer lost by far its best player, Kelsie Niezwaag, to a knee injury, yet rallied together to win a surprising championship. Perhaps the undermanned Patriots took inspiration from the CHS wrestling team, which won the Class A wrestling bracketed tournament despite having just eight wrestlers, six less than the norm.
In girls tennis, CHS tugged at the heartstrings by winning it all for outgoing coach Brent Frueh, who had built the Patriots into a West Region powerhouse. In girls golf, Hazen, won the Class B championship by 62 strokes. In swimming, it wasn't the margin of victory, but the length of title reign that was impressive for Mandan's girls, who captured their third title in a row.
4. GRIDIRON GLORY: There was a nice symmetry for Bismarck High coach Mark Gibson. After winning a state championship at BHS as a player, Gibson guided the Demons to a perfect season and their first state title since 1985, the year after he graduated. With stars like Greg Eslinger, Derek Kinnischtzke and Elliott Piper, the Demons were a blue-collar team reflective of their blue-collar coach.
5. UND FOOTBALL: Extending the definition of "local" to Grand Forks is a bit of a stretch, but there were enough area ties on the University of North Dakota's first football champions to make an exception.
Mandan's Eric Schmidt and Mike Crouse were linchpins on UND's linebacking crew and offensive line, respectively, and Washburn's Jed Perkerewicz made the offense go. Don't forget Dale Lennon, who cut his coaching teeth at the University of Mary.
Steve Thomas: BHS No. 1 in football
1. PERFECTION AT BHS: Bismarck High's football team was humiliated by Fargo North in the 2000 state championship game, and they didn't forget. That loss became a rallying point as the Demons marched undefeated through the 2001 season behind all-staters Michael Salwei (quarterback), Derek Kinnischtzke (running back), Weston Dressler (wide receiver), Greg Eslinger (line) and Elliott Piper (linebacker).
BHS thumped Fargo South 21-9 in a matchup of unbeatens in the state championship game. That gave BHS its fifth state football championship, its first since 1985. Coach Mark Gibson made it to the top in his third season as head coach.
2. DEMONS DOUBLE: Coach Steve Miller led Bismarck to a second straight state Class A boys basketball championship in an unconventional manner. Normally, back-to-back champions have much the same nucleus, but BHS graduated four starters from the 2000 title team. And Miller's lone returning starter, Matt Thorton, suffered a knee injury in football that reduced him to part-time status.
The Demons sagged at midseason, losing three of five games, but they closed with seven straight wins for a 19-6 mark and a repeat championship. Bismarck took care of Mandan (63-28), Belcourt (67-54) and Bismarck Century (51-47) in the regional tournament and put away Jamestown (55-47), Williston (63-27) and Fargo North (47-42) at state. All six post-season wins were at the Civic Center. Adam Rood, a 6-3 senior post, earned all-state honors for BHS.
3. SURPRISE, SURPRISE: Bismarck Century, seventh in a nine-team field in the West Region wrestling tournament, roared back a week later to win the state Class A bracketed tournament championship.
Coach Ken Gabriel's Patriots, operating with an eight-man lineup, scored 152 points as all eight qualifiers placed. Joey Neigum, Eric Sabot and Justin Hoag took individual titles for the Patriots, Billy Sabot was a runner-up, Andy Sabot placed third, Kyle Gabriel took fourth, Grant Neuharth was fifth and John Stephan placed sixth. That was enough to give CHS an 8.5-point edge on state dual champion Bismarck.
4. NON-NO-HITTER: This was one for the books, but it never went into the books.
Mandan Chiefs right-hander Tate Meyhoff fired six innings of no-hit ball against Dickinson in the first fortnight of the Legion baseball season and had nothing to show for it. No runs, no hits, no decision thanks to a steady rainfall that finally halted the game in a scoreless deadlock.
When the game was terminated in the last of the sixth, Dickinson right-hander Josh Erickson was working on a two-hit shutout. But his pitching line was no match for Meyhoff's - no runs, no hits, two walks, six strikeouts, 55 strikes and 35 strikes. And, unfortunately, no luck.
5. BRAVES, BRAVES, BRAVES: Never, ever, underestimate Mandan's swimmers. That's the lesson coach Ralph Manley's Braves taught the state last fall in claiming their third state girls swimming championship.
Mandan, which hadn't beaten Minot all season, piled up 352 points to outdistance the favored Majettes by 10 points. That gave Mandan's girls their seventh championship. The Braves took honors in 1989, 1990 1991 and 1992.
Jenny Bachmeier led the Braves with two individual titles - in the individual medley and backstroke. She also swam a leg on the winning 200 freestyle relay team. Mandy Herberholz grabbed another title for the Braves in the butterfly and a runner-up finish in the 200 freestyle. All told, 16 swimmers placed for Mandan, five of them scoring in four events.
Rob Lein: UND makes the rest of the state proud
1. SIOUX NO. 1 INFOOTBALL: Hey, wait a minute.
It's North Dakota State, not the University of North Dakota, that wins national football championships. Right? Not this time.
Led in large part by running back Jed Perkerewicz of Washburn and linebacker Eric Schmidt of Mandan, the Sioux earned their first national football title by defeating Grand Valley State 17-14 in the NCAA II finals.
And what a way to win! Grand Valley State had gone ahead with 2:26 left. After driving a few yards, UND faced a fourth-down situation when Luke Schleusner caught a short pass but ran down to the 1 to complete a 58-yard pass play. Perkerewicz ran in for the winning TD on the next play.
Great game. Great drama.
And for UND, finally, a football title.
It was enough even to make an NDSUfan smile. Despite the big rivalry between the Sioux and the Bison, any time a team from the Peace Garden State wins a national championship is just a feather in the cap for the whole state. Especially a state like North Dakota where we feel, with good reason, ignored by the rest of the country.
2. BISMARCK'S MIKE PELUSO MAKES THE NHL: Not bad for a kid who grew up just down the block from me. He's with the Chicago Blackhawks, the first bona fide Bismarck product to make the big leagues in a major sport.
Sure, Bismarck has the likes of pro bowler Brian Voss, and his achievements have made all Bismarck-Mandan sports fans proud. But to make the bigs in one of the four major sports - baseball, football, basketball or hockey - is just extra special.
Peluso is special, not just to Bismarck-Mandan but to all of North Dakota.
3. BACK-TO-BACK DEMONS: The last time the Bismarck Demons won consecutive state Class A boys basketball championships, until 2000 and 2001, was 1958 and '59 (it was actually a threepeat as BHS also won in '57).
And to think, the Demons had gone a long stretch without a state title until Steve Miller became coach in the early 1990s. Great coaches such as Paul Swanson, Paul Kranz and Dwite Gorder couldn't come up with state titles, but Miller has.
Miller will credit his players. But a good program starts with its coach. Look at Mandan in girls basketball and where the Braves were before Greg Amundson took over as coach.
4. BASKETBALL WIZARDRY: The Dakota Wizards won the International Basketball Association title a few days after the Demons had won their second straight.
And both teams won their championships at the Bismarck Civic Center. It gave the Capital City a basketball high that lasted a few weeks.
5. WEST RULES HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: The Fargodome was the home of the state high school football championship games, but teams from western North Dakota felt right at home there.
First Strasburg-Zeeland overwhelmed Maddock 36-8 for the 9-man title.
Then Velva-Sawyer beat Harvey 27-22 for the Class A crown.
Then Dickinson Trinity, one of the most powerful teams the state has ever seen, beat Hazen 48-6 in the Class AA championship game.
Finally, the Bismarck Demons won its first title since 1985 by rolling past Fargo South 21-9 for the Class AAA title.
The best really was in the West.
Kerry Collins: Finally, a Sioux title
1. SIOUX-PER CHAMPIONSHIP: It was 107 years in the making, but the University of North Dakota finally has a Division II football championship. The Fighting Sioux did it with defense throughout the playoffs, and that form held against the record-setting offense of Grand Valley State, as UND won the title tilt by a 17-14 count.
It will be a long time before anyone from North Dakota forgets Kelby Klosterman's 7-yard dump pass to Luke Schleusner on fourth-and-4 that turned into a 58-yard dash to the 1. But the best thing about the title? It was done with a bunch of local kids leading the way. Washburn's Jed Perkerewicz scored the game-winning touchdown and rushed for 96 yards in the win. Blocking for Perkerewicz was Mandan graduate Mike Crouse, and fellow Brave Eric Schmidt was a stalwart on defense. A great playoff run, and a great title game by a great champion.
2. PELUSO BREAKS THROUGH: The NHL was almost the one that got away from hockey standout and avid fisherman Mike Peluso, but the former star for Bismarck High finally got his shot at the big leagues. Peluso didn't waste any time once he had that shot, scoring a goal in his first game with the Chicago Blackhawks.
A spectacular career with the Demons was followed by success with the USHL's Omaha Lancers and at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Seeing Peluso's love for the game and work ethic during his time with the Demons and the Bulldogs, there is little doubt in my mind that he'll make the most of this opportunity. Whether his pro career lasts for 10 years or 10 more games, he'll always be able to say he was a professional hockey player - and the first from BHS.
3. STEVE MILLER'S BAND DOES IT AGAIN: There's only thing better than winning a state championship, and that's winning another one. The Demons earned their second straight title by downing Fargo North, 47-42, at the Civic Center. The title was Miller's third in his past seven seasons, solidifying him as one of the state's top coaches.
The title was sweet redemption on the Civic Center floor from the near miss 10 years earlier against West Fargo in the title tilt. The run to the title game in '01 was eerily similar to the one in '91, as the Demons won 11 of their final 12 games of the season en route to the crown. In '91, the Demons won 14 in a row before getting beaten in overtime by the Packers, 67-62. The only difference a decade later was that Miller and BHS didn't get hosed by the officials. Regardless, way to go Steve, it's been a great last decade.
4. A TITLE FOR GIBSON: Everything finally came together for Bismarck High football coach Mark Gibson. In his third attempt at winning a state championship as a coach, Gibson's Demons did so in perfect fashion. The Demons finished the year at 12-0 and won the title by downing Fargo South 21-9. The Demons were a treat to watch, as one of the most talented and deep teams I've ever seen.
The depth on both sides of the ball got downright scary at times. I covered BHS games twice this season, against in-town rivals St. Mary's and Century. The Demons put up 69 points in the two games, and they never scored in the second half of either of them. In either of those second halves, I don't think I saw running back Derek Kinnischtzke even put on his helmet. It was the first state title since 1985 for BHS and was earned by one of the best teams ever to wear the maroon and white.
5. A BRAND NEW RALPH: Now this is where one of the nation's elite hockey programs should be playing their home games. The newest pearl in the Grand Forks sports scene - along with the Alerus Center - the new Engelstad is quite a sight to behold, both inside and out. In the Sioux football's first season at the Alerus, they won a national championship. I'm sure the hockey program is hoping for the same kind of luck.
Not only is the new Engelstad a spectacular place to watch hockey, but it has also proven to be a fantastic venue for basketball - hosting the Class A girls basketball tournament and Jeff Boschee's homecoming when Kansas took on UND in collegiate action.