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Top 10 sports stories of 2011

January 1, 2012
Genoa-Kingston High School

On the field, it was a year of championships and unparalleled success for some in DeKalb County.

Off the field, it was a year of turbulence, full of change and unexpected events.

Some of the axioms sports fans in this area knew to be true got turned on their head, or in some cases obliterated completely. Northern Illinois’ football team can’t win the big one? Kicked away by Mathew Sims. A boys soccer team can’t start its first varsity season in one of the most talent-rich small conferences in the state and hope for any success? Kicked away by Hiawatha.

Then there was the inspirational. Sadly this year, it often came in the wake of unmistakable tragedy: A gun shot or a freak accident. But out of those events came a response that rallied people together in ways that still are remarkable months later.

It was a different year in sports in DeKalb County, one that won’t be forgotten for a long time.

1. Motown redemption for NIU football program

It was an all-consuming goal for Northern Illinois’ football team.

A year after coming up one play short in the Mid-American Conference title game, a return trip to Ford Field in Detroit, one that would bring home a victory, was the only objective this season.

Mission accomplished. And the Huskies did in dramatic fashion, coming back from 20-0 down Dec. 2 to beat Ohio, 23-20, on kicker Mathew Sims’ last-second 33-yard field goal. It gave the Huskies their first MAC football title since 1983 and was the largest second-half comeback in modern NIU history.

Led by record-setting quarterback Chandler Harnish and first-year coach Dave Doeren, the Huskies vanquished the ghosts of MAC title games past and came home champions.

“That one moment, when we were all dancing on the field together – I don’t know how you guys felt, but I felt pretty good,” Doeren said, turning to his players beside him after the victory. “That’s what it’s all about, that one single moment that you are the best. Our guys earned every second of it.”

The 10-3 Huskies accepted a bid to the Bowl, which will be played Jan. 8 against Arkansas State in Mobile, Ala.

2. Devon Butler shooting shocks NIU, football team

The night of April 5 was supposed to be a relaxing one for NIU linebacker Devon Butler. He headed to a friend’s apartment to hang out and play some video games.

But a botched drug deal earlier in the day that Butler had no knowledge of ended in gunfire. One of the bullets penetrated a window and struck Butler on the right side of his back. Rushed first to Kishwaukee Community Hospital and then airlifted to OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, Butler underwent emergency surgery to remove bullet fragments. He spent the next few days in critical condition, not knowing if he would survive.

Two weeks later, Butler left the hospital on his way to a full recovery. The shooting shocked NIU and has been a part of an increasing trend of violence in DeKalb.

Richard Van Arsdale III and Mark Orozco were charged in the shooting and are awaiting trial.

Butler redshirted last season, but amazingly was back in pads for practice in early December.

3. Kaneland baseball defies history, wins state title

Kaneland’s baseball team never had won so much as a regional title in school history. The Knights endured heartbreaks, blowouts and everything in-between, but their trophy case remained empty.

Until 2011.

Riding the arm and bat of Daily Chronicle Baseball Player of the Year Bobby Thorson, the fielding of outfielder Jake Razo, a healthy Sam Komel and a lineup that got big hit after big hit, the Knights won their final 13 games, culminating in June in an 11-3 win against Oak Forest for the Class 3A state title.

Thorson dominated at the plate (.417 average, .787 slugging percentage, 12 doubles, eight home runs, 51 RBI) and on the mound (7-3, 0.83 ERA, 76 strikeouts) throughout the season, coming through with two RBI in the state title victory.

Jovial first-base coach Jim Smedley offered players his rationale about their final weekend of the season when the team arrived in Joliet for the semifinals, one that proved to be correct by the end of the weekend: “Might as well win the thing since we’re here.”

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