Volleyball

Sweet 16: The year that was in Ozarks sports

If you say nothing else about the year 2016 in Ozarks sports, you can at least say it was interesting.

There were off-field problems, on-field stints of individual and team excellence, and athletes with local ties representing the United States in international competition.

There were area high schools making history, student-athletes making names on a national scale, and some of the biggest names in sports coming to southwest Missouri.

As chosen by the News-Leader sports staff, here are the picks for the top 16 sports stories for 2016 …

1. The Breck Ruddick saga

There was one sports story in the Ozarks in 2016 that rose to a national level — for all the wrong reasons.

Breck Ruddick will be eligible to return to game action for the Missouri State football team in 2017.

Breck Ruddick will be eligible to return to game action for the Missouri State football team in 2017.

Missouri State’s football team was 2-0 and headed to Manhattan, Kansas, to play Kansas State when accusations of animal abuse led to the suspension of starting quarterback Breck Ruddick. He was accused of beating a dog he was watching for a friend, leading to a broken jaw and several lost teeth.

Ruddick didn’t play the rest of the season as the university conducted an investigation into the allegations, and he faced municipal charges of animal cruelty and dog at large. He pleaded guilty to dog at large, with the animal cruelty charge deferred as part of a plea agreement. That agreement came after his defense that he struck the dog because it had bitten him on the hand.

An online petition to have Ruddick dismissed from the team gathered more than 278,000 signatures, and his attorney said the sophomore from Marion, Arkansas, was the target of numerous death threats.

Ruddick remained suspended from game action after the university’s investigation, and he will be eligible to play in games starting next fall.

2. Courtney Frerichs competes in Rio Olympics

When Courtney Frerichs was a young gymnast growing up in Nixa, she had dreams of being an Olympian.

Courtney Frerichs went from Nixa to the finals of the Olympic steeplechase competition.

Courtney Frerichs went from Nixa to the finals of the Olympic steeplechase competition.

In 2016, she achieved her Olympic dream — on the steeplechase track.

Frerichs won an NCAA championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in June, representing the University of New Mexico. She went on to finish second in the event in the Olympic Trials to qualify for the Summer Games, then reached the finals and finished 11th in Rio.

“It still doesn’t feel quite real,” Frerichs said of qualifying for the Olympics. “It’s been such a dream of mine for so long, and the idea that I’ve actually done it, I still can’t believe it.”

The 23-year-old has more time to chase an Olympic medal, too. She is running for the Nike-funded Bowerman Track Club and has her sights set on the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

3. Lamar football makes history; Monett also wins title

There are several high school football teams in the state of Missouri that have legendary football histories. Jefferson City, Webb City, Rockhurst and Ste. Genevieve Valle immediately come to mind.

Lamar running back Anthony Wilkerson (43) holds up six fingers after the Tigers captured their sixth straight state title.

Lamar running back Anthony Wilkerson (43) holds up six fingers after the Tigers captured their sixth straight state title.

After 2016, Lamar High School takes a back seat to none of them.

Lamar defeated Trinity Catholic 26-18 in the Class 2 championship game at Plaster Stadium, giving the school its sixth consecutive state title. No other school in Missouri history has ever won six straight championships.

“It feels like we’ve had a long run of really good football players at our school,” Lamar coach Scott Bailey said, in one of the biggest understatements you’ll ever come across.

4. Lady Bears go back to NCAA Tournament

Kellie Harper has a couple of handfuls of championship rings from her storied playing career at the University of Tennessee. In 2016, the Lady Bears coach helped get one for her Missouri State women’s basketball team.

The Lady Bears celebrate their Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title.

The Lady Bears celebrate their Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title.

The Lady Bears ended a decade-long drought from the NCAA Tournament, defeating Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals, then knocking off Northern Iowa in the finals to claim the league’s automatic NCAA berth.

The run ended in a loss to Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, also ending the college careers of Tyonna Snow, Kenzie Williams and Hillary Chvatal.

5. Missouri State football’s semi-resurgence

Going into the 2016 season, there wasn’t a huge outpouring of optimism surrounding the Missouri State football program. The Bears were 1-10 in coach Dave Steckel’s first season.

Zac Hoover's one-handed touchdown catch in Missouri State's victory over Southern Illinois is one of the lasting highlights from the 2016 season.

Zac Hoover’s one-handed touchdown catch in Missouri State’s victory over Southern Illinois is one of the lasting highlights from the 2016 season.

In his second season, Missouri State raced to a 3-1 start and was 4-4 and still in the hunt for a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth when the calendar turned to November. The season ended with three lopsided losses and a 4-7 record, but there are signs the foundation has been laid for more growth in the future.

Linebacker Dylan Cole turned in a strong senior season, ending in first team All-America honors by three organizations, and he was named the FCS Linebacker of the Year by the Division I Football Championship Subdivision Athletics Directors Association.

6. Tim Tebow comes to the Ozarks

Tim Tebow is a polarizing figure in the world of sports. On June 17 at the Springfield Expo Center, the Heisman Trophy winner, former NFL quarterback and big-league baseball hopeful had a crowd of 1,000 completely on his side.

News-Leader prep sports reporter Rance Burger interviews Tim Tebow during the Southwest Missouri Sports Awards.

News-Leader prep sports reporter Rance Burger interviews Tim Tebow during the Southwest Missouri Sports Awards.

Tebow was the headliner for the Southwest Missouri Sports Awards, which recognized the best of high school sports in the Ozarks for the previous year. The biggest awards of the night went to Republic’s Brooke Stanfield (Female Athlete of the Year), Willard’s Hunter Yeargan (Male Athlete of the Year) and Crane’s Jeremy Mullins (Coach of the Year).

The most emotional moment of the night came when Glendale’s David Odun-Ayo was presented with the Courage Award.

“Our goal is to leave the young folks inspired, pursuing their goals for the future and recognizing the success that they’ve had and encouraging them to fulfill their dreams and achieve their dreams,” News-Leader President Allen Jones said.

7. Bears basketball continues to rebuild

Missouri State’s men’s basketball team finished with a 13-19 record, the third time in the last four seasons the Bears were under .500. Coach Paul Lusk was brought back for his sixth season, and there is hope on the horizon with a core group of talented players.

Dequon Miller was named the Newcomer of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference last season, and has helped lead the Bears to a 9-4 record this season.

Dequon Miller was named the Newcomer of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference last season, and has helped lead the Bears to a 9-4 record this season.

Dequon Miller won Newcomer of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference, Obediah Church and Jarred Dixon made the Valley’s All-Freshman Team, and junior college transfers Ronnie Rousseau III and Alize Johnson have made big contributions early as the Bears compiled a 9-4 record in the nonconference portion of this season.

Yet attendance continues to plummet. Last season’s average of 4,140 was the lowest since the 1979-80 season, and this season’s average of 3,640 through eight games barely tops the 3,544 that 1979-80 team drew in the fourth season at Hammons Student Center. That has helped lead to a $1.1 million athletics budget shortfall that the department is still scrambling to find answers for.

8. Kickapoo, Crane girls lead state title parade

When Kickapoo High School’s girls basketball team squared off against Kirkwood in the Class 5 state championship game, there were 53 total fouls called and the Lady Chiefs shot 53 free throws.

Kickapoo celebrates after defeating Kirkwood in the Class 5 state championship game.

Kickapoo celebrates after defeating Kirkwood in the Class 5 state championship game.

The march to the free-throw line could be seen as a title march for Kickapoo, which claimed its sixth state championship with a 63-53 victory over Kirkwood. It was the first title since 2003 for the Lady Chiefs.

Kickapoo was joined in the gold medal parade by the Hartville boys in Class 2, the Strafford girls in Class 3, and the Crane girls in Class 2. The championship was the fourth in a row for Crane, which became the fifth team ever to pull off a four-peat in Missouri.

9. Spencer Johnson, Jake Burger muscle up for Bears

The most consistent part of the Missouri State baseball team’s season was the play of Spencer Johnson and Jake Burger. They finished one-two nationally in Division I in home runs, with Johnson hitting 24 and Burger 21. Johnson was drafted by the Houston Astros and finished the season in High-A.

MLB.com ranks Jake Burger as the No. 30 draft-eligible player going into 2017.

MLB.com ranks Jake Burger as the No. 30 draft-eligible player going into 2017.

Burger, who will be back for his junior season, finished with a .349 average and 72 RBIs, narrowly missing out on the Valley Triple Crown. He received All-America honors for the second consecutive season and won the Division I Gold Glove for his work at third base.

Over the summer, he was a key player for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team that played in the Far East and won a historic series in Cuba, and he is ranked No. 30 by MLB.com on the list of draft-eligible players in 2017.

10. Jared Ridder to Xavier

Kickapoo High School star Jared Ridder didn’t let the suspense of his college recruitment linger long.

Jared Ridder signs a national letter of intent to attend Xavier University.

Jared Ridder signs a national letter of intent to attend Xavier University.

The 6-foot-7 forward was a first team all-stater as a junior, averaging 20.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. His appeal continued to grow as he played with MoKan Elite of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League over the summer.

He held a slew of scholarship offers, including Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.

On June 9, he committed to Xavier University.

11. Luke Voit powers up at Texas League All-Star Game

There’s no question Springfield Cardinals first baseman Luke Voit has a huge comfort level playing in Hammons Field, where he spent four seasons as a catcher for the Missouri State Bears.

In his first season in Double-A, and converted to first base, Voit was the source of some of the loudest fireworks of the entire season, as an All-Star participating in the Home Run Derby at Hammons.

Voit thrilled the overflow crowd of 7,832 by belting 30 home runs during the competition before the All-Star Game, winning the event and claiming a large hunting knife from sponsor Bass Pro Shops for his efforts.

For the season, Voit won the TL batting title by hitting .297 and finished with 19 home runs and 74 RBIs.

12. Missouri State volleyball rips off monster winning streak, goes back to NCAAs

Missouri State’s volleyball team had high expectations going into 2016, with two-time All-American Lily Johnson and the nucleus from the 2015 NCAA Tournament team returning.

But after the first weekend of the Missouri Valley Conference season, the Bears sat at 0-2 in the league. All the team did after that was win 16 matches in a row and claim the conference’s regular-season title.

The Bears lost to Wichita State in the Valley Tournament finals, then to Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Johnson, who spent her summer helping the U.S. Collegiate National Team win a gold medal in the Global Challenge in Croatia, received All-America honors for the third consecutive season – unprecedented in Missouri State history.

13. Woody Austin, Michael Allen win Legends of Golf

The third edition of the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge was high on drama, and it came down to the final hole of the 54-hole event.

Michael Allen calmly drained a 12-foot putt on the ninth hole at Top of the Rock, giving Allen and partner Woody Austin a one-shot victory over David Frost and Roger Chapman.

Allen and Austin each earned $230,000 for the victory, with Larry Nelson and Bruce Fleisher winning the Legends Division for players 65 and older, each cashing a $60,000 paycheck.

14. Drury women’s basketball back to NCAAs

The Lady Panthers did what the Lady Panthers are getting accustomed to doing — winning on a big-time basis. The Drury women didn’t lose for essentially a two-month period, ending the regular season on a 13-game winning streak.

The Lady Panthers fell in the semifinals of the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament, but received an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament and won their first game at the Midwest Regional before losing to Ashland.

Drury finished with a 26-5 record, giving coach Molly Miller a 52-9 record and two NCAA-II Tournament trips in two seasons. Add in the start to this season, and Miller has a 62-11 career record.

15. Hot prospects lead Springfield Cardinals back to playoffs

When the Springfield Cardinals opened their 12th Texas League season, the roster was full of hot prospects. Catcher Carson Kelly is the heir apparent to Yadier Molina in St. Louis, center fielder Harrison Bader and third baseman Paul DeJong each skipped the High-A level entirely, and first baseman Luke Voit has made himself into a promising prospect.

Lively pitching arm Luke Weaver arrived later after a spring training injury, and they all helped lead Springfield to a first-half title in the Texas League North Division. The Cardinals lost in the first round of the playoffs, but it was a memorable season nonetheless.

Kelly and Weaver ended the season in St. Louis, with Bader playing much of the second half of the season in Memphis. Kelly and Weaver were named the organization’s Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year, respectively.

16. Chuck Hepola takes over Evangel football

In a surprise move on March 1, Evangel University fired football coach Brenton Illum. That opened the door for 1991 Evangel grad and career assistant coach Chuck Hepola to take over on an interim basis, then be named the permanent head coach three weeks later.

It marked the achievement of a career goal for the 47-year-old Oklahoma native.

After an 0-3 start, the Crusaders rallied to finish 4-7 in Hepola’s first season.

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