Merry Christmas. Hopefully you’re enjoying your holiday to the tune of quality time spent with loved ones, a good meal or two and a stocking full of whatever you earned by being a good boy or girl this year.
As the holidays come to a close, let’s first look back at 2016, and what the year brought to the local sports scene. Here are the top 10 sports stories of the year, according to me.
Big name coaching changes
A handful of people whose success and longevity had made them South Dakota coaching institutions moved on in 2016.
Scott Nagy left South Dakota State after 21 seasons as the Jackrabbit coach, taking over at Wright State after guiding SDSU to its third NCAA tournament in March. He was replaced by T.J. Otzelberger.
Amy Williams was named the new women’s basketball coach at Nebraska after leading USD to the WNIT championship. She was replaced by Dawn Plitzuweit.
Jed Stugart’s excellent tenure as USF football coach ended when he was hired at Lindenwood University just weeks after taking the Cougars to the Division II playoffs. He was replaced by Jon Anderson, his former defensive coordinator.
Additionally, the Canaries fired Chris Paterson, while South Dakota State baseball coach Dave Schrage, Lincoln High School football coach Aaron Beavers, Washington High School wrestling coach Marc Murren, USF baseball coach Matt Guiliano and Augustana volleyball coach Dan Meske all moved on.
New stadiums debut
South Dakota’s Division I institutions both opened new facilities that take their programs and fans to a new level of experience.
In September, South Dakota State moved into Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, a $65 million, 19,000 seat football stadium that immediately became the top football facility in the state and arguably the best in FCS football.
SDSU averaged 13,753 fans in seven home games, six of which they won.
Shortly after the Jacks opened their new football stadium, USD began play in the Sanford Coyote Sports Center, a $66 million, 6,000 seat basketball arena that also houses Coyote volleyball, a 7,500-square foot weight room and athletic training facilities. It was quickly recognized as one of the best basketball arenas in the Summit League. The Coyote basketball and volleyball teams are a combined 21-1 there so far.
Augie wins it all
The Augustana men’s basketball team became the first South Dakota college team since SDSU’s women in 2003 to bring an NCAA championship in a major sport to the state when they won the Division II national title in March.
Led by seniors Dan Jansen and Casey Schilling, who finished 1-2 in school history in scoring, the Vikings cruised to their second straight 30-plus win, NSIC title-winning season, then overcame an injury to Jansen in the Elite Eight to take the crown with a win over Lincoln Memorial.
SDSU football has record season
The Jackrabbits made the FCS playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, but 2016 was a special season among that half-decade of excellence. The Jacks won their first Missouri Valley Football Conference title, going 7-1 in what is widely regarded as the toughest conference in FCS football.
Along the way the Jacks snapped their losing streak against five-time defending national champion North Dakota State, beating the then-top ranked Bison 19-17 in Fargo to recapture the Dakota Marker. SDSU also earned its first FCS playoff seed and bye, won their second-round game at home against Villanova, but fell in a playoff rematch with NDSU.
SDSU basketball sweeps Summit League
Both Jackrabbit basketball teams went to the NCAA tournament in March, with the SDSU women getting past regular season champion and rival South Dakota in the Summit League tournament championship, and the SDSU men avenging a 2015 tourney loss to North Dakota State to earn their own trip to the big dance.
The SDSU men came close but ultimately could not pull a first-round upset of Maryland, while the Jackrabbit women stunned 5-seed Miami in the first round, then fell one basket short of the Sweet 16 with a loss to Stanford in the second round.
Coyote women take NIT
The USD women won the Summit League regular season crown, sweeping rival SDSU in the process, but the Jackrabbits won the big one in the Summit League tournament. The Coyotes responded in the best way possible, storming through the consolation WNIT, knocking off a series of major conference teams before beating Florida Gulf Coast in front of 7,415 fans in the last basketball game ever played in the DakotaDome. The Coyotes finished with 32 wins, played into April, and were the first South Dakota team to win a Division I postseason basketball tournament.
Sioux Falls hits a home run as event host
The Denny Sanford Premier Center continued its new reign as a major destination for postseason tournaments, setting more attendance records with the Summit League tournament in March, while also hosting high school basketball tournaments, the Division II wrestling championships and drawing strong crowds for a national audience while hosting a women’s NCAA tournament regional. South Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse and Tennessee brought major women’s college basketball to the city, and the Orange clinched a berth in the Final Four on national TV.
Not to be outdone, the Sanford Pentagon hosted the NSIC basketball finals, the Division II women’s basketball and volleyball championships, a Division I basketball showcase, a regional wrestling showcase and a University of Minnesota vs Vanderbilt matchup, not to mention countless prestige high school events.
After a couple of years of hard times after the coaching transition from Brian Hermanson to Chad Stadem, Washington somewhat surprisingly emerged as the 11AAA state champions in 2015.
They wouldn’t be able to surprise anyone this year, but the Warriors responded well to wearing the proverbial target on their backs. Washington ran through the season undefeated, outlasting Roosevelt in a tense regular-season finale and then beating O’Gorman and Brandon Valley in the semifinals and finals to make it back-to-back championships at the state’s highest level.
Skyforce cruise to NBADL title
After years of dominating the CBA, winning titles in 1996 and 2005, Sioux Falls won its first championship as a D-League affiliate, dominating the Los Angeles D-Fenders 91-63 in the rubber game of the league finals.
The Force went 40-10, the best regular season record in NBADL history, then swept the first two rounds of the playoffs before edging LA 2-1 in the finals.
Renner Monarchs win again
A certain local sportswriter spent his fourth year riding the bench for South Dakota’s premier amateur baseball team, and the Monarchs won their fourth straight state championship, once again edging the rival Sioux Falls Brewers in a dramatic one-run, extra-inning final.
If that doesn’t strike you as one of the best sports stories of the year, well, I guess you had to be there.