It was another year full of ups and downs, heroic moments and agonizing defeats. We watched as underdogs reigned supreme and unheralded athletes rose to the top of their sport. Here is our list of the top 10 local sports stories in 2017.
10. Lexie Goes Viral
Lexie Vaught is one of the most decorated area basketball players in Southwest Missouri. That’s why what happened in her freshman year at Drury was so unusual. During a Saturday afternoon game in January, the Crane native lost her shoe. Shoeless and looking like a newborn deer, Vaught slipped and slid all over the court all while the O-Zone camera caught the action. With a great sense of humor, Vaught laughed it off as her video went viral online and found its way on ESPN’s Not Top 10 list.
9. Bielema Gets the Boot
After five seasons, Bret Bielema was shown the door by the University of Arkansas. The former Wisconsin head coach had a pair of seven-win seasons and one eight-win campaign with the Razorbacks, but never finished better than 3rd in the S-E-C West. Bielema had seven conference losses this past year, tied for the second most in school history only trailing his own mark of 0-8 back in 2013. SMU’s Chad Morris was named as the new head coach three weeks later.
8. Cuonzo Time in Columbia
A familiar face for us in the Ozarks, Cuonzo Martin made his way back to Missouri after a successful stint at Cal. Taking over for Kim Anderson, Martin injected a much needed jolt into the Mizzou program that saw three straight losing seasons. His hiring switched blue chippers Jeremiah Tilmon away from the Illini and Michael Porter Jr, the nation’s top recruit, from Washington. Porter only played in two minutes as a Tiger before suffering a back injury.
7. Alize to the NBA?
Many paused when Missouri State forward Alize Johnson announced he was returning for his senior season with the Bears. NBA prospect? Couldn’t be right? Well, it turns out the 6-foot-9 forward is a legit pro prospect. Johnson was awarded the Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year and returned as the Valley’s preseason Player of the Year. Heading into the new year Johnson, a projected 2nd round pick, is averaging 14.5 ppg and 10.6 rpg for the 11-3 Bears.
6. Ridder Returns Home
Jared Ridder was the talk of the Ozarks basketball world. The 6-foot-6, silky-smooth Kickapoo senior picked up nearly every honor he was eligible for; Gatorade Player of the Year, Mr. Show-Me Basketball, Class 5 Player of the Year, etc. Ridder averaged 24 points per game leading the Chiefs back to the final four before heading to national powerhouse Xavier over the summer. But early in the fall semester Ridder surprisingly announced he was leaving the Muskateers. Two days later he was on the MSU campus sporting a Bears jersey. Ridder transferred to Missouri State, but will have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Target squarely on the Strafford girls basketball team all year, but the Indians far exceeded expectations, winning the Class 3 state title by 46 points to cap a record-breaking 33-0 campaign. The win marked the 49th straight for the Indians, who are off to another perfect start this season, including another Pink and White championship. Junior Hayley Frank announced she’ll play at Mizzou in a couple years. She also set the school’s career scoring record with around 45 games to go in her unbelievable prep career.
4. Frerichs Takes London
Sure, we were all so proud of Courtney Frerichs for making the 2016 Olympics, but what the Nixa native did over the summer shocked the world. While teammate Emma Coburn set a new world record in London, Frerichs finished 2nd in the best steeplechase field in history. Crushing her previous personal record by nearly 15 seconds, Frerichs vaulted into a contender to not just make the 2020 games in Tokyo…but to earn a medal.
3. “Cole Train” in the NFL
He was a high school state champ and college All-American yet no one gave Dylan Cole a chance to make the NFL. He proved the critics wrong every step of the way. The “Cole Train” worked his tail off and the Houston Texans took notice, signing the speedy linebacker as an undrafted free agent. Once again, Cole delivered with a sack, two interceptions and a touchdown to solidify his spot on the 53-man roster as one of the Texans’ best young defenders.
2. Super Bears
Ain’t no Cinderella’s here! For the second time in three years the Missouri State Bears were regional champs. With the Valley regular season title in tow, MSU rolled into Hog Country and got some Razorback payback, beating Arkansas in the regionals in three games. On to Fort Worth where the quest for Omaha fell short to national-seed TCU, but just the beginning for the Bears’ biggest bopper; third baseman Jake Burger selected 11th overall by the Chicago White Sox.
1. Fight Like a Lion
“Keep right on steppin,” the rallying cry of the Mansfield Lion baseball team in 2017. The small Ozarks town won the Class 2 state title, and they did it for their beloved late coach Doug Jones. Four months after Jones, the winningest coach in Missouri history, lost his battle with brain cancer, his Lions roared, beating Canton 16-3 to capture the program’s first state title in 21 years. “Coach Jones has got a big smile on his face right now and I’ve never been prouder of a bunch of kids in my life,” said Gary Greene, who shared coaching duties following Jones’ passing.
Honorable mention (no particular order): Tiger Woods announces Branson golf course, Lamar wins record seventh state football title, Glendale’s Alex Huston chases national passing records, St. Louis Cardinals come to town, high school conference re-alignment, Luke Voit called up to St. Louis, MSU field hockey program cut, Logan Thomazin sets state 3-point record, Aurora baseball’s late heroics to win state, Mt Vernon pulls five upsets to reach state title game, Kid Rock teams with Jack Nicklaus to win Legends of Golf exhibition