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Softball state title ranks as top sports story of 2013

Playoff football, track titles fill other two slots

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT
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(T.G. Smith (file photo))
Members of the Minooka softball team try to touch their freshly-earned Class 4A state championship trophy following a 14-3 win over St. Charles East at the Eastside Centre in East Peoria on June 8.
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(Mark Johnson (file photo))
Seneca football players hoist their helmets following a 46-6 blowout of Robeson in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs on Nov. 9. The Fighting Irish were in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
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(Morris Daily Herald file photo)
Minooka 4x400-meter relay runners (from left) Chris Wilson, Jake Smith, Alex Pierce and Daniel Ingram show off their Class 3A state championship medals at O’Brien Stadium in Charleston in May.
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(Morris Daily Herald file photo)
Haleigh Knapp wears her 2013 state championship medal and holds other medals she has won in the high jump in June. She won her second straight state championship in the high jump in 2013.

When Minooka softball coach Mark Brown reflects now on the Indians’ run to the Class 4A state championship in June, he said he is not surprised by it.

Most observers certainly were surprised when it happened. Minooka was seeded ninth at the Lincoln-Way East Sectional, yet it outscored its playoff opponents 59-24 for its first state title. That run is the Morris Daily Herald’s local sports story of 2013.

“Nothing really sank in as it happened,” Brown said this week. “As I look back on it, I’m not surprised at all. What I am surprised by is that we didn’t make a run before this year.”

In 2012, Minooka was the top seed at its own regional, but it lost, 6-1, to Joliet West in the championship. It also advanced to, and lost at, regional championships in 2010 and 2011.

“The pressure was kind of off of us this year, being such a low seed at a loaded sectional,” Brown said. “[The difference] was timely hitting, combined with the maturity of the girls who had been on varsity for three years. Even the girls who are seniors now, like Jordyn Larsen and Marissa Burns, had played with Sara Novak and Jackie Lilek for years, and they kept building on that camaraderie they’d developed.”

The team got together – with the exception of Lilek, who was unable to attend – for a Minooka football game this fall, where team members were presented with championship rings and honored at halftime.

“The girls were congratulated by their peers and the faculty. It being a spring sport kind of robbed them of that opportunity when it happened,” Brown said. “With this being only the second team state championship of any kind in school history, we’ll be forever linked together through that.”

Here are the rest of the top three local sports stories for 2013.

2. One up, one down

The team with the area’s longest football playoff drought qualified in 2013. The area’s most consistent playoff qualifier failed to get in.

Seneca went 7-2 during the regular season to secure its first playoff berth since 2001. The Fighting Irish were not just happy to be there. They defeated Kewanee 21-14 and Robeson 46-6, making them the last area and Interstate Eight Conference school standing. Defending Class 3A state champion Aurora Christian eliminated them in the quarterfinals, 36-27.

“These kids were told from day one that there was a lot of things they couldn’t do,” Seneca coach Ted O’Boyle said after the Aurora Christian loss. “And it just shows when you’re that age of kid in high school, if you put your mind to something and you believe in something, you can achieve something. What we achieved this year, I think, is very special.”

Meanwhile, a 3-6 regular season kept Morris out of the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and the second time since 1986. A Week 9 loss to Kaneland sealed the Redskins’ worst season since 1976.

3. Track state titles

Haleigh Knapp became the first Morris athlete to repeat as a state champion in track and field in over a decade. She defended her Class 2A girls high-jump title, topping out at 5 feet, 8 inches at Charleston’s O’Brien Stadium.

“I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve won state two times in a row. I know it happened. I still can’t believe it completely,” Knapp said after her win. “You never think it’s going to happen to you. You never think you’re going to be the best at something.”

A banner season for the Minooka boys team was on its way to a unhappy ending when the Indians had a series of substandard performances at the boys state meet. In the final event, the 4x400 relay, Daniel Ingram, Alex Pierce, Jake Smith and Chris Wilson finished in 3:19.15 to earn the championship.

“Our win boosted the spirits of our coaches and our fans who had come down there to watch. It was a great way to end it,” Ingram said at the time.

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