1. Sterling, Dixon & Newman rule the gridiron
Losses were few and far between for three of our local teams this past football season.
For the second straight fall, Sterling and Newman both finished the regular season 9-0, and Dixon looked poised to join them after winning its first eight games before a late comeback by North Boone in Week 9 dropped the Dukes to 8-1.
The postseason also saw each team take one more step than in 2016. Sterling and Newman both advanced to the state semifinals – Sterling for the first time in school history, Newman for the 10th time – a year after both lost in the quarterfinals, and Dixon made its second quarterfinal appearance in program history, joining the 2006 team.
Determined to bounce back from an upset loss in the 2016 quarterfinals to NIB-12 crossover rival Sycamore, the Golden Warriors went through the regular season like a buzzsaw, dominating opponents with a stingy defense and an offense led by star running back Nyrel Sullivan
and 2-year starting QB Trey Morse.
The playoffs weren’t much different, as the Warriors won their first three postseason games by a combined 116-30. But Sterling ran into a wall in eventual state champion Chicago Phillips in the Final Four, as Phillips added a 5A state championship to its 4A title in 2015.
Sullivan earned all-state honors after finishing with 1,710 yards rushing and 35 total touchdowns.
The Dukes were in similar rare-fied air, in terms of the teams that had come before them. Led by a second straight 2,000-yard season from all-stater Arthur Cox – he broke his own school record with 2,115 yards while accounting for42 total TDs – and a 2,550-yard passing season and 36 total TDs from fellow senior Noah Wilcox, Dixon outscored its opponents 556-209 before a 38-13 loss to Chicago Raby in the quarterfinals.
Cox leaves as Dixon’s all-time leader in career rushing yards (4,950 yards) and touchdowns (85), to go with the top two single-season rushing totals in school history. Wilcox had the best two single-season passing marks, and finished second to JD Gieson on the career passing list.
Like Sterling, the Comets were completely dominating in their run to the semis. A balanced offense scored 508 points and had three 800-yard rushers in Easton Bianchi (1,256, 20 TDs), Cade Gorzny (1,106, 11 TDs) and Luke Olson (801, 13 TDs), while a stifling defense gave up just 138 points in the program’s 11th straight season with at least eight wins, and its 16th season of
double-digit wins since Mike Papoccia took over as head coach 38 years ago.
A snowy, wet, muddy day in Gibson City was the end of this particular road for Newman, but this group earned its place in program history with a second straight perfect regular season – the sixth time the Comets have done that since 2010.
2. Tayla Schwarz wins 2nd Class 2A discus state title (May 20, 2017)
One year after taking the discus state title with a 2A-record throw of 145 feet, 8 inches, the Dixon junior successfully defended her crown with a toss of 142 feet, which carried over from her first throw of prelims. The University of
Illinois signee added a third-place finish in the shot put, giving her a second & two thirds in the shot put and two firsts & a fourth in the discus in her 3 years of competing at the IHSA state finals at Charleston’s O’Brien Stadium.
3. Tyler Fleetwood wins 2nd 1A state wrestling title (February 18, 2017)
After winning the Class 1A state championship at 106 pounds in a stellar sophomore season in 2016, the Fulton junior moved up to 120 pounds and repeated the feat in 2017. Fleetwood recorded three takedowns, a nearfall and two escapes in a relatively easy 11-5 victory in the final, capping off a 40-2 season.
Later in the day, he was just as thrilled when his twin brother, Taylor, wrestled for a title at 285 pounds; he finished second.
4. Dixon youth tennis guru Emma Hubbs dies (July 27, 2017)
Some people are larger than life, and because of that affect thousands of people, even when spending their entire life in the same small town.
Emma Hubbs was one of those people.
The 88-year-old died 13 months to the day after suffering a stroke, ending a 68-year career as the area’s preeminent youth tennis coach in which she was into her third (and even fourth) generation of students from the same family.
5. Jake Junis makes MLB debut (April 12, 2017)
Just 2 days after getting called up to the big leagues by the Royals, the Rock Falls native tossed a scoreless ninth inning in relief in a loss to the Angels, loading the bases before a dramatic first-to-home-to-first double play to get out of the inning unscathed. He finished the season in the starting rotation as one of KC’s most valuable pitchers.
6. Easton Bianchi wins 100 & 200 (May 27, 2017)
It was a banner day for the Newman junior in the finals at the Class 1A state track meet in Charleston, as Bianchi racked up not one but two championships in the sprints. His time of 10.86 seconds in the 100 was .07 seconds faster than the state runner-up, then he clocked a 21.78 in the 200 – a whopping .37 seconds faster than second place.
7. Fillies softball places 3rd in 1A (June 3, 2017)
Morrison capped several careers with one last hurrah, as they sent longtime coach Tammy Deter & a stellar class of seniors out with a 7-2 win over Pinckneyville to take third at the Class 1A state softball tournament. It was win No. 100 for the talented senior group full of 3- & 4-year starters, and Deter’s 518th in a 23-year career.
8. Russ Damhoff retires at SVCC (March 20, 2017)
After 31 years as the Skyhawks’ head men’s basketball coach, Damhoff retired as coach and athletic director just a month after his 65th birthday. The Prophetstown native finished with a 592-392 record in his career, with 2 Arrowhead
Conference titles (1989, ’91) & 2 Region IV championships (1994, ’95).
9. Niles Ager & Joe Eads win state titles (February 18, 2017)
These two seniors made the most of their final individual state wrestling meet, as both capped off great seasons with titles. Rock Falls’ Ager won 17-2 in the 195-pound final to run his record to 42-0; it was his 28th tech fall win of the year, good for No. 2 in IHSA history. Morrison’s Eads won 4-2 at 138 pounds to finish the year 43-3.
10. Brayden Hamblen & Mason Wright win titles (May 27, 2017)
With one senior achieving a lifelong dream & another capping a meteoric rise, the dual storylines were epic.
Rock Falls’ Hamblen won the 3,200 crown in 9:22.89, adding to the cross country state title he won in the fall of 2016. Polo’s Wright won the triple jump with a leap of 47 feet, only 2 years after first going out for the sport.