Every year at about this time, a whole bunch of top 10 lists make their way around the Internet with the top whatever of 2011.
You’re going to see another one here.
Every year at this time I rate the top 10 sports stories from around the state and the nation. It’s time to do it again.
So without further ado, here are my top 10 Michigan sports stories of 2011:
1. The Detroit Lions are 10-5 and going to the playoffs. Things certainly have changed for the Lions since Martin Mayhew took over from Matt Millen as president of the Lions. He’s drafted two great defensive linemen and used key free agents to turn around a team that was 6-10 last year. The Lions are going to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and now no one is calling for William Clay Ford Sr. to sell the team – yet.
2. The Detroit Tigers win the American League Central Division, then beat the New York Yankees to get to the AL Championship Series. The Tigers weren’t supposed to get that far. Questions about the bullpen without Joel Zumaya, the back end of the starting rotation, and the spring training arrest of Miguel Cabrera brought the doubters out in droves. But Detroit outlasted the Chicago White Sox to get to the top of the heap, then surprised everyone again by downing the vaunted Pinstripes. To go along with that…
3. Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander was named AL MVP. There were many, including Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who thought pitchers shouldn’t win the AL MVP. But when you’re first in wins, first in strikeouts and first in earned-run average, there’s not a great case to make for anyone else. And a case couldn’t be made for anyone else when it came to how important they were to the team. That’s why Verlander was deserving of the award.
4. The Michigan football team goes 10-2 and is going to a BCS game. No one was expecting a lot from first-year head coach Brady Hoke, but he proved the doubters wrong with a perfect non-conference slate, then losing only to Michigan State and Iowa the rest of the way. Led by quarterback Denard Robinson and a revamped defense, the Wolverines established themselves as another player in the Big Ten-plus-two championship race. They also beat Ohio State for the first time in seven years, which will score points with the alumni.
5. Flint businessman Tom Gores buys the dysfunctional Detroit Pistons. The Pistons were put up for sale by Karen Davidson, the widow of owner Bill Davidson. Gores came in after talks broke down with Tigers and Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Illitch. Gores takes over a team that fired coach John Kuester when the team boycotted a shootaround and guard Rodney Stuckey refused to give the coach any respect during the season.
6. The Red Wings make the playoffs again, bowing to San Jose in the conference semifinals. This is becoming old hat for the Wings, as they barely sneaked by Nashville at the tail end of the season to claim the third seed in the Western Conference. But second-seeded San Jose made life miserable for Detroit, getting up 3-1 in the series before almost blowing it. Retirements came in the form of Brian Rafalski, Kris Draper and Chris Osgood, but Nicklas Lidstrom returned for one more crack at the Stanley Cup.
7. Michigan State wins the Legends Division, playing in the first-ever Big Ten-plus-two championship game. The Spartans were tripped up by only Notre Dame early, then seemed to be a team of destiny when a “hail Mary” pass fell into the hands of Lowell’s Keith Nichol against Wisconsin. The Badgers got their revenge in the title game, sending MSU to the Outback Bowl instead of a BCS bowl.
8. Wayne State gets to the Division 2 championship game. When you think of Division 2 football teams in Michigan, it’s pretty much Grand Valley State and everyone else. Not this year, as Wayne State shocked everyone not following the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with their ascent to the title game. However they were in uncharted territory when they got there, and three-time champion Pittsburgh State made it four with a convincing win.
9. Michigan’s hockey team goes to the NCAA championship game. This Wolverine team was a top program, though a couple of stumbles in the regular season had some people questioning whether they would get to the title game. But they did, and had it not been for a controversial goal waved off against Minnesota-Duluth, the Wolverines wouldn’t have got to overtime and lost quickly.
10. Fennville basketball player Wes Leonard makes a game-winning shot for the Eagles, then dies. Fennville had a perfect 20-0 season on the line against Bridgman, and Bridgman gave them everything they could handle. Leonard made the last-second shot, and as his team celebrated, Leonard’s heart stopped. Doctors couldn’t revive him, and Fennville had to go to the playoffs with a heavy heart. Still, the Eagles made it to the Class B quarterfinals before losing. Leonard will never be forgotten at Fennville because of the circumstances surrounding his death.