If you’re a Southern Illinois sports fan, you probably hate to see 2019 come to a close.
There have been years when The Southern Illinoisan sports staff struggles to come up with 10 major stories for the annual year-end wrap up. That wasn’t the case this year.
In a short brainstorming session the staff came up with more than 20 stories, any of which were legitimate choices to make the Top 10 list. And the balloting reflected that — 16 different stories drew votes.
While the resulting Top 10 list is quite representative, there were several stories that didn’t make the cut that would have been solid choices in previous years. For instance, SIU fielding the first soccer team in school history didn’t make the cut, neither did the Goreville brother-sister fishing team of Landon and Kaeden Albright placing second in the state tournament, nor the Canadian Wild completing their first season in Southern Illinois.
Without further ado, here are the Top 10 sports stories of 2019 as voted on by the Southern Illinoisan staff:
No. 1 – Nashville and Murphysboro advance to state championship football games
There was a time it seemed even money that Southern Illinois would have a football team in the 2A, 3A or 4A state championship game the day after Thanksgiving.
That was a long time ago.
Entering the 2019 season not a single team from the Deep South had gotten a sniff at a state championship since the Du Quoin Indians finished second in 2008.
That all changed this year when Murphysboro and Nashville put together magical post-season runs that saw the Red Devils advance to the 4A title game against Richmond-Burton and Nashville reach the 2A championship opposite Sterling Newman.
Prior to the season there was little reason to believe either team would have that kind of year. Murphysboro had a load of skill players back, but returned just one offensive linemen. Nashville had promise, but the young Hornets appeared to be a year away.
Murphysboro started slowly, losing a late lead to Carbondale in the opening game. Then, a mid-season teacher’s strike threatened the team’s playoff eligibility. Fortunately, the Red Devils were forced to forfeit one game, then won out in the regular season, setting up the magical postseason run.
In the meantime, the Hornets rolled through the first seven weeks of the season, setting up a Week 8 showdown with Du Quoin for the SIRR Mississippi championship. Du Quoin knocked off the Hornets in a tight game.
Unfortunately, neither team was able to bring home a state championship.
Richmond-Burton topped Murphysboro 50-14 in the 4A title game. Nashville lost to Newman Sterling 35-14.
No. 2 – Jerry Kill leaves SIU for Virginia Tech
Jerry Kill is an icon at Southern Illinois University.
Kill arguably saved the football program after arriving on the scene in 2001. After leading a revitalized team to five straight playoff appearances, he left the Salukis to coach at Northern Illinois University.
His football odyssey led him to the University of Minnesota before recurring medical issues forced him from the sidelines. By 2018 Kill returned to SIU, being hired as a special assistant to Chancellor Carlo Montemagno.
Eventually, the university turned to Kill to take over a struggling athletic department.
In typical Jerry Kill fashion, he took the bull by the horns. In his brief tenure as head of the department he hired a new women’s soccer coach, replaced several other head coaches and engineered a naming rights agreement for the SIU Arena with Banterra Bank.
Then, in September, Kill dropped a bombshell, he stepped down as SIU’s athletic director to join the football staff at Virginia Tech University.
“The opportunity to serve as an administrator at SIU has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career, and it was a difficult decision to leave so many wonderful friends and colleagues at Southern Illinois,” Kill said in a prepared statement.
Kill was replaced by Liz Jarnigan, who he had hired as an associate athletic director.
No. 3 – Bryan Mullins replaces Barry Hinson as SIU basketball coach
Going into the 2018-19 basketball season it was clear Barry Hinson’s position as SIU’s basketball coach was on the line. Although it was never explicitly stated, the general consensus was that the senior-laden Salukis would have to earn a major postseason bid to secure Hinson’s job.
The Salukis put together a decent season, finishing 17-15, but the Salukis dropped a 61-58 decision to UNI in the first round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Hinson resigned his position in the press conference following the game.
The resignation ended a seven-year tenure that saw Hinson rebuild a program that was on the verge of NCAA suspension for poor academic performance. Hinson compiled a record of 116-111 as SIU’s basketball coach. His Saluki teams never earned a postseason berth.
Hinson revealed at the press conference that he and Chancellor Carlo Montemagno had a pact that the coach would tender his resignation if the team failed to secure a postseason berth.
"If you quote me on one thing, I'd like for you to quote me on this," Hinson said, his voice shaking. "I am so sorry. I am so sorry that we couldn't get back to the tournament. It's haunted me my entire life. And I'm a man of faith, and my dad taught me a long time ago I know not what my future holds, but I know who holds my future."
Speculation immediately turned to who would replace Hinson. Former Saluki standout Bryan Mullins was cast as one of the favorites for the job.
By March 20, Kill named Mullins to succeed Hinson. Mullins had been an assistant coach at Loyola. The SIU job was his first head coaching position.
Mullins was typically upbeat when he was announced as the new coach.
"There's not a better time. I think this school, walking around the facility, seeing the turnout, the reaction, the passion of the fan base, it's amazing," Mullins said. "To all the Saluki supporters, to all the alumni, to the people of Southern Illinois, it's because of your pride and passion for SIU Basketball, that nobody else in the Valley has, that's what makes it so special. The people here are the difference. I can't wait to coach my first game in the Arena. I can't wait to coach my first sellout game in the Arena."
No. 4 – Gabby Alongi leads Du Quoin girls to their first state track title
Going into the 1,600-meter relay, the final event of the day, Du Quoin’s track team had a slim three-point lead on the Latin School from Chicago.
The Indians needed one more strong performance to nail down the first girls state trophy in any sport.
Du Quoin started the day in impressive fashion with Alongi running down several runners in the anchor leg of the 3,200 meter relay to take second. Then, the 400-meter relay team of Madison Davis, Bailey Harsy, Cyerrah Harris and Ayanna Dunklin won the state championship.
The same group also claimed second in the 800-meter relay. In the meantime, Alongi also turned in stellar performances in both the 400 and 800 meter races, earning second place points in both events.
Then, with the state title on the line, Davis, Grace Alongi, Olivia Phillips and Gabby Alongi toed the line. The quartet responded with a state championship in a school record time of 4:01.38.
Alongi, who has just committed to the University of Illinois, competed in four events and finished no worse than second in any of them.
No. 5 – St. Louis Blues win the Stanley Cup
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For 51 years, the duration of the team’s existence, St. Louis Blues fans grew accustomed to late spring heartbreak. The franchise, despite some outstanding regular season performances, had never won a Stanley Cup.
And, early in the season there was no indication that the streak would end.
The team sputtered out of the gate, leading to the firing of Mike Yeo. Yeo was replaced by Craig Berube, but the team was still in last place in the overall NHL standings in early January.
Then, Justin Binnington was installed as the starting goaltender. Binnington’s swagger in goal seemed to turn the Blues around. The team embarked on an 11-game winning streak and suddenly found themselves in playoff contention.
The Blues “heavy” style of play was perfect for the playoffs. They seemed to thrive in win-or-go-home situations and eventually found themselves in the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins.
In Game 7, the Blues took the lead with something of a fluke goal on a Ryan O’Reilly tip-in of a Jay Bouwmeester shot. In the third period, the Blues took a 4-0 lead when Zach Sanford slammed a puck into a wide open net after a brilliant pass from David Perron.
The Stanley Cup set off what seemed like a month of celebrations in St. Louis.
No. 6 – Goreville wins Class A state softball championship; Pinckneyville second in 2A
It came as no surprise to Southern Illinois softball fans when Goreville advanced to the Class A state finals and Pinckneyville earned a championship berth in 2A. Goreville and Pinckneyville are two of the dominant programs in Southern Illinois.
The Blackcats have appeared in the state tournament five times since 2012. Goreville was first in 2012, third in 2013, first in 2017, second in 2018 and won their third state title of the decade last year.
By the same token, Pinckneyville was making its third straight appearance at state. The Panthers finished fourth in 2017 and 2018, but earned the second place trophy in 2019. Pinckneyville is 91-23 over that three-year span.
Goreville put together a solid regular season, then ran off 10 straight wins to wrap up the state title. Marissa-Coulterville fell to Goreville in the super-sectional before Goreville knocked off perennial power Hardin-Calhoun 2-0 in the semi-finals.
The Blackcats defeated Glasford-Illini Bluffs 4-2 in the championship game, finishing the season at 29-9.
Goreville outscored its opponents 71-5 in the postseason.
In the meantime, Pinckneyville got to the state tournament by defeating Breese Mater Dei 2-1 in the super-sectional. The Panthers scored the winning run on a third-inning steal of home.
Pinckneyville earned a spot in the title game with a convincing 11-3 win over Stanford Olympia before losing 8-0 to Beecher in the title game.
No. 7 – SIU football has winning season
SIU football entered the 2019 season with a string of five-straight losing seasons. In his three years at the helm, Nick Hill had a combined record of 10-23.
The Salukis were coming off a 2-9 record and faced a schedule that included two FBS teams.
The season got off to a poor start. The Salukis stood at 2-4 at midseason, and starting quarterback Stone Labanowitz was relegated to the sidelines by injury.
The situation appeared to be getting worse when 17/18-ranked Youngstown State came to Carbondale October 19. However, the Salukis rallied for a 35-10 win. That fueled a five-game winning streak and had SIU in playoff contention.
SIU made a strong showing in the season finale, playing No. 1 ranked North Dakota State to a 21-7 score, fueling speculation the Salukis would make their first playoff appearance since 2009. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition.
Offensively, the Salukis had two 1,000-yard rushers, Javon Williams and D.J. Davis, for the first time in school history. Williams, a redshirt freshman, finished third in Walter Payton Award voting, given to the best offensive player in the Football Championship Series.
Defensively, safety Jeremy Chinn was a Buck Buchanan Award finalist. The award is presented to the best defensive player in the FCS.
No. 8 – Sydney Apgar and Dasani Edward win state titles
Carbondale’s Sydney Apgar and Du Quoin’s Dasani Edward were both state track veterans when they arrived at Eastern Illinois University for the state finals.
Apgar had finished third in the 2A discus the previous year, throwing 130-1. Edward placed second in the Class A triple jump as a sophomore, jumping 44-4.25. Both were among the favorites in their event in 2019.
Now a freshman at Illinois State University, Apgar launched a personal best throw of 142-9 in preliminary competition. Weather conditions were less than ideal in the state finals — a howling wind was blowing into the faces of throwers.
Apgar failed to improve on her preliminary throw, but no one came within three feet of her best toss.
Edward also faced less than ideal conditions. In addition to the long jump and triple jump, Edward competed in a couple sprints. His jumps were interrupted by running events on a brutally hot day.
The junior was physically spent and barely qualified for the triple jump finals.
However, he responded with a huge effort in the finals, winning the long jump title with a leap of 23-5.5. Edward also took third in the triple jump.
No. 9 – DeAnna Price first U.S. women to win international hammer competition
DeAnna Price was already one of the most decorated figures in SIU track history when she became the first U.S. woman to win an IAAF world championship throwing event, winning the World Athletics Championship title with a throw of 77.54 meters in Qatar.
At SIU, Price was a two-time national champion in the hammer and a four-time All-American. In 2016 the Moscow Mills, Missouri, native placed third in the U.S. Olympic trials, earning a spot on the U.S. team. She finished eighth at the Rio Olympics.
She also competed in the 2017 World Championship finals.
Price and Gwen Berry, another former Saluki, spent much of the last two years trading places as the U.S. record holder in the event.
No. 10 – SIU softball earns NCAA tournament berth
The SIU softball team earned its second NCAA appearance in the last three years. The Salukis finished the 2019 campaign with a 34-15 record.
SIU earned an at-large bid. Drake received the MVC’s automatic bid. In addition to making the tournament field, Kerri Blaylock’s team won its first NCAA tournament game since 2007.
The Salukis lost their first round game, but stayed alive with a 2-1 walk-off win over Detroit-Mercy. However, SIU was then eliminated by Northwestern, 8-1.
The victory over Detroit-Mercy was the tenth NCAA tournament win under Blaylock. The 2019 tournament marked the sixth time in seven NCAA appearances that the Salukis won at least one game.
The record-setting campaign saw the Salukis break the school record for fielding percentage (.979). The team committed just 29 errors, the lowest total in program history.
On Twitter: @LesWinkeler