Minnesota sports: They aren’t always great, but they are never boring. If we can agree that is a good description of our local sports scene in general, we should also be able to agree that 2013 was a microcosm of that. Some championships were won — but often losses mounted and powerful people were fired. To sum it all up, here is a look back at the top 10 Minnesota sports stories of 2013, in descending order:
10 A superstar makes his decision: Inside the gym at Apple Valley that he helped make a destination — and also on live TV for a national audience — point guard Tyus Jones, one of the top basketball recruits in the country, announced his plan to attend Duke. It capped quite a year for Jones, who in March helped lead Apple Valley to the Class 4A state championship.
9 Changeup for the M&M boys: Both things seemed inevitable at the end, but it was still jarring to see Justin Morneau, a former MVP with the Twins, traded midseason to Pittsburgh in the midst of another lost season for the Twins … and then to hear the news a few months later that Joe Mauer, his former partner in crime, was permanently moving to Morneau’s old spot at first base.
8 Out with the old, in with the semi-new: Nearly four years after hiring David Kahn as their president of basketball operations, the Timberwolves jettisoned him and hired former head coach Flip Saunders as his replacement. Where the move will lead the Wolves in the future remains to be seen.
7 The pro team we can count on: If there has been one shining star during a stretch of mostly losing seasons from our pro teams, it is the Lynx. They won their first WNBA title in 2011, finished as the runners-up in 2012 and came back hungrier than ever to reclaim their perch at the top in 2013. They did so in the most dominant fashion possible, sweeping their way through all three playoff opponents en route to another downtown victory parade.
6 Opening up the wallet: In some markets, doling out a pair of modest-to-significant free agent contracts to pitchers wouldn’t make a year-end top 10 list. But when the Twins invested $49 million in Ricky Nolasco and another $24 million in Phil Hughes – making them the two largest contracts ever given by the organization to outside free agents – it was major news. Whether the two can revamp the team’s downtrodden starting staff in 2014 remains to be seen, but the Twins are certainly more serious about addressing the problem.
5 Josh Harding’s amazing season: When it was revealed late in 2012 that Wild goaltender Josh Harding has multiple sclerosis, nobody knew what it would mean for his career. While he intended to keep playing, would he be able to sustain a career at the highest level of a sport? Well, the answer has arrived in stunningly impressive fashion in 2013. Harding has done more than thrive. For much of the year, he has led the NHL in goals-against average and is one of the main reasons the Wild still has a chance to earn a repeat trip to the playoffs.
4 Tubby Smith fired; Richard Pitino hired: On the surface, the Gophers men’s basketball team had its most successful season in more than 15 years by reaching the NCAA tournament and winning a game. But the team regressed during the year, as had been the theme with many Smith squads at Minnesota, and athletic director Norwood Teague made the move to buy out his contract. A whirlwind coaching search led to Richard Pitino, 30 years old at the time and the son of coaching legend Rick Pitino. This year’s Gophers are 11-2 heading into Big Ten play.
3 Gophers football, a midseason turnaround: Midway through the 2013 season, the Gophers football team had lost its first two Big Ten games by a combined score of 65-20. Head coach Jerry Kill had stepped away from the team in an attempt to get his seizures under control. Questions abounded about his future and the direction of the program. And then? Acting head coach Tracy Claeys helped direct a four-game conference winning streak that changed the narrative of the season. Though the Gophers lost their final three games, including a bowl heartbreaker to Syracuse, their 8-5 year became one of the feel-good stories of 2013.
2 Gophers women’s hockey, the title and the streak: It’s hard to win 62 consecutive times in anything, no matter how dominant you are. But the sport of hockey — where one bad bounce or hot goaltender can ruin your night — it is seemingly impossible. But the Gophers women’s hockey team did it, winning 62 in a row, including a perfect 41-0 season capped by their second consecutive NCAA title in 2013. The streak was snapped in November, but the Gophers are still the No. 1-ranked team in the nation heading into 2014.