By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
Story of the Year
Hannibal Cavemen right fielder Trey Lang barely moved.
There wasn't any need to pursue the ball that had just left the bat of Quincy Gems slugger Chris Serritella. It was headed deep into the night sky and ultimately onto the football field far beyond the right-field fence at QU-Stadium.
That moonshot was one of two Serritella hit against the Gems' archrivals during a July 30 Prospect League game. And there were many more.
Covering the Gems throughout the summer, I often went to QU-Stadium wondering just how far Serritella or fellow slugger Bryan Lippincott might launch a home run that night or how many runs the Gems' juggernaut offense would produce.
The Prospect League season began with Quincy winning 14 of its first 15 games, en route to compiling a league-best 38-18 regular-season record. It ended with the Gems in a dogpile near the pitcher's mound at QU-Stadium, after the Gems won their second league championship in the past three years.
"No doubt, one of the best teams I've ever been a part of," reliever Josh Janway said after the championship game.
Ironically, after the Gems led the league with 415 runs during the regular season -- 102 more than the next-best offense -- a strong pitching performance carried Quincy in the Aug. 10 championship game, as Janway and starting pitcher Taylor Robson combined for a two-hit shutout in Quincy's 5-0 win against the West Virginia Miners.
"Our hitters have come through all year, and it's about time the pitchers picked them up," Robson said afterward.
That was the beauty of this team. There were so many players capable of stepping up and delivering a memorable performance on any given night.
Topping that list was Serritella, who won the league's Player of the Year (Mike Schmidt Award). He hit .361 with 14 home runs and 60 RBI during the regular season, tying the Gems' single-season home-run record and setting a new club record for RBI. He added another home run and drove in two runs during the playoffs and put himself in the discussion for the best single-season performance in Gems history.
Lippincott also could argue he deserved to be in that conversation after he hit .345 with 10 home runs and 57 RBI during the regular season and then added a pair of homers and five RBI in the postseason.
"Those two together were absolutely special, possibly one of the best 3-4 combinations that this league has seen, maybe ever," Quincy manager Chris Martin said.
Game of the Year
Nov. 12, 2011
At Redbird Arena
Quincy Notre Dame d. Palos Heights Chicago Christian
21-25, 26-24, 25-21
I was already crafting the "Lady Raiders fall in state volleyball championship" story in my head and starting to gather my things for a trip to the interview room at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena.
Quincy Notre Dame had lost the first set of the Class 2A state championship against defending state champion Palos Heights Chicago Christian and was trailing 24-22 in the second set, facing match point.
I, like many in the arena I'm sure, thought it was all but over. I should've known better.
In a season in which QND made an underdog run to the state championship, the Lady Raiders' biggest surprise was still to come.
QND scored the next four points to win the second set 26-24 and claimed the third set 25-21 to win its first volleyball state title since 1998 and fourth overall.
The Lady Raiders couldn't match Chicago Christian's height or offensive firepower, so they rallied around the defense that helped them compile a 29-9 record.
Senior libero Shannon Foley led the way, compiling 29 digs to set a championship match record during the four-class era that started in 2007.
QND racked up 59 digs overall -- compared to 45 for Christian -- and limited Christian's powerful offense to a .141 hitting percentage.
The Lady Raiders were left with a perfect ending to a storybook season in which they had to replace their coach and five starters from the 2010 team.
"No one believed we could win, but we knew," Foley said. "Obviously, as you can see, anything can happen."
Experiencing Quincy sports traditions
In my first 16 months at The Herald-Whig, I've been lucky enough to experience many of the great Quincy sports traditions that I heard about after first starting here. Most of them lived up to the hype.
The "Sting Squad" at Brown County creates the best small-school football environment I've ever seen.
The pregame ceremony at Blue Devil Gym would definitely intimidate me if I was an opponent and fire me up if I went to QHS.
The McDonald's/Herald-Whig Classic is truly a legit all-star basketball game where the players actually care about trying to beat their across-the-river rivals, rather than an exhibition where the coaches just roll out the ball and say, "Go play," which is the case for some all-star games.
The Pepsi Little People's Golf Championships, however, is one Quincy sports tradition that left me wanting more. It was disappointing to see that many of the area's top golfers don't participate in the event.
The tournament also doesn't have that special hook to make it more intriguing than most other junior golf tournaments. For example, the Drysdale Tournament in Springfield, Ill., is a match-play event that creates a great format that the competitors love. Nearly all the top players in the Springfield area compete in the event. I'm not saying the LPGC needs a complete overhaul of its format, but somehow, it needs to get more local talent involved.
Three predictions for 2012
1. The QND girls basketball team will steamroll its way through the Class 2A state tournament, winning every game by at least 15 points to win its second consecutive state championship. The Lady Raiders will win with such dominance, they'll put themselves into discussion for being the best small-school girls basketball team in Illinois history.
2. Under new ownership that's, by all appearances, made the organization more financially stable, the Hannibal Cavemen will start to distance themselves from a former ownership group that created one headache after another and left some folks in Hannibal disgruntled with the organization. If the new ownership group, which took over during the middle of the 2011 season, can put a good team on the field, I think we'll see attendance and excitement pick up at Clemens Field.
3. I've had a few fun debates with others in the local sports media during the last couple months about which girls basketball post player I'd rather have on my team -- QND's Tori Kuhn or Marion County's Jessica Redd. You really can't go wrong with either. In June, basketball fans will get to see these two future Division II players go head to head for the first time, when the Illinois all-stars face Missouri's in The Herald-Whig Classic. Redd will record game highs for points and rebounds, but Kuhn's team will win the game.