By MATT SCHUCKMAN and BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Staff
2. QND girls basketball team repeats as state champs
A year after the Lady Raiders won their first state title since 1984, they repeated as Class 2A state champions in 2012. This time around, there was never any doubt.
Led by Associated Press all-staters Jordan Frericks, Kassidy Gengenbacher and Tori Kuhn, the Lady Raiders simply overwhelmed their opponents. QND won every postseason game by at least 31 points, becoming the first small-school girls basketball team in IHSA history to win every postseason game by double digits.
QND capped it off with a 62-31 win over Breese Central in the state championship.
"We had expectations for ourselves, and we had expectations to fulfill from (outsiders) whether we wanted to or not," Kuhn said afterward. "We had expectations, and we rose to the challenge."
During the regular season, QND picked up wins over Edwardsville -- Class 4A's eventual runner-up -- and Springfield, which finished fourth in Class 3A. The end result was a 33-1 record, with the only loss coming to Missouri Class 5's state champion, Columbia Rock Bridge. The Lady Raiders ended up ranked No. 36 nationally in ESPN's Fab 50 poll and put themselves in the discussion for being the best small-school girls basketball team in IHSA history.
The Lady Raiders were ranked No. 1 in Class 2A in the Associated Press poll from the start of the season to the finish.
"Most of the time, when you have a team that is ranked No. 1 all throughout the season, it's hard to live up to that pressure," Gengenbacher said. "And I think we handled that really well."
3. Jack Mackenzie retires
Iconic. There is no better word to describe Jack Mackenzie.
He helped create a soccer culture in Quincy, while leading the Quincy University men's soccer program to nine NAIA national championships and more than 500 victories in a 43-year career as the Hawks' head coach.
In late July, with the Hawks about to embark on the defense of their Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament title, Mackenzie announced his retirement.
"After 43 years, it's just time," the 71-year-old Mackenzie said. "It's time to step aside and let somebody else have the great opportunities that I've had. I could hang on, but I don't want to hang on. I've had a great career."
Mackenzie turned the reins of the program over to Mike Carpenter, a former QU player and long-time assistant coach who led the Hawks to a top-10 national ranking and an NCAA Division II national tournament berth in his first season on the sidelines.
4. Cornell earns NFL job
When offensive tackle Jack Cornell signed a free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens, he knew his opportunity to make the 53-man roster was a long shot at best.
Week by week and practice by practice, the long shot nearly became a sure shot.
Cornell, a Quincy Notre Dame and University of Illinois graduate, made it to the final cut in training camp before being released. However, the Ravens immediately signed Cornell to their practice squad, where he has played all season in helping the playoff-bound Ravens prepare each week.
A 6-foot-7, 320-pound beast, Cornell became the first Quincy product since Herman Schneidman in the 1930s to earn a job playing with an NFL franchise.
"This whole thing was about getting my foot in the door," Cornell said. "I think I did everything I could to accomplish that."
5. QND girls soccer team wins state title
The Quincy Notre Dame girls soccer team may have shouldered more pressure to win a state championship than any other team in any sport.
Not only did the Lady Raiders want to make amends for an early postseason exit in 2011 and regain the title they won in 2010, but there was the opportunity for QND to become the first school in state history to win state titles in the fall, winter and spring of the same school year.
Yet, no one ever would have known the Lady Raiders were up against history.
QND rolled through the postseason, winning its postseason games a combined 34-3 and beating Manteno 3-0 in the Class 1A state title game to cap a perfect 28-0 season.The Lady Raiders were just the fourth girls soccer team in IHSA history to finish unbeaten and untied.
"I know how terrible it is to end a season on a loss, and to go out like this, wow. It's unbelievable," all-state forward Shannon Foley said.
"It's the last thing we could do for Notre Dame. For our fans, our peers, our parents, our teachers, everyone, I couldn't be more happy that we could go out on a win."
6. Conference shuffling
The first domino that would affect the area's prep conference affiliation landscape fell in January, when non-area teams Orion, Taylor Ridge Rockridge, Sherrard and Princeton were approved by the Three Rivers Conference for membership starting with the 2013-14 school year.
To help replace those four schools, the West Central Conference in February picked up Quincy Notre Dame and Chillicothe IVC as football-playing members starting in the 2013-14 season. Those schools' departure from the Mid-State Six Conference left that league with four teams, causing the MS6 to merge with the Western Big Six Conference, which includes Quincy High School, for football starting in 2013. That league will be called the Mid-West 10 Football Conference.
Then earlier this month, longtime WCC member Pittsfield applied for football membership to the Sangamo Conference, meaning the WCC faces more uncertainty. Sprinkled in was Mark Twain's decision in May to leave the Clarence Cannon Conference for the Eastern Missouri Conference for all sports starting in the 2014-15 season.
7. Illini West fires Keene
Zach Keene's Illini West girls basketball team improbably won a Class 2A regional title in February by upsetting state-ranked Havana.
About a month later, the Illini West School Board used a 4-3 vote to fire Keene, who compiled a 141-68 with four regional titles in seven seasons at Carthage/Illini West. The matter was revisited in April, but a second vote remained the same -- the three school board members from Carthage voted to retain Keene as coach, while the four non-Carthage members wanted him out.
It was a move that seemed largely unpopular to the players who played for Keene in 2011-12.Most of Keene's players showed up at the April board meeting in support of him, with then-senior Lauren Gronewold making a speech to try to save Keene's job. Keene wound up taking the girls basketball position at Macomb, while Illini West went outside the program to bring in Grant Surprenant as its new coach.
8. Three area softball teams win state trophies
The Payson Seymour softball team made history in the spring. Led by Cheyanne Bowman's 500 strikeouts in the pitcher's circle -- tied for the second-most single-season strikeouts in IHSA history -- and some timely hitting, the Lady Indians finished second in Class 1A. It marked the first state appearance for Payson in softball.
Then in the fall, Knox County's all-state battery of pitcher Rachel Poston and catcher Bailey Couch helped the Lady Eagles advance to state for the first time since 1981. Knox County finished fourth in Class 1.
Palmyra also made its traditional state trip. Led by all-state catcher Alexis Van Nostrand's performance both at the plate and behind it, the Lady Panthers advanced to the state tournament for the sixth time in seven seasons. This time was the first time Palmyra didn't make the state championship, and it finished fourth in Class 2.
9. C-SE football team reaches state semifinals
The C-SE football program had been on the rise the past several seasons but couldn't get over the second-round playoff hump, losing there in 2010 and 2011. Not only did this year's squad get past that barrier for the first time in program history, the Panthers won a program-record 12 games before bowing out in the Class 2A semifinals. During the regular season, C-SE made an immediate impact in the Western Illinois Valley Conference's North Division, winning the title by outscoring five North foes a combined 225-53.
Making the journey even more remarkable was the fact that C-SE had graduated the three running backs that started in its double-wing offense in 2011. In stepped the trio of Dalton Heubner, Douglas Weese and Bobby Keltz, and with all-state lineman Drew Miller helping pave the way, the Panthers ground attack was even more explosive than the year before.
10. QU announces plans for Legends Stadium project
The Quincy University athletic administration wanted to honor Jack Mackenzie for his success, commitment and class. The school is doing much, much more.
In October, during a tribute dinner for Mackenzie, QU athletic director Marty Bell announced the Legends Stadium project. The three-phase, $1.5 million project calls for the addition of a turf field at the North Campus soccer complex which will be dubbed "Mackenzie Field."
The second phase will be the construction of a formal entrance to the facility, which will be named "The Walk of Champions." QU's national championship teams will be honored along the walk. The final phase will be the construction of a press box, concession stand, conference space and team film room.
In the five weeks that followed the announcement, QU raised more than $150,000 for the project, including getting a six-figure pledge from 1981 QU graduate Linda Taylor.