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The top 10 sports stories in DeKalb County in 2017

NIU defensive end Sutton Smith (15) sacks Western Michigan Broncos quarterback Reece Goddard (6) for a loss  at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 15.
NIU defensive end Sutton Smith (15) sacks Western Michigan Broncos quarterback Reece Goddard (6) for a loss at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 15.

The 2017 calender year was full of stunning athletic achievements in DeKalb County.

The Kaneland soccer team made history with its Northern Illinois Big 12 East title. Cross country season was huge, with the Sycamore boys taking third in the state and Kaneland's Matt Richtman winning an individual title. Indian Creek softball won a regional for the first time since 2009.

And those events couldn't crack the Daily Chronicle's list of the Top 10 Sports Stories of 2017. Below is the top 10.

1. NIU defensive end Sutton Smith emerges as the defensive player in the MAC, one the of the best in the country

In a resurgent year for the Huskies, Smith rewrote the NIU record book and picked up plenty of accolades along the way.

Smith set a record for tackles for a loss with 29 1/2 and sacks with 14. Both records had stood for at least a decade.

The sophomore was handsomely rewarded with personal accolades. He was named to the first team of both the Walter Camp All-America squad and the Football Writers All-America team. He was second-team on the Associated Press' All-American Team, and was the Mid-American Conference's Defensive Player of the Year.

All those All-America honors resulted in him being named a consensus All-America selection by the NCAA, one of five defensive linemen to earn the honor this year.

The converted running back said the experience of his old position helped with the new one.

“You kind of know how they’re going to run a little bit,” Smith said in an interview in September. “If a hole is a little foggy, you know they’re going to jump cut it out, or do some sort of extra play to get out, and do their own thing if there’s any sort of disruption. It just comes down to how fast you play. Don’t think out there, just react.”

2. Aleah Leman wins two gold medals at state as DeKalb-Sycamore finishes second as a team.

While the Barbs were gunning for a state title and Leman for an all-around crown, two individual titles and a runner-up finish to a dynasty was still an excellent showing for a seven-year old program in its third state final.

Leman won the vault and tied for first in the bars, while the Barbs finished with 146.95 points, behind only Prairie Ridge's 148.8 as the Wolves claimed their third straight title. The Barbs were second for the second year in a row.

“I’m very proud of them,” Leman said after the state meet, her final as a Barb. “We get to take home a second big trophy and go home and celebrate and I get to enjoy the last few hours with them as a team.”

Leman is competing at Lindenwood University this season, while the Barbs just started their season last month.

3. NIU football wins at Nebraska

It wasn't just a win to propel the Huskies in a bounce-back season that saw them make a bowl game and finish 8-5.

It may have been a coach-killer as well.

The Huskies' 21-17 win in Lincoln was the beginning of the end for Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley, who was fired before the season was over.

After the Huskies were done celebrating on the field, Carey was so happy with the win he gave his team an extra day off.

“I had the schedule set to work [Sunday] but I’m going to give them the day off,” Carey said, breaking the news to the players during the postgame media conference.

The Huskies returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the win, one by Shawun Lurry to start the scoring, and one by Jawuan Johnson to stake the Huskies to a 14-0 lead. Nebraska retook the lead at 17-14, but Jordan Huff scored the last touchdown of the game to give NIU another win against a Big 10 teams – its fourth in five tries under Carey.

4. DeKalb hosts IHSA State Football Championships for third time, with five games decided by a single score

The third installment of the the state finals in DeKalb was loaded with insanely close contests – one went overtime, six of the games were within one score in the final 4 minutes, and seven of the games were within one score in the second half.

Things started off furious in the 1A game, with Tuscola driving down to the Lena-Winslow 29 yard line in the final seconds, but failing to score in a 21-20 loss. In the 2A game, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley took a 38-32 lead with 1:08 left, and the Maroa-Forsyth drive couldn't get started in the GCMS win on a game they trailed by nine in the second half.

The 3A game was a 35-0 win by IC Catholic Prep, although it led just 6-0 until the 5:19 mark of the third quarter. In the 4A game, Rochester hit a 24-yard field goal as time expired for a 24-21 win after Morris tied the game with 4:02 left. Phillips dominated the 5A game, 33-7, over Dunlap, but it was still notable as it was the second win in three years for Phillips after it became the first CPS program with a football title in DeKalb in 2015.

The 6A game was arguably the best of the day – even without going into overtime like the 7A game. Prairie Ridge took a 28-21 lead with 1:01 left in the game, but Nazareth begin a frantic last-minute drive, reaching the Wolves' 13 but getting intercepted in the end zone as time expired.

In the 7A game, Batavia was a 21-14 winner in overtime against Lake Zurich. LZ had a chance to take the lead in the fourth but missed a field goal, while the ensuing Batavia drive ran out of time. Batavia scored in the top of the overtime, then held on LZ's possession.

In the 8A game, Lincoln-Way East scored 10 points in the final 5:11 to comeback for a 23-14 win against Loyola.

The state championships are scheduled to return to DeKalb in 2019 and 2021 before the current contract expires.

5. DeKalb football beats Montini in playoff opener

The Barbs had the better seed, but the Broncos had the history – not just six state titles, but a blowout win against the Barbs in the quarterfinals of the 2015 playoffs.

None of that mattered this time around, as the DeKalb defense pitched a second-half shutout in a 38-28 win.

“None of that matters,” DeKalb coach Matt Weckler said after the win. “We played today, and took this field, and believed in ourselves that we could come in and play with these guys.” 

It didn't start that way, as the Broncos led, 28-14, with 5:11 left in the first half. The Barbs added a quick score in the final minute of the first half to get the lead down to one score, then took a 31-28 lead on a field goal by Connor Tierney early in the fourth.

Jaylen Hobson added a late score after a crucial Montini penalty in the final two minutes, and the Barbs were on to the second round of the postseason for the fourth straight year. Their season would end in that round in a loss to Willowbrook

6. Sycamore boys basketball makes run into sectional finals behind buzzer-beaters

Sycamore opened the playoffs with a 64-56 win against Genoa-Kingston. It was the last game the Spartans played that wasn't decided by one point.

The Spartans – who entered the postseason with an 11-15 record – won their home regional, then made the finals of the Class 3A Genoa-Kingston Regional, eventually losing, 38-37, to Marengo.

Each of the three games in their run was insanely close. It started with a 37-36 overtime win against Kaneland to win the regional. Jack Mizgalski hit a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left that proved to be the difference.

In the sectional semi, the Spartans got a pair of free throws by James Marcinkowski with 0.1 seconds left for a 36-35 win against Belvidere, advancing to the sectional final.

That's where the magic ran out. This time, Mizgalski's late shot – this one coming at the buzzer – rolled out and the Spartans lost 38-37 to Marengo.

"When Jack's shot rolled in and rolled out, I told the guys I didn't have anything but a smile on my face," Sycamore coach Ryan Picolotti said after the game. "To put ourselves in a situation like that and have a chance to win it at the buzzer. ... I can't be more proud of the guys."

All three games in the sectional – including Marengo's 50-49 semifinal win against Glenbard South – were decided by one point.

7. DeKalb baseball storms into sectional after 16-game losing streak

The losing streak for the Barbs wasn't even over for two weeks before the postseason started.

They started with something they hadn't done all year – winning three games in a row.

The Barbs beat Jefferson, 10-4, Rockford East, 2-1, and Hampshire, 3-2, to win the Class 4A Hampshire Regional, before bowing out with a 13-2 loss to Crystal Lake South in the McHenry Sectional.

"We just kept at it and turned those close games into wins when it counted," said Dedric Wright, who was in his first year with DeKalb. "When the playoff schedule came out, I told them, 'I guarantee you guys that we win regionals. Play like we've been playing, we're going to win regionals.' They may have thought I was crazy when I said it, but I guaranteed it, and it happened because I had confidence in them and you can't always measure progression in wins and losses."

The losing streak started when conference play began, and ended with a 4-1 win at Morris in the second-to-last conference game.

8. Sycamore thrower Connor Weckerly claims gold at state track in the discus

Weckler entered the finals on the second day of the meet with the fourth-best throw. When he threw Saturday, he cleared 176 feet, 10 inches. Then he had to play the waiting game as the athletes seeded ahead of him went to best his mark.

None did, and Weckerly became the first Sycamore boys track and field champion since 2013, and the first champ in a field event since 1978.

"It's pretty great," Weckerly said at the time. "After all the hard work I put in, to win it feels great. Especially being fourth, and getting to watch the last tree guys try to go over what I did, I actually got to see that hard work pay off."

Weckler was also named the 2017 Daily Chronicle Boys Track Athlete of the Year.

9. DeKalb football beats Lake Park on Hail Mary

In 2016, the Barbs failed to connect late at Lake Park to force overtime. In 2017, they got their revenge.

Quarterback Noah Valin threw into double coverage, finding Brian Ross off a deflection with 2.7 seconds left, giving the Barbs a 20-17 win.

"Brian Ross is a key player," Valin said. "I knew I had to throw it up to him, and he made a play. ... That last play was clutch."

The game included a late goal-line stand for the Barbs, keeping the Lancers lead at 17-12 and giving the offense an eventual chance at the win.

10. Payton Phillips sets single season Genoa-Kingston rushing record

The Cogs had just dismantled Elmwood Park, 50-7, to claim a first-round playoff victory for the second straight year.

Almost as an after thought, Payton Phillips made school history.

The senior ran for 150 yards in the game, bringing his season total to 1,307 at the time to set the new mark.

"Obviously team first, but it's good to have that," Phillips said after the game. "I owe our line, I couldn't do it without them. School records don't mean anything to me. As long as we're winning and going to the playoffs, that's what matters."

Phillips finished the year with 1,400 yards and was named the 2017 Daily Chronicle Offensive Football Player of the Year.

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