The ‘U’ in review: Top 10 stories of the year

It was a year of unexpected highs and historic lows in Minnesota athletics.

It was also a year of drastic change.

Three new coaches debuted with three of the Gophers’ three most-heralded sports. Tubby Smith rejuvenated a dying men’s basketball program, Brad Frost continued the decade-long dominance of the women’s hockey scene established by predecessor Laura Halldorson, and Tim Brewster is now in the process of recovering from a program-worst one-win season.

From the highs of a miracle jump shot good enough to be nominated for ESPN Play of the Month with Tiger Woods and LeBron James, to the lows of a sexual assault trial, it was a year for some to remember, and others to forget.

The Daily counts down the top 10 sports stories of the year.

1. JONES TRIAL

After months of speculation, former Gophers defensive back Dominic Jones was found not guilty of rape but guilty of unwanted sexual contact with a physically helpless woman in mid-April.

Jones still faces up to a year in prison for the verdict, but his attorney, Earl Gray, plans on appealing the decision.

The incident, which took place last spring and left Jones and former teammates E.J. Jones, Alex Daniels and Keith Massey in jail during last year’s spring game, was a blemish for the University, although only Dominic Jones was charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

All four players were removed from the team by first-year coach Tim Brewster. Two of the athletes decided to leave school while both Dominic and E.J. Jones have stayed on scholarship and hope to one day return to football.

“(Dominic) stood up to the fire. He didn’t run, he didn’t hide, he didn’t leave Minnesota; he stayed right here,” Keith Jones, Dominic’s father, said earlier this year. “I commend him as my son.”

Jones will be sentenced May 29.

2. 20 FOR TUBBY

When Athletics Director Joel Maturi nabbed Tubby Smith from Kentucky last year, he brought the 57-year-old to Minnesota in hopes of revitalizing a Gophers men’s basketball program that had quickly eroded following the controversial Clem Haskin era.

Mission accomplished – so far anyway. After taking over virtually the same team that finished a program-worst 9-22 in 2007, Smith led the maroon and gold to a 20-14 record, which included a respectable Big Ten mark (8-10), an instant-classic upset win against third-seeded Indiana in the quarter-finals of the Big Ten tournament and a postseason berth in the National Invitational Tournament.

While Smith missed out on the NCAA Twournament for the first time in 14 years, many believe that with “Tubby Time” in Minneapolis, the Gophers will be headed to the Big Dance sooner rather than later. In fact, with Smith’s first recruiting class – ranked in the top 25 in the country – set to appear on campus in June, those who fill the Barn believe the Gophers could make their first tournament appearance since 2005 next season.

3. BREWSTER’S MILLION

Anticipation for Tim Brewster’s first year as head coach of the Minnesota football team was high as school started last fall.

But the hype turned to disparagement as the Gophers turned in just one win all season (a 41-35 triple overtime victory against Miami, Ohio).

Brewster earned $1,000,000 for his only win – making him the highest paid Division I football coach in terms of pay per win, despite having the weakest defense in the country.

The worst season in program history ended with a 1-11 record and saw the team miss a bowl game for the first time since 2001.

Brewster had a little better luck after the season ended when his talents as a recruiter helped Minnesota land one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.

“We’re going to be a much-improved football team next season,” Brewster told the Daily. “The vision and direction of this program is in excellent shape and the potential of where we’re going to go excites me greatly.”

4. HOFFARBER’S MIRACLE

With little argument, Minnesota freshman guard Blake Hoffarber can be credited as the unanimous choice for holding the honor for Minnesota athletics Play of the Year.

He might have made the maroon and gold play of the decade, too.

Hoffarber’s running jumper as time expired in the Gophers’ quarter-final matchup with Indiana sent sixth-seeded Minnesota to a 59-58 upset victory against the third-seeded Hoosiers in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

“I was actually supposed to be a decoy,” Hoffarber said after the game. “But I saw the ball just going to the middle, so I went up and grabbed it and just turned and tried to get it off on time, and I guess it went off in time.”

The Gophers, unconcerned the play was still under view, mobbed Hoffarber, spilling their court celebration right into press row.

“It was like I could have slapped myself. I thought I was dreaming,” senior guard Lawrence McKenzie said after witnessing the shot.

“I think in a game like this you get close and you bind together. Maybe a little too close; I think a couple of guys were kissing Blake,” he said.

5. FROST TAKES OVER GOPHERS WOMEN’S HOCKEY

Current women’s hockey coach Brad Frost barely had time to react when he first heard Laura Halldorson was resigning from the post in last August after 11 years at the helm.

With the season fast approaching and “interim” tagged to his title, Frost jumped right into his new role and led the team to 27-7-4 record – good enough for second place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, behind NCAA Champion Minnesota-Duluth.

The season, which ended in a 3-2 overtime loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA Quarterfinals, was highlighted by a 21-game unbeaten streak during the second half.

In April, Frost was officially named the second head coach in Minnesota women’s hockey history, and next year, he and the Gophers will try to capture the team’s first national championship since the 2004-2005 season.

Frost will have plenty of help from his players. Patty Kazmaier Award Finalist and All-American forward Gigi Marvin will return as a senior, and Frost is bringing in arguably the best recruiting class in the country as well as Gophers hockey history.

6. WORLD’S FASTEST

The 4×800-meter relay team on the Minnesota women’s track and field team recorded the fastest overall time in the world this year.

The team of juniors Julie Schwengler, Heather Dorniden, Jamie Cheever and Gabriele Anderson posted a final time of 8:32.73 to successfully defend its crown at the Drake Relays and set this year’s fastest time in the process.

7. DIAMOND WOES

With just nine regular-season games remaining, the Gophers baseball team is on pace for a disastrous year.

With an 18-29 overall record, Minnesota could finish with the program’s worst record since 1929 and the first losing record in 46 years.

All-around pitching struggles have plagued a young and inconsistent Gophers squad, and the team hasn’t won a midweek game in more than a month.

8. GONE KYLE GONE

Men’s hockey sophomore forward Kyle Okposo shocked Gophers fans and even his own team when he announced he would not be returning for the second half of the season.

Instead, the St. Paul native signed an NHL contract with the New York Islanders with whom Okposo scored two goals and made three assists in nine games.

9. GOPHERS PINNED

A year after capturing the NCAA Championship, the Minnesota wrestling team was a favorite to repeat, despite a rugged regular season.

But a horrid final day at the tournament came to a close with the Gophers in 10th place – tied for their worst finish in 30 championship appearances.

Only Jayson Ness vied for an individual title, but the sophomore lost to Indiana’s Angel Escopedo – the only wrestler to tally a loss in Ness’s 39-2 record this year.

The senior class, which came to Minnesota as the nation’s top recruitment class, ended their Gophers career without a single individual title.

10. DORNIDEN FALLS, WINS

Dorniden makes her second appearance this year with her performance at the Big Ten Indoor Championships.

Four hundred meters into her heat for the 600-meter dash, Dorniden was leading the race when she was tripped from behind and fell to the ground.

But Dorniden wasn’t done, and in one lap the junior made up the ground she lost to win the event and bring athletics director Joel Maturi to tears.