If one could characterize the north country sports scene in 2013 with a single phrase, it would be this:
That perplexed expression sums up the unexpected twists and turns of a year that seemed to be going as planned until it didnt. Those double-take moments will seal 2013 forever in the memory of local sports fans even if the year didnt exactly overflow with championships.
To start, consider the 2013 Times Sports Performer of the Year, St. Lawrence University mens hockey forward Greg Carey. Carey, although a talented player from the very start of his Saints career, achieved two milestones that just dont happen in the north country.
First, Carey and teammate and Canton native Kyle Flanagan were selected Hobey Baker Award candidates last season. Both the Saints and the Clarkson Golden Knights have been honored with Hobey Baker nominees in the past. But never has either team placed two players among the top 10 finalists in a single season.
Its awesome, because were a real small school here with 2,400 students and were kind of nestled up here in the north country, Carey said. So any time you can take the name of the school to the national level, I feel real proud to go to St. Lawrence University and represent the Saints.
But Carey drew notice in another unexpected way by leading not just his team or conference in scoring, but the entire country. A prolific scorer even before he arrived on the St. Lawrence campus in 2010, Carey finished with 28 goals last season, tops among NCAA Division I players.
In the last 15 years, the nations top goal-scorers and point-getters were reserved for high-flying programs from North Dakota, Colorado College and Minnesota, or Hockey East powers like Boston College and Maine. Over the decades, its a rarity to see an ECAC Hockey player at the top.
Yet, here Carey is again, leading the nation in 2013-14, too, this time in total scoring with 36 points, so far.
In other words, wait what?
I take pride in my ability to create offense and the numbers kind of go along with that, said Carey, who also is leading the nation in assists and points per game. But I dont focus on the numbers I just try to do what I do best. Its about trying to create offense and trying to hold the puck and make plays happen to try and win games. Anything I can do to make that happen is my main focus.
But the wait what? moments extended beyond the world of college hockey. Here are some of the best head-turning sports events in the north country in 2013:
■ Paul Alteri leads two teams to great heights: When Alteri was selected as the newly christened Watertown Rams manager, it was a nice homage to the past as Alteri was one of the old Wizards first managers. But not content to be a trivia question in local collegiate baseball history, Alteri took the Rams to the franchises first playoff series in five years.
Less than a month later, Alteri was back leading the Immaculate Heart Central football team. The perennial contender at the Class D level enjoyed another fine season, then turned up the heat once it reached the Class C sectionals and surprised its way to the championship game in the Carrier Dome. Only familiar rival General Brown could cool off IHC with a 34-7 decision in the final.
■ The Carrier Dome features not one, but two all-north country Section 3 football finals in November: For the first time ever, two area teams played in both the Class C and Class A championships.
The Class A final, which showcased Carthage and Indian River, included an entire game of wait what? moments and possibly the greatest one of all: a 14-play, 90-yard touchdown drive led by Carthage quarterback Bailey Wilkinson from his own 10-yard line with no timeouts to bring the Comets within a point of the Warriors. Then, with 20 seconds left, Josh Yelvington dove over the right pylon for the two-point conversion, a Carthage victory, and looks of disbelief on the faces of fans watching in the stands or on TV.
■ Grace Wallace scores a touchdown: The Sandy Creek Comets featured a girl on their football roster. No big deal. Girls have played football in the north country before. She was included in the season preview and that, seemingly, was that. But Wallace wasnt finished. When Sandy Creeks 60-0 victory over Oriskany was reported on Oct. 5, we took down the long list of touchdown scorers and oh, by the way, Grace Wallace scored a touchdown.
The backup receiver and defensive back, who was a member of the team after an injury prevented her from playing soccer, scored the Comets third touchdown against Oriskany after taking a handoff and diving over the goal line from two yards out. That gave her the honor of being the second girl to score in a state high school football game in 2013 and just the second in Section 3 ever.
■ Nicole Kirnan takes over behind the bench: The Watertown Privateers have produced their share of wait what? moments in their brief history. But the team drew some national attention when team owner Nicole Kirnan, a former St. Lawrence University player, grabbed the coaching responsibilities in March, finishing the season as the Privateers leader.
Its believed to be the first time a woman has coached a mens team in pro hockey. It didnt last long as the Privateers were eliminated quickly in the playoffs later that month and Brad Zangs was hired to coach the team for this season.
■ Someone from Watertown, N.Y., is playing in the major leagues: How many area baseball fans watching a Cincinnati Reds game this year sat up and took notice when outfielder Don Lutz came to the plate and the vital stats on the screen said born: Watertown, N.Y.?
I did. Lutz, who debuted April 29 and played in 34 games in his first season in the majors in 2013, spent just the first eight months of his life in Watertown. The son of a U.S. serviceman, Donald, and German native Marlen, he grew up in Germany after his parents divorced and Marlen moved him to her home country. Lutz is the first German-raised player to compete in the majors and although he was born in Watertown, knew virtually nothing about baseball history growing up.
Heres another bit of baseball history: Lutz is the first major league player born in Watertown in 120 years. No one born in this city has competed in the majors since Bill Goodenough played in 10 games as a center fielder for the St. Louis Browns in 1893.
Thats a wait what? moment. Probably an oh, wow moment, too.
■ Plenty of pleasing, heart-warming celebrations: Although they may not have registered high on the wait what? scale, a number of north country teams and athletes achieved the surprising. The IHC boys soccer team exceeded expectations by charging all the way through to the state semifinals, a first for the program. IHC might still be playing if not for that penalty kick rule.
Meanwhile, Shayne Brady won the first state wrestling title for a Carthage athlete. And Laura Pierce won a 3,000-meter state title for Canton and helped the Canton cross-country team finished second in the state. And dont forget the Beaver River boys basketball and girls soccer teams whose surprising success appeared seemingly out of nowhere as we followed them all the way into states.
■ Finally, there is my own wait what moment: In 1998, probably a week after the big ice storm, I attended childbirth classes for my soon-to-be first-born. I discovered that one of my childbirth classmates was Katherine Stackel, the Copenhagen girls soccer coach. I knew Stackel as I had covered girls soccer for a few years in the mid-1990s. During class we discussed the top teams and players of the time.
Months later, my daughter was born and Stackels daughter was born.
Stackels daughter was named Claire. You may have heard of her. The sophomore led all of Section 3 this past soccer season in goals, assists and points, all Copenhagen records.
Yes, that same person who was in her moms belly while we talked about Copenhagens Frontier League rivals during a break in childbirth class.
Wait what? is right.
And oh, wow, too.
Times sportswriter Chris Fitz Gerald contributed to this report.
TOP LOCAL STORIES OF 2013
The leading local sports stories as voted on by the Times sports staff (first place votes in parentheses):
1. Syracuse basketball, 79 points (7): Syracuse reaches NCAA Final Four in final season in Big East Conference.
2. Syracuse football, 60: Head coach Doug Marrone leaves for Buffalo Bills, Scott Shafer takes over and leads SU to Texas Bowl victory.
3. Section 3 football, 59: General Brown and Carthage win Section 3 titles after beating respective area foes IHC and Indian River in the championship.
4. St. Lawrence University hockey, 48 (1): In head coach Greg Carvels first full season, the Saints win their 1,000th career victory and players Greg Carey and Kyle Flanagan are Hobey Baker candidates.
5. IHC soccer, 47: The Cavaliers advance to the state semifinals for the first time in school history before falling in penalty kicks.
6. Wrestling champs, 38: Shayne Brady wins the first state title in Carthage history, while Gouverneurs Hunter Ayen and Dillon Stowell each win state crowns.
7. Sandy Creek softball, 28: The Comets reach the state final before losing by a run with the winning run on third base.
8. Watertown Rams, 27: The collegiate baseball league team debuts under a new name and ends a postseason drought.
9. St. Lawrence University football, 15: The Saints win seven games, the most in a season since 1982.
10. Red and Black, 14: After player defections and charges of financial mismanagement, the Red and Black returns to field, finishing under .500.