Created:Monday, December 26, 2016 9:25 a.m.CDT
Updated:Monday, December 26, 2016 10:17 p.m.CDT

Thrills pack top 10 area games of 2016

Nick Brooks for Shaw Media. The Sycamore football team celebrates with the student section after their 29-22 victory over Sterling in the Class 5A Playoff game. (NPB15)

The following is the third of our three-part Best of 2016 series. Today, we look at the Top 10 games of the year.

No. 10: Naegele breaks NIU single-season softball home run record with walkoff

Northern Illinois catcher Emily Naegele went into the record books in dramatic fashion.

With a mid-season game against Ball State tied at 4 and heading into the bottom of the ninth, Naegele smacked a solo home run to break the record for most homers in a single season in program history. The home run was her 16th of the season, breaking the record of teammate Kayti Grable, who hit 15 the previous year.

Naegele put together one of the best offensive seasons in Huskie history, hitting .404 with 20 home runs and 56 RBIs and was a third-team All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association and named first-team all-MAC.

The Huskies finished 35-20 overall and 13-10 in the MAC West.

No. 9: Smith rolls back-to-back perfect games in regionals

Trevor Smith picked the perfect time for his first career perfect game – technically, his first two.

As a junior last season for Sycamore, he rolled a pair of 300s at the Marengo Regional, helping him win the postseason tournament by 85 pins.

“It was crazy,” Smith said a couple of days after his January feat. “I hardly remember the 10th frame. The adrenaline gets going and you just want to do it so bad.”

That kicked off a strong run for both Smith and the Spartans, as Smith took second at the Rockford East Sectional and then 10th at state. The Spartans also qualified as a team for the season finale, but did not place.

No. 8: NIU volleyball clinches NCAA Tournament berth at home

Longtime Northern Illinois coach Ray Gooden couldn’t hold back his emotions.

The Huskies completed a sweep of Miami (Ohio) in the championship match of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, giving Gooden his first title in the postseason tournament since taking over at Northern Illinois in 2002. Following the match, with the players switching from cheers and tears of joy, Gooden waited for a postgame television interview with his face buried into a towel to combat his emotions.

“The emotions are more ... you want it to work well for them,” Gooden said of his players afterward. “It’s a good group, and this weekend shouldn’t define us; it just might cement what this team has done.”

Gooden has led the Huskies to the MAC Championship in five of the past seven seasons.

The Huskies were also co-champions with Miami in the regular season and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, but lost at No. 15 Missouri in three.

No. 7: Harlem Globetrotters return to Hinckley

It was a game 89 years in the making.

On Jan. 7, the Harlem Globetrotters returned to Hinckley, the site of their first road game, exactly 89 years to the day of that historic game.

“It seems weird that our little town has the Globetrotters,” Hinckley-Big Rock basketball player Ben Harrison said at the time. “It’s really cool. I’ve watched videos of them on YouTube and now they’re here.”

Held at Hinckley-Big Rock High School, 1,060 tickets were sold and the gym was overflowing for the game between the Globetrotters and the World All-Stars.

Of course, the game lived up to the reputation of the Globetrotters, with break dancing, alley-oops, trick dribbles and comedy in the Globetrotters’ win.

No. 6: NIU plays until 3:30 a.m. Central in triple-overtime loss

It was a perfect storm that caused the season-opener for the NIU football team to end when infomercials are on TV.

The Huskies played in Wyoming for a game that was originally slated for 8:30 p.m. because it was being broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

Then came the lightning storm, which delayed the start of the game two hours. Add three overtimes and the game was over just a few hours from sunrise. Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen scrambled for a 7-yard touchdown – with an exhausted Huskie defense unable to bring him down – to finally bring the game to an end for a 40-34 victory for the Cowboys.

The loss was an negative omen for the Huskies, who had several close losses – including another triple-overtime defeat against Central Michigan – to finish the season 5-7 and miss a bowl game for the first time since 2007.

No. 5: Kaneland girls track takes first in 1,600 relay at Class 2A State Meet, securing share of state title

Heading into the final race of the Class 2A Girls Track and Field State Championships, the Knights needed to take first for a chance at becoming the co-state champions.

The 1,600-meter relay team of Nicole Sreenan, Carly Bartholomew, Allie Heinzer and Jamie Martens delivered.

The group led nearly the entire race and finished with a first-place time of 3 minutes, 56.15 seconds – more than a second faster than the second-place team from Springfield Southeast.

“It’s a dream come true for my senior year, I couldn’t ask for anything more for my teammates,” said Heinzer, who also took fourth in the 200 dash.

With the win in the 1,600 relay, the Knights finished with 53 points, tied with co-champion Cahokia. It was the best finish for Kaneland since they won back-to-back Class A titles in 1987-88.

No. 4: DeKalb volleyball team, eight points from loss, comes back against No. 1 Huntley

In a DeKalb postseason that featured Hannah Oehlberg rack up 26 kills in a regional final match, the most memorable win for the Barbs came in a contest they were eight points from losing.

The Barbs beat Huntley in the semifinals of the Class 4A Huntley Sectional, 19-25, 25-21, 25-12. DeKalb trailed 17-13 in the second set when Oehlberg spurred the comeback, finishing with 21 kills after the 26-kill performance in the previous round.

All part of coach Jamie DiMaggio’s relaxed strategy.

“My biggest thing coming into this (match) was being calm, being loose and making sure they came out tonight and had fun,” DiMaggio said.

And it carried over as well, at least for one more match. The Barbs disposed of Crystal Lake Central to reach the supersectional round for the first time in school history, but that’s where the magic would end with a straight-set loss to Stevenson.

No. 3: Sycamore baseball opens postseason with walkoff grand slam en route to supersectional

It wasn’t just a walkoff, or even a walkoff home run. No, Jack Mizgalski hit a walkoff grand slam.

His Spartans were down 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh in a Class 3A Sycamore Regional Semifinal. Mizgalski was struggling –0 for 3 in the game, plus he gave up a three-run homer that put Mendota ahead.

The game was like a seesaw to the end –Mendota led 1-0, the Spartans then had six straight batters reach in the sixth to a take a 3-1 lead. Then Mizgalski, the starter for Sycamore, gave the lead back at 4-3 after the three-run blast.

“I was thinking the entire time I had to pick my team up because they did that for me for all game,” Mizgalski said. “I didn’t remember much after that.”

But Mizgalski’s walkoff grand slam sparked something in Sycamore, which entered the postseason as the No. 4 seed in the Rochelle Sectional. The Spartans beat No. 2 Burlington Central, 10-6, to win the regional. Then they beat No. 1 Rock Falls, 10-7, and followed that with a 4-3 win over No. 2 and defending state champion Rockford Christian on a walkoff single by James Marcinkowski that drove home Mizgalski.

No. 2: Hiawatha football secures first playoff berth since 1987 with high-pressure kick against Westminster Christian

Lucas Rodriguez’s field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired. But it wasn’t just a win for the Hiawatha football team. It was a curse killer.

The win guaranteed the Hawks their first spot in the IHSA playoffs in 29 years. It was their fifth win, but they knew there was a forfeit win awaiting them the following week against Rockford Christian Life.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted,” said Hiawatha star Braden Watson, whose father, Nathan, was a member of the 1987 team – the last Hiawatha squad to make the postseason.

The team was under the guidance of first-year head coach Jason Keneway, who helmed the team to a 7-2 regular season and a first-round home playoff game. Keneway, who graduated from Hiawatha in 2010, was clearly emotional following the win, saying he felt the weight of the community on his shoulders while leading the Hawks to the first playoff appearance in three decades.

No. 1: Sycamore football stuns Sterling in quarterfinals with goal line stand

The season for the Sycamore football team was one play from being over.

Trailing undefeated No. 1 seed Sterling by eight points in the final minutes of a Class 5A IHSA Football State Quarterfinal, the Spartans faced a fourth-and-9 on their own 21 yard line. Then came the magic.

The Spartans came up with several big plays and scored a touchdown – a 4-yard run by running back Peyton Wiegmann – and converted on the 2-point conversion – quarterback Ty Sulaver absorbing a crushing hit while diving into the end zone – to force overtime.

After Sycamore scored on its possession in overtime, another 4-yard touchdown run by Wiegmann, to go ahead 29-22 against the Warriors, who beat the Spartans 38-6 in Week 1. When Sterling faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1, the Sycamore defense came up with its second goal line stand of the game to seal the dramatic victory as the Spartans players and coaches stormed onto the field and the home Sycamore crowd erupted with cheers.

“We knew it was all or nothing because we knew both teams were tired and we needed that stand,” Sycamore defensive back Abe Lesniewski said after the win over Sterling. “I don’t remember much (after the stop). I just broke down. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I can’t believe how much we’ve come together as a team.”

The Spartans were 1-3 after Week 4 – and needed a win over Rochelle in the regular season finale just to get into the playoffs. The win over Sterling gave the Spartans their fourth trip to the state semifinals in school history before they lost to Vernon Hills, 21-16, in the closing minutes the following week.

The loss to Vernon Hills was a sour note to a memorable playoff run for Sycamore. Not only did they knock off the No. 1 Warriors in the quarterfinals, they were the higher seed in every game in the playoffs – beating No. 4 Chicago Solorio Academy, 42-21, and knocking out No. 12 Rochelle, 26-14, with both victories coming on the road.

“I told the kids don’t let this be the memory of the season,” Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said after the loss to Vernon Hills. “There were a lot of good things that happened to get it to this point. Nobody thought – we were crashing a lot of parties to get to this point.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?