Monday Musings

This week, our publisher ranks the top 10 Iowa State sports stories of the 2003-04 school year. Fortunately, this year's list was more fun to write than last year's!

10. Iowa State women's basketball team reaches WNIT semifinals.

Bill Fennelly's Cyclones got off to a slow start thanks to a tough schedule, youth and a lack of depth, and the loss of Katie Robinette for the first semester. The result was a lackluster 10-11 start to the season, and the unlikely specter of consecutive losing campaigns was looming. Thankfully, Iowa State responded with eight wins in its final 12 games, culminating with three straight Hilton Coliseum triumphs and a berth in the WNIT semifinals. Now ISU is poised for a big 2004-05. There's only personnel loss to speak of in underrated Erica Junod, but her intangibles will be tough to replace. Still, if they can avoid the injury-bug, and given the graduation losses of some of the other top teams in the Big 12, the Cyclones should find themselves back in March Madness.

9. Zach Roberson caps career with national championship.

Granted, I'm not a big wrestling guy but I know excellence when I see it and that word would certainly describe Roberson's career at ISU. As a senior, Roberson provided the perfect bridge this season between the upcoming Cyclone wrestling juggernaut and the Cael Sanderson era. Not much was expected of ISU this season, but they rebounded from last season's disappointing finish to become the surprise team in the nation, climbing as high as second in the national polls on two different occasions. Roberson, a three-time All-American, was a large reason why with a 31-3 overall record that concluded with a dramatic run to the 133-pound national championship.

8. Spring quarterback duel ends in a draw.

The Second Coming of Seneca Wallace has been delayed—at least temporarily. Redshirt freshman Bret Meyer, a former state champion from Atlantic, was all the rage throughout the first 14 practices this spring. Coach Dan McCarney even went so far as to say that Meyer was as naturally-gifted as any quarterback he's had at ISU after spending last season torching the starters on the scout team. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. In the spring game itself, sophomore Austin Flynn finally flashed the athleticism and leadership that made him last spring's can't miss-prospect and outperformed the youngster. As a result, the two phenoms ended spring practice by sharing the number one line at quarterback on the depth chart heading into the fall.

7. ISU ends 17 years of misery on the mat against Iowa.

December 7, 2003—a date which will live on forever for Cyclone Nation. After nearly a generation of futility, Bobby Douglas' program finally got over the hump and defeated the University of Iowa's traditional powerhouse for the first time since 1987. The Cyclones overcame a 10-point deficit with four straight decisions. All-American Zach Roberson was the one who started the cardinal-and-gold avalanche with his victory at 133 pounds. Trailing, 13-9, twins Travis and Trent Paulson notched back-to-back wins to give the Cyclones the lead. But it was Nick Passolano who clinched ISU's first celebration in 30 tries in this one-sided in-state series with his pin at 165 pounds.

6. ISU's cotton-pickin' offense.

The numbers were ugly. In almost every offensive statistic that matters, the Cyclones finished dead last in the Big 12 and near the bottom nationally during a nightmare 2003 football season. Part of it was the youth on the unity, another part of it was the sadistic schedule ISU played. Nevertheless, the green unit never ripened, and that ultimately reflects on the coaching staff. As a result, Mac made just the second and third coaching firings of his tenure. Out were Steve Brickey and Marty Fine; in were Barney Cotton and Todd Fitch. Fitch came recommended highly by the respected Steve Loney, but it was Cotton's addition that sparked the most interest. The former Nebraska offensive lineman and coordinator was swept out of Lincoln after a 10-3 season that included an Alamo Bowl win. He was Mac's top candidate for the position once he became available because of his toughness and reputation for restoring running games. He eventually took the job and his no-nonsense, eat nails for breakfast demeanor was an instant hit with a Cyclone Nation weary of watching their charges getting dominated along the line of scrimmage.

5. One shining moment, Part I.

It was a climax most kids dream about but few actually get to live out. On January 14th, Anne O'Neil got to live the dream against Texas Tech, the number one team in the nation. Down by one against the Red Raiders, ISU's gameplan was simple—get the ball to our best player. That would be O'Neil, who dribbled the clock down to nearly zero before hitting a mid-range jumper with two-tenths of a second left that gave the Cyclones their first win ever a number one team, 64-63.

4. One shining moment, Part II.

The atmosphere inside Hilton Coliseum was electric the night of January 21st. That's because Steve Alford was bringing the Hawkeyes to town, and if there's one coach you don't want to lose three straight home games to it's the head man at Iowa, who certainly isn't above letting you know when he gets over at your expense. It was the first taste of this nasty rivalry for Wayne Morgan, the new coach, and the controversial presence of Pierre Pierce certainly was enough to provide a surreal atmosphere. After a great first half for the Cyclones, Iowa stormed back thanks to Pierce and the ice-blooded, long-range shooting of Jeff Horner. The Cyclones were searching for answers down the stretch, when assistant coach Damon Archibald played a hunch and advised Morgan to put walk-on John Neal in the game. Down 68-63 with four minutes to go, ISU needed a spark. Neal provided a blast-cannon. Neal hit two clutch three-pointers and then played some sterling defense on Pierce to ignite a decisive 12-0 run for the good guys. Move over LaFester Rhodes and make room for the best thing to come out Winterset since covered bridges. Neal's name is forever etched into Cyclone lore right alongside Marv Seiler's.

3. The Bergstrom Indoor Practice Facility finally opens.

An indoor practice facility was one of the first things Mac lobbied for when he took the moribund ISU job. Mac wanted ISU to think big-time when it came to football, after more than a generation of being small-time. And just about every big-time program has some sort of indoor practice facility. So Mac lobbied. And he lobbied. And he lobbied some more. Years went by, bowl appearances finally came, but still no facility. Than just over a year ago the funding came through, thanks largely to the work of donors Steve and Debbie Bergstrom, as well as Athletic Director Bruce Van De Velde. Engineers at the ISU-friendly Weitz Company of Des Moines did the work, and the results are spectacular. Prescription athletic turf, a size of 81,480 square feet, and a price tag of $9.6 million are the main features of this state-of-the-art colossus.

2. Cyclone football hits rock bottom.

Let's face it, nobody saw last season coming. Not the coaches, players, media, or fans. Sure, black-and-gold Kool-Aid sippers were predicting doom and gloom and comeuppance for the improving ISU football program, but like Chicken Little they claim the sky is falling in Ames every autumn. Unfortunately, this time they were right. The Cyclones finished a disastrous 2-10, and frankly they weren't that good. The offense was anemic, the defense overmatched, and the special teams an atrocity. Injuries and blowout after blowout each week were bad enough, but some uncharacteristic finger pointing, public questioning, and selfishness made matters worse. Like Noah's flood, Mac intends to wipe the slate clean after last year's overwhelming wickedness with a new cast of characters. Don't bet against him getting the program back on track, although the youth on this season's squad will make a earning a bowl bid a tall order.

1. From malevolent offseason to Madison Square Garden.

Ok, we all know the Cyclones had a horrendous offseason leading up to this basketball season. We also all know the reasons why, so there's no further need to detail what led to the hiring of Wayne Morgan in the first place. We all now know that Morgan was/is the right man for the job after an improbable 20-victory season that included wins over Xavier, Iowa, Kansas, and Texas as well as a thrilling run to the NIT semifinals in New York City. The emergence of Curtis Stinson as a freshman superstar, Jake Sullivan's long-range bombs that brought down the house, the return of Hilton Magic, the improvement of Jared Homan, the development of Jackson Vroman, and the resilience this team showed time and again when it was counted out made last season one of the most special in ISU basketball history. It also provided a springboard to what the future could hold for residents of Wayne's World.

(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday in Iowa from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)




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