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Journal Star sports staffers recall the best games they've covered
THE BEST THEY’VE SEEN

Journal Star sports staffers recall the best games they've covered

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Journal Star best games

Some of our staffs picks for Best Game I've Ever Covered include Joe Montana (left), Chris Brown (top), Keith Nichol and B.J. Cunningham (bottom) and Mikaela Foecke (right). 

The absence of live sports around the globe gave the Journal Star staff an opportunity to reflect on some of the best games they have watched from a press box, press row … or from the side of a horse track. 

Steven M. Sipple, columnist

Setting the scene: An 11-0 Husker team looks to cap an undefeated 2001 regular season with a trip to Colorado.

NEBRASKA COLORADO

Colorado tailback Chris Brown, right, breaks around the corner for a long gain as Nebraska free safety Dion Booker hangs on in the fourth quarter of Colorado's 62-36 victory in 2001. 

Before you chastise me for picking one of the most stunning defeats in Nebraska football history (a 62-36 thumping to Colorado on Nov. 23, 2001) please try to understand my rationale. Please understand that many journalists crave departures from everyday humdrum normalcy. Please understand that most people in general seek challenges in life.

Writing about this game was a massive challenge. I’ll always remember my headache in the press box at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado. The headache arrived in the second half and lasted a good three hours after the final gun. It was wonderful. Yes, pain can feel OK sometimes. In this case, the pain was commensurate with the challenge. This was anything but humdrum normalcy. This stuff virtually never happened to Nebraska. Not to this extent. Not back then. Nebraska had never allowed 62 points to an opponent.

After all, the Blackshirts entered the day ranked sixth nationally in total defense. Hell, as a team, Nebraska entered the day ranked No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, saw this coming. "This is pretty much a nightmare for us," Husker quarterback Eric Crouch said at the time. "They played a great game, offensively and defensively. They really put it to us. … This is a big shock. It's tough to talk about because this never happens to us.”

Exactly. It was weird. It was wild. It was difficult to put into perspective. Plus, it turned out to be a portend. Which is partly why the day remains burned in my brain — forever.

Parker Gabriel, Husker football beat reporter

Setting the scene: Wisconsin and Michigan State meet in a midseason matchup with major postseason implications.

From a pure entertainment standpoint, I don’t remember Oct. 22, 2011, in East Lansing, Michigan, being head-and-shoulders better than some of the other games I’ve covered. But man, that ending.

I was a college junior at Wisconsin and working for the Daily Cardinal newspaper when the No. 6 Badgers and No. 16 Michigan State went to the final seconds tied at 31.

It’s funny, the things you remember and the ones you don’t about moments like Kirk Cousins’ deflected, game-winning Hail Mary touchdown pass to Keith Nichol.

For instance, I knew it went to replay but didn’t remember that the original ruling was that Nichol was down at the 1-yard line. I do remember the hush of the crowd and then the explosion of noise when the announcement was made.

I don’t remember writing my story at all, but I remember getting to a construction trailer where Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema gave his postgame news conference and, because the “real” newspaper reporters were scrambling to get their stories filed on a rough print deadline, I had to ask him the first question as he stood there, awkwardly, with tears in his eyes.

“Uh, Bret, can you describe what just happened?”

Pat Sangimino, night editor

Setting the scene: The Kansas City Chiefs roll into Houston as underdogs in a second-round playoff game of the 1993 season. 

On the eve of the 1993 AFC Divisional playoffs, members of the Kansas City Chiefs' press corps gathered in a Houston cantina for what was expected to be the last drink-fest of what had been a long season. It was a joyous night that will be forever remembered when one writer sang the Houston Oilers fight song into the reception-desk microphone.

Just hours later, Marty Schottenheimer, best known for his teams' epic playoff collapses, unexpectedly extended the Chiefs' season to the AFC Championship Game with a thrilling, 28-20 victory over the heavily favored Oilers inside the Astrodome. The place was loud and painted baby blue, so to speak. The Chiefs weren't expected to put up much of a fight against an Oilers defense that was coached by the bombastic Buddy Ryan. Tight end Keith Cash scored the Chiefs' first touchdown on a 7-yard third-quarter pass from Joe Montana and celebrated by throwing the ball at a mural of Ryan. 

And until the Chiefs' recent run of playoff success, that was their last playoff victory. Spoiler alert: They lost the next week in Buffalo (we celebrated the night before with wings and beer at the Anchor Bar) and ended the deepest playoff run of Schottenheimer's Kansas City career one game short of the Super Bowl.

Brent C. Wagner, Husker and high school sports reporter

Setting the scene: Big Ten heavyweights Nebraska and Penn State meet in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in 2017. 

NCAA Final Four, Nebraska vs. Penn State, 12/15/17

The Huskers react to set point in the the fourth set of their match with Penn State in December 2017 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. 

Nebraska was one clean set of the volleyball, and one good swing, from being toast.

That’s one of the things I remember from probably the best match I’ve covered, when the Nebraska volleyball team beat Penn State in five sets in the national semifinals in 2017 in front of 19,000 fans in Kansas City, Missouri.

In the fourth set, Penn State had a 26-25 lead, and match point. On that rally Penn State dug a Nebraska shot, and was one kill away from reaching the finals. But the Penn State right-side hitter and setter collided, and the ball hit the bottom of the net and dropped to the floor. That rarely happens. So Nebraska won that point, and then the set 28-26 to stay alive. Nebraska rallied again to win the fifth set, 15-11.

This was Nebraska’s seventh straight win against seven-time national champion Penn State over three seasons. I still shake my head thinking about that.

The entire 2-hour, 51-minute match was really high level. Penn State was ranked No. 1, and its senior class was maybe the best recruiting class in college volleyball history.

Just 48 hours after beating Penn State, fifth-ranked Nebraska defeated Florida in four sets to win the national championship, giving Nebraska its second title in three years.

Alex Lantz, Weekend editor

Setting the scene: American Pharoah, who had recently become a Triple Crown winner, gears up for the final race of his career in 2015. 

American Pharaoh

American Pharoah heads to the training track at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, a few days before the 2015 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Few sports reporters ever get the chance to cover a Triple Crown winner.

I found myself in such a situation in the fall of 2015, when I was working as a copy editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky. The Breeders’ Cup — horse racing’s annual championship event — took place at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington that year.

The paper needed some extra manpower to help with coverage, so I pitched in to write a few stories leading up to the event and gather quotes from jockeys and trainers on race day.

American Pharoah, who had become the sport's first Triple Crown winner in 37 years just a few months earlier, was set to run the last race of his career in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In the days leading up to the race, I got to the track at dawn to watch the horse gallop and talk to his trainer — Hall-of-Famer Bob Baffert — about how the horse was looking in his workouts.

American Pharoah had become a sports icon over the course of the year, even making an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated — a pretty rare feat for a horse. So just about everyone in the crowd of 50,000 that Saturday wanted to see him put the finishing touches on a memorable career, including me (I made a $2 win bet that I kept as a souvenir).

I watched the race from the track’s outer railing just a few yards from the finish line, and I can still hear announcer Larry Collmus’ call after American Pharoah crossed the wire 6½ lengths in front: “He went out in style.”

Ron Powell, high school sports reporter

Setting the scene: Boston makes the trip to Dallas in 1986 with hopes of preserving its undefeated record against the Mavericks. 

Being a Celtic fan like I am, the Dallas Mavericks' 116-115 win against Boston in March of 1986 was a tough one, especially watching Larry Bird’s 50 points and 11 rebounds being wasted in a loss.

Boston had a 13-point lead with just over three minutes left in the game only to get outscored 25-11 down the stretch. It was the Mavericks’ first win in franchise history over the Celtics, who went 67-15 in the regular season and won the ’86 NBA title.

Chris Basnett, Husker basketball beat writer

Setting the scene: Nebraska high school hoops gets its own version of "Hoosiers" in 2006 when Ravenna takes on Bellevue West.

Admittedly, I'm probably biased here.

I grew up in Ravenna. I had known the major players on the "underdog" side of this story since they were little kids. And I count their coach, the late Paul Beranek, among the most influential people in my young life.

But those things don't take one bit of shine away from one of the greatest high school sporting events the state has ever witnessed.

The Class C-2 Bluejays were riding a 41-game winning streak. The previous summer they had gone 7-0 at a team camp in Omaha against predominately Class A competition. They needed a game to fill out their 2005-06 schedule. And Bellevue West obliged.

The game itself was incredible: Ravenna raced to an 18-point first-half lead against the two-time defending Class A state champions in the Thunderbirds’ home gym, with former Husker Drake Beranek scoring 18 first-quarter points for the Bluejays.

It looked for all the world like Ravenna might pull it off. The Jays led by eight at the start of the fourth quarter. But maybe, just maybe, Ravenna started to tire. The Bluejays missed the front end of three one-and-ones down the stretch. Bellevue West rallied to take the lead with about four minutes left, and hung on for a 67-63 win.

It was a historic night — one that to this day is still talked about in reverential tones by those who were there, and one that opened the door for so many of the inter-class matchups we see today. In defeat, Ravenna earned every bit of respect it would have gotten for a victory. It was one of those rare occurrences in which the actual event lived up to the hype that preceded it.

I have covered sports at every level for 18 years now. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen two teams go at each other the way those two did. And nothing stands above that January night in Bellevue.

Clark Grell, sports editor

Setting the scene: Brunch includes a memorable Husker volleyball rally.

The scene was quite surreal, and that was before the match even started. More than 8,000 Husker fans packed into the Devaney Sports Center to watch volleyball.

At 11 a.m. on a workday.

They arrived to watch Nebraska and Penn State battle in a NCAA Tournament regional semifinal game in 2016. I was on sidebar duty, attempting to help the talented Brent Wagner cover the match.

Up 2-0, the Nittany Lions appeared on their way to a sweep, taking a 24-22 third-set lead behind the play of Simone Lee.

Well, you know the rest. The Huskers rallied for a 3-2 win and won another match the next afternoon to reach the Final Four again.

The fans certainly played their part. They showed up, and though Penn State still had a 2-1 set lead, there was a sense that Nebraska wasn't going to lose on this day.

Even better: No deadline pressure.

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