Top Five Sports Stories of the Year

Each game, each match, each meet, each team and each player has a story. And some are more memorable than others.

Herald Staff

1.) Tops finally break the streak

WKU football’s win over Louisiana-Lafayette last October was just one of two the Toppers grabbed in the 2010 season.

But that win at ULL wiped away 763 days of frustration.

The Toppers’ 54-21 victory at Lafayette last Oct. 25 snapped a 26-game losing streak, then the longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

WKU’s last win before that came against Murray State in September 2008.

“I’ve only been a part of six of those, but that felt long enough,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said after breaking the streak. “But I’m happy for these guys that have been around for 26. It’s just been miserable for them, and I’m so proud of them.”

The long-sought victory and Taggart’s first season at the helm breathed new life into the program, as did junior running back Bobby Rainey’s dominant season.

Rainey carried the ball a nation-best 340 times for 1,649 yards, making him the No. 3 rusher in the country.

But more than any statistics, the most poignant memory of the season for most will be the Toppers returning to Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport after their first win in more than two years to find hundreds of fans waiting, streak officially snapped.

“I’m happy that our fans can really smile and feel better now,” Taggart said. “If there’s any that left us, come on back, because we’re going to get this thing rolling.”

2.) Volleyball team survives near-death experience on bus

Through the years, Travis Hudson’s players have often referred to him as a father, friend and coach.

But last Oct. 7, the WKU volleyball team changed the head coach’s title to “hero.”

Around 1 p.m. that Thursday, the bus driver transporting Hudson and the Lady Toppers to Mobile, Ala., suffered a heart attack and lost consciousness at the wheel. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

The bus had crossed the median on Interstate 65 South near Athens, Ala., veering into both the northbound and southbound lanes.

Hudson climbed through to the driver, took control of the bus and eased it to a stop, while players, luggage and boxes were thrown from their bunks.

The Sun Belt Conference offices gave WKU the chance to opt out of its weekend matches, but the team decided to continue forward, sweeping both South Alabama and Troy that same weekend.

“It is way bigger than volleyball at this point,” Hudson said after the incident. “I don’t know if there is a manual that comes down to dealing with something like this. I don’t know what tomorrow will be. I just know that there is a tomorrow. That was very much in doubt today.

“By the grace of God, there is one and we will deal with whatever comes then.”

3.) Donahue finds national spotlight

Senior swimmer Claire Donahue finished her final season at WKU with a bang, taking second place in the 100-yard butterfly at the NCAA National Championships in March, the highest individual national finish for a WKU swimmer in school history.

Donahue also finished 14th in the 200 fly at nationals. Both times set new program records and helped her record enough team points for WKU by herself to surpass Louisville and Kentucky.

The event was the last stop for Donahue in her time at WKU, and Head Coach Bruce Marchionda said there’s no way to fully state what she’s done for the school.

“I’m not sure the impact she’s had on this program can be expressed in words,” he said.

Donahue won eight individual Sun Belt Conference titles while at WKU and was twice named the league’s Women’s Swimmer of the Year.

“Athletes like Claire don’t come around often,” Assistant Coach Rita Kalmikova said. “It was fun to watch her grow as an athlete and a competitor.”

After she graduates, Donahue is planning to stay in Bowling Green for another year to train for the 2012 Olympics in London. She said she plans to compete at a few national events and train at the Powell Natatorium in preparation for the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., next July.

“I’m going to work at every practice to succeed in my ultimate goal — competing in the Olympic trials,” she said.

4.) WKU basketball hits reset button with McDonald still in charge

The men’s basketball team was never able to find smooth sailing during the 2010-2011 season.

The Toppers were forced to dismiss two players for violations and lost freshman guard Brandon Peters to academic ineligibility, and the end result was a 16-16 record with no postseason play.

And while one of the main side themes of the season was Head Coach Ken McDonald’s job security, WKU made news in March with a press conference — to announce McDonald would stay.

Athletics Director Ross Bjork addressed a crowded Diddle Arena media room March 14 with McDonald at his side, issuing a vote of confidence for the third-year coach.

McDonald accepted a revised contract that runs through the 2014-2015 season, taking a $100,000 pay cut back to his original 2008 salary of $250,000.

McDonald spoke at length about his own personal and professional faults since arriving in 2008, and he created one of the catch phrases of the year when he asked for a push of the “reset button.”

“We’re going to approach this job like we just got named today to the coaching job at WKU, and we’re going to get after it,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we’re back on the level we need to be at.”

5.) Rice rewrites record books

In his four years as a Topper, Matt Rice has shown a flair for the dramatic.

So it came as little surprise that the senior catcher broke the school’s career hits record in front of WKU’s biggest home crowd of the year during an 11-8 win over Kentucky on April 19.

Rice took the first pitch of his second at-bat and hit a hard shot to Wildcat third baseman Thomas McCarthy.

McCarthy made a diving stop but had no chance of retiring Rice at first.

The Bowling Green Ballpark crowd of 5,142 rose to its feet and gave Rice an ovation, as it was announced that he had just broken Josh Patton’s program record with his 283rd career base hit.

“It was an awful neat thing to see him get the hits record and take a curtain call in front of a great crowd,” Head Coach Chris Finwood said following the game. “He deserved it, and he’ll never forget that.”

Rice proceeded to go 4-for-5 in the game, helping to lead the Toppers back from an 8-3 deficit.

He then added another notch to the record book in WKU’s next game, April 22 at Troy, when he knocked in his 209th career run, breaking Mike Williams’ school RBI record.

Finwood said it will be a difficult task to replace his record-breaking catcher.

“Matt Rice is everything you want in a college baseball player,” Finwood said. “He does everything right.”