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Arizona Wildcats: Top 12 stories of 2011

Derrick Williams salutes the student section after his game-saving block against Washington. Photo by Chris Morrison, US-PRESSWIRE

Coaches coming, going and staying. NCAA champions. Memorable games. Unforgettable players.

The year that was in Arizona Wildcats athletics was packed with storylines, good and bad, and we’ll be buzzing about some of it for decades to come.

The longest-standing sports bloggers at TucsonCitizen.com — myself included — voted for the biggest UA stories of the year, trying to sort out individual accomplishments from big games from off-field news … balancing big sports with those that don’t get as much coverage.

Here are the results. The top 12 Arizona Wildcats sports stories of the year:

No. 12: Record-setter

Somewhat lost amid a frustrating football season was a performance that filled the school and conference record books. Senior QB Nick Foles set conference records with passing yards per game (361.2) and completions for a season (387) and career (933). He established several UA passing marks, including career yardage (10,011) that won’t soon be broken.

No. 11: Legend leaves

Swimming coach Frank Busch, who led the men’s and women’s swimming teams to national championships in 2008, resigned his position to become national team director of USA Swimming. Busch spent 22 years at Arizona, six times winning NCAA Coach of the Year honors and establishing the program as one of the nation’s best.

No. 10: Jumping for victory

Sophomore high jumper Brigetta Barrett won the NCAA indoor championship, the Pac-12 outdoor title, the NCAA outdoor title champion … and she was just getting started. Barrett won the high jump competition at the USA Track and Field Championships in late June with a jump of 6 feet, 4 3/4 inches, and set a personal best of 6-5 in winning gold at the World University Games in August.

No. 9: White Out

The White Out at McKale Center for the Feb. 19 game against Washington sounded like a corny idea, a borrowed idea from an increasing number of “outs” at stadiums and arenas across the country. But not only were the white-clad fans at McKale visually stunning, the game was a beauty, too, as Derrick Williams swatted a last-second shot by Darnell Gant to preserve an 87-86 win.

No. 8: Hello, Hi

Arizona struck a deal with the city of Tucson to make historic Hi Corbett Field the home of Arizona baseball. The facilities at the former spring training and minor league baseball stadium should be attractive to recruits and increase the chances of hosting postseason play. Athletic director Greg Byrne, meanwhile, gets to ponder what to do with the valuable real estate of the on-campus stadium.

No. 7: Home for the Series

It was almost a given that Arizona softball, an eight-time national champion, would play in the Women’s College World Series. The Cats had made it every year but one since 1988, but their pitching and chemistry fell short in 2011, and UA lost to Oklahoma in the Super Regionals. “Sometimes you have to have this happen to really appreciate not having it,” coach Mike Candrea said.

Gino Crump exalts in the victory over ASU. Photo by Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic

No. 6: Territorial Cup victory

The Wildcats created a game to remember from an otherwise miserable football season, rallying in the fourth quarter at ASU, with Gino Crump and Juron Criner each shredding tackles after short catches for touchdowns. The defense then held on two possessions, knocking down two passes into the end zone in the final 10 seconds to come away with a wild 31-27 win.

No. 5: Undefeated

Freshman Lawi Lalang won all six of his cross country races, setting a course record at the Pac-12 championships and easily winning the NCAA title to become the third cross country champion in school history. “He is in a class of his own,” said UA coach James Li. “What he has done this year, it has been unbelievable.”

No. 4: Miller stays

When Sean Miller decided in early May to pursue the coaching vacancy at Maryland, what followed was a tense 48 hours for Arizona fans that included some reports that he was gone. For whatever reason, Miller and Maryland never closed the deal, and the flirtation seemed o strengthen Miller’s resolve to be in Tucson for, as he said, the “long haul.”

No. 3: He’s No. 2

Power forward Derrick Williams, after winning Pac-12 Player of the Year honors and leading Arizona to an NCAA regional final, declared for the draft after his sophomore season. He made the right call, going second overall to Minnesota, the first of many players Sean Miller will send from Tucson to the NBA. Tweeted Williams after his selection: “Wait.. Is this real? NBA! wow. Tears of joy”

Athletic director Greg Byrne (left) and coach Rich Rodriguez: A winning combination? Photo by Mark Evans, TucsonCitizen.com

No. 2: Run to regional final

If Jamelle Horne’s 3-pointer at the buzzer had gone in against UConn in the West Regional final, the Cats certainly could have gone on to win it all. Still, it was a magical ride — Derrick Williams’ late block against Memphis, his late 3-point play vs. Texas, the rout of Duke … it was a thrilling nine days that stamped UA as a re-surfacing national power.

No. 1: Coaching change

We’ll bundle together the midseason firing of Mike Stoops and the hiring of Rich Rodriguez, a swing-for-the-fences hire by AD Greg Byrne, who ran a drama-free coaching search. Is Rodriguez still the guy who won big at West Virginia? He’s innovative, young (48) and motivated after a difficult three-year stretch at Michigan. On paper, Arizona has never hired a better football coach.

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