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The Top Ten

December 30, 2018
NUMBER FIVE: Lowell High had dual basketball stars, Alex Rivera and Shyan Mwai. SUN/Julia Malakie Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

Two teenage sisters in a golf duel for the ages. A miraculous comeback by a college athlete. A clutch performance on a Wrigley Field mound. A coach staying put after being wooed by one of the top programs in the nation. A gym rat who realized his dream of being the head coach in an NBA game.

Two high school basketball players who took their games to Division 1 programs after mesmerizing fans for four seasons. A guy who grew up with little seeing his team -- really his team, he’s the owner -- win one of the top trophies in sports.

These were the top 10 local sports stories which made 2018 such a captivating year.

10. Lowell kid the Mann

Led by Lowell native Terance Mann, the Florida State men’s basketball team made a spirited run in the NCAA Tournament.

The Seminoles’ march was highlighted on March 23 when they upset Gonzaga, 75-60, ruining thousands of brackets and putting Mann in the spotlight. Mann netted 18 points against Gonzaga and he was rewarded for his efforts by being interviewed on national TV following the game.

Florida State lost to Michigan in the next round, one win from the Final Four. Mann, now a senior, is continuing his standout play and improving his draft stock for June.

9. Oh, baby, he ran an NBA team

When Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra stepped away from the team to spend time with his wife prior to the birth of their first child, he selected Dan Craig to run the team in his absence.

On March 25, in Indianapolis, the Chelmsford native served as the Heat’s head coach during a 113-107 overtime loss to the Pacers. For Craig, it was a memory he won’t forget.

Craig’s year became even more memorable last summer when he was selected to serve on the coaching staff for USA Basketball to assist Gregg Popovich at the men’s national team minicamp in Vegas.

Craig is a 1999 Chelmsford High graduate, who played basketball under Charlie Micol. He has made quite the ascent in coaching. He began as a video intern with the Heat during the 2003-04 season. Today he’s the top assistant on the Heat and a well-respected member of the NBA coaching fraternity.

8. Leonsis hoists the Cup

On a hot June night in Las Vegas, a kid who grew up in the Acre section of Lowell, Ted Leonsis, joyously held up the Stanley Cup.

The owner of the Washington Capitals watched his team defeat the Golden Knights, 4-3, in Game 5, and then went to ice level to hoist perhaps the most iconic trophy in sports. Leonsis purchased the Capitals for $85 million in 1999 and this marked Washington’s first NHL title.

For years, the Capitals would get bounced early in the playoffs. Not this time. Not with Alexander Ovechkin leading the way.

“It’s heavy! They say it’s 35 pounds. It feels like 95,” Leonsis said after a wild celebration.

7. Bazin remains at UMass Lowell

In May, when Jim Montgomery decided to leave to coach the NHL’s Dallas Stars, the University of Denver turned its eye east and sought to hire Norm Bazin away from UMass Lowell.

Denver is Division 1 college hockey royalty. Think Duke or North Carolina in basketball. When reports surfaced that Denver was about to hire Bazin, UML athletic director Dana Skinner shot down the rumors. He was right. Bazin, UML’s head coach since 2011 and a graduate of the school, decided to turn down the Pioneers.

Bazin also turned down an offer to coach the Vancouver Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate the summer before. Ironically, UMass Lowell hosted Denver on Saturday night.

6. Crusaders capture state championship

For the first time ever, Groton-Dunstable reached the summit of high school volleyball in Massachusetts.

The Crusaders captured the Division 2 state championship with a dominant 3-0 victory over Minnechaug Regional in the MIAA state final at Worcester State University in November. Groton-Dunstable swept Minnechaug, 25-19, 25-10, 25-20, to punctuate a phenomenal 22-2 season.

On its way to its first-ever girls volleyball title, G-D defeated both Westboro and Canton, 3-2, in the Central bracket, and then knocked off perennial state power Lynnfield, 3-2, in the state semifinals.

5. Lowell High’s dynamic duo

Lowell High has enjoyed a long history of producing basketball stars.

But the Red Raiders have never had two players so talented at the same time as Alex Rivera and Shyan Mwai.

Both graduated this past spring as the all-time leading scorers in program history. Rivera left as the boys all-time scorer with 1,589 points. Mwai departed as the girls all-time champ with 1,971 points.

Both led their teams to 18-win seasons and runs to the Division 1 North semifinals.

Rivera averaged 25 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals during a memorable senior campaign. He exited after netting 42 points in a tournament win over Lynn English and 35 in a loss to Everett.

Mwai, a fellow guard, scored 550 points as a senior.

Both are playing Division 1 basketball -- Rivera at UMass Lowell and Mwai at Iona.

4. Eichel named captain

North Chelmsford native Jack Eichel was named the 16th full-time captain of the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 3, the day before Buffalo’s season opener against the Boston Bruins.

At age 22, he was the youngest to earn the honor. Under Eichel’s leadership, the Sabres have enjoyed a remarkable turnaround.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward is guiding the Sabres toward a possible return to the playoffs and Eichel shirts are everywhere in Buffalo. Eichel, who signed an eight-year, $80 million extension to stay with the Sabres in 2017, is among the top 10 in the National Hockey League in points, assists and shots on goal.

Bruins fans saw his impact recently when he netted two goals and two assists in a 4-2 win over Boston.

3. Oberg ends marathon game

On Oct. 2, in Chicago, the Cubs and Colorado Rockies staged the longest elimination game in Major League baseball history.

The Rockies won the National League wild-card game in 13 innings when Scott Oberg, a Tewksbury native, ended the 4-hour, 55-minute marathon by striking out Albert Almora Jr., to end the game at Wrigley Field.

In a clutch performance, the right-handed relief pitcher fanned all four Chicago batters he faced. It highlighted a terrific season for Oberg, one of the best relievers in baseball in the second half of the season.

Oberg went 5-0 in July. In 13 appearances in the month, he posted a 1.46 ERA in 12.1 innings. No MLB pitcher won more games in the month than the former Tewksbury High star.

2. An emotional goal for Noelle

In a scene straight out of Hollywood, UMass Lowell women’s lacrosse player Noelle Lambert scored a goal in her first game back with her team during a 16-1 win over the University of Hartford in Lowell on April 5.

Lambert and her teammate, Kelly Moran, suffered serious injuries when the moped they were on crashed on Martha’s Vineyard during a 2016 accident. Lambert returned to the field playing on a prosthetic limb. The portion of her left leg below the knee had to be amputated after the crash.

There were few dry eyes when Lambert celebrated her goal.

1. A sister act on the links

It was nine holes of golf that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who was there.

After shooting a 43 on the front nine, Molly Smith wasn’t thinking of winning the 20th Lowell Women’s City Golf Tournament.

A couple of amazing hours later, the 13-year-old was holding the winner’s trophy for the second year in a row after edging her sister Morgan, 14, by one shot. What happened? Some of the best golf these parts have ever seen, that’s what.

Molly Smith shot an eye-popping, jaw-dropping 29 on the back nine at Vesper Country Club, one of the area’s toughest courses, including a hole-in-one on the 161-yard 14th hole. In addition to her hole-in-one, Smith recorded five birdies over the final nine holes.

“Morgan played great,” said the champ gracefully. “One day when we’re adults we’ll think back to this and remember it as something special.”

Kind of like 2018.

Follow Barry Scanlon on Twitter @BarryScanlonSun

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