Oh, what a year.
What began with the Cowboys Classic on Sept. 1 ended a week ago, when the Michigan men’s basketball fell, 82-76, to Louisville in the national championship game in Atlanta.
The days and months in between offered some of the more spectacular seasons of Michigan athletics we’ve seen in a very, very long time. It was a fun year to watch, and it’ll be a fun one to remember.
Named after ESPN personality Adam Schefter, one of The Michigan Daily’s most esteemed alumni, these awards honor the best of Michigan athletics in the last year. Schefter worked as a Daily Sports Editor in the late 1980s and currently serves as ESPN’s NFL insider.
Without further ado, we offer you the 2013 Schefters.
Best Cinderella Story: Michigan volleyball team
Despite fielding only one senior on its roster, despite playing in the toughest conference in the NCAA and despite plummeting from the national rankings after a 4-7 start to conference play, the Michigan volleyball team endured.
On Dec. 13, the unranked Wolverines faced off against No. 3 Texas at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. The journey to that game, the program’s first Final Four appearance, though, was just about as unlikely as they come.
Michigan, disgruntled and disjointed, had slowed to a midseason crawl and had quickly fallen out of contention for the Big Ten title. But with more than a handful of ranked opponents lying ahead on the schedule, the Wolverines rallied. They had no other choice.
Michigan won 11 of its final 13 games to reach the Final Four, defeating No. 4 Nebraska, No. 10 Minnesota, No. 14 Ohio State, No. 9 Louisville and No. 2 Stanford along the way to set up a meeting with the third-ranked Longhorns.
A quick advantage in the Final Four evaporated, and Texas won in five sets to end Michigan’s season and surprise run. But returning an almost-identical lineup next year means this team shouldn’t be trying to fit into the glass slipper at all next year.
Breakout Athlete of the Year: Connor Jaeger, men’s swimming and diving
“I came to Michigan a nobody.”
Connor Jaeger, a junior from New Jersey, is never content. Unquestionably successful, yet unquestionably humble.
An unheralded sophomore a year ago, Jaeger took the swimming world by storm last summer. Jaeger qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team in the 1,500-meter freestyle and placed sixth in the event finals at the Olympics in London.
But that wasn’t the mountaintop for Jaeger, it was just a stop along the way. After a week to rest at home, it was back to the grind. Above the double doors in Canham Natatorium, he explained, there’s an inscription that spells out his motivation.
“It’s not every four years,” the banner reads. “It’s every day.”
Thanks in part to Jaeger’s success in the pool, the Michigan men’s swimming and diving team stayed atop the national rankings for much of the season and, on March 30, the Wolverines captured their 12th national title — their first since 1995.
Jaeger, a junior, captured two titles over the same weekend in Indianapolis, becoming the NCAA champion in the 500-yard freestyle and 1,650-yard freestyle.
He was a nobody, sure, but that all changed in a hurry.
Best single-event performance: Women’s track and field distance medley relay
Some records are meant to be broken. And some of those are meant to be broken by the same people, a week later.
In early March, the Michigan women’s track and field team’s distance medley relay team of seniors Rebecca Addison and senior Jillian Smith, fifth-year senior Amanda Eccleston and freshman Maya Long set a program record in the 4,000-meter relay, finishing with a time of 9:56.66.
A week later, they broke it again, setting the bar at 9:56.46, behind a strong push in the third and fourth legs by Smith and Eccleston.
And this time it was to secure a national championship, Michigan’s first title in the event since 1995. Each member of the distance medley relay team was named to the All-America first team.
Game of the Year: Men’s basketball — Michigan 87, Kansas 85 (OT)
This one won’t soon be forgotten.
The game — four-seed Michigan and one-seed Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen — encapsulated the beauty and improbability of the Big Dance.
Down by 14 with a handful of minutes left on the clock, Michigan star Trey Burke began to finally mount a comeback. It was a prayer, then it was a long shot, then it was a really, really long shot.
With five seconds on the clock, the sophomore guard shifted behind a screen and pulled up for a 30-foot jumper to tie. That shot, Michigan’s “one shining moment,” of course, went in.
Burke, ice cold in the first half, scored all 23 of his points in the second half and overtime. Michigan rode the momentum to an 87-85 victory and the Wolverines’ first Elite Eight berth since the Fab Five ruled the roost two decades ago.
Team of the Year: Men’s swimming and diving
Now, most will give this category to the men’s basketball team, but that’s an oversight.
The men’s swimming and diving team has been a powerhouse for decades, producing elite athletes year after year. But a national championship had eluded the program since 1995, and of the Wolverines’ 11 national championships, only one had come in the last 50 years.
So the senior leadership of the swimming and diving team sat down early in the season and set the expectation, and they set it high: national championship or bust. And bust wasn’t an option.
The Wolverines dominated out of the gate and never looked back. They swam to a three-peat Big Ten championship, and they handily captured the program’s 12th national championship on March 30.
Coach of the Year: John Beilein, men’s basketball
John Beilein finally made it.
Michigan’s 60-year-old head coach made stops at Eric Community College, Nazareth, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and finally Michigan before he made his Final Four.
And the wait couldn’t have been more worthwhile.
Balancing a team consisting primarily of a hotshot freshman class, dubbed the Fresh Five, a star sophomore, Burke, and a junior, Tim Hardaway Jr., Beilein rewrote his traditional offense and playing style to turn Michigan into one of the quickest and most exciting transition teams in the nation.
Despite missing out on a Big Ten title and a national title, Beilein has established Ann Arbor as a destination for big-time talent, and that stream of talent won’t slow anytime soon. The expectations are higher now, and that’s just fine with Beilein.
Female Athlete of the Year: Katie Zurales and Joanna Sampson, women’s gymnastics
It’s hard to mention one without the other. So I’ll give you both.
Last month, senior Katie Zurales was named an AAI Award finalist, following in the footsteps of former captain Kylee Botterman, who won the award last fall.
Zurales and junior Joanna Sampson have captained the Wolverines to one of the best seasons in recent memory.
Sampson was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Year and NCAA Northeast Region Gymnast of the Year. A Big Ten vault champion and three-time NCAA vault and all-around champion, Zurales was named to the All-Big Ten Championships team earlier this month.
Both were named to the All-Big Ten first team this season and have combined for six Big Ten Gymnast of the Week awards.
The Wolverines, undoubtedly the most consistent varsity program on campus, have captured 18 Big Ten titles in the last 21 years. They begin the NCAA Championships on Friday in Los Angeles.
Male Athlete of the Year: Trey Burke, men’s basketball
The Daily diehards out there might gripe that Burke won this category last year and that there should be a greater award to offer the man who won every individual award the college basketball world could think of.
Burke announced Sunday that he will forgo his junior and senior seasons to enter the NBA Draft. That decision was completely expected, and even came a year later than most anticipated.
But Burke stayed. He returned for a sophomore season, and he did the most with it, flirting with records and milestones every step of the way. Burke and his heroics led Michigan to the national championship game, and swept the postseason awards before he finally made the obvious decision to leave early for the NBA.
For two years, he flashed greatness. He became the best player in America, and, one day, his No. 3 should be raised to the rafters at Crisler Center to leave him among the Wolverine greats, the ones who put Michigan firmly on the map.
Career Achievement Award: Denard Robinson, football
For three years, Denard Robinson was the image of Michigan athletics.
The quarterback took center stage after gaining an NCAA-record 502 yards against Notre Dame as a sophomore. He says nobody knew who he was before that day. And then he was an overnight celebrity, stopped on sidewalks and in classrooms to pose for a quick photo.
Robinson, more than any single player, resurrected the Michigan football team. Rich Rodriguez got the boot and when Brady Hoke ushered in a new era, he had Robinson to ease the transition.
Robinson made 37 starts at quarterback, ultimately setting the NCAA record for career rushing yards by a quarterback (4,495 yards), the NCAA single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,702), and became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 yards in a single season.
He broke myriad Big Ten and Michigan program records, but his mark remains because of the team’s success with Robinson at the helm — no matter at what position. As a junior, in Hoke’s first season, Robinson led the Wolverines to a BCS bowl victory, a 23-20 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
An ulnar-nerve injury sidelined Robinson for a significant portion of the back half of his senior season, but he returned as a running back and wide receiver to play in the final three games of his career.
The program is certainly headed in the right direction under Hoke, but watching Michigan simply won’t be the same without No. 16, his shoelaces, his dreadlocks and his brilliant speed.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.