The Top 10 Regional Sports Stories of the Year

The past 12 months haven't been particularly kind to Chicagoland sports fans.

But still, 2012 included some memorable moments, whether it be two McHenry County natives enjoying success at the Summer Olympics to both Northern Illinois and Notre Dame reaching two of college football's most cherished Bowl Championship Series destinations. So here are the 10 regional stories the sports staff of the Northwest Herald believe mattered most:

1. London Calling

Amy LePeilbet, a 2000 Prairie Ridge graduate, won gold with the U.S. women's soccer team, helping the U.S. beat Japan, 2-1, as the U.S. won its third straight gold medal. LePeilbet, who holds the PR school record for goals and assists, started five out of the six Olympic matches as a defender.

Evan Jager also made his way to London as the 2007 Jacobs graduate finished sixth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase after running his way into the Olympic finals. Jager accomplished the feat despite taking the event up only recently. Jager also made news before arriving at the Olympics, setting the U.S. record at the Diamond Meet in Monoco in only his fifth time competing in the event.

2. Torn Up

When the 2012 NBA playoffs began, the Bulls appeared to be the biggest obstacle standing between the Miami Heat and a world championship. But that quickly changed when star guard Derrick Rose tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Chicago's playoff opener against Philadelphia.

The injury occurred with the Bulls leading by 12 points with just more than a minute remaining. Rose underwent surgery and the Bulls won only more game, eliminated after dropping the series to the 76ers, 4-2. Rose has yet to start practicing with the Bulls, who are in second place in the Eastern Conference's Central Division despite playing without Rose.

3. Oranges to Oranges

Northern Illinois' football team will start 2013 in Miami after earning a BCS Orange Bowl berth after the Huskies' 12-1 season. After dropping a disappointing season-opener to Iowa, NIU reeled off 12 straight wins, capped by a thrilling 44-37 double-overtime victory in the Mid-American Conference title game in Detroit.

The Huskies, who will face Florida State on Tuesday in Miami, jumped from No. 21 to No. 15 in the BCS standings after the victories and a series of results that pushed NIU into the BCS, sparking a debate among national pundits whether the Huskies belonged.

4. Wake Up The Echoes

It wasn't always pretty, but Notre Dame returned to national championship form in 2012, earning a spot in the BCS title game against Alabama after posting a 12-0 record despite being unranked in The Associated Press Top 25 when the season began.

The Irish, led by AP Coach of the Year Brian Kelly and inspired by Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o, were dominant at times, but also had their share of close calls to remain undefeated. Notre Dame needed three overtime periods to slip past Pittsburgh before stringing together wins against Boston College, Wake Forest and USC to reach Miami, where the top-ranked Irish will be seeking their 14th national championship.

5. Marshall comes to town

The Bears entered the 2012 offseason in need of targets for quarterback Jay Cutler. That's when new general manager Phil Emery went to work, Brandon Marshall in a trade with the Miami Dolphins.

In his first season reunited with his former Denver teammate Cutler, Marshall quickly became the Bears top receiver and eventually made his fourth Pro Bowl. But Marshall also had his series of disappointments, which he documented after a 21-13 loss to the Packers this month when he called for his teammates to be more accountable after a freefall that came after the Bears won seven of their first eight games.

6. Wait Til Next Year?

When Theo Epstein took over the Cubs' baseball before the 2012 season, he warned fans they'd have to be patient. But even the most pessimistic of fans probably didn't envision a year that included 101 losses.

And yet, that's what the Cubs delivered, suffering their first 100-loss season since 1966. Epstein made his share of moves during the year, trading veterans Ryan Dempster, Geovany Soto and Reed Baker for minor league prospects. Starter Matt Garza developed elbow problems, reliever Kerry Wood retired and despite productive seasons from Alfonso Soriano and Anthony Rizzo, defensive issues for shortstop Starlin Castro and major issues for closer Carlos Marmol led to a fifth-place finish in the N.L. Central, 27 games out of first place.

7. Perfect Day At the Office

In a White Sox season that likely will be remembered more for a late-season collapse rather than early success, pitcher Phil Humber still claims the year's most memorable moment.

Humber pitched the third perfect game in Sox history in a 4-0 victory over Seattle in April. Humber, who never had pitched a complete game in his career, reached perfection despite nearly walking the Mariners' Michael Saunders to start the ninth and then going to a 3-2 count to Brendan Ryan with two outs. After Ryan fouled off a pitch to keep the at-bat going, Humber – who struck out nine in the win – got Ryan on a check-swing third strike.

8. On the shelf

Packers' offensive tackle and former Marian Central standout Bryan Bulaga has been hurt before during his NFL career, but not like this year.

Bulaga, who is in his third NFL season, was placed on injured reserve by the NFC Central champion Packers in November after fracturing his left hip against Arizona. In an interview with the Northwest Herald this month, Bulaga characterized the injury as "weird," saying it happened when his leg locked in an awkward position before he tripped over a teammate's foot. Bulaga expects to be at 100 percent by February, when he plans to begin training again.

9. Locked Out

Area hockey fans have been forced to get their fix elsewhere this year as the NHL season has remained on ice after a lockout because of a dispute between the league's players and owners.

The lockout went into effect in mid-September after the NHL's current collective bargaining agreement expired. Owners were looking to reduce players' guaranteed share of hockey related revenues – which currently stands at 57 percent. Despite talks that seemed to suggest the two sides might be nearing an agreement, games have been canceled through the end of December with likely no end in sight.

10. Bearing Down

The Bears are doing their best not to make the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six seasons. But recent failings – even before this year's second-half collapse – spelled the end for long-time general manager Jerry Angelo, who was fired in January.

At the time, Bears President Ted Phillips wouldn't specify why Angelo was let go after 11 seasons. But a string of playoff misses and recent draft-day disasters certainly didn't help Angelo's cause. Angelo's ouster came after a season when the Bears started 7-3 only to lose five straight games after a rash of injuries.

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