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Wow! Where do I even begin about 2017?

I can honestly say it was the most fun year, yet.

From seeing some big surprises like Wayland’s boys soccer team burst onto the scene and win a share of the Flyway Conference title to seeing Waupun High School turn out elite team after elite team to seeing the Beaver Dam girls basketball team dominate every game it played en route to the Division 2 state championship with a perfect 28-0 record, high schoolers all around the area made this year enjoyable.

But while game coverage is always fun because any event can change in an instant, it’s the feature stories that usually leave the biggest emotional imprint.

And there were a handful of stories that made me realize just how much I love my job and that it’s not just about collecting a paycheck.

The following are the ones that stood out most.

Wrestling helps Horicon’s Dickenson turn life around

This one I worked on near the beginning of the year and it published Feb. 11, thanks to Horicon head coach Lucas Kern pitching the idea.

This one was a story about 120-pound senior Isaac Dickenson, who – with help from Kern and the sport of wrestling – turned his life around. I still remember Kern telling me he didn’t know if Dickenson would even want to talk to me about it, because it’s a touchy subject.

But when Dickenson said he would, I was elated. Still, I didn’t know what I was in for. I still remember Isaac and I sitting on a bench in a dimly lit hallway outside Horicon’s gym a few days later and him telling me that when he was in middle school in Slinger, he was expelled from school because he made the idiotic decision of selling marijuana at school.

As a result, he said that he just gave up on life.

Think about that for a second: a 12 or 13 year old giving up on life, not really caring about where he was headed.

I still remember my jaw dropping and pretty much not believing what my ears were hearing.

Right then I knew this story needed to turn out special, seeing as how Isaac had gone from a broken down child to a unanimous leader and captain for the Marshmen just a few short years after that mistake he made.

And it did.

Mayville football turned culture around

I wrote this for the high school football preview section that was published in mid-August and went online on Aug. 17. And it wouldn’t be right at that moment I would figure out how much this story actually meant for the players, coaches and the fans of the Mayville football team.

It wouldn’t be until after the season, actually.

I remember talking to Cardinals’ head coach Tom Noennig about the season prior, his first since returning to Mayville after coaching Hartford from 2009-15, and I got a feeling that the Cards could be really good if they only believed.

They started to in 2016 and almost made the playoffs. Then in Week 6 of this year, the Winnebago Lutheran game happened. I covered that game and I’ve got to say I’ve never seen a more confident group since starting at the Daily Citizen in August, 2014.

The Cardinals would win that game 21-12 to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2009. After the game, when Noennig talked to his players, I still remember the team going crazy in the end zone when he told them they were postseason-bound.

Then once the Cardinals made the playoffs, they gave Lodi – the eventual Division 3 state champions – a run for its money and almost completed one of the bigger upsets in recent history.

I guess, when you’ve got players that believe, there’s no telling what can happen.

Football coaches use unique ways to hold players accountable

This one was a little different for me because during my interviews for the football preview section, I learned there were several ways some teams held their players accountable.

Each way was more unique than the last, but every one of them taught the players that football isn’t all about learning plays and beating a different opponent each week. The coaches have a responsibility to teach these guys life lessons that, maybe, can’t be learned in a classroom setting.

Beaver Dam and head coach Steve Kuenzi had the “Ring the bell” phrase, which he hoped would teach his team to take on the challenge that’s presented in front of them day in and day out just like boxers come out of the corner round after round.

Many teams uses phrases or a single word like Kuenzi’s but I thought his was unique because of its boxing metaphor.

Fall River’s coaching staff uses a set of dice they’ve created, which holds players accountable when they do something bad like not showing up for practice. The bad egg rolls the dice in front of the team and that player will have to do whatever the dice decides — conditioning drills and the like.

It worked because the Pirates would make it one game short of a state championship game.

Then there’s Randolph, which has a stool with the words integrity, honesty, responsibility and respect imprinted on the legs and seat.

It’s self-explanatory what it means but Randolph takes that stool everywhere it goes, preaching things bigger than football like growing as men, never giving up no matter the circumstances, and treating each teammate with honor.

Markesan’s evolution last four years

This one meant a lot for a small town like Markesan because it showed just how confident a bunch of brothers and a coaching staff can be.

The Hornets’ prep football team had been good the last three seasons, but only had one playoff win. And it’s thanks in large part to a great 2018 class that really paved the way for success of the program that the the team had so much success of late.

Once those players became seniors this past season, things really clicked and the Hornets made it all the way to the Division 6 semifinals against Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs.

The Hornets had a swagger about them that not many teams had and it showed out there on the field each week.

The Hornets would lose to the eventual state champs, but it didn’t take anything away from their accomplishments — this year, as well as in years previous.

Follow Mark on Twitter @mmcmull2.

Mark McMullen is currently a sports reporter for the Daily Citizen. He can be reached by email at mmcmullen@wiscnews.com or by phone at 920-356-6754. Can also follow him on Twitter at @mmcmull2.