By MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — It was literally a banner year for St. Francis.
On three occasions, the Gladiators played for state titles in 2012. And while all three sports finished as runner-up in the state, the accomplishment was a first for all three programs.
The runner-up finishes in boys basketball, girls track and volleyball for the Glads lands them at No. 4 on the Record-Eagle Top 10 sports stories of 2012.
"It's a testament to the work the kids put in," St. Francis athletic director Tom Hardy said. "You look at the number of teams across the state in those sports. And to know that you're one of the last two standing, it's a memory that you'll carry forever. We hang banners for first or second place in the state. Those are three banners for the first time that were hung this year. It's a true accomplishment."
The run began last winter with the St. Francis basketball team. The Gladiators finished with a 25-3 record, but fell short against top-ranked and unbeaten Flint Beecher in the Class C title game, 74-60.
Along the way, St. Francis earned the Lake Michigan Conference title and picked up quite a following for its district in Kalkaska, the regional at TC West and the quarterfinal in Petoskey.
"The energy it brings when you do something new was fantastic," Hardy said. "For our basketball team last spring, our student sections, our kids, our families, the support they gave was fantastic. The kids in the whole school got behind it. It brought everybody together. And it carried over into our spring sports as well."
In the spring season, the Gladiators made an incredible run at the Division 4 girls state championship, falling just four points behind eventual champion Fowler at the final meet.
Lauren Buckel won the 200 and 400 while anchoring the state-champion 1600 relay. Several teammates also finished as medalists.
Then in the fall, the Gladiator volleyball team continued the trend. St. Francis made a memorable run to Battle Creek for the Class C state finals. There, they lost to Monroe St. Mary Catholic in four sets for the championship, but did come away with a memorable five-set win over Unionville-Sebewaing in the semifinal after trailing 2-0 in the best-of-five match.
The Gladiators also won a regional title in their own gym and headed to Manistique to knock off Calumet in the quarterfinal.
"To go into volleyball this year, that was brand new," Hardy said. "It was only the second time in school history we've gotten to a quarterfinal. And then to move on and win the semifinal in the way that we did... We had three fan busses of students going to every game. In that final week, those kids put 30 hours of bus time just to get to those games."
Can the Gladiators repeat the success in 2013? So far, the boys basketball team is off to a strong start. And a number of the track stars will be back, including Buckel. The volleyball team will lose two all-staters next fall, but will have a number of returning players back.