Southeast Missouri sports fans can count on local athletics every year for some spine-tingling talent, edge-of-your-seat action and jump-up-and-down victories.
But this fall has been even better than usual, with three teams taking their supporters on exceptional trips through the season.
Take Notre Dame Bulldogs soccer.
With their bleached-blond hair to show team spirit and their innate good sportsmanship, the Bulldogs took win after win this year.
The state championship, however, was perhaps the most amazing of them all.
It came on the heels of four consecutive playoff shutouts. It took 120 minutes and four overtimes this year, but in the end the Bulldogs prevailed over Missouri soccer powerhouse St. Francis Borgia of St. Louis. The final score was 1-0, with defender Jeff Brosey kicking the game-winner with less than three minutes left in the fourth overtime.
Observers said the team seemed to get stronger and stronger, more and more energetic as the overtimes wore on.
But here's the real kicker:
The state soccer championships began in 1968, and Notre Dame is the first school from outside the St. Louis or Kansas City metropolitan areas to take the trophy. What a fine reflection on the Southeast Missouri region.
There was one event that tempered the complete joy of victory: Notre Dame forward Blake Urhahn is recovering from a kidney injury received during that championship. However, his classmates have been praying for him every day, and it looks like a full recovery can be expected.
Then there's small-but-mighty Leopold High School, which this month brought home its third Class 1 volleyball state title in 10 years.
Again, it was another barn burner, with the girls tying volleyball titan Green Ridge in the playoffs and then handing that team its only loss of the season during the championship game. No doubt the win will add even more strength to an already mighty Leopold program, resulting in more trips to the state finals.
Finally, there's Southeast Missouri State University football. Yes, last year's season was a bust. And yes, this year promised to be more of the same at the beginning. But coach Tim Billings and the team were determined to rise above predictions of mediocrity.
It worked, and the Indians broke into The Sports Network NCAA Division I-AA poll Monday at No. 24. That was the program's first regular-season national ranking on the I-AA level.
The Indians earned eight wins and suffered four losses in a season that saw two other firsts: beating Middle Tennessee, their first triumph over a Division I-A team, and finally defeating Eastern Kentucky.
Congratulations to all the young men and women and their coaches who chose to be exceptional this year. They've raised the bar for next year.