No. 1: Blaise Ilsley becomes bullpen coach for the St. Louis Cardinals
Alpena native Baise Ilsley returned to the major leagues in 2013.
Nearly 10 years after his brief time as a big-league player, Ilsley joined the St. Louis Cardinals as their bullpen coach for the 2013 season after his hiring was announced in November 2012.
Prior to his promotion, Ilsley spent a dozen years as a minor league coach for the Cardinals.
As bullpen coach, he became the main communicator in the bullpen, made sure relievers were ready when called upon, did video review and threw battling practice.
Ilsley's first year with St. Louis was a memorable one as the Cardinals advanced to the World Series where they lost to Boston in six games. Still, the Cardinals finished with the second best record in the National League and their young bullpen was key to the Cardinals' success in the postseason.
Ilsley could have bigger coaching roles in the future, but said in March that he's comfortable with being a bullpen coach at this stage and hopes to make the most of his opportunity.
No. 2: Expansion of the North Star League
Conference realignments have been part of a changing landscape in many professional sports, but in 2013, Northeast Michigan saw a bit of its own realignment.
In January, the North Star League announced plans to expand to 12 teams beginning in the fall of 2013, adding Alcona, Rogers City, Oscoda and Whittemore-Prescott to the original eight teams under the North Star League banner.
In December 2012, the North Star League was thrown for a loop when Hillman announced plans to move to the Ski Valley Conference beginning in the fall of 2014. With the league expansion however, Hillman announced plans to remain in the North Star League over the summer.
The move created stability in scheduling for all schools and created a strong Northeast Michigan conference that made travel easier as well. It created some new rivalries and kept many long standing rivalries intact too.
Reaction to the expansion has largely been positive and the fall season saw a lot of quality competition. The Alcona and Mio football teams won the league's two division titles and several cross country runners qualified for the state finals including Alcona's Megan Quick and the Rogers City girls team.
The basketball season is still young at this point, but it looks like the North Star League is in for another quality winter season as well.
No. 3: Elaine Lowe wins XC national title
Elaine Lowe had a remarkable career at Alpena High School, shining as a long distance runner on the track and finishing her cross country career with one of the top girls times in school history.
It didn't take her very long to make a splash after she signed with Cleary University either.
In November, Lowe won the USCAA Cross Country National Championship, beating out 150 athletes from 17 different schools in Syracuse, N.Y. She outpaced the field by a good margin, finishing nearly 30 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor and helped Cleary finish fifth overall.
Lowe was just one of seven runners on Cleary's team, which is in its second year, but that didn't stop her from reaching the top as a freshman.
Conditions for the race weren't the best, but Lowe is used to running in rainy conditions and began to push herself harder after 400 meters.
The national title capped a remarkable year for Lowe after she signed a Letter of Intent with Cleary in February and was named Female Athlete of the Alpena News Track and Field Honor Roll Invitational in May after setting new marks in the 1,600 run and 3,200 run.
Though next year's race is still many months away, Lowe has her eye on becoming a repeat champion and plans to train harder to stay in top form since she knows her competitors will be striving to beat her.
No. 4: Rogers City's Bailey Budnick wins state bowling title
Being a high school freshman can be a tough experience, especially when it comes to athletics, but Rogers City's Bailey Budnick made the transition quite easily.
In March, Budnick won the Division 4 individual state bowling title, defeating Burton Bentley freshman Jeffery Green 336-322 in Sterling Heights.
Budnick felt a lot of pressure going into the final, but performed well and his title came on the heels of a team title for the Rogers City boys team in 2012.
Budnick has been bowling since the age of five had several years of experience as a youth bowler before joining the Hurons last year. Though the Hurons lost as a team in the quarterfinals, Budnick was one of four Hurons to qualify for the individual finals.
Budnick finished seventh in the qualifying block before powering his way through the next three rounds to reach the finals. His finals win over Green was his closest margin of victory.
As one of Rogers City's returners this year, Budnick will undoubtedly be looking for a solid follow-up to 2013 as he hopes to defend his title.
"I've never been the best at anything in my life. Being the best (by winning the individual state championship) is a cool feeling," Budnik said of his championship win.
No. 5: Alpena Little League merges with Alpena Babe Ruth
In an effort to cover a wider area and allow for increased participation, Alpena Huron Shores Little League and Alpena Babe Ruth announced in January that they would merge into a single entity, Alpena Huron Shores Babe Ruth.
The merge opened more opportunities to kids living on the borders of Alpena County, expanded age limits for kids in baseball and softball and also increased the strength of the house leagues.
In its first year, the merge seems to have paid off. In July, the Alpena 9U and 11U baseball teams won Cal Ripken state championships in Niles and the 10U and 12U teams finished runner-up for state titles. The 9U and 11U teams advanced to regionals in Indiana and Illinois. The 11U team advanced to the regional quarterfinal before being eliminated by Mill Creek, Ohio.
AHSBR got a further boost in November when it was announced Alpena will host the 10U and 12U Cal Ripken state tournaments this summer. The tournament will bring teams from eight leagues to Alpena to test themselves against the best in the state. Tournament officials chose Alpena because of its success in tournaments as well as the quality of its fields among other things.
With a busy summer ahead and hopes for continued success, the future looks bright for AHSBR.