Best. Year. Ever.

Trust me, the staff at DenisonBigRed.com knows how cliché those “Best of the Year” episodes can be.  All we know is that athletics at Denison University have been around for more than 125 years and we can’t deny it, 2011 just might have been the best year of them all.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s do a little run down in no particular order and we will let you be the judge.

We start with the obvious and that occurred last March when the Big Red men’s swimmers & divers ended the Purple Reign with its first national championship.  Denison prevailed by a single point, marking the closest national championship in college swimming and diving history.  Records fell, individual national championships were captured in staggering numbers and Gregg Parini took home his fourth national coach of the year award.  For the first time since 1979 a men’s swimming and diving team other than our rivals to the north left nationals with the top prize.

In the midst of the men’s swimming & diving frenzy, the women’s program posted its sixth national runner-up finish in program history while setting a national record in the 800 free relay.  It’s pretty tough to top a second-place national finish but that’s what occurred in Knoxville, Tenn.

Are you starting to get an inkling of just how great this year was?  Stick with us.

One month before swimming & diving's march to glory, the women’s basketball team went wire-to-wire through the NCAC Tournament with an impeccable 28-0 record.  The Big Red knocked off Allegheny by 18-points to lock up its sixth tourney crown in seven seasons. Senior Shaina Kaiser was named the NCAC Player of the Year and a WBCA All-American. She ended her career at DU with 1,482 points.

While the women’s team continued to steam roll opponents, the men’s basketball team enjoyed a moment in the sun on a cold and snowy Wednesday in February.  Embroiled in a see-saw battle with 15th-ranked Wabash on its home court, Denison’s pint-sized point guard, Jim Leffew, scored seven points in the game’s final seven seconds and beat the buzzer with a 35-footer that sent the Big Red to the improbable win.  The shot, which gained thousands of views within hours on various social media sites, spread like wildfire throughout campus, giving the diminutive Leffew “BMOC” status.

As the winter transitioned to spring, the Big Red women’s lacrosse team had an interim head coach but a familiar face in P.J. Soteriades.  The men’s lacrosse team was prepping for life without all-time leading scorer Brady Burton and the softball team was entering the year with a pitching staff comprised of three first-year’s.  All the women’s lacrosse team did was rattle off 10-straight wins en route to the program’s first undefeated conference slate since 2005.  The string of wins sent them to their 16th conference title and 14th NCAA Tournament appearance.

The men’s lacrosse team went 10-3 in the regular season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive season.  In the opening round they dispatched rival, Ohio Wesleyan, 7-6 thanks to a Tanner Smith goal with 1:17 remaining.  In the second round they took undefeated and second-ranked R.I.T. to the limit, eventually falling 13-12 in one of the most exciting lacrosse games in program history.

Armed with young pitching and a handful of veteran position players, the softball team won 30-games for the fifth-time in program history and hosted the NCAC Tournament for the third-straight year. Senior Erica Evans was named the NCAC Player of the Year and first-year Rebecca Dyer was named the NCAC Pitcher of the Year.

Over the last decade Peter Burling’s women’s tennis teams have made a habit out of being the last team standing, competing even after commencement has taken place and students have packed up for summer break.  Same story in 2011 as the Big Red advanced to the NCAA’s Elite 8 for the fifth-straight season and the seventh time since 2004.  Senior Kristin Cobb capped off a brilliant career by winning the prestigious Arthur Ashe Jr. Sportsmanship and Leadership Award.  Cobb left Granville as the all-time leader in singles and doubles wins.  She was a six-time All-American and the 2011 NCAC Player of the Year.

Dee Salukombo had a great 2011, so great he decided to run from Granville all the way to his home in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood to raise money for the school in his home village in Kirotshe, Congo.   Dee covered 120 miles in only 3 days.  That’s five, count em, FIVE marathons in three days.   Somehow, that achievement managed to dwarf his NCAA trifecta of 2011.  Salukombo started with a 10th place finish in the mile at the Indoor Track & Field Championships. He followed with a 12th place finish in the 5,000 meters at the Outdoor Championship and this fall he posted an eighth place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.

This fall it was field hockey’s turn to achieve new levels of excellence.  Head Coach P.J. Soteriades’ squad began the season with nine straight wins en route to an 18-2 season and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.  The Big Red was one of eight teams in the NCAA field to receive a bye into the second round.  DU eventually fell to nationally ranked MIT in Maine but the achievements of this season will resonate beyond 2011.

While field hockey was shutting out opponents, the football team was beginning its climb up the NCAC standings.  At 5-5 overall and 4-2 in the conference, Denison posted its best NCAC finish (3rd place) since winning the league crown in 1986.  In his second year at the helm, Jack Hatem’s offense packed quite a punch.  Max Paulus and Sam Fioroni became the first QB-RB tandem to post 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. Also, for the first time since 1997, the 'Old Red Lantern" came back to Denison after the Big Red's 27-13 win at The College of Wooster.

Last but not least, a record, 12th Dennis M. Collins NCAC All-Sports trophy was added to the display case in Livingston Gymnasium.  The man behind the curtain of 11 of those awards was longtime director of athletics, Larry Scheiderer.  In the summer of 2011 he moved into a new role as Director of Athletic Facilities.  In a fitting reprise to his 20-year tenure captaining the Big Red ship, Scheiderer was named the Division III Athletic Director of the Year for the second time.

In his new role, Scheiderer is responsible for overseeing the construction of Denison’s latest gem, the Mitchell Athletic Center renovation and new natatorium.  With construction on the new pool already half complete and the renovation of the building a year and a half away from fruition, this will be another, albeit large, feather in Denison’s cap down the road.

It’s going to be tough to top, but something tells us that the future has some great things in store for Denison athletics.

Think we forgot something?  Hit us up on twitter @DenisonSports and use the hashtag, #BIGRED2011 to tell us what your favorite Big Red sporting moment from the last 12 months has been. It doesn’t have to be a championship. It doesn’t even have to be a victory, we just want to know about it.