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Pittsburgh's Top 5 Sports Stories of 2016

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The year in sports gave Pittsburgh the passing of a legend and a courageous re-affirming story of life, surprising departures and improbable victories. Here are the top sports stories of 2016.

The past year saw quite a bit of ups and downs in the Pittsburgh sports world. The Penguins ushered in the new year with a major surge that continued all the way through the spring and into the early summer, culminating in the team's fourth Stanley Cup. The Pirates disappointed with their first non-playoff season in three years, but the Steelers appear to be ending the year on a high note with six straight wins. In between, major changes occured at Pitt, we mourned the passing of a legend and celebrated the return of a promising young athlete. Here's a brief look at the year in sports, 2016:

5. JAMIE DIXON LEAVES PITT
Jamie Dixon, longtime Pitt basketball coach, left for his alma mater Texas Christian University this past March.

It was a small window of opportunity that Dixon felt his head and his heart were leaning toward. According to Dixon, TCU was a chance for a new challenge and a fresh start.

Dixon's contract, which ran though 2023, contained a buyout of $10 million that was “softened” by then-Pitt athketic director Scott Barnes.

Dixon led Pitt to the best era in Panthers basketball history. He recorded 328 wins and three Big East Championships, including two outright regular-season titles and one tournament championship.

His .658 career Big East win percentage ranks as the best all-time mark in league play, surpassing the likes of Georgetown's John Thompson, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Louisville's Rick Pitino and St. John's Lou Carnesseca.

As a basketball player for TCU, Dixon led the Horned Frogs to Southwest Conference titles as a junior and senior. He earned All-SWC honors in 1987 and was inducted into his alma mater’s Hall of Fame in 2007.

4. PIRATES TRADE HOMETOWN HERO NEIL WALKER
In one of the more controversial decisions in the Pirates’ long history, Pine-Richland native and star Pirates second baseman Neil Walker was traded to the New York Mets for left-handed pitcher Jonathon Niese last offseason.

A possible trade had been rumored for over a year, but the move still brought about a whirlwind of emotions for Walker.

"I just felt there some kind of justice due me," Walker said about turning down a three-year, $27 million contract offer from the Pirates in late 2014. Instead, Walker was awarded $8 million through arbitration for the 2015 season and his fate was essentially sealed.

"That was probably the point when I lost all faith in the organization," Walker added.

In seven seasons with the Pirates, Walker posted a .272 career batting average and averaged 18 home runs and 81 RBI per 162 games.
 
Though Walker's debut season in New York was shortened by injury, the Mets were the clear winner in the trade. Walker hit .282 with 23 homers and 55 RBI, while Niese limped to a 4.91 ERA in 18 starts for the Pirates.

3. JAMES CONNER RETURNS TO THE FIELD
Pitt running back James Conner made an extraordinary comeback in 2016, overcoming a serious knee injury and a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma to return to the field and set ACC and Pitt records.

Conner played in just one game in 2015, injuring his knee in the team's season-opener. After several months of rehab, Conner sat before the media last November and informed the world he had cancer.

"Fear is a choice," Conner said when informed of his diagnosis. "And I choose not to fear cancer."

The Erie natived endured six months of chemotherapy treatments and roughly nine months after being diagnosed, he stepped back on the field Sept. 3, 2016.

Heinz Field erupted in ovation after the junior's first carry in Pitt's win over Villanova. He scored two touchdowns during his triumphant return and never looked back.

Conner has rushed for 1,060 yards this past season, ascending to second on Pitt's career rushing list and breaking the ACC career rushing touchdown record and the league's total touchdown mark.

He will play his final game in a Pitt uniform this Wednesday when the Panthers take on Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl.

2. ARNOLD PALMER: SEPTEMBER 10, 1929 – SEPTEMBER 25, 2016
Known as “The King” of golf for his legacy as a player and ambassador, Latrobe's Arnold Palmer died of cardiovascular disease in September at age 87.

An outpouring of sympathy and memorable recollections flooded the sports world and social media, from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the White House.

Palmer's knack for golf earned him so many fans that his millions of followers became known as "Arnie's Army." His winning fashion style of precisely creased slacks and polished shoes, as well as his engaging personality, made Palmer the first golfer to transcend the sport.

Palmer began in 1954 and won 62 PGA titles throughout his career, including four Masters championships.

Beyond the grass of the golf course, Palmer also changed the way sports professionals were paid. He was the first to make $1 million playing golf.

Arnold Palmer will be remembered for his charisma, inspiration, humility and of course, for being “The King”.

1. PENS WIN THE CUP
With a 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks on June 13, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the fourth Stanley Cup in team history.

In what was an improbable and often painful journey, the Penguins endured a coaching change and a retooling of the roster at mid-season, and a goaltending change early in the playoffs. The team went from the outside of the playoffs in December to the second-seed in the Eastern Conference to a dominating performance in the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins led for 325:38 of the 374:53 played in the series.

When Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach on Dec. 12, the team was off and running, posting a 33-16-5 finish before storming through the postseason.

"When you look at the group, how many new players we brought in, it was pretty special what we were able to do," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Penguins earned the Cup with series victories against the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Sharks.

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