With less than a week to go before we welcome 2015, it’s time to reflect upon the stories that informed, entertained and intrigued us most during 2014. These are the sports stories that grabbed my attention.
1. Dave Belisle’s post-game pep talk to his Cumberland American players after they lost in the Little League World Series was about as honest, loving and comforting as anything a coach could say. His message of sportsmanship, pride and never giving up, caught by an ESPN camera, went viral on social media, and Belisle became an overnight celebrity way beyond the borders of our little state. Matt Lauer interviewed him on the Today show, and Belisle was even nominated for Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
2. Providence College won the Big East basketball championship and went to the NCAA Tournament. Okay, so it was a revamped Big East without UConn, Syracuse and Louisville, but a championship is a championship, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament is a Big Deal. Senior Bryce Cotton carried the Friars all season with his scoring and his leadership and was a second-team All-America. He scored 23 points in the Big East final, a 65-58 victory over Creighton, and 36 in his collegiate finale, a 79-77 heartbreaking loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. Thanks Cotton and the Friars, basketball buzz returned to Providence.
3. Providence College won the Big East men’s soccer title and advanced to the NCA Final Four, or the College Cup. In a season of firsts, the Friars won 16 games, earned a first-round bye in the tournament, defeated UC Irvine, 1-0, in the second round at home, won at Michigan State in the quarterfinals and lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to UCLA in the semifinals. Mac Steeves was the College Cup offensive MVP, and the team finished third in the final national coaches poll. This was easily the best season in Providence College soccer history.
4. A year after terrorist bombs killed three and injured 250 at the Boylston Street finish, the Boston Marathon rose from smoke and debris and demonstrated to the world the city’s indomitable spirit of Boston Strong. That Meb Keflizighi won the race was a bonus beyond belief. The naturalized U.S. citizen, Olympic silver medalist and 2009 New York City Marathon champion became the first American to win Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983. He did it two weeks before he turned 39. He did it in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds, a personal best. And he did it to the roar of hundreds of thousands of spectators thronging the course from Hopkinton to Boston.
5. Marvin Barnes was the best basketball player to come out of Rhode Island. Ever. He could score and rebound, averaging 18 points and 19 rebounds as a college junior and 22 points and 19 rebounds as a senior. During the 1974 season he scored 52 points against Austin Peay and led the nation in rebounding. When he was on his game, nobody could stop him. Barnes, a 6-foot-9 forward from inner city Providence, Ernie DiGregorio, a 6-foot guard from North Providence, and Kevin Stacom, a 6-foot 3 transfer from Holy Cross, led the 1973 Providence College Friars to the NCAA Final Four. Coached by Dave Gavitt, they electrified crowds in the new downtown Providence Civic Center. But for a knee injury to Barnes in the first half of the semifinal against Memphis State with PC ahead by 10, the Friars would have played UCLA and Bill Walton for the national championship. Barnes was so good that Philadelphia made him the No. 2 pick in the 1974 NBA draft behind Walton. He signed instead with the Spirits of St. Louis of the old ABA for big money. He squandered the money, and his talent, on drugs and alcohol. The ABA rookie of the year in 1974 was out of the ABA and NBA by 1980. Barnes always struggled with life off the court. According to Bob Ryan’s appreciation in the Sept. 10 Boston Globe, he was in drug rehab 19 times and prison four times. Barnes died Sept. 8. He was 62.
6. The Red Sox collapse caught many of us by surprise. From worst to first to worst again in three seasons? Who would have predicted that rollercoaster ride. Perhaps the 2013 team overachieved while winning the World Series, but few expected the 2014 crew to take us back to the early ‘60s. As they used to be way back in the day, this season was over by August.
7. Say what you will about private schools having a competitive advantage in sports in Rhode Island, they still have to win the games on the field. La Salle did just that in boys lacrosse last spring. The Rams won their third consecutive Division I championship with their third consecutive undefeated Rhode Island Interscholastic League season. And coach Steve O’Donnell still managed to perform his day job as Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.
8. Bishop Hendricken stamped itself a Rhode Island high-school football dynasty when it won its fifth consecutive Division I championship, a streak unequaled in the football history of the Interscholastic League. La Salle won four straight in the 1940s and Mt. Pleasant and Cranston East four in the 1960s.
9. Bryant football got off to an 8-1 start and was nationally ranked in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision for five weeks. Junior Ricardo McCray of Middletown was a stalwart at running back and receiver and was named the team’s offensive MVP. He rushed for 814 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 30 passes for 336 yards and 4 touchdowns. Losses at Sacred Heart by a touchdown and to Wagner by a field goal in their last two games made for a disappointing finish, but the Bulldogs still celebrated their best season as a Division I program .
10. Portsmouth beat La Salle in a shootout for the girls Division I soccer championship, proving that yes, public schools can compete with and beat private schools for Division I and state championships.