Championships eluded New England’s Big Four this year, but the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins still provided us with memorable moments. So did Providence College, Bishop Hendricken and Johnson & Wales. Here, then, are my choices for the Top 10 Local Sports Stories of 2016, assuming you agree that whatever happens with the Pats, Sox, Celts and Bs is of local interest.
TOM BRADY RETURNS
He fought the law, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, over Deflategate, and the law won. The New England Patriots quarterback served his four-game suspension with class and then came back with a vengeance. He has led the Pats to 10 victories in the 11 games since his return – they were 3-1 without him -- and a victory at Miami on Sunday will give them home-field advantage through the AFC Championship. Brady is second behind Atlanta’s Matt Ryan on the NFL quarterback rating list. Brady has thrown 399 passes and completed 266 for 3,278 yards and 25 touchdowns. He has been intercepted twice. And the man is 39 years old! All that’s left this season is another Super Bowl title and he MVP trophy.
DAVID ORTIZ RETIRES
Number 34 for the Red Sox went out with a bang, no doubt about it. He was 40 years old and in his 20th big-league season, yet he still batted .315 and slugged 38 home runs. He led the American League in doubles (48), runs batted in (127) and slugging percentage (.620). But Ortiz was more than a stat man. He was the face, the heart and the soul of the Red Sox for most of his career. The fans loved him, and he loved them back. You could make the case that Big Papi is the most popular Red Sox of all time.
RED SOX REBOUND WIN AL EAST
A year after finishing last, the Red Sox won the AL East and restored the buzz to Fenway Park. Rick Porcello redeemed himself for a disastrous 2015, went 22-4 and earned the Cy Young Award. Lefty David Price was erratic but finished 17-9. Mookie Betts had a breakout year with a .318 batting average, 31 home runs and 113 runs batted in and finished second in the voting for MVP. Xander Bogaerts (.294-21-89) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.267-26-87) established themselves as young stars. Dustin Pedroia returned to health and knocked out 201 hits, 15 homers, and batted .318. Hanley Ramirez hit 30 home runs and drove in 111. Unfortunately, the Sox slumped in the last week of the regular season, and the Indians swept them out of the ALDS, dashing our dreams of a Red Sox-Cubs World Series.
PROVIDENCE COLLEGE EARNS THIRD STRAIGHT NCAA BID
The Friars rode senior backcourt ace Kris Dunn (16.4 points, 6.2 assists, 5.3 rebounds) and sophomore big man Ben Bentil (21.1-1.1-7.7) to a 24-11 record, a fourth-place finish in the Big East regular season, semifinal finish in the Big East Tournament and a third consecutive NCAA appearance. The last time the Friars went to the NCAA three years in a row was 1972-74 under Dave Gavitt. They defeated Southern California by a point in the first round and lost to North Carolina in the second. Dunn was the Big East defensive player of the year and a second-team All-America. Bentil was the BE’s most improved player. Minnesota selected Dunn with the fifth pick of the NBA Draft. Bentil declared for the draft, and the Celtics chose him in the second round. They waived him in October. Indiana also signed and waived him. After one game for Fort Wayne of the NBA Development League, he left to play in China. On Nov. 25 he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.
PATRIOTS FALL IN 2016 AFC TITLE GAME
This was the Patriots and the Broncos, but Media World billed it as Tom Brady, Deflategate Villain, against Peyton Manning, the Colt-turned-Bronco Hero, who, many believed, was playing his final game. That was unless the Broncos won and went to Super Bowl 50, which, of course, they did in dramatic fashion. Denver’s defense harassed Brady all day, hit him 23 times and intercepted two passes. He did complete 27 of 56 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown, but the Patriots never led. They scored their last touchdown of the season with 12 seconds to play after Brady connected with Rob Gronkowski for 40 yards on fourth down and for the last four yards to Gronk on fourth down. Bradley Roby intercepted Brady’s two-point conversion pass. Manning and the Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl. Brady and the Patriots went back to ponder a slew of “what ifs”.
CORRUPTION TAINTS TWO
It was not a good year for Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson or Institute for International Sport chief Dan Doyle. Jackson was arraigned in Superior Court in August on charges of embezzling $127,153 from the Providence Cobras, the popular and successful track program for inner city kids he founded in 1978 with Thom Spann, and of violating campaign finance laws. He is awaiting trial.
Doyle, the visionary who dreamed of world peace and understanding through sport, was convicted this month of all 18 counts of embezzlement and forgery. Prosecutors charged that he used Institute funds for personal expenses, cosmetic surgery and his daughter’s college tuition. The basketball coach-turned-promoter attracted prominent figures like Bill Clinton, Colin Powell and Desmond Tutu and several thousand athletes to the University of Rhode Island campus for World Scholar-Athlete Games. Doyle, 67, awaits sentencing.
BISHOP HENDRICKEN’S FOOTBALL DYNASTY GROWS
It’s seven in a row for the Bishop Hendricken football machine. The Hawks added to their legend this month with a 48-28 rout of archrival La Salle Academy. This run started in 2010, and the first three championships were decided by a total of 12 points. It was 45-34 over Cranston East in 2013 and 32-7 over La Salle in 2014. Hendricken edged La Salle, 24-20, in 2015. Hendricken has defeated La Salle five times and Portsmouth and Cranston East once each during this reign. The Hawks are two state championships shy of the all-time lead in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. According to rihssports.com, La Salle and East Providence each has 15 state titles, Cranston East 14 and Bishop Hendricken 13.
IT WAS A SWEET 16 SEASON FOR JWU BASKETBALL,
Led by Tom Garrick Jr., son of the former URI star Tom Garrick, Johnson & Wales posted its best season in school history. The Wildcats finished 28-3 overall, the most victories by a men’s team in league history, were 17-1 in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, had a 21-game winning streak, were ranked as high as No. 12 nationally and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III Championship. They lost to Tufts. Garrick, of Seekonk, scored 30 points in his final game. Robert Lewis, Jarell Lawson and Mike Clark of Providence, Rudy Brito of Pawtucket and Matt Madoian of North Kingstown also contributed to JWU’s record-breaking season.
PROVIDENCE COLLEGE MEN’S SOCCER RETURNS TO ELITE EIGHT
The Friars posted a 15-7 record, won their first Big East regular season championship and then won three NCAA Tournament games. They shut out Delaware, 2-0, scored four goals in 13 minutes and stunned No. 1 Maryland, 5-4, and edged Creighton, 2-1. In the quarterfinals they lost to No. 9 UNC, 1-0, in double overtime. Julian Gressel, the Big East co-offensive player of the year, was named NSCAA All-America and invited to MLS Combine in January. He scored 15 goals, five game winners, and had six assists for 36 points.
Sports stars die every year, but in 2016 we lost three giants, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, and Gordie Howe. Ali, the precocious boxer from Louisville, transcended sport. Olympic gold medalist, three-time heavyweight champion, and Vietnam era draft resister, Ali talked a good game and backed up every word. In his later years, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he became a beloved international goodwill ambassador. Palmer, energetic and magnetic on and off the golf course, made the game what it is today. His famous late charges in the 1950s and 1960s, cheered by thousands of fans in Arnie’s Army, coincided with the launch of golf coverage on TV, which made him a household name. Humble and gracious, he always signed autographs and posed for snapshots with his fans. Howe was simply Mr. Hockey, the best player in the game respected by teammates, opponents and fans alike.
Rhode Island lost two notable sports figures in 2016. Dick Ernst of Cranston coached high-school hockey and tennis for a half-century, most of them at Cranston East. He also enjoyed a long stint as tennis coach at Barrington High School and ended his career coaching girls hockey La Salle and Cumberland-Lincoln. Dick was a fixture on the New England tennis circuit as a player and for decades ran the Rhode Island Metropolitan Championships at Roger Williams Park.
Dick Lee was a teacher by day and a sports copy editor at The Providence Journal by night. In between he umpired baseball games. He called balls and strikes on Rhode Island diamonds for five decades before hanging up his mask. He also covered high-school sports for The Journal, getting as many names as possible into his stories.