Deflated footballs proved more newsworthy than a Super Bowl trophy, NCAA hockey championship hardware and the bill of sale for a beloved minor-league baseball franchise this year. Eleven months after the New England Patriots used underinflated footballs in the first half of the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, Deflategate drags on. That’s why it is without question THE sports story of 2015 in Rhode Island and the rest of New England.
Yes, bigger than the Patriots miraculous Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Bigger than the sale of the Pawtucket Red Sox and the failed attempt of the new owners to move the team to Providence. And bigger than Providence College’s skate to the NCAA hockey championship.
So, with but a few hours remaining in 2015, here are the On Sports Top 10 Stories of the Year.
What a saga, beyond even the fertile imagination of Stephen King. Patriots employee on his way to the field with game balls detours to the men’s room and does who knows what. Balls Tom Brady throws in the first half are too soft. Colts complain. Balls properly inflated, Pats roll in second half. League investigates. Pats win Super Bowl. Wells Report concludes that Patriots personnel probably tampered with the balls and that Brady was generally aware. NFL fines Pats owner Robert Kraft, swipes draft picks from Patriots, suspends Brady for three games. Players Association files lawsuit in federal court on Brady’s behalf. Kraft pays fine and accepts loss of draft picks. Judge rules NFL overstepped its bounds in Brady’s case and throws out suspension. NFL appeals. Commish Roger Goodell looks like a fool. In 2015 Brady plays like a god until receivers and running backs get hurt. Pats sill make playoffs. Case still in court
2. PATRIOTS WIN SUPER BOWL XLIX
Unheralded Malcolm Butler became a hero and household name by intercepting a Russell Wilson pass at the goal line with just seconds to play, preserving the Pats 28-24 victory. Why Seattle called a pass play a yard from the end zone with bulldozing running back Marshawn Lynch on the field will remain a mystery for the ages. Brady threw four TD passes, a record, and was the MVP for the third time.
3. PAWSOX SOLD
Ben Mondor’s widow Madeleine sold the Pawtucket Red Sox to a group of local investors and members of the Boston Red Sox front office. James J. Skeffington, a prominent Providence lawyer and mover and shaker in the Rhode Island business and political communities, was the managing partner and led the charge to move the team from McCoy Stadium to a new, publicly financed stadium on state-owned land in the old I-195 corridor in downtown Providence. He underestimated the intense opposition by citizens and legislators to public funding of a ballpark , and the project stalled. His death from a heart attack dealt the owners a blow from which they are still struggling to recover.
4. PC WINS NCAA HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP
Providence College has produced All-Americas, Olympians and Hall of Famers but never an NCAA championship team in hockey until 2015. Backed by the stupendous goaltending of Jon Gillies, coach Nate Leaman’s Friars rebounded from a quarterfinal loss in the Hockey East quarterfinals and won two NCAA games at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, beat Omaha in the Frozen Four semifinals and then rallied for a dramatic 4-3 victory over Boston University at the TD Garden.
5. RED SOX IMPLODE
Where to start with the 2015 Red Sox? No ace on the pitching staff? Rick Porcello a bust? Manager John Farrell taking a leave of absence for cancer treatment? Lack of production from supposed slugger Pedro Sandoval? Hanley Ramirez’s abominable play in left feld? Dustin Pedroia’s injury limiting him to 93 games? GM Ben Cherington’s personnel decisions? Among the few bright spots were the emergence of young pitchers Edouard Rodriguez and Henry Owens, the steady improvement of shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder Mookie Betts and the 37 home runs, including his 500th, from David Ortiz.
6. PC BASKETBALL RETURNS TO NCAA TOURNAMENT
Coach Ed Cooley took the Friars to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, which had not occurred since 1989-1990. Point guard Kris Dunn emerged as a do-it-all floor leader.
7. BISHOP HENDRICKEN ENTRENCHED AS FOOTBALL DYNASTY
The Hawks won their sixth consecutive Division I Super Bowl, a Rhode Island Interscholastic League record. No other school has won more than four titles in a row in Division I.
8. URI LOSES E.C. MATTHEWS FOR THE SEASON.
The basketball Rams leader suffered a knee injury in the opening minutes of the season-opener, ending his campaign just as it was starting and casting doubt on lofty projections for URI in the Atlantic 10.
9. BROWN, BRYANT, URI FLOP
The Bears, Bulldogs and Rams were big-time disappointments in college football. Brown lost to Bryant in the season-opener, got blown out at Harvard, turned the ball over with regularity and finished 5-5. Bryant, favored to win the Northeast Conference, squandered leads, lost games it should have won and finished 5-6. URI continued its three decades of futility with another 1-10 finish.
10. MOLLY HUDDLE RULES ROAD AND TRACK
The Notre Dame alum and Providence resident who trains with Ray Treacy’s stable of stars was again one of the top female distance runners. She led all American professional runners and was sixth in the world with $151,700 in prize money, according to RunnersWorld.com. She won the New York City Half Marathon, the USA Outdoor Track and Field 10,000 meters, the U.S. 5k road title at the CVS Downtown 5k, the national 10-mile championship, the Tufts Health Plan 10k, and the national 12k road race.