UConn Leads The Way, But State Offers A Range Of Sporting Options

A trip around the state sports scene in 2005:

Big East women's basketball tournament: The Big East women's tournament is at the Civic Center March 5-8, the second year in a row it is in Hartford. The Big East recently extended its contract with the Civic Center through 2009.

Last season, the Big East set a tournament attendance record with 11,394 attending the championship game. An 11-game tournament package costs $150. Tickets may be purchased at the Civic Center box office and at all Ticketmaster outlets.

Buick Championship: The second Buick Championship is Aug. 25-28 at the TPC at River Highlands in Cromwell, so the PGA Tour's 54th visit to Connecticut will be the same week as the Pilot Pen women's tennis tournament in New Haven for the second year in a row.

Woody Austin, who ended a nine-year victory drought in 2004, is the defending champion, but his challengers aren't expected to include Buick pitchman Tiger Woods. Golf's biggest draw isn't likely to play in Cromwell until 2006, when the tournament returns to June, two weeks after the U.S. Open.

Connecticut Sun: The WNBA's Connecticut Sun are preparing for their third season at Mohegan Sun Arena. Last season, the Sun reached the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. The team, led by former UConn player and Bloomfield native Nykesha Sales, was known as the Orlando Miracle before relocating to Montville in time for the 2003 season.

In their two seasons in Connecticut, the Sun have undergone a drastic roster makeover under the guidance of coach Mike Thibault, who recently signed a new four-year contract, and shown a slight improvement in attendance. The Sun averaged 6,044 fans in 2003 and 6,707 last year in the 9,341-seat arena.

Last year, the Sun added six new players, including former UConn player Asjha Jones and former Minnesota player Lindsay Whalen. They begin their third season at Detroit on May 21. The home opener is May 28 against Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury.

Hartford FoxForce: World Team Tennis will be releasing its 2005 schedule in the spring. Traditionally, the season lasts for three or four weeks in July. Last year the FoxForce advanced to the playoffs for the first time, losing in the semifinals. The FoxForce's marquee players were Mardy Fish and Meghann Shaughnessy, but the team also brings in some notable stars to play at the Apple Arena in Avon. Andre Agassi, Anna Kournikova and Martina Navratilova have all passed through Avon in the past couple of years to play against the FoxForce. The World Team Tennis Pro League also expanded to 12 teams recently with the addition of teams in Boston and Houston.

Minor league baseball: The New Britain Rock Cats open their season on April 7 in New Hampshire against the Fisher Cats. Their home opener at New Britain Stadium is April 14 against the Harrisburg Senators at 10:35 a.m.

The Rock Cats set a franchise attendance record of 311,671 in the 2004 season, an increase of more than 40,000 from the previous year. They also had 15 sellouts in 2004.

The Twins extended their affiliation with the Rock Cats through the 2008 season. About 70 percent of the Twins roster is made up of former Rock Cats, and fans will have a good chance to see future major leaguers at New Britain Stadium this summer.

The Norwich Navigators, affiliated with the San Francisco Giants, are under new ownership, which promises to bring more excitement to Dodd Stadium. The Navigators were last in attendance in the Eastern League last year (168,559). For fans in the southern part of Connecticut, the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League and the New Haven County Cutters of the Canadian American League offer independent league baseball.

Pilot Pen: The Pilot Pen has established itself as one of the top Tier II women's tennis tournaments on the WTA Tour, consistently attracting top players from around the world. Venus Williams, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova and even Steffi Graf, a year before she retired, have played in New Haven.

Injuries and upsets caused the top and widely known players to exit the tournament early last year, with Russian Elena Bovina eventually winning the title. The 2005 Pilot Pen is Aug. 19-27 at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale. Expect some early commitments from widely known players in the new few months.

Rentschler Field: The stadium has become known as more than the home of the UConn football team. The 40,000-seat stadium in East Hartford hosted a variety of events last year, including rugby, international soccer and concerts.

More of the same is expected this year, spokeswoman Judy Pal said, although few specifics are available because negotiations are ongoing.

"We certainly want to duplicate last year," Pal said.

Pal said that major announcements regarding summer events typically begin in April. One certainty is that rugby will return. The U.S. Eagles, America's international rugby team, will play June 4 against Wales. The Eagles hosted France at Rentschler last July.

In 2004, Rentschler welcomed 15,093 fans for the United States women's soccer team's final Olympic tune-up. Another 24,271 attended a soccer match between European powerhouses Liverpool and Celtic. UConn football averaged 39,304 fans.

- Compiled by Courant Staff Writers Mike Anthony, Bruce Berlet, Jeff Goldberg and Roberto Gonzalez.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now