Sports in Connecticut, 2015.
It was an odd year in sports. We witnessed the predictable but no less exhilarating spring championship run of Auriemma's UConn Huskies, who added a 10th national title to their historic resume. There was another squash title on Broad Street in Hartford and another golf title for Bubba Watson in Cromwell, things we've seen before.
But "Yard Goats" and "Deflategate" were not part of our vocabulary when 2015 began. Yard Goats first appeared in The Courant on March 4, and the name has graced our (home)pages close to 200 times since. The first mention of the Patriots' deflated footballs in The Courant came on Jan. 20, a few days after the AFC Championship Game.
And the first story, taken from The Boston Globe, included the term "Deflategate." That word would be used more than 150 times in stories published by The Courant.
What will be the 2016 catchphrases or bizarre nicknames? Patience, sports fans. Let's look back before we speculate on what's ahead.
Our recap of sports in Connecticut, 2015:
Tenth Title: Facing their rival with a title on the line, the talented UConn Huskies earned every point in the NCAA championship game. But the Huskies would not be denied their place in history, not by Notre Dame or any other opponent. Auriemma's team won its 37th game in a row and the program's 10th national title with a 63-53 win over Notre Dame in April. It was the third title in a row — all three since the magnificent Breanna Stewart arrived — and the Huskies were showing no signs of slipping as the 2015-16 season began. With the 10th championship, Auriemma matched John Wooden and Phil Jackson for most coaching titles in college or professional sports. He is 10-0 in title games. And as the year ended, Stewart and the Huskies were marching toward No. 11. The goal when she arrived in Storrs was four titles, and Stewart is one step away. "You can't win four without winning three," she said on that championship night in Tampa. All eyes are focused on Indianapolis, site of the Final Four. The title game will be held on April 5, 2016.
NCAA Champs To … NIT: The reigning national champion UConn Huskies were 17-13 after losing four of their last seven regular season games. UConn needed to win the American Athletic Conference Tournament at the XL Center to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies beat South Florida, Cincinnati and Tulsa to advance to the AAC title game, facing No. 20 SMU. UConn trailed by 17 in the second half before slicing the deficit to five points with just over 3 minutes remaining. But the Mustangs held on for a 62-54 win, ending UConn's hope of an NCAA bid. Instead, the young Huskies hosted Arizona State in the first round of the NIT. With Ryan Boatright sidelined with a shoulder injury, the Huskies' season ended with a 68-61 loss at Gampel Pavilion.
Title Deflation: It was the best of times and worst of times for the Patriots. After beating the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game, the team was investigated for allegations that game footballs were underinflated. Signs pointed to the involvement of quarterback Tom Brady in the scheme, and the story hovered over the Patriots as the team prepared for the Super Bowl. No matter, the Patriots beat the Seahawks for their fourth Super Bowl title. It was one of the great finishes in Super Bowl history, as the Patriots took the lead on a late touchdown but needed a goal line interception by rookie Malcolm Butler to secure the victory with 20 seconds left. The win only enhanced the reputations of Brady and coach Bill Belichick, future Hall of Famers and among the best at their respective crafts. Yet Deflategate did not fade. The league punished the Patriots and Brady in May, and commissioner Roger Goodell upheld a four-game suspension on appeal. In September, Judge Richard Berman ruled in favor of Brady and the suspension was vacated. But the NFL has turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and there will be a hearing on March 3. The story of PSIs, the ideal gas law, the Wells Report and Brady's cellphone will linger into the next year and perhaps beyond.
Whale Of A Cup: For Hartford hockey fans of a certain age, the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup victory had special significance. Amid the postgame celebration, head coach Joel Quenneville handed the Cup to assistant coach Kevin Dineen. From one Whaler to another, hockey's revered trophy. Dineen, of course, was Mr. Whaler, the final captain and a heart-and-soul player. This was his first Stanley Cup, and it came riding shotgun with a former Hartford teammate. Quenneville, a Whalers defenseman from 1983 to 1990, won his third Cup in six years. As the year ends, Quenneville is edging closer to Al Arbour (782) for second place on the all-time win list. Scotty Bowman (1,244) is the all-time leader. That's heady company for the Whaler alum.
Bubba Wins, Again: In 2010, Bubba Watson won his first PGA Tour event with a playoff victory at the Travelers Championship. Watson won six events over the next four years, including two wins at the Masters. His eighth tour victory was back at TPC River Highlands and it again required a playoff. Watson sank an 8-foot birdie on the second playoff hole to defeat Paul Casey and secure the 2015 Travelers Championship. Watson tied Arnold Palmer, Paul Azinger, Phil Mickelson, Peter Jacobsen and Stewart Cink as multiple winners of the tournament, and he gave the event some star power. The tournament drew in excess of 200,000 fans and continued to thrive. But as the year ended, one of the event's biggest advocates was stepping away. Travelers CEO Jay S. Fishman announced he was leaving the company four months after announcing he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease).
Guilty Verdict: Aaron Hernandez, one of the most gifted athletes ever to emerge from Connecticut, was convicted in April of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of Odin Lloyd. Hernandez, of Bristol, was a standout tight end for the Patriots when he was arrested in connection with the 2013 murder of the boyfriend of his fiancee's sister. He is still set to stand trial for a 2012 double murder in Boston, and in early December he was reportedly caught with a prison-made knife in his maximum-security cell. He was moved to a segregated unit at the Lancaster, Mass., prison. Hernandez rose from Bristol Central to the University of Florida and eventually established himself in the NFL, earning a $40 million contract with the Patriots. At age 26, he's now spending the rest of his life in jail.
Back Bowling: Five years ago, UConn qualified for the Fiesta Bowl and the program seemed to be on the rise. But Randy Edsall left for Maryland, Paul Pasqualoni presided over a two-year slumber and the Huskies slipped to oblivion. Bob Diaco inherited a 3-9 team when he took over in 2014, and the rebuilding began with a 2-10 record. But in Year 2, Diaco had UConn back in a postseason bowl. The Huskies finished 6-6 in the regular season thanks to an upset victory over undefeated Houston on Nov. 21. They earned a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl, losing to Marshall, and it seems Diaco has the ship heading back in the right direction. A sign that Diaco is succeeding? His name began to surface in media reports as a possible candidate for other jobs. That means he's doing something right.
Mystic Met: It was a memorable year for Mystic's favorite son, Matt Harvey. Eighteen months removed from Tommy John surgery, Harvey returned to the Mets' rotation at the start of the 2015 season and began the campaign with six scoreless innings and nine strikeouts against the Washington Nationals. His season was going along fine before agent Scott Boras spoke publicly about the need to cap Harvey's innings at about 180. Harvey seemed to side with his agent, and a media kerfuffle ensued. Harvey wound up surpassing 180 innings as the Mets advanced to the postseason. In fact, the surprising Mets beat the Cubs in the NLCS and advanced to the World Series. Facing elimination in Game 5, Harvey carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning before the Royals mounted a comeback and eventually won in 12 innings. Harvey finished with 216 innings, the most by any pitcher in his first season after Tommy John surgery.
Tepid Rivalry: Back in the day, we were the dividing line in the best rivalry in sports. The Red Sox and Yankees were battling each year, and it left Connecticut neighbors — even families — split. In 2015, our big-market teams were overshadowed by teams from Toronto, Kansas City and Houston. The Yankees won 87 games and qualified for the playoffs, but they were ousted by the Astros in the wild card game. It was the first post-Derek Jeter season, and it felt like a year of transition, as the Yankees retired the numbers of three of their greats, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, while implementing more youth in their lineup. Still, aging Alex Rodriguez posted 33 homers in his return from a yearlong suspension and notched his 3,000th hit. In Boston, the defending World Series champions returned to last place for the third time in four years. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were busts, and the team's ace-less rotation was underwhelming. By the end of the season, Dave Dombrowski was running the organization. By the end of the year, David Price was signed to be a No. 1 starter for 2016. It will be David Ortiz's final season, so start buying your retirement gifts. Not to be outdone, the Yankees went shopping a few days after Christmas, getting closer Aroldis Chapman from the Reds, giving them a lights-out back of the bullpen in Dellin Betances, Chapman and Andrew Miller. All three can close, so if the Yankees don't make a trade, and if they have the lead after six innings, they'll be tough to beat in most games. Hanging over the head of Chapman, though, is a domestic violence incident that could mean a suspension.
Hello, Yard Goats: A year ago, the relocation of a Double A franchise from New Britain to Hartford was polarizing news. Local fans wondered why the team was leaving a perfectly good stadium and why Hartford would spend $56 million on a new ballpark But as the new year begins, New Britain has replaced the Rock Cats with the independent Atlantic League Bees, and Dunkin' Donuts Park is being constructed at the intersection of Main and Trumbull, although it's still unclear if the stadium will be complete for Opening Day 2016. Fans, though, have actually come to accept Yard Goats as the name of the team. There were more than 6,000 submissions, and the team chose "Yard Goats," an old slang railroad expression. It was mocked in media reports coast to coast, but guess what? The rest of the country knows that Hartford has a team. The team rolled out a logo of a goat and unveiled uniforms and hats featuring the old Whalers' blue-and-green color scheme, hitting just the right notes. The hats are selling, the team's Twitter feed is popular and there aren't many complaints about the goofy name. Just get the stadium built.
Goodbye, Hartford FC: It all sounded too good to be true for area soccer fans longing for a professional team in Hartford. The city would be getting an indoor soccer team for the XL Center and, eventually, a North American Soccer League franchise that would play at a renovated Dillon Stadium. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. In October, a Courant investigation found that James Duckett, the CEO of the company behind the team, had an embezzlement conviction and a long list of legal issues behind him. That was just the start. There were unpaid bills by Premier Sports Management Group, and The Courant reported that the city paid more than $1.8 million to the company. The city council eventually withdrew a plan to lease land to Black Diamond Consulting, the company that merged with Premier Sports Management. The FBi is involved, investigators are sifting through the finances of Premier Sports and there's lots of public money unaccounted for. And there is no Hartford FC.
Kvitova, Yet Again: The Connecticut Open tennis tournament at Yale featured another title for Petra Kvitova, who won her second championship in a row and third in four years in New Haven. Kvitova, ranked fifth in the world, had mononucleosis over the summer and was somewhat lethargic as she came to Connecticut in August, but she found her game and prevailed. The highlight of the week, though, was the return of men's exhibition matches at night. John McEnroe played Jim Currier after spending an afternoon playing in an indoor pro-am with, among others, Geno Auriemma. McEnroe was entertaining all day, culminating with his match under the lights. He delighted the crowd with a running commentary as he bounced around the court. In the other men's exhibition match, Andy Roddick lost to Fairfield's James Blake. Two weeks later, Blake was standing outside a Midtown Manhattan hotel when he was thrown to the ground by a New York Police Department officer before he was handcuffed. It was a case of mistaken identity, but it left Blake shaken and brought an apology from Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Frog Hollow Title: In February, the Trinity men's squash program won its 15th national title in 17 years and its first since 2013. A program that once won 252 consecutive matches and 13 titles in a row expects to compete for championships, usually in other places. What made the 2015 title was special was that it was the Bantams' first at home. Trinity defeated St. Lawrence 7-2 at the Kellner Squash Center, distinguishing this championship from others. In 2014, Trinity lost 9-0 to Harvard in the championship in Cambridge, Mass. In 2015, the team went 20-1 and breezed to the Potter Trophy.
State Of College Hockey: Connecticut continued its climb in the college hockey world. UConn completed its first season in Hockey East, finishing a better-than-expected ninth in the conference while leading in attendance as fans turned out at the XL Center. Quinnipiac was back in the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row, while Yale returned for the second time in three years. This season, Quinnipiac has been among the top teams in the country. And in Division III, Trinity won the 2015 NCAA title with a 5-2 victory over Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the championship game. It was the first national title in program history and it offered some redemption for a team that lost in the NESCAC semifinals in 2014, missing the NCAA Tournament despite a 21-win season.
High School Beat: The football season was rocked by a scandal, as the CIAC Board of Control levied sanctions against Berlin High for recruiting and using illegal players. The penalties included forfeiting seven victories, probation for one year and a $4000 fine. Head coach John Capodice was suspended and later dismissed. … Southington carried a 31-game winning streak into its Class LL semifinal game against Darien. But the reigning champion was dethroned, losing 49-7. Darien went on to beat Shelton in the Class LL title game and finished No. 1 in The Courant's state ratings. … Bloomfield was The Courant's No. 1 area team after winning its first state title since 2003 with a 31-20 win over Ansonia in the Class S championship. … A familiar name highlighted the baseball season. Twins Paul and Sal Gozzo led Sheehan-Wallingford to the Class M title and the No. 1 spot in The Courant's state ratings. The brothers — Paul is a catcher, Sal a shortstop — are the sons of former big league pitcher and Berlin High star Mauro Gozzo. … The Weaver boys basketball team lost in consecutive title games before 2015. This past season, the Beavers ended the drought with a 73-59 win over Notre Dame-Fairfield in the Class M title game. It was the first title since 2007 and eighth overall for Weaver. … Glastonbury High had another dominating fall in soccer. The boys won their third consecutive Class LL title — the first team to do so in state history — with a 4-0 win over Darien. The girls won their second Class LL title in a row and third in five seasons with a 5-3 victory over Ridgefield, extending their winning streak to 41 games. … The Southington softball team won its 70th consecutive game with a 5-4 comeback victory over Cheshire in the Class LL title game. Southington has won three titles in a row and has consecutive 24-0 seasons. .... The Bloomfield boys track team won its state-record ninth consecutive championship, outdistancing Canton for the Class S title. … The Tolland girls swept the 2014-15 season with State Open titles in cross country, and indoor and outdoor track. And in the fall, Tolland was the Class M and State Open cross country champion. … Farmington boys soccer coach Steve Waters, in his 33rd season, won his 500th career game this fall. … East Catholic track coach Bill Baron reached his 50th — 50th! — year of coaching. … The E.O. Smith/Tolland co-op hockey team won the Division III title with a 5-2 win over Masuk-Monroe, its first state championship. In Division II, Suffield/Granby/Windsor Locks won a title with a 4-1 victory over North Branford.