As a new year begins, as has been the recent custom, we look back at the top area sports stories of the year that just ended.
It was a historic year thanks to a former local standout who bounced back with her biggest year of all.
Why delay? Let’s get right to the list:
1. The Golden Girl
Tianna Madison won a world championship in the long jump in 2005, but she never made a bigger career leap than she did in 2012.
It started with a leap of faith and ended with a career-redefining moment — an Olympic gold medal … in the 4x100 relay.
Madison, a 2003 Elyria High graduate and winner of nine state track titles, was in a slump when it came to her track career. After shocking the world by winning that world long jump title in Helsinki, Finland, as an amateur in 2005, she had mostly struggled, though she did take silver in the long jump in the 2006 indoor worlds.
But after that came injuries, coaching changes, battles with weight and confidence and a general feeling that her time might have come and gone. But thanks to a new coach and a new husband, whom she credited with giving her a new attitude, Madison turned things around, and when she finished second in the 100-meter dash at the Olympic Trials in Oregon one of her dreams had been realized: She was an Olympian.
Once in London, she turned in a personal-best time of 10.85 in the 100 meters, falling just short of a medal.
But her time would come six days later as a member of the U.S. 4x100 relay. With Madison running the opening leg, the U.S. team, which included Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter, blazed to the gold in a world-record time of 40.82, erasing a mark set by East Germany in 1985 … when Madison was just a month old.
No Lorain County athlete had ever won a gold medal before.
It was the highlight of a whirlwind year for Madison, who reached the top of her profession and proclaimed to find a new focus and inner peace along her journey. But she also spurned interviews with the media for the most part during her magical run to gold and clashed with her parents, Jo Ann and Bobby, in an ugly situation that went public in September when they sued her for libel, slander and defamation over what they allege were false statements and allegations she made about them.
One thing was certain, however: Madison was back. There was no doubt about that.
2. These ’Cats were purr-fect
There’s obviously no such thing as a bad state championship.
But can some rise to another level? What if you go undefeated in winning a state title? What if along the way to that state title you set a state record for home runs hit in a season? How about if you also finish as the state’s top-ranked team in your division, then after you win it all, you get named the top team in the country?
And what if several of your players get named All-Americans, your coach is named the top coach in the country and one of your stars is named the high school player of the year?
That kind of season would have to rank up there pretty high, right?
Well, there’s no need to guess. Just ask the Keystone Wildcats and coach Jim Piazza, who did all of that in going 32-0 and winning the Division II state softball title.
The state title was the third in school history for the Wildcats, who also won in 1999 and 2006 and who have been to the state tournament 13 times.
3. A billion dollars
Cleveland gained a billionaire in 2012. He wears an orange tie, talks with a bit of a twang and has the firmest handshake this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns from Randy Lerner for $1 billion. His family owns Pilot Flying J, the nation’s largest truck-stop franchise, and his brother is governor of Tennessee.
News of the sale broke July 27 at the start of training camp, was announced Aug. 3 and approved by NFL owners Oct. 16.
It created a sense of uncertainty for the rest of the season and eventually led to the firing of general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur on Monday. Haslam chose to bring in his own people, starting with CEO Joe Banner.
But Haslam embraced Cleveland, promised to keep the team in Cleveland and vowed to return the franchise to its championship roots.
“We’ve had the opportunity to see how important football is to this community and how great and how passionate the fans are,” he said. “We’re all about that.
“And I can assure you we have one mission and one mission only, and that’s to bring winning back to Cleveland.”
Randy Lerner inherited the team when Al, his father, died in 2002. Al bought the team for $530 million purchase in 1998, returning Cleveland and the Browns franchise to the NFL.
4. Can’t beat the Buckeyes
There weren’t many expectations for Ohio State’s football team in 2012, mainly because the Buckeyes knew they were banned from participating in the Big Ten championship or a bowl game after the regular season.
But the hiring of head coach Urban Meyer, who won a pair of national championships at Florida, still
had Buckeye Nation frothing at the mouth for the start of the 2012 season, and Meyer and his players did not disappoint.
The Buckeyes dodged bullets, hurdled obstacles and played pretty good football en route to a 12-0 season that earned them the Leaders Division trophy. They began the season ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press top 25 poll — the only poll that ranked them because of their sanctions — and steadily moved up to No. 3 behind No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama, who will play for the BCS national championship Monday.
The schedule included a tough 35-28 non-conference win over California, a gritty 17-16 road win over Michigan State to open Big Ten play and an improbable 29-22 overtime win over Purdue in which backup quarterback Kenny Guiton came in for injured starter Braxton Miller and threw a late touchdown pass, the game-tying 2-point conversion and a big 17-yard pass to set up the game-winning score.
Oh, yeah, the Buckeyes also avenged 2011 losses against Nebraska, Penn State and the hated Michigan Wolverines.
5. A Sprinkle of success
The year began with mourning for Elyria High’s Tracy Sprinkle, who was still reeling from the December 2011 shooting death of older brother Jamelro Hicks.
Thankfully for the Pioneers football standout, everything went upward in the new year.
Sprinkle, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive lineman, was bombarded with more than a dozen Division I college scholarship offers, and finally picked the Ohio State Buckeyes last spring. He then went on to a jaw-dropping senior season that landed him the Lorain County Golden Helmet award and led to his being named the state’s Division I co-defensive player of the year.
Sprinkle finished with 103 tackles and a Lorain County-leading 19 sacks as the Pioneers went 7-3 and narrowly missed a postseason berth. Sprinkle also had two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, three pass defenses and scored a defensive touchdown.
While the bulk of Sprinkle’s great fortune in 2012 came from his accolades on the football field, he wrapped up the year with a huge academic achievement. He graduated last week from Elyria High, and will enroll at Ohio State in January.
6. Rise, fall, then rise again?
The Indians were still in contention in the Central Division, riding high after a dramatic comeback victory over defending Cy Young award winner and MVP Justin Verlander and American League champion Detroit on July 26 at Progressive Field.
What followed was an 11-game losing streak that contributed mightily to a miserable August (5-24) that took the Tribe out of the playoff race and ultimately cost manager Manny Acta his job. Acta was fired before his third season was complete and replaced by fan favorite and bench coach Sandy Alomar on an interim basis.
Cleveland finished the year in fourth place — 20 games out of first with a 68-94 record. In the midst of another disappointing season, all-star closer Chris Perez criticizes fans, the front office, and then later, Acta, after the manager is dismissed with six games left on the schedule.
But things ended on a positive note in 2012 for the Indians and their fans, with high-profile, two-time World Series winner Terry Francona hired as manager.
Budget-minded Cleveland also gets serious on the free-agent market, offering high-priced contracts to Shane Victorino and Kevin Youkilis before landing former Ohio State University star Nick Swisher to a four-year deal worth $56 million.
7. Kenzie is king
It might have almost got to that point for Keystone senior softball star Kenzie Conrad, who not only won the state title she craved most of all, but a whole lot of individual accolades to go along with it.
Conrad, an instrumental member of the ’Cats’ undefeated state championship squad as a pitcher and hitter, brought home the ultimate individual honor when she was named the national high school softball player of the year by MaxPreps, an online affiliate of CBS Sports.com.
No other Ohioan has ever been named a national player of the year in softball.
But that was just one of the kudos Conrad corralled. She was also named a first-team
All-American by both MaxPreps and the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, Gatorade’s Ohio player of the year, a first-team All-Ohio pick and the Lorain County Miss Softball winner.
What did she do to merit such praise? Oh, just hit .485 with 16 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs, 44 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .614.
On the mound all she did was go 25-0 with 178 strikeouts in 142 innings, while allowing just three extra-base hits (all doubles) all season. Her ERA was 0.74 and she held opposing hitters to a .129 average.
8. Kyrie could be king
He might never be you-know-who, but that could also be a good thing.
Whatever the case, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving certainly showed his new city and the NBA that he’s no ordinary guy, stepping in as the top overall draft pick and playing with a confidence and talent not associated with too many first-year players.
Maybe that’s why he easily won the NBA’s Rookie of the year award after averaging 18.5 points and 5.4 assists, while shooting .469 from the field, .399 from 3-point range and .872 from the line.
He also displayed something called a clutch gene, which wasn’t always evident in the Cavaliers’ only other Rookie of the Year, hitting several game-winning shots during his first professional season.
Of course, it hasn’t been just roses with the kid, who has shown a somewhat worrisome tendency to get hurt.
After only playing 11 games in his one season at Duke, Irving missed 15 games his rookie season with a shoulder injury and concussion. Then he missed all of the Cavs’ summer league games after breaking his hand when he angrily slapped a padded mat. He’s also missed time this season with a broken finger.
His game, however, is far from broken. As long as his body stays the same, Irving looks to be a keeper.
9. Art Modell dies
The greatest villain in Cleveland sports history is dead.
Art Modell, who moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, died Sept. 6 at age 87.
The news was greeted with smiles by many in Northeast Ohio. Modell owned the Browns from 1961-95, then betrayed his loyal fans by tearing the team away and depriving the region of football for three seasons. The hatred runs so deep he was never able to return to the city he had called home for decades, and had once embraced him.
But the story of Modell isn’t that simple.
He is the last owner of a championship team in Cleveland – in 1964. He worked on the NFL’s television contracts and helped start “Monday Night Football.” He was a generous philanthropist.
The news of his death brought an outpouring of reactions from a variety of people, including former NBC executive Dick Ebersol, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer and Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.
“He told me that I was like a son to him, and that made me proud,” former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar said. “A lot of Clevelanders wouldn’t believe this, but Art is one of the most loyal and trusting persons I’ve ever met. I truly valued his friendship and will miss that.”
10. Big shoes walk out door
All told, they put in 74 years as Lorain County coaches.
Wellington’s Marsha Coultrip, Avon Lake’s Dave Dlugosz, Keystone’s Greg Morgan and Avon’s Jim Baker all retired as head coaches in 2012.
They’ll be missed.
Coultrip had the longest tenure, 33 years as the Dukes’ volleyball coach. She also had 422 wins, the 24th most on the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s list. Along the way she won 16 sectional titles and one district championshiop, as well as several conference crowns.
Dlugosz had the most success, compiling a 200-44 record in 21 years as the Shoremen’s football coach. He guided Avon Lake to the 2003 Division II state title and to the 2004 state final. Oh, and he won or shared 18 Southwestern Conference championships, including 5 of the last 16.
Morgan put in 18 years as the Wildcats’ boys basketball coach and Baker 12 as Avon’s boys hoops coach.
Add to nearby coaching stalwarts in Jim Ryan, who stepped down as Olmsted Falls’ football coach after 25 years, 180 wins, one state title and seven SWC crowns, and Jeff Short, who retired as Westlake’s baseball coach after more than 20 years on the job and 340-plus wins, and the area lost a lot of coaching wisdom in one year.