Best Sports Story of 2015? That’s Easy….

Marc Elliott

MOUNT ROYAL…. Hey, I’m a hockey guy. That is most definitely my favorite sport going. So it would be pretty easy to dig through the plethora of hockey stories for the calendar year that is just about up and pick one. And there are any number of them to choose from. You could choose from the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tourneys, both Boys and Girls, and there would be multiple story lines to choose from. The Boys Class A Championship game for instance was one in which many thought that Hermantown would finally win a second title. They were beaten in a single overtime thriller 5-4 by East Grand Forks, another program with a background of excellence.

While no one was surprised to see Hermantown in another deep state tourney run, many fans were surprised to see Duluth East in the AA title tilt. However, you can never underestimate the team or Mike Randolph, the longtime East coach. In the title game though they were not a match for a talented Lakeville North club and lost 4-1. Lakeville finished the season 30-0. Whether you are a fan of theirs or not, that is pretty impressive.

In the Girls State tourney Thief River Falls beat Blake by a score of 3-1 to take the Class A crown, and Hill Murray topped Minnetonka 2-1 to grab the AA honors. Female player registration continues to see positive growth in USA Hockey. There were roughly 6,000 registered players back in the 91-92 season and the numbers are up to about 68,000 now with modest growth still occurring. The Women’s NCAA and Olympic ice hockey tourneys are as exciting as any you will see.

The NHL Stanley Cup tourney was pretty exciting at the end of last season. The Chicago Blackhawk’s beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4 games to 2 and won the Cup on home ice to make it an even more gratifying accomplishment in front of your own adoring fan base. The Bolts had their chances but in the end could not overcome the experience and tenacity of the Hawks who were on their way to a 3rd Cup in 6 seasons. Some are referring to them as a modern era dynasty, I wouldn’t argue against that. They have the hardware for proof.

The local story of the year may very well be the ongoing saga of former UMD Bulldog Women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller. The school opted not to renew Miller’s contract at it’s conclusion and Coach Miller cried foul and depositions and motions are underway as I write I would guess. I won’t kid you though and offer any opinion here, gender discrimination cases can be very difficult from a legal standpoint. At the end of the day I can only hope that the case receives it’s proper attention and that justice gets served for the correct party. Personally, I think Miller has a tall task in front of her but wish her well…

I KNOW THAT NOT everyone is a fan of the equine track stars (race horses) as am I, but man, watching these beautiful animals running full blast around a race track, in full flight, with their thundering hooves making sweet music upon your ears and soul, that is something akin to a religious experience for many, and I have to include myself on that list. I have never placed a bet on a horse race and probably never will, I have no interest in gambling. But there IS something pretty special about seeing a good horse race.

I’m positive I got interested in it at an early age because my father was an ardent follower of the Triple Crown series. Thus my Sport event and Athlete of the Year is the Triple Crown and winner American Pharoah. In the weeks leading up to the first jewel of the crown, the Kentucky Derby, there was talk about AP and his chances but I had heard all of this before and for many years at that. There hadn’t been a Triple winner since 1978 when Affirmed took the prize. And oddly enough, my father and I got to see a Triple won 3 different times in the seventies. I was beginning to think that I might not witness another in my lifetime.  

AP won the Derby by a length and the result wasn’t immediately confirmed. There was conjecture that some stewards believed AP’s jockey, Victor Espinoza had went to his whip excessively. Replays were said to show him going to the whip 32 times. Fellow jockey Gary Stevens said most of the time AP was struck on his saddle towel and that Espinoza doesn’t strike his mounts hard. Others said that Espinoza mostly waves his whip around, appearing to strike his horse. Stewards didn’t think that was an issue and the results were eventually confirmed.

Next up was The Preakness and AP was challenged from the start by drawing the number one post position. No horse had won the Preakness from there (inside start on the rail) since 1994. To make matters a bit tougher, it rained heavily right before the race and it was run in mud and slop. No matter to the Champ, he won by seven lengths, the 6th largest margin of victory in Preakness history. For Espinoza and Trainer Bob Baffert, it was their 3rd and 4th times respectively in winning the first 2 races of the vaunted Triple. How would they come out this time?

Leading up to the Belmont Stakes, the usual banter was being tossed about. Where would AP rank against other Triple winners? Would he just be a lucky horse in a down year? And so on. This is what happens when a horse has a real shot at it. The doubters have to try to tear him apart before the race even takes place. Baffert took AP back to Churchill Downs to his home track to rest up and train for his historic attempt. When they arrived in New York, AP went on to win the race, the Triple and a place in Equine history. And as for how he stacked up? He won the Belmont by 5 ½ lengths, the 4th largest margin of victory for a Triple winner ever. But hey, I already knew he was legit. Way to go Boy! It was an awesome ride for all of your fans! PEACE