Friday, July 8, 2011

Top 10 Moments in Modern Rhode Island Sports History

Seeing as Friday night marks the fourth annual observance of Rhode Island Day at Fenway Park, there is no time like the present to reflect on the state's best sports memories.

Before proceeding, it should be noted that the Ocean State has been percolating its fair share of sports moments since the late 1800s with baseball's Providence Grays and well into the 20th century with the likes of basketball's Providence Steamrollers and hockey's Providence Reds. But too little exists in the way of readily accessible archived accounts to include those teams in this compilation.

And so, Daniel's Den & Dugout decided to zero in on one of the most all-encompassing landmark years on the Rhode Island sports scene and look at all events going back to 1972-73. That was the year the Providence Civic Center (now Dunkin Donuts Center) opened its doors specially for PC basketball, Providence College christened Schneider Arena as its new on-campus ice house, and the year the Pawtucket Red Sox upgraded from Double-A to Triple-A baseball.

With that, enjoy refreshing your knowledge of the 10 best moments in Rhode Island sports:

10. 1994: PC wins the Big East championship
A full decade before Boston baseball's Dirt Dogs had their day against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, the Friar cagers reaped their own semifinal thriller from a regional nemesis on March 12, 1994.

Rob Phelps and Dickey Simpkins combined for 43 points―nearly two-third of PC's total harvest―as part of the Friars' 69-67 upset of top-seeded Connecticut in the Big East semifinals.

The following day, Phelps and Simpkins joined tournament MVP Michael "The Animal" Smith on the All-Tournament team while the whole PC squad exulted in its 74-64 victory over Georgetown.

9. 1985: PC wins the Hockey East championship at the Civic Center
Backstopped by Warwick's Chris Terreri and captained by East Providence resident Tim Army, the PC men's hockey team nipped Boston College in double-overtime, 2-1, for the first Hockey East playoff crown.

Steve Rooney, PC's top goal-getter on the year, shoveled the puck home over a bevy of bodies late in the second sudden-death session, giving the Friars the right to accept the trophy from their former patriarch and first commissioner of the infant conference, Lou Lamoriello. From there, they proceeded to the NCAA tournament, where they won yet another OT marathon over the rival Eagles in the semifinals before falling short of a national laurel against Rensselaer.

Less than two decades later, Providence College cemented the distinction of winning both the inaugural men's and women's Hockey East championship. Bob Deraney's pupils from the women's wing of Schneider Arena took each of the WHEA's first three pennants in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

8. 1992: Pro hockey returns to Providence
Somehow, the Divine City and the American Hockey League survived 16 years of separation between the departure of the storied Rhode Island Reds and the advent of the Providence Bruins.

Once the P-Bruins did commence play at the Civic Center, the confounding mystery as to how everyone got along in the interim was only magnified. The first of seven capacity crowds turned up for the first home game. By season's end, Providence had averaged a league-leading average audience of 9,279 per night, which was then No. 2 on the AHL's all-time single-season attendance leaderboard.

The P-Bruins would dominate all AHL gates for each of the following three seasons.

7. 1973: PC reaches its first Final Four
Even after Memphis pulled their plug in the semifinals, and even after UCLA abolished the Tigers for the championship two nights later, the Friars boasted the NCAA tournament's top scorer in Ernie DiGregorio, who amassed 128 points in four games.

And one of the tournament's scrapbook moments was when DiGregorio's 30-point output buoyed Providence to a 103-89 victory over Maryland in the East Regional title game. In a 25-member field, the Terrapins had been the only team exempted from the regional quarterfinals.

6. 1998: Surprise Rhode to the Elite Eight
The URI men's basketball team came within less than a minute of reaching the 1998 Final Four, only to spill a six-point lead and drop a 79-77 decision to Stanford. (If only Lamar Odom had been eligible to start that season rather than the following year, right?)

But all things considered, reaching that point was a mind-boggling feat on its own. Under first-year coach Jim Harrick, the 25-9 Rams kept within the single digits under the "L" column for the first time since 1987-88, coincidentally the year of their only other Sweet 16 appearance.

The top highlight of the Rams' unlikely venture was easily one week before the near-upset of Stanford, when stamped their passport to the Sweet 16 by dumping the Midwest Regional's top dog from Kansas, 80-75. Cuttino Mobley's game-best 27 points that night in Oklahoma City eclipsed the 23-point input of a touted Jayhawk by the name of Paul Pierce.

5. 1984: Resilient PawSox win their second I.L. title
Had the parent club's "Impossible Dream" from 17 years prior ended in unadulterated sweetness, this is most likely how it would have felt.

Second-year manager Tony Torchia and the 1984 Pawtucket Red Sox pulled off 21.5-game turnaround from the preceding season and stamped the fourth and final International League playoff spot at the eleventh hour. From there, they discarded the Yankees' farm club from Columbus with startling facility, allowing them to engage the Maine Guides in the Governor's Cup championship series.

The elastic PawSox were presented with yet another gut-check when the Guides claimed the first two games of the best-of-five series at McCoy Stadium. But pitcher Robin Fuson, who had literally transferred from Maine during a series in Pawtucket three months prior, returned to his former office and helped to turn the tables with a Game 3 gem.

Subsequent 4-2 and 3-0 victories completed the comeback to give Pawtucket its first I.L. playoff crown in 11 years―and ultimately its only title under Ben Mondor's supervision.

4. 1987: Pitino leads PC basketball to the Final Four
The No. 6-seeded Friars entered the 1987 NCAA tournament lacking a single victory in the dance since 1974. By the time they conducted spring cleaning in the locker rooms, they had set a program record with four national tournament wins in a single run.

Bolstered by the likes of future ring-bearing Florida coach Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino's pupils entered the Southeast Region and dumped a quartet of local institutions: Alabama-Birmingham, Austin Peay State, Alabama, and Georgetown to claim PC's first Final Four berth since 1973.

Intriguingly, of the Friars' four tournament triumphs, none were more compelling than their second-round win over Austin Peay. Whereas the other three adversaries went down by no less than a 15-point differential, PC had to delete a double-digit deficit within the final six minutes and force overtime before nudging off Austin Peay, 90-87.

3. 1973: Pawtucket Red Sox win the Junior World Series
It might be because the team didn't stabilize financially until Ben Mondor took charge, but it's simply difficult to justify how easily the Pawtucket Red Sox' inaugural Triple-A season is lost in the franchise's annals.

After all, this was a team featuring late-season call-ups Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, along with the I.L.'s Most Valuable Pitcher in Dick Pole. And Pawtucket did win the International League pennant at the expense of future Red Sox manager Joe Morgan and the Charleston Charlies.

And the artist soon to be affectionately dubbed the PawSox (that moniker was an afterthought until Mondor arrived) did go on to win what was then known as the Junior World Series.

After conceding Game 1, the Sox swept the next four away from the American Association champion Tulsa Oilers by a cumulative score of 16-5. Rice's three-run dinger spelled the difference in a 5-2 series clincher at McCoy Stadium.

2. 1999: Providence Bruins win the Calder Cup
To call it a dream reversal would be to give a little too much credit to the average human's fantasizing skills.

After their sixth AHL season marked one of the most blunderstruck in league history with a basement-bound 19-49-12 record, the Providence Bruins enlisted Peter Laviolette as their new head coach for the 1998-99 season.

At the time, Laviolette was but two years removed from retirement as a player and was the P-Bruins all-time leader with 252 career games, many with the "C" over his heart. And the only two years they had gone without his services, namely the 1993-94 season when he took leave for the Olympics and the 1997-98 season when he was coaching in the ECHL, were the franchise's lone non-playoff campaigns.

If such a thing was possible, Laviolette endeared himself to the Providence fan base all the more when he unhesitatingly pledged to reverse the P-Bruins fortunes. And still all the more when his pupils followed through in record-setting fashion, placing first in the league at 56-16-8.

The rapid resurgence culminated in what was by then a predictable manner as the Spoked-Ps obliterated the Rochester Americans in five games for the Calder Cup championship, clinching with a 5-1 victory on an indescribably stimulating Sunday night at the Civic Center.

1. 1981: PawSox win The Longest Game at McCoy
What else could possibly cap this list?

If any true event generating from the Ocean State is ever the basis for a motion picture, it will have to be this.

In the 30 years since the PawSox and Rochester Red Wings played to a 32-inning deadlock on Easter weekend, then finished within one inning 66 days later, the game's devout followers and history students have made a point of learning every worthwhile statistic and anecdote.

It was a 33-inning affair that took a cumulative eight hours and 25 minutes to finalize. Rochester had a chance to cement a 1-0 or 2-1 victory, only to let the Sox draw a last-chance knot in the ninth and 21st innings, respectively.

It was 4:07 a.m. when play was suspended on Easter morning after the 32nd stanza with a mere 19 spectators still on hand at McCoy Stadium. The only reason the night went that long was because International League president Harold Cooper couldn't be reached to confirm curfew regulations.

Support staffers in both dugouts used broken bats as firewood for the sake of providing passable warmth.

Major League Baseball was on strike when the game was resumed on June 23, thus attracting national and international media outlets alike to see the 18-minute 33rd inning that culminated in Dave Koza's RBI single, which sent Marty Barrett home from third with almost absurd facility.

Everyone knows the story just that well, as they ought to. After all, this spontaneous special event gave the PawSox and their humble city an irrevocable badge of history.