Tuesday, September 6, 2011

PawSox playoff run could be start of a local sports renaissance

The devout sports buffs of Providence County, and of Rhode Island in general, are all but back where they were at this time three years ago.

After two sleepy, sub.-500 summers, the PawSox are back in the Governor’s Cup playoffs as of this week. Meanwhile, Providence College has resumed classes with the better part of its community waiting out two more months before a new coach looks to revitalize the school’s cherished basketball program.

This was the exact same case on both fronts in 2008, when manager Ron Johnson and Co. garnered the International League wild card and the Friars were banking on Keno Davis to reprise his success at Drake University.

It proved a false start on both accounts. But now here we are again, and then some.

First-year manager Arnie Beyeler’s instantaneous success, which saw the PawSox improve their regular-season record by 16 games, can serve as inspiration to the fan bases of three other local teams. Not unlike the Sox, the Providence Bruins along with PC men’s basketball and hockey will all debut a new coach this year and will be looking for postseason action for the first time in two or more years.

Four teams starting anew all in one year equals four chances to see a local team replenish its relevance. One has already gone above and beyond just by being one of the last four teams standing in the I.L.

Will the hoopsters and pucksters of Providence do the same thing to the same extent within the same frame of time? Well, the motto of this state is “Hope,” so the fans are free to dream and keeping drawing inspiration from the PawSox as they anticipate the coming winter.

But first, let’s look back at when all of the teams in the area seemed to tumble.

The PawSox fizzled in four games at the hands of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees and then plummeted to irrelevance on the watch of Johnson and later Torey Lovullo. PC did garner a home date with the Miami Hurricanes at the 2009 NIT, but otherwise floundered, ultimately leading to Davis’ dismissal six months ago.

While we’re at it, let's throw in the two publicity-leading hockey teams in the area. When the PawSox host Game 3 of this week’s I.L. semifinal against Lehigh Valley, it will be the first time a significant postseason game has been played in this state since Memorial Day 2009.

That day, the P-Bruins were abolished from the AHL’s conference finals by the almighty Hershey Bears. Since then, they have missed the Calder Cup playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in their two decades of existence.

But their plight has paled in comparison to that of the Skating Friars. PC men's hockey entered the 2008-09 season having made the Hockey East playoffs in each of the league's 24 years of existence. But ever since Nathan Gerbe scored on a highlight-reel penalty shot and Boston College knocked them out of the quarterfinals the same day Davis' predecessor, Tim Welsh, was fired―the Ides of March 2008―PC has seen no action in the postseason.

Accordingly, Davis and former Friar Puck captain Tim Army were both ushered out within a span of 24 hours this past spring. One month later, Rob Murray was dislodged from his post as the P-Bruins head coach.

At the same time, a few towns over, manager Beyeler was just getting acclimated as he claimed Lovullo’s old office at McCoy Stadium. Not unlike their parent club at Fenway Park, the PawSox got off to a so-so start in 2011, finishing April with a 13-10 transcript and May with a 26-25 record.

Since then, however, Beyeler’s pupils have perked up and won 17 games apiece in June, July and August. A sweep of a four-game homestand this past Labor Day weekend cemented their first I.L. divisional championship since 2003.

While the PawSox were still thawing out, Friartown was drawing attention to its dual replacement campaign. First, local boy Ed Cooley was given the basketball reins and energetically pledged to instill discipline and unwavering pride to the descendants of Jimmy Walker, Ernie DiGregorio and Ryan Gomes.

Then, fresh off of claiming the Spencer Penrose Award as Division I men’s coach of the year, Nate Leaman bolted from Union College to fill the void at Schneider Arena. (Maybe he can pilfer some of the winning potion from two-time defending Women’s Hockey East coach of the year, Bob Deraney.)

And on June 25, when the Sox were four games above .500 and gradually ascending the I.L. leaderboard, the P-Bruins followed PC hockey's lead in hiring another accolade-laden coach. Bruce Cassidy, who won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2002, was simply elevated from his assistant's seat to take Murray’s old spot.

For all three of the new skipper, the starting points are fairly similar. PC hoops wants to contend for an NCAA tournament bid, Friar Puck wants to play the week after Senior Night and the P-Bruins want to get back to the AHL’s Sweet 16.

If any of the, can do that, they will each be entitled to the same mentality as the PawSox of this week: That they have as good a chance as anybody to nab a little hardware and radiate for Rhode Islanders to admire.