Top 9 local sports stories of 2012

CINCINNATI - The agony and ecstasy of sports sent fans around the Tri-State on a roller coaster ride of emotion in 2012. Whether you follow high school hoops or the big leagues, there was enough sporting action for everyone.

1. Reds' playoff  failure

Record-setting team performances and individual accolades were major parts of the Cincinnati Reds 2012 regular season. The Reds went 97-65 during the regular season en route to an NL Central championship.   

It looked like the Reds were bound for postseason success when they jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division series before they suffered a collapse of unprecedented proportion.

The Reds lost the final three games of the series at Great American Ball Park, where they had been successful all season long.

The three-straight home loses were the only such streak the Reds endured during the 2012 season. The Reds were the first team in 21 such instances to lose in the NLDS after winning the first two games of the series since the NL added the division series in 1995.

They've lost six straight postseason home games, including all four at Great American Ball Park, which opened in 2003.

Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff series since beating Los Angeles in the 1995 division series. The Reds were swept by Atlanta in that year's championship series and by Philadelphia in a 2010 NLDS. 

The Reds have bolstered their roster with the acquisitions of outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, changes in the starting rotation and at the back end of the bullpen, and the continued development of some of the team's young talent.

2. Bengals try again

In 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals surprised a lot of people with their run to the playoffs. Despite featuring a rookie second-round draft pick at quarterback, a talented but green top receiver, and a head coach who'd earned the nickname "8-and-8," the Bengals come from nowhere to make the playoffs.

This year, 2012, the Bengals came into the season with high expectations. While not quite viewed on the same level as the perennial AFC North contenders, the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati was perceived as distancing itself from the "Bungles" nickname that had traveled with it just a few years ago.

After opening the season with a demoralizing 44-13 loss to the Ravens in Week 1 and then sustaining a four-game losing streak to drop to 3-5 on the season, the Bengals won seven of their last eight games, including three in a row to close out the regular season to earn a playoff spot.

Cincinnati is headed into the playoffs for the second straight season after beating rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks. The Bengals had been 0-6 against their AFC rivals over the past two seasons.

The Bengals have had a considerable amount of success on defense. Cincinnati had a franchise-record 51 during the regular season.

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has been a key performer for the Bengals defensive front this season. Atkins will make his second appearance at the Pro Bowl. This is his first-team selection. Cornerback Leon Hall was selected as a third-team alternative for the Pro Bowl roster.

On offense, the Bengals have been led by wide receiver A.J. Green, who is considered by some to be the top player at his position in the league. Green led the team in catches, yards and touchdowns en route to being named to his second straight Pro Bowl. Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham and tackle Andrew Whitworth were named as second-team alternates for the Pro Bowl squad, and quarterback Andy Dalton was a third-team alternate selection.

Part of the team's success can also be attributed to how the fans have started to rally behind them. The crowd of 61,565 against the Ravens gave Cincinnati six sellouts in eight home games this season. The Bengals sold out only two games last season even though they were a playoff team.

As the No. 6 seed, the Bengals will have a chance to seek true redemption in the upcoming wild-card playoffs, as they take on the Texans, in Houston, for the second straight year.

On Jan. 7, 2012, the Bengals second game of the 2012 calendar year, the Bengals endured a punishing 31-10 loss to the injury-plagued Texans. 

3. Barry Larkin's induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Does anyone represent the city of Cincinnati better than Barry Larkin? A hometown kid who grew up to be drafted by and star for his hometown -- How has this story not be turned into a movie? An additional page was added to his inspirational story when Larkin was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the summer of 2012.

"This is un-stinking-believable," Larkin belted out to 18,000 fans in Cooperstown, N.Y. during his speech at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 22.

With his parents and family looking on from the front row, Larkin, a Moeller grad who turned into one of the best shortstops in major league history, spent his entire speech thanking the people that molded him. Larkin spoke of highlights from his 19-year career with the Reds and paid tribute to his family, fans, the Reds organization and the city of Cincinnati during his speech.

"My inclusion in the Hall of Fame is the ultimate validation. I want to thank you all for helping me along the way," said Larkin, who was added to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2008.

Larkin was introduced to the game of baseball at the age of 5 by his parents. He later went on to star for the Crusaders and was one of the best high-school baseball players in the country, which led to a standout career at the University of Michigan. Larkin was drafted by the Reds with the fourth overall pick of the 1985 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.

During his big league career, which spanned from 1986 until he retired from baseball in 2004, Larkin was a 12-time All-Star and was voted the 1995 National League Most Valuable Player.  He had a .295 career batting average, 2,340 hits, 1,329 runs scored and 379 stolen bases during his career.

4. Joey Votto's new contract

A few years ago, people were questioning whether or not teams other than the Yankees, Mets, Phillies and Red Sox could vie for a World Series crown due to the increased spending that was seemingly knocking teams from smaller markets out of the bidding war for top-end talent.

Mid-market teams, such as the Cincinnati Reds and several other teams scattered over the Major League Baseball map, weren't given much of a shot due to the perceived notion that they could pay the price necessary to retain and acquire top-notch talent.

That all changed in April 2012, when the Reds and 29-year-old slugger Joey Votto agreed to terms on a new 10-year, $225 million dollar contract that will keep the former MVP in Cincinnati through the 2024 season. Since coming up to the Reds in 2007, Votto has hit .316, while hitting 133 home runs and driving in 457 runs.

Given the cost of living in Cincinnati, some people consider Votto's contract to be the most lucrative contract in baseball history.

The move represented not only that it was possible for small-market clubs to compete with the big boys, but more locally it highlighted that the Reds organization was in it to win it, not rebuild and hope another superstar was waiting in the clubhouse of one of the team's farm teams.

The signing was surprising to some, given the Reds hesitancy to be a major spender in the past.
According to the USA Today, the Reds' total team salary for each of the past five years prior to Votto signing his record-breaking contract were $75.9 million, $71.7 million, $73.6 million, $74.1 million and $68.9 million. During those years, the Reds ranked 19th, 20th, 19th, 18th and 20th in salary league-wide.

So, why the major change? It's not like the Reds can expect a huge jump in attendance, which has hovered around the 2-million mark for the past few seasons.

It was an aggressive move for a small market franchise. The US Office of Management and Budget ranks Cincinnati 27th among Metropolitan Statistical Areas. 

The Reds, who've made the playoffs two of the past three seasons, continue to make improvements to their roster. They added starter Mat Latos and reliever Sean Marshall while remaking their bench prior to the 2011 season and have traded away streaky center fielder Drew Stubbs and been involved in the free-agent market this off season.

5. Middletown resident wins Olympic gold

Judo is one of those sports you only care about every four years. You don't know the athletes, you don't necessarily know the rules or how the scoring works, but there's something novel about watching a sport at the top level that's maintained by real, everyday people just like most of us.

There is no truer representative of the everyman than Middletown native Kayla Harrison, who won the country's first judo gold medal in Olympic history this past summer at the London Olympic Games.

The 22-year-old, who currently resides in suburban Boston, was so overwhelmed by her accomplishment that she burst into tears after just a single note of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the medal ceremony.

Tears fell from the face of the former world champion and then-fourth-ranked in the world her weight class as she reflected on the struggles she endured while climbing to the top of her sport.

"It's not every four years. It's every day," Harrison told the Associated P. "I'm just so honored to be America's first gold medalist, and so happy to realize my dream. I'm America's first gold medalist in judo -- and always will be."

Upon returning to the states, Harrison made a return to her childhood hometown to spend the day speaking to students at several of the schools she attended growing up.

"Everyone has been so excited it makes me excited, you know when you feel that energy," Harrison told 9 On Your Side.

Harrison's welcome home party included a parade and ended with a celebration in the heart of Middletown.

Harrison says she expects to compete in the next summer Olympics in Rio in 2016.

6.  Local high school football teams claim state titles

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, high school football and the Greater Cincinnati area go together like peas and carrots. 

In a part of the country where it seems like the first question a stranger is likely to ask you has to do with the high school you attended, high school football is an institution. While professional sports and college sports may draw bigger crowds, high school sports, particularly football, have a special place in our hearts.

In 2012, several local teams from across the Tri-State earned state titles. In Ohio, Moeller returned to championship form and Clinton-Massie earned its first state title. South of the Ohio River, Highlands claimed its sixth-straight championship while Newport Central Catholic was crown state champ for the second time in three years.

Moeller --

Spencer Iacavone's efficient passing and a stout defense helped Cincinnati Moeller defeat Toledo Whitmer for the Ohio Division I championship 20-12 Saturday night at Fawcett Stadium.

The Crusaders (12-3) won their eighth title -- first since 1985. They lost title games in 1989, 1991 and 1997.

Clinton-Massie --

Clinton-Massie capped off a remarkable 2013 campaign by winning their 15th straight game as they took down the St. Clairsville Red Devils 46-36 to win the OSHAA Division IV championship game Friday at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.

It's the first-ever state title for the Falcons and any team from Clinton County.

Junior Bayle Wolf turned in a performance that will not soon be forgotten as he rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries and added another score on a 36-yard catch as he tied a DIV state finals record with five touchdowns.

Highlands --

It was different for Highlands this year because their head coach, Dale Mueller, wasn't with them. However, the outcome remained the same for the Bluebirds, who finished as Kentucky's 4A football champion once again

The Bluebirds scored 33 points in the first half on their way to a commanding 47-0 victory over Martha Layne Collins High School at Houchens-Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky. Led by quarterback Donovan McCoy, Highlands won its sixth consecutive title, a Kentucky state record. It also won its 30th consecutive postseason game, also a record in the Commonwealth.

Newport Central Catholic --

Josh Cain hit Tyler Lyon on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 26 seconds left as Newport Central Catholic clinched a 30-26 win over Caldwell County in the KHSAA Class 2A championship game Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

It was the Thoroughbreds' fifth state title, and second in three years.

7. Conference realignment affects UC, Xavier, Dayton, Louisville, maybe even NKU

One of the traditionally beautiful aspects of college athletics has been its respect for history and regional rivalries.

Over the past few years, however, the landscape of college athletics has drastically changed. History and tradition have taken a backseat to TV contracts and endorsement deals, leading many major universities to realign their conference affiliations.

While the decision to leave a conference is made with the best long-term intentions by the exiting university, the short-term impact created by that choice leads to a realm of uncertainty for many institutions. Several universities dwelling in that realm exist in the Tri-State.

The team most directly affected has been the University of Cincinnati, as its current conference, the Big East, has been reshaped by an exodus of non-football schools looking to protect their best interests. A collective announcement was made by leadership at St. John's, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova to leave the conference due to a fear of what the future holds.

"What's football going to look like in 15 years?" Marquette athletic director Larry Williams told ESPN Radio 540 in Milwaukee. "They may not be in the power position they are in today. How do we as an elite basketball program fit into the landscape of this football-dominated environment? I don't have a complete answer for you, but that's the question."

The desire to leave was sparked in part by decisions to exit made by several of the conference's most prominent members over the past year and a half. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are going to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013. West Virginia has moved to the Big 12. Louisville is headed to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten, maybe as soon as 2014.

The current Big East football membership includes only four schools - South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati, Temple - that are committed to the league beyond 2013. But there are 11 schools with plans to join the Big East in the next three years, including Boise State and San Diego State for football only in 2013.

The moves drastically impact the future of the Big East, which had been hoping to sign a TV deal that could bring in as much as $100 million a year to its members. If the TV money doesn't meet the Big East's projections, it could cause some of the future members, especially Boise State and San Diego State, to reconsider joining.

The University of Cincinnati will face a great deal of uncertainty in the future. Limited by financial and structural resources (practice facilities, football stadium, basketball arena, etc.), the UC could have some difficulty making itself desirable to suitors like the ACC and the SEC. The Bearcats reportedly lobbied to be accepted by the ACC but was turned down in favor of Louisville.

Remaining in a downgraded Big East could put UC's athletic department in the same position it was in when it was attempting to exit Conference USA.

While questions regarding the University of Cincinnati's future will continue to linger, new questions are starting to be asked by other universities in the area, including Xavier, Dayton and even Northern Kentucky.

There has been a great deal of speculation that Xavier, along with Dayton and several other members of the current Atlantic 10, will join the seven Catholic institutions that recently left the Big East and form a non-football conference that will highlight basketball as its marquee sport. Such a move would likely mean more TV revenue and additional advertising and marking dollars for the university. It could also positively impact the basketball program's ability to recruit top talent to the school.

Northern Kentucky also is in an interesting position. While new to Division I, the continuing shift of college programs could lead to an opening in a conference that would better align itself with them regionally and provide them with more financial resources.

What does 2013 hold for these universities? Only time and dollar signs will tell.

8. A very local Sweet 16

Every March, people across the country cling to their NCAA brackets in hopes of having the proverbial magic ticket. It seems like the person who's picking teams based on their mascots wins every year. In 2012, though, the person who picked teams based on their proximity to the Tri-State was undoubtedly the winner of the office poll.

The Greater Cincinnati area and the surrounding region was the center of the college basketball universe in March 2012. Four of the teams in the Sweet 16 were from Ohio, which was a Sweet 16 record. In addition to Cincinnati and Xavier, Ohio State and Cinderella story Ohio also advanced to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend. 

In addition to schools from the state of Ohio, two schools from Kentucky and a school from Indiana also advanced far into the dance. Eventual champion Kentucky and its bitter rival Louisville each had solid showings in 2012 Big Dance. The University of Indiana, which is within three hours of Cincinnati, also made finished among the top 16 teams.

This tournament was also the first tournament since 1985 to feature no teams in the Sweet 16 from the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones.

UK defeated Kansas 67-59 in the championship game to earn its eighth NCAA title. It was the first title for head coach John Calipari.

It was also the first tournament in which both national semifinals and the national championship game were regular season rematches,

9. UC's coaching carousel

Where does the University of Cincinnati stand in terms of the college football landscape? In the past few years, the Bearcats have been to BCS games, been ranked in the Top 10 of national polls and multiple players make it to and thrive in the NFL, and had a new head coach every three years.

After earning at least a share of the Big East title in two of the past three seasons, former UC football coach Butch Jones made the decision to leave the budding Bearcats football program to take over a rebuilding job at the University of Tennessee. Before Jones, Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) decided Cincinnati couldn't offer green enough pastures to stick around.

Next in line in the Bearcats coaching carousel will be Tommy Tuberville, who's coming to Clifton from Texas Tech of the Big 12. The move is a departure in UC's hiring practices. Instead of attempting to cultivate young coaching talent, the University of Cincinnati decided to bring in a high-profile name to take over its program.

"His resume, his experience speak for themselves," senior quarterback Brendon Kay said after the hiring. "I think it's going to allow us to buy into what he's selling right away."

Mainly, he has to sell the program, both to the fans and other conferences.

Even though the Bearcats, which finished with a 10-3 record after earning a victory over Duke in the Belk Bowl, have won or shared the Big East title in four of the last five seasons under Kelly and Jones. Yet, despite the success, for many in college football circles, UC isn't a major job.

Part of the trouble in Clifton has to do with struggles to fill the 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium, which is small and antiquated compared to stadiums at other schools. The Bearcats drew only 21,171 fans for the final home game this season. Uncertainty surrounding the UC's conference future has also played a role in the perception of the UC football program.

Officials involved in the hiring of Tuberville recognized that having a big name in charge of the football could help the school find a new conference.

"It certainly was not done with that intent," athletic director Whit Babcock told the Associated Press after the hiring."But if it gives Cincinnati more visibility — a rising tide raises all the boats."

Tuberville's decision to leave Texas Tech was considered curious to some. Despite going in 20-17 in three seasons at Texas Tech, where attendance increased after he was hired. The school sold 46,565 season tickets for his first year, a school record.

The University of Cincinnati and its fans hopeful that Tuberville will continue the continue the football program's recent tradition of success and bring them program some stability in the process.


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