The sports year is over. Well, at least mine is.
This column is my last official function before an extended Christmas vacation. During that time I'll probably consume too much red meat, too much chocolate, and too many bowl games sponsored by chambers of commerce and featuring teams with .500 records.
Before I drink a few toasts to the year ahead, how about we raise a glass to the seasons past? Here are the 10 sports stories — in no particular order — with tri-county and Maine ties that caught my eye in 2012:
1. Oxford Plains Speedway sold — Bill Ryan's 14-year tenure as OPS owner and promoter brought renewed national interest in the track's showcase race, the TD Bank 250, thanks to the annual participation of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. At the same time, however, Maine's largest spectator sports facility had seen a dramatic swoon in attendance and car count. The flagging economy might have been a factor, but the elimination of popular super late model cars after the 2006 season undoubtedly was a stumbling block. New owner Tom Mayberry's restoration of that headline division and a switch from Saturday to Friday night racing bring the promise of a dramatic facelift in 2013.
2. Dirigo winning Class C basketball and baseball championships — It was a thunderous parting shot by one of the most decorated senior classes in Maine history. The Cougars finally cleared the hoop hurdle in their fourth try, winning a wild rematch with prep school nemesis Lee Academy. And rather than getting fat and happy, the Cougars went out in spring and celebrated their second title in three years on the diamond. Even as the Dixfield, Peru, Canton and Carthage community school continued to fight for its independence, it found a way to strengthen its current reputation as Western Maine's Titletown.
3. Jovan Belcher murder-suicide — The news of an NFL linebacker killing his domestic partner, then turning the gun on himself in front of his coach and general manager was horrifying enough. Hearing word that the unthinkable act was committed by a recent standout at the University of Maine made it hit especially close to home. Rather than being our ever-present escape, sports became part of that uncomfortable conversation our nation needs to have about guns, social mores and our tendency to overlook or even cover up the warning signs when they pertain to stars in the entertainment realm.
4. Mixed martial arts a hit in Lewiston — Quarterly fight cards came to town this year and consistently filled Androscoggin Bank Colisee to near capacity, something so many concerts and hockey games have failed to accomplish. MMA has its detractors who cringe at the sight of blood and a cage. In truth, it takes place in a controlled environment, is well-regulated and has proven itself a family-friendly sport. Co-promoter Rep. Matt Peterson (D-Rumford) has been a tireless advocate for combat sports and the growing delegation of local people who love them or participate in them. The economic benefits are merely the tip of the iceberg. Don't be surprised to see the sport grow exponentially in 2013.
5. Hockey staying alive in Lewiston-Auburn. Turns out the Lewiston Maineiacs' departure after a tumultuous seven years wasn't the death of the Twin Cities as a hockey town. The Portland Pirates moved a significant chunk of their early-season home schedule to a new market, playing out to a packed house. All the while, talk of another run at junior hockey continues. If promoted correctly (key words, those), there's no reason to believe it can't work.
6. Lewiston cheerleaders win New England championship — I can hear the old-schoolers groaning at this being included in a list of the year's top sports stories. Well, tough cookies. I've seen the athleticism and the emotional investment that go into this sport, activity, call it what you will, and it is second to none. And go ahead, name another Maine high school sports enterprise that has won a New England title in the past 35 years. Time's up. You can't. There aren't any. Congratulations to the Blue Devils, who continue to set the bar for their sport at a dizzying level.
7. Eleanor Logan wins Olympic gold — Maine batted 1.000 in the Summer Games. Our performance in the trials was a far cry from the recent past, when six or more athletes customarily charted a course to Team USA. Lone representative Logan did her share to put the Pine Tree State on the map, however. The 24-year-old from Boothbay Harbor struck gold for the second time, sharing the glory with her women's eight rowing team in London.
8. Mt. Blue championship and Fitzy snub — Farmington's Cougars capped Maine's only undefeated high school football season in style, out-slugging Marshwood, 44-42, in the highest scoring championship game in state history. Sadly, it was followed by quarterback Jordan Whitney's absence from the Fitzpatrick Trophy ballot, where he was not chosen as one of the 12 seniors to be considered as Maine's outstanding player. His omission is inexplicable and spokesman Jack Dawson's televised response to the public outcry — casting aspersions about Whitney's solid academic record — is inexcusable.
9. High school football expansion — After years of hand-wringing, hesitation and conjecture, Maine's ever-growing gridiron landscape may finally grow from three to four enrollment classifications. The Maine Principals' Association and its football committee approved reclassification and expansion in November. The only thing that could stop it now is objection from the member schools. My simple message to those schools: Please don't. It's time. There is no perfect system, but what's on the table is a dramatic improvement for our athletes and their programs.
10. Auburn's Troy Barnies playing pro basketball — I still don't think people in our region fully appreciate that one of our own is getting paid to travel the world and play this great game. After a successful season in Turkey, Barnies, the former Maine Mr. Basketball at Edward Little, has moved into a starring role for the Vilpas Vikings in Finland. I've been covering high school sports for 24 years, and I've never met a kid who worked harder or deserved it more.
Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter (@Oaksie72).