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Tim O’Sullivan: Our top 10 sports stories of 2012

  • Independent runner Guor Marial competes during the men's marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 in London. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    Independent runner Guor Marial competes during the men's marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 in London. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady reacts during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady reacts during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine looks on during batting practice before their baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park in Boston Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

    Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine looks on during batting practice before their baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park in Boston Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Bob Mielcarz putting during the 2012 State Amateur Golf Championship on July 12, 2012. <br/><br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

    Bob Mielcarz putting during the 2012 State Amateur Golf Championship on July 12, 2012.

    (John Tully/ Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Concord Post 21 celebrates after scoring a run against Goffstown Post 16 on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua. <br/><br/>(Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)

    Concord Post 21 celebrates after scoring a run against Goffstown Post 16 on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua.

    (Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • University of New Hampshire Dan Correale battles for the puck from  University of Massachusetts Lowell's Christian Folin; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

    University of New Hampshire Dan Correale battles for the puck from University of Massachusetts Lowell's Christian Folin; Friday November 16, 2012.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Coe-Brown's Brooke Laskowsky hugs a teammate after finishing in seventh place in the cross country division 2 championships at Derryfield Park in Manchester on October 27, 2012. Laskowsky and her team placed first overall in their division. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    Coe-Brown's Brooke Laskowsky hugs a teammate after finishing in seventh place in the cross country division 2 championships at Derryfield Park in Manchester on October 27, 2012. Laskowsky and her team placed first overall in their division.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Concord's Dillon Emerson reaches for a tag during the American Legion baseball tournament on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua. <br/><br/>(Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)

    Concord's Dillon Emerson reaches for a tag during the American Legion baseball tournament on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua.

    (Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Concord's Dillon Emerson slides into home during the game against Goffstown Post 16 in the American Legion baseball tournament on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua. <br/><br/>(Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)

    Concord's Dillon Emerson slides into home during the game against Goffstown Post 16 in the American Legion baseball tournament on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua.

    (Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Independent runner Guor Marial competes during the men's marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 in London. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    Independent runner Guor Marial competes during the men's marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 in London. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Independent runner Guor Marial competes during the men's marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 in London. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady reacts during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
  • Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine looks on during batting practice before their baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park in Boston Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
  • Bob Mielcarz putting during the 2012 State Amateur Golf Championship on July 12, 2012. <br/><br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)
  • Concord Post 21 celebrates after scoring a run against Goffstown Post 16 on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua. <br/><br/>(Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)
  • University of New Hampshire Dan Correale battles for the puck from  University of Massachusetts Lowell's Christian Folin; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)
  • Coe-Brown's Brooke Laskowsky hugs a teammate after finishing in seventh place in the cross country division 2 championships at Derryfield Park in Manchester on October 27, 2012. Laskowsky and her team placed first overall in their division. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
  • Concord's Dillon Emerson reaches for a tag during the American Legion baseball tournament on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua. <br/><br/>(Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)
  • Concord's Dillon Emerson slides into home during the game against Goffstown Post 16 in the American Legion baseball tournament on July 31, 2012 at Holman Stadium in Nashua. <br/><br/>(Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)
  • Independent runner Guor Marial competes during the men's marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 in London. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

It’s list season, and our New Year’s Day tradition is to catalog the sports stories that defined the past 12 months here in central New Hampshire. During the process, a common thread appeared: perseverance.

It wasn’t in all the stories. Some were about the opposite of perseverance (the Red Sox debacle), or about total dominance (Coe-Brown cross country). Sometimes the thread appeared on the opposition’s side (the Giants and Heat). But for many of these top 10, it’s all about overcoming obstacles and odds to find success. None speak more of perseverance than our clear-cut top story of 2012.

1) Olympic inspiration

When the year began, Guor Majak Marial was one of the masses, a new college graduate finding his way. By August, the Concord High alum had become an international symbol of the Olympic spirit.

Marial, 28, was born in the country that is now South Sudan amid a civil war that had been raging for decades. He lost eight siblings and 28 total family members to the war’s violence, disease and hunger. He was kidnapped, forced into slavery, and spent years trying to flee Africa. He

eventually escaped with an uncle and landed in Laconia in 2001. A year later he was in Concord, where his talent for distance running was unlocked.

Even though his uncle left Concord in 2003, Marial stayed, living with Crimson Tide cross country Coach Rusty Cofrin and other local families. With the city’s support and his own talent, Marial became a champion and earned a scholarship to Iowa State University. He was an All-America runner for the Cyclones, graduated in 2011 and ran his first marathon that fall in an Olympic-qualifying time. But Marial had no country to run for in the London games.

South Sudan only became an independent nation in 2011, and so had no Olympic team or committee. Sudan offered Marial a spot on its team, but he politely declined running for the country that ravaged his childhood. He pleaded his case to the IOC, but there was no progress until Brad Poore, a sports agent with experience in the field, met Marial and began working on his behalf. Poore reached out to the media, and soon Marial’s story was being told around the world. Finally, on July 21, the IOC announced Marial could compete as an Independent Olympic Athlete in the Aug. 12 marathon. With the world watching, including a crowd at the Red River Theater in Concord, Marial finished 47th, completing yet another leg in his life’s incredible race.

2) The Patriots lose
to the Giants … again

Despising the Yankees is rooted in our blood. But the Giants are currently playing the lead villain in the New York-Boston rivalry, a role they cemented by breaking the Patriots’ hearts, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLVI in February.

It was the second time in five years New York beat New England in America’s biggest game. And the Giants did it with another last-minute touchdown fueled by another Eli Manning miracle completion, Mario Manning playing David Tyree in this version.

The loss five years ago was extra painful because it prevented a perfect season. Last year’s Patriots were nowhere near perfect. The defense allowed 411.1 yards per game, the most ever by a Super Bowl participant. Tom Brady threw for 5,235 yards, and Rob Gronkowski spiked into the NFL’s elite, but the offense wasn’t near the juggernaut it was five years ago, or even this year. Still, Super Bowl XLVI held extra helpings of pain for New England fans. This time it was served by all those recurring plot points, most notably the NY on the Giants’ helmets.

3) It couldn’t get worse at Fenway, but did anyway

At least there was something nostalgic about the 2012 Red Sox, as if the marketing team tried to cram 86 years of misery into one season for yet another promotion.

After the fried chicken and beer fiasco of September 2011, it seemed the Sox had reached bottom. But that was before we knew Bobby Valentine was operating on the edge of sanity. With Valentine leading the way, the Sox seemed to find a new low every week.

To be fair, the new manager wasn’t given a great roster, but rather than solve problems, Bobby V. only made them worse. The end result was the blockbuster salary dump/admission of guilt/trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles, and a 62-93 record, the team’s worst since 1965.

4) The boy kings of summer

If you wanted to see the best schoolboy baseball in the state in 2012, the Capital Area was the place to be. And the perseverance thread is woven all through this story.

After losing in last year’s Division I final, Concord High won its first baseball title since 1980 with a 5-4 decision over Merrimack on Dillon Emerson’s two-out, game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth. Hopkinton won the D-III crown, 4-0 against defending champion Campbell, on a four-hit shutout from Sam Bonifant.

And 11 players from those two teams helped Concord’s Post 21 win the American Legion state championship, including Emerson, who was the tournament MVP.

The Crimson Tide was the top seed entering the D-I tournament, but battled every round, winning its four playoff games by a combined score of 14-12. Senior Eddie Dionne won the first three tournament games with a 0.43 ERA and Graham McIntire had two game-winning hits. Hopkinton was led by a senior class that won 58 games in four years, but had fallen short in the tournament until last June, when it rode the left arm of Bonifant, who also won three playoff games, allowing four earned runs in 21 innings. Finally, Post 21 needed to win two elimination games on the final day of the state legion tournament, and the team did it with a pair of comeback wins for the crown.

5) UNH hockey rides the coaster

It was a year of extremes for the Wildcats. The spring of 2012 saw UNH miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. The ’Cats were the No. 6 seed in the Hockey East tournament, but won their first game at Boston University and held a 4-1 second-period lead in Game 3, only to lose 5-4 in double overtime and finish the season at 15-19-3. It was the first time since 1996 UNH finished with a sub-.500 record, but Coach Dick Umile didn’t think it was a sign of things to come.

“We’ll be a good team next year,” Umile said just after the season ended.

“I would expect us to be a team that competes and gets back in that top bracket.”

The coach, now in his 23rd year, knew what he was talking about. The Wildcats started the 2012-13 season 11-1-2 and reached No. 1 in the polls on Dec. 3, the first time since Jan. 29, 2007, UNH sat atop the national rankings.

6) The champ exits in style

He’d won the State Amateur Golf Championship in a record nine other years, but 2012 was the year Concord’s Bob Mielcarz said goodbye to the State Am, and he did so with a flourish. After two rounds of stroke play at Concord Country Club, his home course, the 62-year-old sat atop the leaderboard with a 140.

The top-seeded Mielcarz then won his first three rounds of match play before losing a 25-hole contest in the Round of 16 to Steve Lane. The crowd grew, and grew more tense, through the seven sudden-death holes, an experience Lane said he would “never forget as long as I live.” It wasn’t bad for Mielcarz, either.

“I had a good week,” the former champ said. “Being medalist was something I didn’t even dream would happen, and to get to the round of 16 and play seven extra holes, that was good, too.”

7) Rondo takes the reins,
but LeBron wears the crown

Many believed 2012 would be the year age finally caught up with the Celtics. That seemed likely as Boston began the season 0-3, then 4-8, and was still 17-17 on the last day of February. But a healthy Rajon Rondo, who fully assumed the team’s alpha dog role in 2012, and a revitalized Kevin Garnett led the team on a late-season surge and to playoff wins over the Hawks and 76ers.

Rondo took another step toward superstardom in the Eastern Conference Finals when he stared down both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and led the Celtics to a 3-2 series lead. But James, who has persevered through as much hate as any pro athlete, had the breakout performance of his career in Game 6 in Boston (45 points, 15 rebounds) to lead the Heat to a 98-79 win.

Rondo had a triple double in Game 7 (22 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds), but Miami still won and went on to beat Oklahoma City in five to give King James his first crown. And the Heat kept taking from the Celtics in the offseason when Ray Allen spurned Boston’s (reportedly) more lucrative free agent offer to sign with Miami.

8) Hamlin continues
NHMS dominance

Denny Hamlin didn’t win both of the Sprint Cup races this year at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but no one drove the Magic Mile like Hamlin in 2012, and he wasn’t afraid to talk, or at least tweet, about it. Hamlin had the fastest car at the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 in July and led for 150 laps, but a late pit mistake cost him the lead and the No. 11 car wound up second behind Kasey Kahne.

Still, Hamlin was plenty confident before the Sylvania 300 in September, the second race in the Chase for the Cup. Just before arriving at NHMS, Hamlin wrote on Twitter, “This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”

He qualified only 32nd, but after 94 laps, Hamlin took the lead, never gave it up outside of pit stops, and won by 2.575 seconds, the fifth-largest margin in the last 20 years at Loudon.

9) Coe-Brown continues
cross country dominance

At 715 students, Coe-Brown is right around the median for school size in New Hampshire. But the Bears have become giants in the world of high school cross country under co-head coaches Tim Cox and Brent Tkaczyk. The Bears have been good in recent years, but nothing like 2012.

Led by a first-place finish from sophomore Hannah Parker, the girls’ team won its third straight Division II title with an absurd 25 points, well ahead of second-place Hanover’s 97. The next week the girls ran away with their second straight Meet of Champions title with 66 points (second-place Londonderry had 97) and then took second at New Englands. On the boys’ side, Coe-Brown junior Jeremy Brassard took first at the D-II meet and then did it again at the MOC to win the state individual title.

10) The replacement wrecks

The year had its share of sports scandals – Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, Lance Armstrong and doping, the New Orleans “Bounty-gate.” But all of those were stories that began before the year started.

The national scandal that 2012 can call all its own, and the one that probably generated the most (and probably the least revolting) water cooler talk, was the NFL’s decision to lock out its officials and use replacements.

The unofficial officials were a car wreck you couldn’t stop watching. The blown calls, mangled explanations and keystone cop mayhem came to a head on a Monday night in Seattle. On the last play of the game, one ref signaled touchdown while one signaled incomplete.

The wrong call (touchdown) was made, the wrong team (the Seahawks) won the game, and more than one million angry tweets followed. On the upside, that play helped end the lockout and the real refs were back at work the next week.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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