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The new year has arrived. 2011 has come and gone. We have also reached the final post in our series here at SB Nation Arizona recognizing the "best of" Arizona sports in 2011. We conclude with the team of the year, and the choice is easy.
The winner: Arizona Diamondbacks
This choice was easy. The team was not expected to do anything this past season. In almost every single season prediction, they were picked to finish either last or second-to-last in the NL West. Instead of a third straight year in the cellar, they shocked the world with a 94-68 record, winning the West by eight games over the defending world champion San Francisco Giants.
While even we mocked the team for their grit and hustle before and at the start of the season, it turned out that those characteristics were key in their winning games in late innings.
They did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs, but were part of a thrilling five-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers.
With a year of so many disappointments from our local teams, the Diamondbacks gave fans a treat.
Honorable mention: Phoenix Coyotes, U of A Basketball
Not that anyone noticed, but the Coyotes fought through low attendance and uncertainty regarding whether the team would even be in Arizona, as the sale of the team was its own circus.
They finished 43-26-13, good enough for sixth in the West, getting swept in the playoffs by the Detroit Red Wings.
The Arizona Wildcats played better than most expected and had probably the most exciting player of the year in Derrick Williams. They made it to the Elite Eight, beating number one seed Duke before bowing out in a thrilling, yet heart-breaking 65-63 loss to the eventual NCAA champion UConn Huskies.
The year of 2011 showcased the talents of several good players and strong performances in each of the major professional sports- basketball, football, baseball and hockey. From Steve Nash to Larry Fitzgerald and everyone in between, the state of Arizona had its fair share of star players performing well and making impacts on their respective organizations . With 2011 now gone, it's time to continue the SB Nation Arizona Awards Series and name the 2011 Player of the Year.
Upton returned to form in 2011 after a down 2010 campaign. Overall, Upton led the Diamondbacks in pretty much every single batting category. He played in a team best 159 games (out of 162) while leading the way with a .289 batting average, 31 home runs, 88 RBIs and 171 hits. Perhaps even more importantly, Upton played his best game as the season progressed. He hit 22 of his 31 home runs and drove in 64 of his 88 RBIs over the final four months of the season.
Upton helped push Arizona to its best season since 2002 (94-68 overall) and an NL West division title. Even more impressive, Upton's resurgence helped push the Diamondbacks from a last place finish in the division one year ago to first place and a playoff berth just one year removed from a last place finish in the division.
For his contributions this year, Upton won the Silver Slugger Award in October and made his second All-Star appearance. He also finished fourth in the National League in MVP voting, behind only the likes of Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Prince Fielder. Behind Upton, the Diamondbacks have a shot to continue being successful in the years to come.
Fitzgerald and the Cardinals haven't had as big of a year as Upton's Diamondbacks have, but Fitzgerald still deserves some consideration for Player of the Year. Why? He continued to produce even with inconsistent play at quarterback while putting up his best receiving year of his past three seasons (1,262 yards on a career-best 17.8 yards-per-catch and eight touchdowns).
Even more importantly, Fitz committed to the Cardinals for the long term with an eight year, $120 million contract extension this year, which is huge for a franchise that has struggled to find continuous success. He has singlehandedly restored hope in the franchise's future (just imagine what the Cardinals would be like if Fitz decided to leave), and although the inability of the Cardinals to live up to the preseason hype this year hurts him, his impact on the psyche of the Arizona sports fan earns him 2011's Honorable Mention.
The game of the year for Arizona sports was actually somewhat anti-climactic. The Arizona Diamondbacks had already locked up the NL West Division title and were bound for the postseason. The celebration had taken place at home at Chase Field, and the D-backs were playing out the string.
Of course, home-field advantage for at least the divisional round still hung in the balance. And the 2011 Diamondbacks had long since shown that they weren't the kind to roll over and let up on the gas. Not with Kirk Gibson at the helm.
And so it was that on Sept. 27, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers were in town trying to close out the season above .500 (they eventually did). It was the opener of the final regular-season series, and the game went to extra innings tied at 1.
That night, rookie Jarrod Parker made his big-league debut for Arizona and lasted 5 1/3 innings.
The Dodgers weren't about to roll over. But the D-backs had something to play for.
Nevertheless, L.A. put the game away with five runs in the 10th inning. Or so everyone and their dog thought. The Dodgers pounded reliever Micah Owings, whose own throwing error kept the inning going, and to make matters worse, a triple by the Dodgers' A.J. Ellis bounced off right fielder Justin Upton's head, causing him to pause in a crouch to shake off the pain. Gibson removed Upton at that point, as a precaution.
The triple drove in two runs and the Dodgers led 6-1. By the end of the inning, plenty of fans had already left their seats at Chase Field and were headed to the exits.
And then the magic happened.
Reliever Blake Hawksworth got two outs and had Cole Gillespie down to his final strike. Gillespie reached base when Hawksworth failed to cover the bag on a grounder.
A single, a walk and and error gave the D-backs a run to make it 6-2 with the bases loaded. Exit Hawksworth, enter L.A. close Javy Guerra.
A walk to Aaron Hill made it 6-3, bases still loaded. Up came Tatman, aka Ryan Roberts.
The first pitch was driven on a line over the left field wall, 382 feet in distance. Roberts rounded second base with the Gibson-esque fist pull-and-pump, shrieking as he circled the bases and into the arms of celebrating teammates at home plate.
Game over. Diamondbacks 7, Dodgers 6. A season of comebacks topped by the greatest of them all.
Honorable mention: Arena Bowl XXIV -- Jacksonville Sharks 73, Arizona Rattlers 70.
In the Arena Football League championship game at U.S. Airways Center on Aug. 12, the home team came up short when 40-year-old Aaron Garcia threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jeron Harvey on the final play of the game.
Jacksonville stunned the Rattlers 73-70.
The Sharks led 32-21, and then the game turned into a back-and-forth battle of offenses, which is what sells arena football.
For play of the year, the determination was simple: what was that singular occurrence that made you simply say "wow;" that one moment that made you grab your remote and instantly rewind your DVR just so you could relive it again; that lone instant of incredible will-power and athleticism that is so lasting, you can recall exactly where you were when you first witnessed it.
For me, there's only one worthy representative that meets all these requirements: Patrick Peterson's 99-yard game-winning punt return touchdown in overtime against the St. Louis Rams. I mean, punt return touchdowns are difficult enough to come by, let alone ones where someone runs one yard shy of the entire football field. Now through in the fact that is was it was one person putting the entire roster on his back to win a football game in sudden death and, well, you can't make this stuff up.
Don't believe me? Watch it for yourself. I have already at least 25 times:
Runner up: Ryan Robert's walk-off grand slam against the Dodgers
I think Darren Sutton deserves a lot of credit for a great call but still this is one of those that make you say "did that just really happen?" Sure, it barely floated over the left field fence but come on...Ryan Roberts does the Gibby fist-pump! Talk about some true showmanship. This was easily the most impressive comeback by the Diamondbacks this season (and that's saying something because there was a lot of them).
After only scoring one run each in a full frame, the Dodgers exploded for five in the top of the tenth. And just when all seemed lost, the D-backs scrapped across two before being lifted by Roberts four-run blast. The best part of it all? It was against those pesky Dodgers. Oh yeah, and it kept Micah Owings undefeated record intact. Go ahead and relive this magical moment. You know you want to:
2011 was far from a banner year for Arizona sports. While the failures and disappointments from across the professional and collegiate level outweighed the positive, yet there were still several outstanding moments. From the unexpected division title for the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Elite Eight run by Arizona to the national title by Arizona State softball team, Arizona residents were treated to some great times.
Yet there was one moment that outshined them all, one that transcended sports and became one of the rare moments that exemplified the best qualities of the human will.
Through his first three seasons, ASU wrestler Anthony Robles had already put together a great career in Tempe. By his second year, he was named an All-American and won the Pac-10 title at the 125-pound weight class. He then repeated as conference champion the next season and finished seventh overall in the NCAA as a junior.
Those accomplishments alone were more than enough to solidify Robles as one of the best wrestlers in Arizona State's prestigious wrestling history. But there was one thing that made Robles' story more than just that of a great athlete.
Robles only had one leg.
Born without his right leg, Robles had already lived a life in which he turned that disadvantage into an advantage through tremendous determination and a strong will.
Robles continually strengthened his upper body, honed his technique and outworked his opponents. He went far beyond the "never give up cliche", which set him apart from all competitors. After two conference titles, he was already an amazingly inspirational story.
But he was far from done.
In his final season, Robles dominated one opponent after another, posting an undefeated record. He finished off a three-peat as conference championship, and now set his sights on the elusive national championship.
He advanced through the NCAA tournament to face the defending 125-pound champion, Iowa's Matt McDonough. Robles made quick work of the champion, defeating McDonough 7-1 and capping his incredible story with a national championship, as well as being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Wrestler. The Disney movie now had its ending.
As his arm was raised in victory, Robles stood not just as a champion, not just as a Sun Devil, but as a real personification of what a person can accomplish and what obstacles they can overcome if they have the will and the want.
SB Nation Arizona is proud to salute Anthony Robles for his inspirational triumph.
Not all was happiness and accolades for Arizona sports fans. While there have been breakout players, great games and teams, fans of our local teams have become accustomed to disappointment. This year is no exception. Continuing with our end of the year awards, we now recognize the biggest disappointment of 2011 in Arizona sports.
The Winner: The 2011 Arizona State Football Team
2011 was supposed to be a magical year for the Sun Devils. Returning a ton of key players, combined with a weak Pac-12 South division and a USC team that would be ineligible for posteason play, Arizona State was expected to be a part of the first Pac-12 Championship Game.
Injuries and loss ravaged the team even before the season started. Quarterback Steven Threet retired because of a concussion that he never fully recovered from, senior CB Omar Bolden blew out his knee. Defensive lineman James Brooks left the team. Brandon Magee, less touted than Vontaze Burfict, but considered by many to be a better player, was lost for the season. Receiver T.J. Simpson got hurt and never played. Running back Deantre Lewis, who was an impact player as a freshman, was shot in the leg in the offseason.
Even still, there were high expectations and they played the part. They won a thriller in overtime against Missouri, they crushed USC and ran toe-to-toe with Oregon. At 6-2, it looked like they would run away with the South Division. They would not win again. They lost at UCLA, were embarrassed by a bad Washington State team, then lost to Arizona and California. They went from a possible Rose Bowl berth to the Vegas Bowl, where they were destroyed 56-24 by Boise State.
The collapse led to the firing of Dennis Erickson, which led to a disappointing chain of events that led to the hiring of Todd Graham.
From BCS bowl hopes to national embarrassment -- that sums up Arizona State's 2011 in a few words, and is the reason why they are the biggest Arizona sports disappointment of 2011.
Kevin Kolb was the victim of unreasonable expectations. In what was supposed to be a bad NFC West, Kolb was supposed to be the player to bring the Cardinals back to the playoffs. The lockout, a terrible first half of the season by the team's defense and injuries that took half the season away have led people to view the trade the team made to acquire him as the biggest bust of the season.
Graham is a victim of circumstance. He was never supposed to be ASU's coach. After Kevin Sumlin said that ASU wasn't good enough and the university oddly spurned June Jones, Graham became the guy in a surprise move. Nothing he did was disappointing -- it is just that his hiring was when so much more was expected.
The Cardinals made a ton of offseason moves and had a relatively light schedule. They started 1-6 and became one of the worst teams in the league, despite many expectations that they would return to the top of the division. They finished strongly, but the terrible start was one of the more deflating things that could have happened.
Next up in our awards is the 2011 Play of the Year
It wasn't a marquee season for Arizona's sports scene. While the BCS National Championship Game between the Auburn Tigers and the Oregon Ducks, a pivotal battle in the history of NCAA football, was played in Glendale, it did not feature an Arizona team and thus did not impact us in the same way.
First, we must eliminate teams that did not play in hugely significant games in 2011. That removes the Arizona State Sun Devils (both in football and basketball) and the Arizona Wildcats football team. Clearly, we're left with the 2010-2011 Wildcats basketball team, led by superhero Derrick Williams.
Amongst the games that took place in 2011, none is more significant than the Elite Eight showdown between the Wildcats and the NCAA champion Connecticut Huskies. Sure, Arizona threw a grenade in Duke's chicken coop, blowing them out 93-77 in their Sweet Sixteen matchup. But no game meant more to the fanbase than that heart-wrenching loss on March 26, 2011.
Derrick Williams got into foul trouble in the first half, unable to catapult his team to a strong start. Trailing 32-25 at halftime, Arizona was able to rally and take a one-point lead in the second half before it all came down to the final possession, trailing 65-63.
Both Williams and Jamelle Horne missed wide open three pointers, sealing the game for the Huskies (who went on to win the worst NCAA championship game ever against Butler) while securing a spot for Arizona back among the nation's elite basketball schools.
Below you will find highlights from that fateful game.
2011 featured some great moments from both the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona St. Sun Devils as a whole, but it could not have been done without the performances from a few individual players. While there were many candidates for SB Nation Arizona's award for the Collegiate Athlete Of The Year, one player stood out above the rest: Derrick Williams of the UA Wildcats.
Williams, a 6'8 forward who spent 2011 as a sophomore in Tucson, was a unanimous selection for the All-American team and was selected with the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Williams averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per-game at Arizona and led the 'Cats to the Elite Eight, where they lost to the Connecticut Huskies at the buzzer.
To Arizona fans, they may never see a player improve as much as they saw D-Will improve in his two seasons. An unheralded recruit out of high school, Williams made a name for himself with his highlight reel dunks and game-saving blocks. A player as humble as they come, those in Tucson and around the nation fell in love with his charisma and contagious smile.
The best moment of Williams' career at Arizona came in the NCAA Tournament. In the first round against Memphis, Williams saved the game with a block in the final seconds. In the second round against Texas, Williams won the game with an and-one layup (at 4:25) in the final seconds. Finally, he dominated Duke in the Sweet 16 as he scored 32 points.
There are not enough words to describe what Derrick Williams meant to the Arizona Wildcats and his efforts will never be forgotten in Tucson.
Stay tuned to SB Nation Arizona for the rest of our awards.
One of the more interesting stories of any sports year is the ascension of players from the rank-and-file to stardom. Whether they are top prospects who finally tap into their vast potential or a fringe player making a major leap, these developments are always enjoyable to follow. Arizona sports saw a number of such players, but there was one clear-cut winner in this category.
Kennedy was the prized piece that the Diamondbacks acquired in the December 2009 three-team trade involving the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers. He was perennially listed as one of the Yankees' top prospects, but only managed one win over three seasons of scant major league service time from 2007 through 2009.
His debut season in Arizona was promising, as he made 32 starts and posted a solid 3.80 ERA and WHIP of 1.20. At age 26 and with four generally underwhleming seasons under his belt, Kennedy seemed destined for a nice career as a No. 2 or 3 starter.
Then came the magical 2011 season.
Kennedy got the nod as the team's Opening Day starter, but after three starts he had a 1-1 record and a bloated 6.88 ERA after getting shelled by St. Louis on April 13th.
However, his season--and career--turned around two starts later, when he pitched a masterful complete game shutout win over the Phillies in which he struck out 10. By the Fourth of July, Kennedy was in the midst of a great season, as his 8-3 record and 3.38 ERA was helping to lead the surprising Diamondbacks, who refused to relent in the NL West division race.
Over the season's final three months, Kennedy's status as a legitimate ace was secured. From July 8th through the end of the season, Kennedy was dominate, posting a 13-1 record during that span and lowering his ERA to 2.88 thanks to 11 starts of two earned runs or less.
His impressive finish resulted in a fourth place finish in the National League Cy Young Award voting, and his .840 winning percentage was a team record.
For the first time since the Randy Johnson and Curt Shilling days, the Diamondbacks have an ace in the fold.
Continuing with our look back at the year in Arizona sports for 2011, we now recognize the player that was either a rookie or new to Arizona sports this year. There were a few good candidates, but we recognize the one that not only had a huge impact, but also gained national recognition.
Peterson, a cornerback and the team's punt returner, was the Cardinals' first round selection in this year's draft, the fifth pick overall. He made an impact immediately. In his first NFL game, he returned a punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, what turned out to be the deciding score in a Cardinals 28-21 Week 1 victory. Over the course of the season, he would return a record four punts for touchdowns, all of which were more than 80 yards. One of them won the game for Arizona in overtime. His play on special teams earned him a spot on the Pro Bowl.
He was not expected to start on defense immediately, but a season-ending injury to Greg Toler thrust him into the starting lineup immediately. He has growing pains in coverage, but hauled in two interceptions. He improved steadily throughout the year, being matched up consistently against the opposing number one receiver. His teammates have raved about his work ethic and maturity.
His impact on the Cardinals' season, his record-setting performance and his national recognition earn him the honor of being the Newcomer/Rookie of 2011 in Arizona sports.
Only Goldschmidt would be a rookie, but Putz and Gortat joined their teams for the first time this past year. Goldschmidt provided a feared power bat in the middle of the Arizona Diamondbacks lineup in the thick of the pennant race, coming up with several key big hits.
Putz was the linchpin in the Diamondbacks bullpen that changed the pitching on the team. Having a bona fide closer put the other relievers in a set role in which they were effective. Putz logged 45 saves on the season.
Gortat was acquired in a midseason trade from the Orlando Magic to give the Phoenix Suns some size in the middle. He became a fan favorite immediately as his hustle effort brought rebounds and double-doubles to the center position when then-starter Robin Lopez was struggling to produce. He immediately showed that he was one of the most productive centers in Suns history (although this is mainly because the position has historically been unproductive for Phoenix.)
Next up in our SB Nation Arizona awards is Breakout Player of the Year
SB Arizona is awarding the best of the best from Arizona Sports in 2011. Starting with Coach of the Year and ending with Team of the Year on New Years Day.
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