2015 started with the Seahawks’ loss to the Patriots on an interception. Plenty of ups and downs followed, from the Mariners’ struggles to the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
For Seattle sports fans, it was a year defined by pain every bit as much as the previous one was framed in triumph.
The moment is more than 10 months old now, but the dagger still is buried deep in the collective psyche. This kind of agony tends to have a shelf live. And so any summation of 2015 must necessarily begin on Feb. 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., with the ball on the 1-yard line, 26 seconds left, and the Seahawks on the verge of a second straight Super Bowl victory.
Had they gotten it — had the Seahawks chosen, perhaps, to hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch, as the world expected, or had Russell Wilson’s pass found its way into Ricardo Lockette’s hands rather than those of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler — well, this narrative would have been quite different.
It would have been all about the budding Seattle dynasty, about how Wilson had been elevated to elite status after leading the winning drive (hold that thought, come to think of it), about the star turn of previously neglected wide receiver Chris Matthews and the legendary sprawling catch by Jermaine Kearse that set up the game-winner.
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But it didn’t happen that way, of course. And so all the memorable moments that preceded that interception — like the Seahawks’ stirring comeback victory over Green Bay in the NFC title game two weeks earlier — and all the ones that followed, in a variety of sports, didn’t pack the same emotional wallop as that fateful play in the Super Bowl.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t other moments to savor, however. And the Seahawks are now on a journey they hope will result in Super Bowl redemption in Santa Clara, Calif., in February.
After an offseason of turmoil, including tense contract negotiations with Wilson that went right down to the first day of training camp before he signed a four-year, $87.5 million deal, the Seahawks got off to a lackluster 2-4 start. They lost the first two games with All-Pro strong safety Kam Chancellor holding out in an attempt to coax a better contract out of the Seahawks, who held firm.
Chancellor ended his holdout in time for Game 3, but the Seahawks were still stumbling at 4-5 after a loss to Arizona in which they blew a fourth-quarter lead and Wilson’s play was criticized both by fans and Seahawks staff. Their season appeared to be hanging by a thread, and a playoff berth seemed unlikely.
That marked a turning point in their season, however. Despite season-ending injuries to Lynch and newly acquired tight end Jimmy Graham, Seattle racked up five straight wins to assure a playoff berth before faltering this past Sunday against St. Louis. Wilson, in particular, had a spectacular resurgence, mastering a quicker passing game to turn in statistics that are historic, and reshape the tired debate about whether or not he is “elite.”
While waiting to see if this Seahawks story has a happier ending in the new year — and it will require them to thrive away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink in the postseason — let’s praise some of the fulfilling achievements of the Seattle sports seasons.
Though they toil in relative obscurity, no team has had more success than Washington’s men’s crew, which wrapped up its fifth consecutive national title — an unprecedented feat in the 120-year-old IRA regatta — and swept all five IRA men’s races for the third time in four years under coach Michael Callahan.
The Husky women’s crew didn’t have such a bountiful year, despite finishing fourth in the NCAA championships, its best showing since finishing second in 2008. The program was rocked in November when women’s crew coach Bob Ernst was fired after 42 years with the Huskies, in which he won eight national titles — six as women’s coach, two as men’s coach. Circumstances surrounding the dismissal are murky, but The Seattle Times reported that rowers’ complaints of harsh verbal treatment and disparaging comments about their weight and performance by Ernst were at the heart of an athletic-department investigation.
Washington State’s football team soared to its best season in a decade, though it got off to an ignominious start with a season-opening loss to Portland State. Just when fans were starting to calculate how much it would cost to buy out the contract of coach Mike Leach, the Cougars revived themselves to complete an 9-4 season. That included their first win over Oregon since 2006 (but their second straight loss in the Apple Cup, a 45-10 thrashing at the hands of the Huskies). Quarterback Luke Falk ran Leach’s Air Raid offense with precision until a concussion knocked him out of the Apple Cup. He returned to propel the Cougars to a victory in the Sun Bowl (on an incongruously snowy day), WSU’s first bowl win (and first nine-win season) since 2003
The Huskies’ football year began with a huge disappointment on Jan. 2 when they fell behind 24-0 at halftime in the Cactus Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., and lost 30-22 to Oklahoma State. Yet despite losing three first-round draft picks off their defense — Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson and Marcus Peters — as well as the nation’s sack leader, Hau’ole Kikaha, the Huskies became the top defensive team in the Pac-12 in 2015. They needed that Apple Cup win to reach .500 at 6-6, however, then followed with a decisive victory over Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. With true freshmen Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin excelling at quarterback and tailback, respectively, and a lineup dotted with underclassmen, the expectations for Chris Petersen’s squad will be raised considerably in 2016.
Washington’s women’s basketball team rolled to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. Though the Huskies lost in the first round to Miami, their 23-10 record, and the return of scoring whiz Kelsey Plum, portend big things again this year.
The Huskies’ men’s hoopsters would just as soon forget last season, which disintegrated after sophomore center Robert Upshaw was booted off the team in late January for violating team rules. Once 13-0 and ranked No. 13 nationally, the Huskies wound up losing 15 of their final 20 games to miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year. But coach Lorenzo Romar brought in a top-10 recruiting class this season and has one rated even higher coming in next year, so the future appears much brighter — and the present much more entertaining — for Washington.
The Huskies volleyball team ended the season ranked No. 1 and advanced to the Elite Eight under first-year head coach Keegan Cook.
Seattle Reign FC has had as much success as any local team, reaching the championship of the National Women’s Soccer League in back-to-back years. But for the second straight season, the Reign lost in the title game to FC Kansas City. The Reign’s Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe were part of one of the biggest international stories of the year, helping the U.S. win its first Women’s World Cup in 16 years last June in Vancouver, B.C.
Sounders FC also experienced playoff heartache, a familiar outcome for a team that has made the playoffs in all seven seasons under coach Sigi Schmid but has yet to win an MLS title, or even make it to the championship game. This time, the Sounders lost a penalty shootout to FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals — and then had to watch arch-rival Portland become the first Pacific Northwest team to win the MLS Cup.
Nevertheless, Schmid was retained for 2016. The dynamic scoring duo of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins also returns, but the Sounders will be without several familiar names such as Leo Gonzalez, Marco Pappa, Zach Scott and Lamar Neagle who will depart as part of a roster shakeup.
The Seattle Storm stumbled to a 10-24 record, but for the second year in a row they won the WNBA draft lottery and will again pick first overall in the 2016 draft in April. That’s particularly significant because they almost certainly will select 6-foot-4 Breanna Stewart of Connecticut, a two-time national player of the year and potential franchise-changer. The Storm hope that Stewart and last year’s top overall pick, Jewell Loyd (the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2015) can have the same impact as Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, instrumental in two Storm championships.
As for the Mariners, well, their season was bathed in disappointment, but a whirlwind makeover by new general manager Jerry Dipoto has added considerable intrigue for 2016. Jack Zduriencik, in his seventh season as Seattle’s GM, was fired on Aug. 28 with the Mariners 10 games under .500, despite going into the season with high hopes of playoff contention. Though newly signed Nelson Cruz racked up his second straight 40-homer season (he finished with 44, second in the American League to Chris Davis’ 47), the Mariners’ bullpen imploded and Seattle finished fourth in the AL West, at 76-86.
Dipoto’s first major act was choosing to not retain manager Lloyd McClendon, replacing him with former Angels executive Scott Servais, who has never managed at any level. Dipoto’s next acts were a dizzying array of trades, free-agent signings and waiver claims that have revamped the Mariners’ roster as they remain in pursuit of their first postseason appearance since 2001. Key newcomers include starting pitchers Nathan Karns and Wade Miley, relievers Steve Cishek and Joaquin Benoit, outfielders Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin and first baseman Adam Lind.
As a region, the national spotlight shined on Chambers Bay golf course in University Place for four glorious — and controversial — days in June. The golf competition was riveting, with 21-year-old superstar Jordan Spieth wrapping up his second major of the year when Dustin Johnson missed a short birdie putt on the final hole that would have forced a playoff. But rampant complaints about the conditions of the greens threatened to overshadow the drama. Golfer Henrik Stenson noted that it was like “putting on broccoli,” to which Rory McIlroy responded, “I think they’re more like cauliflower.
Nevertheless, the USGA declared themselves satisfied both with the green conditions and the staging of the event, which could, in fact, return to Chambers Bay in a decade.
We won’t have to wait nearly that long for another golf major in our region, however. That will take place June 9-12, 2016 at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish. The women’s PGA championship was awarded to Sahalee last June, and will mark just the second women’s major ever held in the state. The U.S. Women’s Open was held in Spokane in 1946. Sahalee previously hosted the 1998 PGA championship and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open.
Another major international event will come our way in June with the awarding of two Copa America Centenario group stage soccer matches as well as a quarterfinal at CenturyLink Field. The first, on June 4, pits the two lowest seeds of Group B. Then, on June 14, South American power Argentina, featuring superstar Lionel Messi, will play an as yet determined opponent. Two days later, on June 16, Seattle will host the quarterfinal, which could — depending on results — match the United States against Brazil.
That will unfold over time. And by then, we’ll know whether this Seahawks season ended in triumph or agony.