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The 10 biggest sports stories of 2014

Oh, Baltimore sports. If we're being honest, your bad news ran neck and neck with your good in 2014. Often eclipsed it, in fact.

Sure, the Orioles produced their best season in a generation, winning the once-insurmountable American League East by 12 games and reaching their first American League Championship Series in 17 years.

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But the Ravens spent the NFL playoffs at home for the first time under coach John Harbaugh.

The Maryland women's basketball team made the Final Four, but the men didn't make the NCAA tournament at all.

Olympic hero Michael Phelps returned to competitive swimming after a 20-month retirement, but he ended up in an in-patient treatment program after he was charged with drunken driving.

Looming over it all was Ray Rice, who put the Ravens at the center of a national conversation — often an ugly one — about how we deal with violence against women and whether the country's most popular sports league takes its social responsibilities seriously enough.

When the year's enduring image is surveillance tape of a formerly beloved athlete punching his future wife, you're talking a complicated 12 months — at best. So here they are, the 10 biggest stories of an up-and-down year in our city's sports scene:

10. UFC comes to Baltimore, highlighting year of big events in the city

Entering 2014, Baltimore had hosted mixed-martial-arts cards but never the sport's 800-pound gorilla, Ultimate Fighting Championship. So local fight fans rejoiced in early January when UFC announced that it would debut at Baltimore Arena with its April 26 pay-per-view event.

MMA might seem a mere curiosity to older generations, but for many young fans, it's the world's pre-eminent combat sport. As such, arena general manager Frank Remesch predicted a quick sellout (he was correct) and compared the event's magnitude to a Bruce Springsteen concert.

UFC brought plenty of star power for its Charm City unveiling, headlining the show with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, one of the world's best fighters and the brother of former Ravens defensive lineman Arthur Jones.

Jon Jones put his own twist on the evening, entering the arena with his version of Ray Lewis' "Squirrel" dance before he outdueled challenger Glover Teixeira over five rounds. The crowd of 13,500, which included Lewis and a number of Ravens, loved every minute.

It was among a number of big events that were staged in the metro area in 2014, including the 115th Army-Navy game, the NCAA lacrosse Final Four, the Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball tournament and the International Crown women's golf tournament.

"Baltimore came out today in a huge way," UFC spokesman Dave Sholler gushed. The event played out so well that UFC officials promised to come back soon, hon.

9. Maryland women's basketball reaches Final Four

When Brenda Frese won the national championship with a young Maryland team in 2006, she surely never thought she'd need another eight years to get back to the biggest stage in women's college basketball.

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The title win signaled the Terps' rise to the upper echelon of the sport, where they remained in the ensuing years. But gifted team after gifted team fell a step or two short of the Final Four. Meanwhile, Frese became a different coach and a different person, one shaped by the birth of her twins and a leukemia diagnosis for her son Tyler.

Against that backdrop, 2014 became a year of milestones. Six-year-old Tyler finished his cancer treatments with an excellent long-term prognosis. Alyssa Thomas cemented her status as the best player Frese ever had coached. And the Terps broke their eight-year drought, earning a trip to the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn., with a gut-churning win over Louisville and Frese's former assistant, Jeff Walz.

The story didn't end the way Maryland wanted. Notre Dame smashed the Terps by 26 in the national semifinals. But Frese said she appreciated the accomplishment in a way she never could have as a young coach. She grasped how hard it was to get that far and how harsh life could be beyond the bounds of a basketball court.

Frese's Terps weren't the only local team to appear in a Division I Final Four in 2014. Maryland's women's lacrosse team also reached the national semifinals, and UMBC's men's soccer team made a surprising run to its first Final Four.

8. McDonogh girls lacrosse breaks national win streak record

Once upon a time, McDonogh's girls lacrosse team lost. That was more than 2,000 days ago. Ever since, the Eagles have been living a dream, winning 112 consecutive games, bagging five straight national championships and, this year, shattering the national record for the longest winning streak in history.

That 32-year-old mark fell April 19 as McDonogh ripped North Harford, 15-8, for its 105th straight victory. The previous record of 104 games without a loss was set by Loch Raven between 1973 and 1982. More recently, Mount Hebron managed a 103-game skein that ended in 2007.

Not ones to preen, the Eagles rolled on and captured their sixth Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship in as many years under coach Chris Robinson. So, The Streak lives — but for how long? Gone is attacker Megan Whittle (Maryland), whose 88 goals earned her All-Metro Player of the Year honors. Meanwhile, the bull's-eye on McDonogh's back gets bigger, particularly among the nationally ranked schools the Eagles have scheduled to start each of the past three seasons.

"We've got to take everyone's best punch," said Robinson, a Loch Raven alumnus who once coached at Mount Hebron. "It's tough when everyone's got us circled on the schedule."

7. California Chrome flirts with Triple Crown but falls short

He arrived at Pimlico Race Course on the wings of a populist dream — the star of an improbable tale featuring two regular-guy owners and a septuagenarian trainer who'd never saddled a starter on horse racing's biggest stage.

California Chrome was a chestnut colt from the West who liked to pose for photos and seemed unruffled by all the fuss around him after he surged to a comfortable victory in the Kentucky Derby. That performance made believers of rival trainers, who had expressed initial skepticism over the horse's humble lineage and his small-time handler, Art Sherman.

California Chrome came to Baltimore a heavy favorite in the Preakness. And his brash co-owner, Steve Coburn, made no bones about saying the colt would win the Triple Crown.

Before a record announced crowd of 123,469, California Chrome lived up to the hype, brushing aside early rushes from several speedy challengers to win the Preakness and give himself a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

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With Chrome's quest came a debate about changing the Triple Crown. Coburn, in particular, portrayed rival owners and trainers as cowards for skipping the middle leg and gearing up for the Belmont Stakes.

Sure enough, California Chrome could not find his usual acceleration at Belmont Park and fell to Tonalist, who hadn't run in Kentucky or Baltimore. An angry Coburn pitched a fit after the race, saying no horse could pull off the historic feat against wave after wave of fresh challengers.

That debate will rage on. But for a few weeks at least, California Chrome had everyone believing.

6. Nelson Cruz becomes fan favorite in short stay at Camden Yards

Nelson Cruz began the year in a limbo of his own making after he missed the Texas Rangers' 2013 playoff push because of a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.

He anticipated lucrative free-agent offers, but they never materialized. And as spring training dawned, Cruz had to accept a cut-rate $8 million deal with the Orioles. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for him.

The affable slugger fit easily into the upbeat Orioles clubhouse. And fans greeted him with loud chants of "Cruuuuz" on Opening Day. He quickly rewarded his new admirers with a barrage of home runs that helped keep the Orioles in the pennant race as they endured a rash of injuries to key players.

Cruz made the All-Star team, and his tight-knit Dominican family often packed the stands behind home plate to celebrate right along with the fans.

Cruz would end the season as the only player in baseball with 40 home runs and win Most Valuable Oriole honors. He remained the club's most dangerous power threat as it swept to the American League Championship Series for the first time in 17 years.

Cruz's reward? The four-year deal he had wanted the previous offseason. The bad news for Orioles fans? He'll be making his money in Seattle in 2015.

5. Chris Davis and Haloti Ngata sit after late-season suspensions for Adderall

Two of Baltimore's most popular pro athletes, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis and Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, lost some of their luster when they were suspended for failing drug tests.

Both were caught using Adderall, an amphetamine normally used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Both were sidelined late in the season, with their teams in pursuit of the playoffs.

On Sept. 12, with the Orioles leading the American League East, Davis — baseball's home run and RBI king of 2013 — was suspended for 25 games. He was batting .196 with 26 home runs and 72 RBIs. The ban kept Davis out of the Orioles' final 17 regular-season games and all seven of their postseason games. He'll serve the final game of the suspension on Opening Day.

"Basically, in a moment of weakness, I made a decision that cost me greatly," Davis said in a November radio interview, his first public comments since the suspension.

Ngata, like Davis, owned up to using Adderall and was suspended for the Ravens' final four games of the regular season. Unlike Davis, he was having a strong season at the time of his punishment.

"I made a mistake and I own this," Ngata said in a statement released by the team. "I let down my family, my teammates, Ravens fans and myself."

A two-time first-team All-Pro, the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Ngata can return after the Ravens' regular-season finale Dec. 28.

4. Michael Phelps launches comeback, then gets arrested

The greatest swimmer in history hadn't looked so happy on the deck of a pool in years.

He won his preliminary heat in the 100-meter butterfly and finished second to longtime rival Ryan Lochte in the evening final. But specific results aside, Phelps spoke of swimming because he wanted to, not because the sport was a grim obligation, as it had seemed at times before the 2012 Olympics.

An uneven summer followed, with Phelps struggling to produce consistently strong swims. He might begin a day swimming the fastest 100-meter butterfly in the world, as he did at the Phillips 66 U.S. Nationals, and then lose the evening final in the same event.

Confronted with such unfamiliar results, Phelps vowed to work harder. He finished on a strong note with three gold medals at Pan Pacific Championships in August.

Phelps' narrative flipped again in late September, when he was arrested on drunken-driving charges after police stopped him for going 84 mph in a 45-mph zone outside the Fort McHenry Tunnel. Five days later, he announced that he was putting swimming on hold to enter an in-patient treatment program so he could work on his personal life.

USA Swimming suspended him for six months and dropped him from the world championship team. Phelps pleaded guilty in Baltimore District Court in December and received a suspended one-year sentence.

Phelps, 29, was home for Thanksgiving. But with the 2016 Olympics waiting in the distance, he made no immediate announcement about his swimming plans. That Arizona smile felt long past.

3. Maryland officially leaves ACC and enters Big Ten

So long, Tobacco Road. The Big Ten streets are paved in gold.

That was Maryland's motive for leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference, a divorce that became official July 1. A charter member of the ACC, Maryland severed its 60-year ties to join the Big Ten — a move met initially with angst among Terps fans and even some coaches.

What price, heritage? Maryland will pocket nearly $100 million more by 2020 as a member of the Big Ten than if it had stayed put. And the school's athletic program was one starved for cash, having cut seven sports in 2012 in an ongoing effort to balance its budget.

Other perks for the Terps: a higher national profile as part of the Big Ten Network, an expanded recruiting base and the long-term stability inherent in joining the Midwest-based league.

To compete with its new rivals, Maryland announced in November plans to transform Cole Field House into a shiny new indoor practice facility for football and other sports.

How did Maryland teams fare in Big Ten competition this fall? Football split its eight conference games, and men's soccer went 5-2-1 before going on to win the conference tournament. Field hockey won seven of eight regular-season games and fell in the conference final, and women's soccer finished 3-5-5. Only women's volleyball (3-17) and women's cross country (last place at the league meet) disappointed.

"It is still bittersweet," Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said of the move. "[But] everywhere I go, there is more enthusiasm."

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2. Orioles win division and reach ALCS

Both their All-Star catcher and third baseman got hurt. Their $50 million pitcher struggled. Their All-Star slugger was suspended for taking drugs. Yet the Orioles rolled on.

"We won't stop," fans chanted, a mantra that lasted until the American League Championship Series, when the team lost four straight to the Kansas City Royals.

Time and time again, the Orioles weathered setbacks en route to winning 96 games and the AL East for the first time since 1997. Moreover, they won the division by 12 games, matching the margin of the 1970 team that won a World Series.

What went wrong? Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, at whom the club threw big bucks, floundered and soon fell off the radar. In May, the Orioles lost catcher Matt Wieters (elbow surgery). August saw third baseman Manny Machado sidelined (knee surgery). In September, a failed drug test took out first baseman Chris Davis, who was suspended for the rest of the season.

What went right? Nelson Cruz, signed on the cheap, hit a major league-best 40 home runs. Zach Britton blossomed into one of baseball's best closers. Three Orioles — outfielders Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and shortstop J.J. Hardy — earned Gold Glove Awards. And Manager Buck Showalter was voted AL Manager of the Year.

1. Ray Rice incident brings domestic violence to the national forefront and leads to scrutiny for Ravens, NFL

Never has the Baltimore sports scene witnessed so swift and violent a fall.

Ray Rice entered 2014 believing he'd work himself into the best shape of his life and reclaim the running form he'd misplaced the previous season. Instead, this former Pro Bowl selection and anti-bullying activist became a figure of infamy when video emerged in February of him dragging his unconscious fiancee from the elevator of an Atlantic City, N.J., casino.

The Ravens stood by their star initially, and he avoided trial on assault charges by entering an intervention program. Rice went to training camp believing he still had a shot at redemption, even if he remained at the center of a national uproar over the two-game penalty given him by embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

But the story changed Sept. 8, when TMZ posted a second clip of Rice flooring Janay Palmer with a vicious punch. Within hours, the Ravens — already widely criticized for their initial handling of the situation — released Rice, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.

The story continued from there, with a former federal judge overturning the second suspension and the Rices appearing on NBC's "Today" to tell their story.

As the year ends, Rice is eligible to return to the NFL if a team will have him. But he'll always be known as the player who sparked national debates over domestic violence, the Ravens' integrity and the NFL's ability to police itself.

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