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December 27, 2004 - Smarty, Saint Joe's and Eagles made for exciting year

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Smarty, Saint Joe's and Eagles made for exciting year

Associated Press

Desperate for a champion, eastern Pennsylvania sports fans turned to a horse in 2004.

Alas, Philadelphia-bred Smarty Jones came up one length short of winning the Triple Crown. At least, the 3-year-old colt gave the region two reasons to celebrate, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, before losing to Birdstone in a breathtaking finish at the Belmont Stakes.

The Eagles began the year by devastating a city yearning for its first championship since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983. After a miraculous play by Donovan McNabb and Freddie Mitchell on a fourth-and-26 helped the Eagles advance to the NFC championship game, they fell one victory short of the Super Bowl for the third straight year, losing 14-3 to prohibitive underdog Carolina.

As the year winds down, the Eagles are positioned once again to make another run at the Super Bowl, though they'll have to do it without star wide receiver Terrell Owens, who went down in the 14th game with a serious ankle injury that required surgery.

Led by McNabb, who is having the best season of his career, Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse, the Eagles won their fourth consecutive NFC East championship, set a franchise record for wins by opening 13-1 and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with two games remaining in the regular season.

But Owens' injury dampened the Eagles' hopes of winning the franchise's first championship since 1960.

Eagles coach Andy Reid broke Greasy Neale's team record by winning his 67th game in his sixth season in Philadelphia. Reid had 69 victories with two games left.

The rest of Philadelphia's pro teams didn't nearly generate the same level of excitement as the Eagles, though the Flyers came within one victory of playing for the Stanley Cup.

The Phillies were favorites to win the NL East in their first season at Citizens Bank Park, but woefully underachieved, costing popular manager Larry Bowa his job. Charlie Manuel - former Pirates, Marlins and Rockies manager Jim Leyland was the people's choice - took over a team that won 86 games, but lost some of its fan support after selling out 44 games and setting a club record for attendance.

While the rest of the division reloaded after the season - Atlanta got ace pitcher Tim Hudson and the Mets added three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez - the Phillies began cutting their $93 million payroll. Their biggest addition was starter Jon Lieber, while they let Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood leave through free agency.

The 76ers changed coaches twice, firing Randy Ayers and replacing him with Chris Ford. They went just 33-49 and failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1998.

Jim O'Brien took over for Ford, bringing an exciting style of offensive basketball. Allen Iverson switched positions, moving to point guard and the team started slow. But the Sixers have a chance to make the playoffs in a weak division.

The Flyers overcame numerous injuries throughout the regular season and playoffs, taking the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.

Goaltender Robert Esche emerged as a star, and captain Keith Primeau established himself as one of the game's best clutch performers with a remarkable postseason.

But the NHL lockout forced hockey fans to wait anxiously for the start of another season that might not come anytime soon.

On the collegiate level, tiny Saint Joseph's was the feel-good story of the year. The Hawks softened the blow of the Eagles' disappointing loss in January by captivating college basketball with a 27-0 start and a run to the tournament's regional final.

Saint Joe's reached No. 1 in the AP poll, was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time and had their first All-American (Jameer Nelson) in team history.

But Nelson missed his last shot in a 2-point loss to Oklahoma State that prevented the Hawks from reaching the Final Four. Nelson ended up in Orlando and backcourt mate Delonte West went to Boston in the NBA draft.

Temple settled for the NIT for the third straight year after reaching the NCAA tournament 17 of the previous 18 years. Another difficult early schedule made it tough on the Owls early this season as coach John Chaney achieved a milestone, becoming the 19th Division I coach to reach 1,000 games.

It was another miserable year for Joe Paterno and Penn State. The Nittany Lions finished 4-7, their fourth losing season in five years. There were strong calls for Paterno to resign, but the 78-year-old coach insists he'll be back.

La Salle made news in the summer with a rape scandal. Three players were charged with rape, and both men's coach Billy Hahn and women's coach John Miller resigned.

With John Giannini taking over the men's job and Tom Lochner leading the women, La Salle hoped for a fresh start this season.