If they do, they could very well be one of the biggest surprise champions in our era of sports, but for now here’s a look at the top 10 surprise champions of the 21st century:
10. Syracuse Orangemen
2003 NCAA Basketball Champion
In the early 2000s, winning with freshman was still a mostly unproven endeavor. Syracuse was unranked going into the 2002-2003 season, but the talented trio of Carmelo Anthony (freshman), Gerry McNamara (freshman), and Hakim Warrick (sophomore) quickly proved that was a mistake. The Orangemen (renamed the Orange a year later) faced a veteran Kansas Jayhawks team led by seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison in the NCAA tournament finals, but did not back down from the challenge. Anthony was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, scoring 20 points against Kansas, but his running mates were able to lay their own stamps on the finals as McNamara hit 6 three pointers and Warrick blocked Michael Lee’s three point attempt with less than a second on the clock as the Orangemen edged out the Jayhawks 81-78.
9. The Carolina Hurricanes
2006 Stanley Cup Champions
Welcome back from the lockout, boys! Not that it’s easy to pick exactly who is going to be the frontrunner after a year-long hiatus, but I’m pretty sure the team in Carolina wasn’t on the top of too many lists. The Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs in the two years before the lockout, but they notched the three seed in the Eastern Conference for the 2006 playoffs and thanks to a standout performance from rookie goaltender Cam Ward – the first rookie to win the Conn Smythe since Ron Hextall in 1987 – Carolina took down their first ever Stanley Cup. A few names you might remember from the team that took down the 8-seeded Oilers in the finals: Team Captain Rod Brind’Amour and leading scorer Eric Staal.
8. Chelsea F.C.
2012 UEFA Champions League Title
7. The Detroit Pistons
2004 NBA Champions
It’s not that we didn’t think this was an extremely good Pistons team with probably the most balanced starting 5 in over a decade, it’s just that they were going into a finals matchup against what many people believed was one of the best teams ever assembled. When the Lakers signed both Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the 2003 offseason, it seemed like the league was ready to hand Los Angeles the Larry O’Brien trophy right then and there. But both players showed their age down the stretch and Kobe and Shaq didn’t have enough to handle a motivated Pistons team. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton provided the bulk of the scoring while the Wallace’s did all the dirty work and Detroit took home their first championship since the Bad Boys left their mark on the NBA.
6. Juan Martin Del Potro
2009 US Open Champion
The only player not named Nadal, Djokivic, or Federer to win a major since 2005, Del Potro took down a hobbled Nadal in three sets to get to the finals then survived a 5-set thriller against Federer to win his lone grand slam title. The 6’6” Del Potro is all about power, with one of the game’s hardest serves. And although Roger’s got an all-time 11-2 record against the Argentine, it was Del Potro who was able to hold off Federer from winning his sixth straight US Open title.
5. Florida Marlins
2003 World Series Champions
After winning the World Series in 1997, the Marlins finished under .500 for five straight seasons, twice failing to win 70 games. Then the 2003 team looked like they were going to continue the trend, struggling to win games out of the gate, which resulted in the firing of manager Jeff Torborg. In comes 72-year-old Jack McKeon and suddenly, things start to fall into place. The team called up two key youngsters from their minor league system: Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The 21-year-old Willis took home rookie-of-the-year honors, posting a 3.30 ERA on his way to 14 wins, while the 20-year-old Cabrera moved into the 3-spot in the lineup, hitting 3 homers and knocking in 12 RBI’s during Florida’s playoff run. The Marlins met the Yankees in the World Series, a powerhouse of a team looking to win it’s first ring since 2000, but the underdog came out on top thanks to some timely hitting, clutch pitching from World Series MVP Josh Beckett, and the leadership of Pudge Rodriguez.
4. Boston Red Sox
2004 World Series Champions
It took 86 years to break the curse and with the way the 2004 playoffs began, I’m sure a lot of Boston fans were thinking they’d have to wait another 86 years for another sniff at a World Series ring. It took a bloody sock, some late-game rallies, and key contributions from the likes of Dave Roberts and Kevin Millar, but the Red Sox were able to accomplish the unthinkable, coming back from a 3-0 series deficit to defeat a loaded Yankees squad in four straight games to take the series. The Sox then went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series. The breaking of the curse in 2004 was quite possibly the most memorable championship across all four major sports in the 21st century, and it’s hard to think of what it would take to top it – don’t worry, Cubbies, your time will come!
3. New York Giants
Super Bowl XLII Champions
The 2008 Patriots were clearly one of the best teams of the past 15-20 years, maybe ever, but the road-warrior Giants were driven to shake up the 2008 playoffs and boy did they ever do it. The Giants set an NFL record for consecutive road wins with 11 in a row to close out the season (after their opening week loss) and none of their playoff victories came easy. The team’s last three victories (over the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots) were by a combined 10 points. While this past Super Bowl also came as a bit of a surprise as well, we knew the Giants had history on their side with a proven track record when the games matter most.
2. St Louis Cardinals
2011 World Series Champions
The 2011 Cardinals suffered their biggest loss before the team even took the field, losing star pitcher Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery for the entire season. Despite a slow start from Albert Pujols, and a season where his RBI total would be under 100 for the first time in his career (alright, it was 99), the Cardinals stuck in the National League playoff race until September came around. Then an Atlanta collapse allowed the Cardinals to grab the NL wildcard on the last day of the regular season. Against a loaded Texas squad in the World Series, the Cardinals found help from an unexpected hero by the name of David Freese, who had only 15 career home runs in his fragmented career when the Cardinals entered the playoffs. Game 6 will live on in World Series infamy, an 11-inning thriller where the Rangers were two strikes away from clinching their first ever World Series twice. Freese hit a walk-off homer in the 11th, then helped produce a pair of runs with ace Chris Carpenter on the mound in a 6-2 game 7 victory.
1. The New England Patriots
Super Bowl XXXVI Champions
Yes, there was a time when we didn’t expect the Patriots to make it to the super bowl every season. In 2001, franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe was sidelined in the second game of the season due to internal bleeding, and second-year quarterback Tom Brady stepped in and never looked back. The Patriots were coming off of a 5-11 season and started the 2001 campaign 1-3, but Brady rallied the team to victories in 13 of their last 15 games, including a shocking Super Bowl upset of a Rams team declared “the greatest show on turf,” which featured the passing attack of Kurt Warner, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce, along with the versatile running game of Marshall Faulk. The Rams were looking for their second Super Bowl in three years, but Brady and company came out on top 20-17 with a 48-yard field by the king of clutch, Adam Viniateri as time expired.