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Best of Cleveland 2011: Sports & Recreation 

click to enlarge bestsports-1.jpg

It's about our sports teams, but also about the endless riches that surround us: our parks and beaches, our forests and waterways.

Yeah, there's always next year — but there's this year too.

Best Team

Cleveland Browns

You say they've hit a rough patch over the last generation or so? You'll excuse fans for choosing not to notice. We may win an NBA title or a World Series crown before the Browns sniff a Super Bowl, but it won't matter to the rabid populace that rolls with its gridiron heroes in good times and bad. Is there genuine reason to believe these days? Every bit as much as any other year: Mike Holmgren's at the helm, stars are emerging on both sides of the ball, and the Steelers and Ravens are due for a down year any decade now.

clevelandbrowns.com

Best Coach

Byron Scott

Perhaps no coach in history has had the rug pulled out quite like the Cavaliers' latest top guy. Brought on board in the wake of last season's playoff meltdown, Scott signed on with a team that needed only the slightest boost to overcome its championship whammy. What it didn't need was for its singular superstar to skip town on a nationally televised sideshow mere days into Scott's tenure. The season that followed has gone every bit as badly as the coach's worst nightmares could suggest: injuries to every difference-maker on the roster, an all-time-worst losing streak, and players who seem only modestly into, y'know, doing what they're paid to do. But Scott has the support of management, and seemingly the confidence in himself to see this through. He's also got a fan base starved for a winner, yet patient as they come.

The Best of Everything

Year in and year out, no person or place dominates Scene's Best of Cleveland quite like the Cleveland Metroparks.

And perhaps nothing else could be more deserving: We count on our Emerald Necklace year-round — for everything from transportation to exercise to communing with Mother Nature.

Below is a sampling of the categories our Metroparks dominated yet again this year; you'll find others elsewhere in the issue:

• Best Place for Outdoor Exercise

• Best Place for Cross-Country Skiing

• Best Spot for Winter Recreation

• Best Picturesque Workout

• Best Place for Road Running

• Best Place for Off-Road Running

• Best Place for Biking

Best Athlete

Joshua Cribbs

Best of Cleveland voters have adopted the tack taken by NFL teams everywhere: Just because Joshua Cribbs doesn't burn you every time doesn't mean he won't next time. So the league tried its best to keep the ball away from Cribbs, and indeed, his 2010 stats didn't approach those of past seasons. There were no game-changing kick-return touchdowns, no wildcat-formation miracles for the former Kent State quarterback. But there was a palpable sense that the fearless Cribbs made a difference just by courting such rabid attention from defenses. He's also got the attention of adoring fans, who sense that one of their own is going to battle for them.

Best Indians Player

Shin-Soo Choo

The multitalented Choo has yet to be part of a Tribe team that hasn't crapped its pants coming out of the gate. But with a decent April, this could be the year Choo's still-developing talents reach the radar of baseball fans everywhere. A .300 hitter since emerging in 2008, the Tribe right fielder has also developed into our best power threat, bashing 42 homers over the last two seasons. Pair that with above-average speed and a Howitzer arm, and you've got the makings of a superstar. Pair that with a contract that locks him in through 2013, and you've got reason to breathe a little easier.

Best Browns Player

Peyton Hillis

Brady Quinn never looked so good as he did leaving town in a trade for this guy. With his straight-ahead bulldozer running, his tree-trunk arms, and his unabashed Dawg Pound pandering, the Browns' unlikely new feature back is a rising star fans have quickly grown to adore. Hillis was an overworked, unyielding tank in 2010, and it was a miracle he didn't break down. The Browns will surely look to ease his workload this year, which should be easier with an improved supporting cast due in camp.

Best Cavaliers Player

J.J. Hickson

When the Cavs' 6-9 forward-center goes on one of those shot-blocking, rim-rattling rampages, he's as electrifying a presence as you could hope for. But if there's a problem with the still-developing Hickson's game, it's that we don't see that madman often enough. There's no question that the N.C. State product has enough talent to thrive; the question is whether he has the drive. We'll likely know more by next season, when a few of the team's fractured pieces should be mended.

Best Sports Executive

Dan Gilbert

It says much about the makeup of Cleveland sports fans that Dan Gilbert earned this honor just after his team set the all-time world record for losing. But Gilbert also delivered the best years of basketball Cleveland has ever seen, and he vowed better days when the wheels fell off the wagon last summer. No, there's not much to recommend his Cavaliers these days, but there's a strong sense Gilbert won't stand for much more losing. In a town where the agony of defeat is served daily, one guy who insists otherwise can be king.

Best Minor League Team

Lake County Captains

The 2010 Midwest League Champions did not sit idle over the offseason: They concocted a lineup of game-day entertainment to rival any we've ever seen. Try this 2011 season sampler on for size: Monday Buck Nights (eat cheap), Tuesday Dog Nights (bring your pooch), Wine & Wing Wednesdays (showcasing local establishments), Thirsty Thursdays (because 10-cent beer nights always end well), and weekend fireworks extravaganzas. As far as we know, there will also be baseball games.

35300 Vine St., Eastlake; 440-975-8085;

minorleaguebaseball.com

Best Beach

Mentor Headlands

With its mile stretch of pristine sand beach — the longest beachfront in Ohio — Mentor Headlands provides ample space for summer fun or seclusion, depending on what you're after. Changing areas make in-and-out easier, and hiking, fishing, and playground options supply plenty of dry fun too.

9601 Headlands Rd., Mentor; 216-881-8141; dnr.state.ohio.us/parks

Best Fitness Club

Fitworks

They're everything you'd want in a fitness club and nothing you don't need. There's a reason Fitworks has become the nation's top workout stop, and why Cleveland's sweating along too. Dozens of area locations make it easy to keep that promise to yourself.

Locations throughout Northeast Ohio; fitworks.com

Best College Team

Cleveland State Basketball

This one didn't end much like it started: The 2010-2011 Vikings stormed onto the national scene, ringing up 13 straight victories out of the gate. But after a setback to mighty West Virginia, the rigors of Horizon League play set in, and Gary Waters' squad lumbered back to the pack. Their NCAA Tournament dreams were dashed, but the fortunes of their all-conference senior guard remain intact: Norris Cole is turning heads among NBA scouts, and further bolstering CSU's growing rep.

csuvikings.com

Best High School Team

St. Edward

No arguing with this track record of success. In the current school year alone, the Lakewood Catholic school has served up state champions in football — where it took the big-school title with a 15-0 record — and wrestling. It's a good year for basketball too: The Eagles posted a 15-5 regular season record (including a split of four games at a holiday tournament in San Diego, of all places) before bowing out short of the state tournament. Also delightful for Eagle fans: Their Best High School Team title comes at the expense of arch-rival St. Ignatius, the most beloved school among Scene voters last year.

alumni.sehs.net

Best Place for Rock Climbing

Cleveland Rock Gym

Perhaps the only place in town that offers something called a "Crack Clinic," Cleveland Rock Gym is the all-weather answer for local climbing addicts. It's always a blast, and always safety first: Experts are welcome to come and go anytime, though newbies must call ahead to ensure professional help is plentiful. For advanced climbers there are competitive leagues, and for festive climbers private parties are welcome.

21200 Saint Clair Ave., Euclid; 216-692-3300; clevelandrockgym.com

Best Social/Recreation Club

Cleveland Plays

Would life march on if thirtysomethings had nowhere to play dodgeball? Thanks to Cleveland Plays, we'll never have to know. The coed sport and social club exists to keep young professionals active on the court and on the nightlife scene. With year-round leagues in everything from football to euchre, Cleveland Plays provides playgrounds for those of us who choose never to outgrow them.

clevelandplays.com

Best Place to See a Game

Progressive Field

Take the basketball team out of the basketball arena, and funny how fast the thrill is gone. No such disappointments across the street at Progressive Field, Cleveland's big-time shrine to big-league ball. Even when the Tribe's not winning, the joys of nine innings here are innumerable: from the fantastic sight lines to the glorious peek at our skyline, right down to the hot dog races. The place already holds no shortage of magic memories, plus the promise of new ones every spring.

Cleveland.indians.mlb.com

Best Road Race

St. Malachi Run

It's a dash held in dreary early March through the bowels of the industrial Flats. So yes, there is liquor involved — but also a most noble cause: proceeds benefit the hospice operated by St. Malachi Catholic Church at the foot of the Detroit-Superior Bridge. The 31st annual running of the two- and five-mile races hosted more than 4,000 participants this year, despite an assortment of wintry crud falling from the sky. Runners were rewarded with an after-party worthy of their efforts at the downtown watering hole McCarthy's. Indeed, the thrill of victory never tasted so good.

hermescleveland.com

Best Roller Coaster

Millennium Force

It's the one that changed the roller-coaster world when it opened 11 summers ago, and it's still the signature ride at America's signature coaster park. Though it may have relinquished a few of the 10 world records it set at the time of its unveiling, Millennium Force is second to none when it comes to ridiculous thrills: a 310-foot surge that gives way to an 80-degree plummet at 93 miles per hour. The park's longest lines still happen right here, and nobody ever seems to mind the wait.

One Cedar Point Dr., Sandusky;

419-627-2350; cedarpoint.com

Best Marathon

Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon

Hailed as one of the fastest courses in America, the Rite Aid Marathon has benefited in recent years from slight tweaks to its course layout. Last year it incorporated Ohio City and Tremont, and this year the action is slated to start and finish near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at North Coast Harbor — hence the tagline "The Cleveland Experience." Along the way, crowds from University Circle to Lakewood will cheer on the participants. More than 15,000 runners took part in 2010, and a record-shattering 19,000-plus are expected this year.

The 34th Annual Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon takes place Sunday, May 15. Learn more at clevelandmarathon.com

Best Triathlon

Greater Cleveland Triathlon

It takes a special brand of masochist to withstand the rigors of an international triathlon course — and in the blast furnace blaze of a midwestern summer, no less. Held each year in August, the Greater Cleveland Triathlon starts with a three-quarter-mile open-water swim at Headlands Beach State Park in Mentor, then gives way to a 23-mile bike ride through the enchanting burgs of Kirtland Hills, Concord, and Painesville. It ends with a 6.2 mile run back to the beach, followed by nine days of walking like a wounded penguin. Sound like your idea of fun? Welcome to the crazy club. This year's Greater Cleveland Triathlon takes place Sunday, August 7. Learn more at greaterclevelandtriathlon.com

Best Place to Swim

Edgewater Park

Nothing says summer in Cleveland like a Lake Erie dip in the shadow of downtown. That's as good a reason as any to settle in on the shores at Edgewater, where fun-seekers have been swimming their days away for generations. No beach better celebrates Cleveland — or sits so close to all the action.

6500 Cleveland Memorial Shoreway;

216-881-8141; dnr.state.oh.us/parks

Best Pickup Basketball Courts

Village Green in Olmsted Falls

At a time when most cities are tearing down their courts or otherwise sabotaging them to prevent kids from committing the egregious offense of — gasp — playing basketball, Olmsted Falls remains committed to the blacktop. Thanks largely to their new hoops and smooth concrete, the Village Green courts, at the corner of Columbia Road and Water Street, are bustling most nights and weekends. It's where players of every talent level await your killer crossover or patented "I'll just stand in the corner and pass" move.

olmstedfalls.org

Best Community Recreation Center

Strongsville's Ehrnfelt Recreation Center

Steam rooms, saunas, a 24-person whirlpool, two swimming pools, a half-mile indoor track, strength training equipment, pool tables, and two gymnasiums: No, it isn't a high-priced gym or some highfalutin' spa. It's the community recreation center in Strongsville, where everyone from tots to seniors do their best to live up to their city's name.

18100 Royalton Rd., Strongsville; 440-580-3260; strongsville.org

Best Reason to Be a Cleveland Sports Fan

We Never Give Up

Remember that scene in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman keeps getting battered around the prison yard by George Kennedy, but stumbles back to his feet with a smile every time? Nobody ever said Paul Newman wasn't cool, and nobody says it about you either. Yeah, everyone admires the trophy cases in New York and Pittsburgh — but who the hell can stand their fans? Rest well in knowing that you may never see a title, but you will go to sleep with the sporting world's respect.

Best Place for Birdwatching

The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes

Our feathered friends can't read the signs identifying this urban oasis as an Important Bird Area and a National Environmental Education Landmark. Yet somehow they know that Shaker Lakes is for the birds. Those who watch the winged wonders have reported more than 150 species among the forests, streams, and lakes that make up this green sanctuary, including beauties like cerulean warblers, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, kingfishers, wood ducks, and barred owls — often conveniently located along the park's trails or near the observation deck and visitors' center.

2600 South Park Blvd.; 216-321-5935; shakerlakes.org

Best Place for Mountain Biking

Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation

The only sanctioned, public, outdoor mountain bike trail in Cuyahoga and Summit counties winds a two-mile route through Cleveland Metroparks' Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation, with a trail head outside the CanalWay Center. The short loop of about half a mile is perfect for newbies; the longer loop has some steep terrain and sharp curves, making it best for experienced riders. Just remember: The trail is closed from January until May, due to wet conditions.

Entrance off East 49th St., Cuyahoga Heights; 216-206-1000; clemetparks.com

Best Batting Cages

Swings N Things Family Fun Park

The largest batting cages in Ohio are also the most versatile: Swings N Things boasts 15 pitching machines — all sheltered from the elements — that hurl the horsehide at speeds ranging from slow-pitch softball to 80 mph baseball. Plus, all-day and all-season passes keep the pitches coming for less.

8501 Stearns Rd., Olmsted Township; 440-235-4420; sntfun.com

Best Place for (Legal) Gaming

Charity Poker in the Flats

While all of Cleveland holds its breath for downtown casino gaming, it's been game-on for years at the Nautica Charity Poker Festivals in the Flats. Long held in the Powerhouse, the action moved recently to nearby Elm Street as the West Bank makes way for a new aquarium. Each festival benefits any of a long list of charities, from local schools, to arts and sports groups, to recovery resources. A comprehensive online schedule shows you exactly which cause you're aiding on any given night — though your own wallet is as good a cause as any.

2249 Elm St.; nauticacharitypoker.org

Best Mini Golf

Swings N Things Family Fun Park

The region's fickle weather patterns tend to take their toll on our miniature golf courses. No such problems at this Olmsted Township bastion of good times: The twin 18-hole courses at Swings N Things each play like a stroll through a miniature Disneyland. There's a 35-foot castle and waterfalls and fountains aplenty — plus impeccable putting greens for when your fun takes a competitive turn.

8501 Stearns Rd., Olmsted Township; 440-235-4420; sntfun.com

Best Reason Next Year Will Be Our Year

Colt McCoy

His stats don't exactly elicit fantasy-stud drool: In eight games of his rookie season, Colt McCoy threw more interceptions (9) than touchdown passes (6). But there's plenty to like about the young Texan, who never knew how to lose before he reached the NFL, but passed his crash-course in hard luck with flying colors. The tingly new feeling for Browns fans is that sense that finally there might not be a traditional quarterback battle leading up to the new season. Browns brass have said Colt is their guy; now please excuse them while they address a few dozen uglier roster concerns. So far, Mike Holmgren gets a pass on stuff like this: If a Super Bowl-winning boss says McCoy's good enough for him, he's good enough for the rest of us too.

Best Skate Park

Lakewood Skatepark

Years of planning and occasional controversy paid off in the completion of Phase 1 in early 2005, and Lakewood's reputation as the region's top spot for grinding has proliferated ever since. Tucked into a corner of beautiful, sprawling Lakewood Park, the grounds consist of a series of ramps and obstacles favored by skaters from points east to west. The park also serves as a symbolic ground zero for the Lakewood Skaters Association, a vibrant movement dedicated to promoting the sport and erasing the negative connotations that often accompany it. They're also instrumental in raising the $80K needed to build the long-awaited Phase 2 bowl.

At Belle and Lake Aves., Lakewood; 216-272-8603; lkwdskaters.org

Best Amusement Park

Cedar Point

As long as there will be a Best Amusement Park category, it seems likely there will be only one winner. Who, after all, could vote against one of the premier parks in all the world, with its 17 roller coasters and untold hundreds of other means of delivering the fun every summer? What Cedar Point gets less credit for is its constant dedication to upping the ante. This year it's outdone itself with Windseeker, an outrageous sort of sideways Ferris wheel that might put a welcome dent in the lines at Top Thrill Dragster and Millennium Force. But nothing, it seems, can dent that line of thrilled guests streaming in and out of the park each day.

One Cedar Point Dr., Sandusky;

419-627-2350; cedarpoint.com

Best Place for a Sweaty Date

B Side Liquor Lounge

Take a cement-walled basement bar, throw in local and touring DJs spinning everything from dub tracks to golden oldies, add a lot of ever-so-tasteful facial hair, and you've got the B Side. Boasting a hearty dose of street cred among Cleveland's young and hip, the Coventry bar is packed seven days a week. Already found the club-hopper of your dreams? The B Side also offers a unique menu of options for couples: Cuddle up on the couches, sip Pabst at the bar, or press the flesh on the packed and laser-tinged dance floor.

2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights; 216-932-1966;

bsideliquorlounge.com

Best Place for Downhill Skiing

Brandywine Ski Resort

It ain't Aspen, and that's okay with us: Brandywine Ski Resort has been attracting local skiers and snowboarders for decades, with easy access, a beautiful setting, and prices that won't empty your wallet. Featuring 10 challenging trails, freestyle terrain, and special areas set aside for snow tubing, it's a family-friendly destination where snow bunnies and Shaun White wannabes alike can show their stuff.

1146 West Highland Rd., Northfield; 330-467-8198; bmbw.com

Best Golf Course

Big Met

The folks at Big Met claim theirs is the most-played golf course in Ohio, and we see no reason why it wouldn't be. Situated in the heart of the Cleveland Metroparks' Rocky River Reservation, Big Met is a gorgeous blend of rolling hills, lush woodland, and wide-open spaces — the perfect course for all of us who've long since cast aside our PGA dreams but never our love of the game. And how do you know that Big Met is a singularly Northeast Ohio pleasure? Because 18 holes here still won't set you back so much as 30 bucks.

4811 Valley Parkway, Fairview Park; 440-331-1070; clemetparks.com

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