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Saint Mary’s finds welcoming faces at Spokane’s Red Lion pub

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 15, 2017, 12:03 a.m.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett guides his team against Gonzaga, Jan. 14, 2017, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett guides his team against Gonzaga, Jan. 14, 2017, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The students were back stomping on the stands and dancing to the band’s version of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” as they cheered on Gonzaga to an NCAA Division I-best 17-0 record.

And all’s right in the world.

Well, at least in Spokane. Especially since the Kennel was alive and well once again thanks the students. You certainly don’t know how much you can miss something until it’s gone, and the students were definitely missed.

Since mid-December, it’s been a quiet Kennel. Winter break cleared out the student section for roughly one month, until Saturday night. Although classes don’t start until Jan. 18, many students returned to Spokane early enough to watch their Bulldogs stretch their winning record to a staggering height.

Because this wasn’t going to be like other games this season at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

On Saturday night, the No. 5 Gonzaga Bulldogs hosted their conference rival No. 21 Saint Mary’s, and the students weren’t going to miss this game. No one left ten minutes before the game ended. No one veered their attention away from the court. And no one dared to take a bathroom break unless there was a timeout on the floor – in which case, there was no lollygagging.

That’s because the fans have been waiting for this game all season, and so have the Gaels.

Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett admitted he loves coming to Spokane to play the Zags every year. The atmosphere is booming and the matchup is always challenging.

And the food is delicious.

Every year, the night before the Gaels fight the Bulldogs inside the Kennel, Bennett and his players pull into the Red Lion BBQ and Pub on Division Street in downtown Spokane for a dinner with some old friends – pub owners Tony Talotti and his father George.

Visiting the pub every year has become a strong tradition in the Saint Mary’s family whenever the team makes its way up to the northwest, and it all started because of a “fluke deal,” Bennett said.

The annual reunion with the Talotti family dates back to more than a decade ago, when a small group of women from Australia huddled at a table inside the Red Lion. George overheard them talking about how they were frustrated that they had to travel from Coeur d’Alene to watch Saint Mary’s cheer on the Gaels’ Australian forward Daniel Kickert take on the Zags since there were no hotel rooms available in Spokane.

George had a few connections though, so he started making some phone calls.

“By the time they were done eating, he actually had a room for him at the Travelodge right down the street,” Tony said.

For the next two days the women came back, and they weren’t alone. The team joined the women at the pub before they continued on with their road trip.

“(They) liked everything a lot, and we kind of became friends with the coach and staff, and ever since, every time they come to town, they come in here,” Tony said.

The Red Lion has always been a go-to place for local teams like the Zags and the Eastern Washington football team and staff, but Tony and George have also made an effort to get the word out about their big buffet dinners to visiting teams as well, who are on the go and need a quick bite to eat in Spokane.

Saint Mary’s tradition of visiting George and Tony continued this year. The Gaels stopped at the pub for dinner on Friday before the Bulldogs toppled Saint Mary’s 79-56 the following night.

“I wish we could go every night,” Bennett said. “It’s the one meal every year we look forward to. It’s our favorite road trip meal.”

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