Crusing across the state on a beautiful Sunday with great tunes, idle minds wandered.
A few years back, as my assignments were changed, I was thinking it would be tough to duplicate my last four seasons of covering Eastern Washington.
First it was football, quarterbacked by Erik Meyer, whose great run ended with the Walt Payton Award in Cheney. Then it was Rodney Stuckey in basketball, whose talents got him selected 15th in the NBA draft despite a lack of team success (and some disfunction that made it easy to move on).
I thought I might not witness first-hand a run like that for a while and it wasn't until recently I realized that I already was in the midst of a similar but different situation and today I decided if I didn't tell you, you might miss it because it's almost over. Read on.
I have an unusual combination of beats, hockey and women’s basketball, and each has a pretty special athlete in the closing moments of their careers in Spokane. One or the other, or maybe both, might not be your cup of tea as far as sports go, but there are a couple of athletes you should check out just for the joy of watching them play, regardless of your sporting preference.
Tyler Johnson of the Chiefs and Courtney Vandersloot have just a few games remaining until they take their talents elsewhere. Don’t be one of those fans, when the subject comes up down the road, who bemoans missing two special talents.
There are a number of reasons a hockey team expected to be rebuilding is accomplishing way more than predicted and contending for a title. At the top of the list for the Chiefs is Johnson.
Johnson probably won’t go down as the best Chief, just Spokane’s best Chief. The Central Valley High School graduate, despite being under-sized and overlooked, is putting the finishing touches on a four-year career that includes a Memorial Cup and a spot near the top of all the Chiefs’ offensive records. Considering the top spots on those lists are occupied by players that played when offenses were more wide-open, it’s remarkable. Even more remarkable is those other players were known stars. Johnson was a late Bantam Draft pick and has gone undrafted by the NHL. Still, he’s about to become the first Chief in close to 20 years to break 100 points. If he’s not the Western Hockey League MVP, I don’t know the definition. In addition to his offensive exploits, he is an unquestioned leader and his work ethic is inspiring. And one thing that can’t be overlooked is the pressure of playing at home. No player’s presence or memorabilia has been requested more than Johnson’s and he has never turned anyone down. He was the guest speaker at a middle school on Veteran’s Day.
Gonzaga’s women’s basketball team was good before Vandersloot arrived and they’re going to be good after she leaves but there is no question they’ve been special while she’s been here. Vandersloot set the WCC and Gonzaga career assists record as a junior and now she’s putting them out of sight. She is just the seventh player in NCAA Division I basketball history, fourth woman, with 1,000 assists. She has been the point for a changing culture. The team averaged about 1,450 the year before she arrived and 3,700 flood into McCarthey Athletic Center now. The Zags are 105-25 since her arrival, with three of the wins in the NCAA Tournament, and 61-3 in the WCC.
You can argue their rank in history for their respective teams, but that’s not the point. These two are here, now, and worth the price of admission.
Besides, they’re outstanding people. Both are comfortable with their accomplishments but humble, very well spoken and quick to credit their teammates for any and all success.
Vandersloot’s last two regular-season home games are this week and Johnson has three of his final eight home games this week. You could go crazy and see all five games, you know, make up for lost time. This is my schedule for the week: It’s Johnson Wednesday, Vandersloot Thursday, Johnson Friday, Vandersloot Saturday afternoon, Johnson Saturday night.
Check them out. Sorry I didn't mention it before.