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Grip on Sports: When it comes to motivation, ugly is in the eye of the beholder

Kennel Club members raise a ruckus before the start of the Gonzaga-BYU game, Jan. 25, 2014 in the MCCarthey Atletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Kennel Club members raise a ruckus before the start of the Gonzaga-BYU game, Jan. 25, 2014 in the MCCarthey Atletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • How important is motivation to a college athlete? We ask because tonight in the Kennel, Gonzaga tries to cap an historic 30-0 regular season. On a night when the player with the most wins in school history will be honored. With BYU in town. There is motivation spilling all over the place. Read on.

••••••••••

• The No. 1 Zags have just one roadblock between themselves and something they have never done: finish the regular season undefeated. Heck, only two schools on the West Coast have ever had undefeated regular seasons: USF back in the 1950s and UCLA four times in the 1960s and ‘70s. And all of those came before the advent of conference tournaments.

Gonzaga has a chance tonight, Senior Night, with BYU in town. And there’s the rub.

If the Zags are going send Przemek Karnowski, who has won more games than any player in school history, Rem Bakamus and Jordan Mathews out with a win, they will have to defeat a team they haven’t got past in Spokane since 2014.

The Bulldogs won 84-69 in late January that year but in the two seasons since, Brigham Young University has pulled out tight victories.

Two years ago it was 73-70 in late February. Last year, in the midst of a Gonzaga tough stretch, the Cougars won 69-68 in mid-January.

The 2015 loss was also on a Senior Night and ruined the sendoffs for Sam Dower, David Stockton, Drew Barham and USC transfer Byron Wesley. It also snapped a 22-game winning streak and ruined the Zags chance for a perfect WCC season.

It may have provided the impetus for the Bulldogs’ Elite Eight tournament run as well, but that’s for others to decide.

Last year’s loss to BYU sparked a conversation we had late last year with a BYU uber-fan. As one could guess, he’s a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint. And that was the basis of the conversation.

As most are aware, BYU is the church’s flagship institution, named after one of the religion’s early leaders. Most BYU basketball players are members, many finishing school after their two-year church mission is completed.

And the game at Gonzaga has special meaning for them. At least that was my friend’s feeling.

He’s attended the game in the Kennel before, rooting for his Cougars. And he’s watched the Kennel Club, the Gonzaga student rooting section, peppered with students dressed in the traditional LDS missionary garb, dark suits, white shirts and ties. There are less than reverential in their portrayal during the game.

He sees it as disrespectful. He’s sure the players feel the same way, in fact he’s heard many stories from Provo about it. And he feels it adds motivation to an already heated rivalry.

It’s easy to dismiss such talk, especially from those of us who have played college athletics and were roundly heckled – and did some of the heckling back in the day. And Gonzaga’s students have been verbally assaulting opponents regardless of their religious preference for years.

But my friend had a point. BYU is something of an anomaly in the West Coast Conference. Along with Pepperdine (Church of Christ) and Pacific (a former Methodist school but now non-sectarian), it is one of only three non-Catholic schools in the WCC. Opposing student sections let the BYU players know about their religious affiliation everywhere but probably nowhere with the fervor and determination as displayed in McCarthey.

His point was simple. The players see it, it fires them up and they respond. We all know how such a clash of beliefs can initiate out-of-the-ordinary actions, and has done so for centuries.

And, he pointed out, what if the dress shoe was on the other foot? If BYU students dressed up as Cardinals or the Pope or whatever and disrespected the Catholic religion? How would that be received?

I’m not sure. As the son of a Catholic father – I was educated in Catholic schools until college – and an LDS mom, who converted late in life, I see both sides.

Is it disrespectful? Sure. But everything student sections do to try to take opponents off their game is disrespectful to some degree. That’s part of the deal.

Does it cross the line? It depends on which side of the line you fall in some regard.

And is it motivational? If the BYU players feel it is, then it is. But isn’t just playing Gonzaga in Spokane motivation enough? If the students all came in dressed as Saint Ignatius of Loyola and sang the Cougars’ praises all night at the top of their lungs, would they not want to win?

Tonight, Senior Night, when Gonzaga puts its perfect season on the line, a few students riding fake bicycles in the stands shouldn’t make a bit of difference. At least that’s how the outside world would see it.

Inside the BYU huddle, however, it may.

•••

Gonzaga: Tonight’s game, on ESPN at 7:15 (fixed from earlier), means a lot for the Zags and their seniors. Jim Meehan has an advance as well as a look at BYU. He also has a story on Jordan Mathews while Whitney Ogden adds a piece on walk-on Rem Bakamus. … John Blanchette takes care of Przemek Karnowski and his beard. … The series is one of the most even GU has in WCC play. … The women also won the WCC regular season title and will finish out in Provo today. Whitney has an advance. … The Cougars are hoping for a miracle tonight in McCarthey.

WSU: A quartet of seniors will be playing their last game in Beasley tomorrow when the Cougars host Washington. Jacob Thorpe highlights two of them, roommates Josh Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu. … Stefanie Loh had a couple of WSU stories in the Seattle Times this week, one on football strength coach Jason Loscalzo and another on Jeremiah Allison’s latest adventure. … Around the Pac-12 in football, there is ESPN.com’s mailbag to pass along as Ted Miller answers questions. … Colorado is doing that spring thing, moving players around. … In basketball, there was a game last night, with Oregon State losing at California. … The big game today is in Tucson, where No. 4 will host No. 5 UCLA at 5:15 p.m. on ESPN. … Utah still has a chance to earn a bye in the Pac-12 tournament. … Oregon wants to sweep the Bay Area trip, something it hasn’t done often.

EWU: Yes, it’s Senior Day in Cheney as well. Jim Allen has a preview focusing on Australian Felix Von Hofe.

Idaho: NCAA tournaments in Spokane are now the purview of the University of Idaho. Jacob tells you why in this story.

CCS: The Sasquatch would like to win back-to-back NWAC title. Dave Nichols has the story of their quest.

Chiefs: The newest Chief has a lot of Spokane memories. Mainly because he grew up here. Josh Horton has a story on Mead’s Luke Gallagher.

Shadow: Spokane is getting ready for its first season in the National Premier Soccer League. Jim Allen has all the particulars in this story.

Preps: Winter sports are winding down, with Idaho holding its state wrestling tournament this weekend and Washington beginning the state basketball tournaments. We have roundups of the wrestling action as well as boys basketball play in Washington. From the girls’ side, Greg Lee covered 1B action at University High and folded it into a roundup. … Tyler Tjomsland has a photo gallery from Gonzaga Prep’s win over Glacier Peak in 4A action at U-Hi.

Mariners: If a game is played and its not on TV, does it really count? Such is the case today when the M’s open Cactus League play against San Diego. The lineup counts, that’s for sure. … Spring training is a time for pitchers of all levels to get ready for the upcoming season.

Seahawks: The Hawks will have two more draft picks to, hopefully, help answer some offseason questions.

•••       

• And with that, the weekend is off and running. Hope you hit the finish line first. Until later …

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