A worldwide pandemic wiped away plenty of sports in Eastern Washington.
NCAA Tournament games were slated for Spokane – likely with both the Gonzaga men’s and women’s basketball teams playing the first two rounds as de facto home games.
Spring sports for local high school athletes were wiped away almost entirely, with cancellations and postponements stretching into the fall seasons. Youth leagues became little more than socially distant practices.
Then there was the loss of the entire Spokane Indians baseball season, and the Spokane Shock arena football team’s reappearance that never actually reappeared.
Tentpole community spectacles like Bloomsday and Hoopfest were postponed and then cancelled – or turned into semivirtual events – as the local sports calendar continued to empty, even into the fall and winter.
But in spite of all that, COVID-19 couldn’t entirely erase all local sports stories in 2020, which still offered a number of particularly exciting accomplishments for the teams and athletes – and their fans – that call this region home.
Zags hold tight to No. 1
In the first AP poll of 2020, the Gonzaga men’s basketball team stood at No. 1, which they held the next week as well. For the rest of the season, they never dropped below No. 3 and when the 2020 season began, the Zags opened as No. 1 in the poll.
In the calendar year, Gonzaga is 26-1, the lone loss, 91-78, coming at BYU on Feb. 22. Along the way, coach Mark Few won his 600th game – his career record, all with Gonzaga, is 602-123 – and Gonzaga welcomed another promising recruiting class led by Jalen Suggs.
So while the Zags didn’t get a chance at their first national title, they can at least say they were positioned to – and that they are once again ready to take a shot at one later this season as one of the great programs in the sport.
Gonzaga women win WCC regular-season title; Vandals make a postseason push
Under coach Lisa Fortier, the Gonzaga women’s basketball team is 23-4 in the 2020 calendar year. Gonzaga climbed as high as 11th in the AP poll at the end of last season and finished that campaign 17-1 in conference play, matching a West Coast Conference record.
Even though, like every other team in the nation, the Zags didn’t get a chance at the NCAA Tournament – they were upset in the opening round of the WCC Tournament – they still finished the season with 28 wins, marking their fourth straight season with at least 26 victories.
Unlike the Zags, the Vandal women were still playing when their conference tournament was canceled: They were preparing for the Big Sky Tournament championship game in Boise against Montana State.
It marked an early conclusion to another 22-win season for the Vandals, who are 135-75 in conference games under Jon Newlee, now in his 13th season as their head coach.
Eagles soar, Pirates sail toward postseason
The Eastern Washington men’s basketball team was riding a seven-game winning streak when the Big Sky Conference tournament was canceled. Coach Shantay Legans, in his third season with the Eagles, was named Big Sky Coach of the Year, and senior Mason Peatling was named conference MVP.
Eastern has started this season 2-4, but three of those losses are to Pac-12 teams. They began the year as conference favorites in Big Sky coaches and media polls.
On the north end of Spokane, the Whitworth men’s basketball team was amid one of its best seasons ever in mid-March. They were packed and preparing to fly east for their Sweet 16 matchup with Swarthmore in the Division III national tournament when the rest of the postseason was canceled.
Senior Ben College was named the Northwest Conference Player of the Year after averaging 22.9 points per game. He also made a school-record 99 3-pointers.
WSU changes guard at football coach, QB
After eight seasons and 55 victories, the third-most in program history, Mike Leach left Washington State on Jan. 9 to become Mississippi State’s football coach.
Four days later, athletic director Pat Chun named Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich as Leach’s replacement. In his opening press conference, Rolovich identified how many days – 317 – until the next Apple Cup.
It was a notably quick (or perhaps premeditated) calculation at the time, and it proved to be inaccurate: Come fall, that game didn’t happen, doomed by COVID-19 positive tests and quarantines within the Cougars program.
But based on the quarterback play in the four games the Cougars actually did play in the truncated 2020 season, it looks as if Rolovich has found his starting quarterback: true freshman Jayden de Laura.
The Hawaiian led the Cougars to a victory in his first-career start, 38-28 over Oregon State, and in four games completed 60.5% of his passes in the run-and-shoot offense he also ran in high school.
Cougs on the court
The Washington State men’s basketball team, which won the final NCAA game last March before the season was called off, enters 2021 with a gaudy 8-0 record and hopes for a big Pac-12 season under coach Kyle Smith.
The Cougs also honored NBA All-Star Klay Thompson by retiring his jersey during WSU’s Jan. 18 game against Oregon State. Thompson’s Golden State teammates Steph Curry and Zaza Pachulia were also in attendance for the win over the Beavers.
Borislava Hristova broke the WSU women’s scoring record on Jan. 5, and 10 days later became the first player in program history to reach 2,000 career points. Known as “Bobi Buckets,” she finished her career with 2,269 points, more than any basketball player, men’s or women’s, at the school.
Chiefs continue to produce
The year 2020 was a good one for Spokane’s Western Hockey League team. Just as they did in 2019, the Chiefs played their best hockey after the turn of the calendar: They won 16 of their final 17 games while playing in a strong U.S. Division.
Two of their star players were recognized as the league’s best, as Ty Smith was named the WHL’s top defenseman, and forward Adam Beckman, after a 48-goal campaign, earned WHL Player of the Year honors.
Then, in August, head coach Manny Vivieros accepted a head coaching job in the American Hockey League, marking the second straight year that the Chiefs lost their head coach to a promotion.
A month later, former Chiefs forward and Spokane native Tyler Johnson hoisted the Stanley Cup with his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates. Johnson remains on the Lightning roster despite being put on waivers in October.
To cap off the year, Post Falls native Bear Hughes became the first Idaho-born player taken in the National Hockey League draft in October. Both Hughes and Beckman will return to the team for at least one more season, provided the WHL is able to begin sometime in early 2021.
CV girls highlight local winter prep accomplishments
Just days before Washington shut down in the hope of slowing the spread of COVID-19, the Central Valley girls won their second state title in the past three years at the Tacoma Dome.
Across the state at the Spokane Arena, the Liberty girls basketball team won a state 2B championship, and later that month, Liberty senior Maisie Burnham – who is off to a strong start as a college player at Eastern Washington – was named the 2B state player of the year.
Three other area basketball players were named AP Player of the Year for their classification: Clarkston senior Tru Allen (boys 2A), Odessa senior Ryan Moffet (boys 1B) and Curlew senior Korin Baker (girls 1B).
On the wrestling mats, Mt. Spokane claimed its third straight 3A state team title plus individual titles for Ky Haney (145 pounds) and Casey Howerton (152). Post Falls earned its third straight 5A Idaho state team title as well as a pair of individual champions of its own, with A.J. De La Rosa at 145 and Ethan Miller in 152.
Local alumni star at next level
A series of former Eastern Washington athletes found success in the pros during 2020 as well.
In the NBA, former Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk, in his seventh professional season, reached the Finals for the first time with the Miami Heat, who lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Olynyk averaged 22.7 minutes and 11.6 points per game in the series.
In the WNBA, Lewis and Clark High School graduate Briann January reached the conference finals with the Connecticut Sun, while Gonzaga alum Courtney Vandersloot logged career bests in points (13.6) and assists (10.0) per game with the Chicago Sky.
Vandersloot’s assist average made her the first WNBA player to average 10 assists over the course of a season. She also set a league single-game record with 18 assists against the Indiana Fever.
With the Seattle Mariners, Gonzaga alumnus Marco Gonzales established himself as the team’s ace during the shortened Major League Baseball season. After signing a four-year contract extension in February, Gonzales made 11 starts and finished with a 7-2 record and an earned-run average of 3.10, best among the Mariners’ starting pitchers.
And in the NFL, former EWU receiver Cooper Kupp continued to shine. He signed a three-year, $47.25 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Rams in September, and through 15 games this season, he leads the Rams in receptions (92) and receiving yards (974).
Former Shadle Park standout quarterback Brett Rypien made his first NFL start for the Denver Broncos, throwing for 242 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over the New York Jets on Oct. 1.
A strong year for Seattle pros
The pro teams on the other side of the Cascades had a fine 2020.
In July, the new NHL franchise in Seattle unveiled its name, the Kraken. The team is scheduled to begin play in the 2021-22 season next fall.
The Seattle Storm finished the shortened WNBA season in October as league champions, defeating the Las Vegas Aces 3-0 in the championship series. It was the franchise’s fourth title.
On Dec. 12, the Sounders lost in the MLS Cup to the Columbus Crew, ending their bid for a second consecutive championship.
And this weekend, the 11-4 Seahawks will play their final game of the regular season still with a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Either way, they are headed to the playoffs yet again after winning their first division title since 2016.
In a year where the NFL – and all leagues – were drastically impacted by a pandemic, the Seahawks stand alone among NFL teams in one particular way: None of their players have had a confirmed positive test for COVID-19 this season.
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