Avery Steer can’t lose Sunday when Gonzaga tips off against Creighton.
The NCAA Tournament game between two small, private Jesuit schools may pit teams separated by half a country, but personal connections make it seem like a game between friendly neighbors.
Steer is a 19-year-old freshman at Creighton University. Before that, she was all Spokane, growing up on Gonzaga’s campus as her mom, the Rev. Janeen Steer, works there and ministers to several players, including Corey Kispert.
And so the basketball game presents Avery Steer with a dilemma: Honor her love of the No. 1-seeded Zags and friendship with Kispert, or root for the underdog and No. 5-seeded Bluejays along with all of her fellow classmates in a downtown Omaha, Nebraska, restaurant.
“It’s honestly been really difficult because my heart says Gonzaga, but my brain says Creighton,” Steer said. “They glare at me when they see me in my Gonzaga gear. Knowing some of the players makes it harder. Of course, I want them to win. But everybody around me tells me Creighton should win.”
Her solution is to root for both – kind of.
“My plan is to wear a Creighton sweatshirt with a Gonzaga T-shirt underneath,” Steer said. If the Zags win, “I’ll probably take off the sweatshirt and run out of the restaurant before I get caught.”
Apples and steaks: A presidential rivalry
Just like he did when Gonzaga played fellow Jesuit school Xavier in the Elite Eight four years ago, Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh placed a wager this week with Creighton President Daniel Hendrickson.
McCulloh put up a case of Washington wine and apples. Hendrickson offered Omaha Steaks.
“I have had the privilege of traveling to Omaha a couple of different times,” McCulloh said. “I will say the people at Creighton are unfailingly generous and super, super nice people. I really have, every time, enjoyed my time there.”
And McCulloh really likes Omaha Steaks.
But Creighton’s Hendrickson said McCulloh shouldn’t sharpen his steak knives just yet: “We are just looking forward to getting our apples and our wine from Washington.”
Perhaps that eagerness intensified on Friday after Gonzaga poached five-star recruit Hunter Sallis from Omaha. Sallis’ pick of the Bulldogs over the Bluejays and a host of blue-blood schools was a big win for Gonzaga and Spokane.
This is what Sallis had to say about comparing the two cities: “Spokane reminds me a lot of Omaha,” he told ESPN. “Not much going except basketball and school. That’s the way I like it.”
If Hendrickson were to retaliate, perhaps all he would have to do is call his identical twin brother, D. Scott Hendrickson, a Catholic priest who, coincidentally, serves on Gonzaga University’s Board of Trustees.
And the brothers like to have fun with that “can’t-tell-the-twins apart” gig.
D. Scott Hendrickson works at Loyola University Chicago, home of 101-year-old chaplain Sister Jean, who rooted for the third Jesuit school with a basketball team in the Sweet 16. In fact, the Hendrickson brothers got together last Sunday in Indianapolis to hold mass for Sister Jean in her hotel.
“We tweeted out a picture,” Hendrickson said. “It was the most liked of any of my tweets. I got 1,300 likes in a day-and-a-half.”
Both presidents later pledged to donate to any Spokane-area food pantry and any Omaha charity, regardless of the game’s outcome.
“I’ve always been impressed with Gonzaga,” said Hendrickson, a Marquette alum who taught at Creighton before becoming its president in 2015.
He said he stayed six weeks in Spokane in 1995 and spent each day on campus.
He noted that both campuses are nestled in older neighborhoods – part of the Jesuit blueprint to place universities near community, arts and political centers “so the synergies of the city are an important part of the learning and engagement.”
The Jesuits founded Creighton in 1878 just a few blocks from the Missouri River in Omaha, a city now home to 475,000 people.
It’s the largest city in a state known for corn and cows, the Sandhills and a proud University of Nebraska football team with a rabid fan base that has sold out every home game since 1962.
The Jesuits founded Gonzaga in 1887 near the Spokane River in Spokane, a city home to about 220,000 people.
It’s the largest city on the eastern side of the state, in an area mostly known for wheat and salmon, rolling Palouse hills and an intermittently competitive, but beloved Washington State University football team.
Until the pandemic, the Zags had sold out every game since 2001 – the past 17 years of which have been played in the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center.
Both universities have more than 4,000 undergraduate students and a law school. But Creighton also has a medical school and is opening a satellite campus in Phoenix.
Both states where the schools call home have had a seemingly difficult time marketing what makes them special. Washington’s former “SayWA” campaign from 2006 didn’t really take.
But the slogan didn’t earn the dubious attention of the Nebraska Tourism Commission’s 2018 effort to describe the Cornhusker state: “Honestly, it’s not for everybody.”
Cindy Workman, spokeswoman for Creighton, said you shouldn’t judge the state based on its slogan.
She always drives visitors past the home of “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffet. The nondescript home never matches expectations for the 90-year-old multibillionaire and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, she said.
“It hasn’t been a bad place,” said Workman, who has lived there for 33 years. “I don’t mind going somewhere, but I do like coming back. I can afford to live here and own a home.”
Like with the Zags, local fans tend to love Nebraska football and flock to fill the 18,000-seat CHI Health Center Omaha arena to root for the Bluejays.
“It’s always a packed house,” Workman said. “We don’t have professional sports. College sports here is a big deal.”
Creighton also plays host to the eight-team College World Series. But much like Gonzaga basketball team, the Bluejays’ hoops team has earned the most recent sports attention.
Creighton, which left the Missouri Valley Conference and joined the Big East in 2013, has a total of 22 NCAA Tournament appearances and has a current string of six consecutive 20-win seasons.
“We’ve had such a strong basketball culture for decades,” Hendrickson said. “Stepping up to the Big East sharpened us in a lot of ways.”
Still, the college president noted that when the Bluejays travel, they often play to crowds of 1,400 fans.
“We are getting 18,000 every (home) game, no matter what,” he said. “That’s a testament to the culture of the university.”
By comparison, No. 1 Gonzaga has a string of 24 consecutive seasons of at least 20 wins and could set a record of five consecutive 30-win seasons if it beats Creighton and wins one more game.
It also has reached the NCAA Tournament 22 straight years, playing for the national title in 2017.
“It’s a real testament to the leadership at Gonzaga, how well they play year after year,” Hendrickson said.
Zag becomes Bluejay
Avery Steer can remember where she was when Gonzaga lost a 65-63 lead with 1:55 remaining and fell to North Carolina 71-65 in the 2017 title game.
“I’ve been such a fan of the team so long, I cried. I was so sad,” she said. “We obviously wanted them to win but didn’t expect them to win.”
But Steer’s college choice became complicated by the coronavirus.
“We had three weeks to decide between several colleges and then the world shut down,” said her mother, Janeen Steer. “We got in our Subaru, put an air mattress in the back and drove the 22 hours.
“It was really fun,” she continued. “When we got to Omaha, one of my colleagues who works in their campus ministry came on campus and gave us a tour.”
It was just what Avery Steer was looking for.
“I actually decided (to go to Creighton) because it’s the most similar campus and community to Gonzaga, but it’s just not in Spokane,” she said. “I just felt right at home.”
She then began rooting for the Bluejays, even though family friend Kispert plays for the Zags.
“I think it’s cool because Corey is such a humble guy,” Avery Steer said. “Seeing him on TV is so weird to me. He’s probably one of the best basketball players. But in my head, he’s a great guy and a great friend.”
Janeen Steer said Kispert has been that way since she began working with him.
“When a college student lets me walk with them for four years, I always learn so much about how to continue to be a better human,” she said. “He has shown me that.”
Now, the Steers will watch someone they consider another family member chase a potential perfect season at the expense of Avery’s other team.
During the game, as her daughter is hiding her Zag T-shirt under Creighton colors, the 51-year-old Steer will be dancing with Gonzaga freshmen.
“I would say that after Avery’s experience,” Steer said, “we are Zags first, but Creighton is not far behind.”
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