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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

2021 in review: From dramatic buzzer beaters to professional championships, Spokane area sports had a year to remember

You want storylines? Well, 2021 may have overdelivered.

Gonzaga chased college basketball immortality for an entire season only to watch its unbeaten campaign unravel in the NCAA Tournament championship game. Washington State football endured a season of anxiety, controversy and tumult, yet may have emerged on the back side better for it. Julianna Peña conquered one of the most decorated female fighters in Mixed Martial Arts history to win her first UFC championship. Players set personal bests, broke program records and collected numerous accolades and honors.

The past year in area sports provided the astounding, the absurd and everything between. With COVID-19 creating havoc to start the new year, we take a moment to finally put 2021 behind us as we look back at the memories and celebrate the accomplishments the previous 12 months provided.

Another close call

The biggest sports topic in the area was Gonzaga’s quest for a perfect season and its first men’s basketball national championship.

Unfortunately, both pursuits were quashed in early April when the Zags, who spent the entirety of last season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, “fell into an early hole and never found a way out” in an 86-70 loss to Baylor in the national championship game in Indianapolis.

But the loss shouldn’t detract from what was, until that point, a magical season for the Zags.

The national semifinal overtime win over UCLA two nights earlier, won on Jalen Suggs’ banked 3-pointer from just inside the half court line, was instantly hailed as “a classic game with a classic finish,” by broadcaster Grant Hill, who was involved in a few of those in his playing days at Duke.

All of the momentum the Zags built during their perfect season, cruising through the regular season, conference tourney and early-round games in the NCAA Tournament came to a thundering crescendo in that UCLA game, then came crashing down just as quickly as Baylor got off to a great start in the title game and never let off the gas.

It left some Zags fans wondering when it would be their turn.

In the immediate aftermath, columnist John Blanchette said it best, as he usually does.

“Between 1964 and 1990 – 27 years – a certain noted basketball power went to four NCAA title games and lost each time, before finally winning it all in 1991.

“Duke figured out how good you have to be. And that it’s up to you to make as many opportunities as you need.”

Second Stanley

The Tampa Bay Lightning won a second consecutive Stanley Cup in July, beating the Montreal Canadiens in five games to cap the pandemic-shortened NHL season. As was the case the previous championship season, Spokane’s Tyler Johnson was a pivotal factor in the playoffs for Tampa Bay.

Johnson, the Central Valley grad and Spokane Chief from 2007-11, scored four goals and added two assists during the Lightning’s Stanley Cup playoff run.

In late July, Johnson brought the Cup to Spokane for a ceremony and photo opportunity at the Arena.

“It’s so rewarding being able to bring this back to Spokane,” he said. “I know what great hockey fans they have. This is a thrill.”

The previous day, Lightning coach Jon Cooper took the Cup to Wayne Gretzky’s hockey camp in Coeur d’Alene, then out to a few local watering holes in the Lake City.

Apple Cup win sends WSU to Sun Bowl

The midseason firing of head coach Nick Rolovich and four assistant coaches could have spelled disaster for the Washington State football team.

Instead, the Cougars finished with a 3-2 record down the stretch, capping the regular season with a 40-13 drubbing of rival Washington in the Apple Cup on Nov. 26 to earn a postseason nod to the Sun Bowl.

Senior running back Max Borghi romped for 129 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Huskies, and WSU ended a seven-game losing skid in the series. The 27-point margin of victory set a team record in the rivalry for the Cougars, surpassing the 52-26 rout in Seattle in 1973.

Quarterback Jayden de Laura completed 27 of 32 passes for 245 yards for WSU, which built an early 13-0 lead and never trailed. The sophomore completed 21 of his first 22 passes.

Jake Dickert, whose steadying presence as interim coach helped keep the season afloat, was rewarded with a five-year contract and named the head coach officially on Nov. 27.

WSU, which finished second behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North, ended its season with a 24-21 loss to Central Michigan at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on Friday. The Cougars (7-6) nearly erased a 21-0 halftime deficit, but the comeback fell short.

Champion at last

Former Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot scored 10 points and added 15 assists to help the Chicago Sky beat the Phoenix Mercury 80-74 and earn their first WNBA title on Oct. 17.

Vandersloot, 32, recorded a triple-double earlier in the postseason.

In early December, Gonzaga announced it would retire the three-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year, All-American and WNBA champion’s No. 21 jersey.

Unfortunately, the ceremony scheduled for last Thursday, along with a pair of games, were postponed due to COVID protocols within the Zags women’s program. A release stated that GU is working on rescheduling the jersey ceremony.

Upset special

No one – except Julianna Peña herself – gave her much of a shot of knocking off all-time great Amanda Nunes at UFC 269 in early December.

But Pena has never lacked for confidence.

Peña, who was the No. 3 bantamweight going into the night, improved to 12-4 overall and 7-2 in the UFC with a win via submission over Nunes, who had a 12-fight winning streak dating back to 2014 snapped.

Nunes had made eight consecutive title defenses.

Peña, 32, is a 2007 graduate of Mt. Spokane High School.

“I told you don’t ever doubt me again,” Peña said following the fight. “Willpower, strength and determination – it will take you places.”

Another milestone

Lexie and Lacie Hull have won just about every honor possible in girls high school or women’s college basketball. Add “national champion” to the list.

Lexie recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds while twin sister Lacie played 5 minutes off the bench in Stanford’s 54-53 win over Arizona in the women’s national championship game in April.

Lexie was named to the all-tournament team.

The Central Valley graduates helped Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer to her third title and first since 1992. It was the first women’s basketball championship for the Pac-12 since 1992.

Preps success

There were no state titles handed out in Washington last year due to the COVID-condensed spring seasons and cancellation of the state tourneys.

But there were some memorable performances.

Tyson Degenhart led Mt. Spokane boys basketball to an “East Region” title in June and two days later packed his bags for Boise State.

Degenhart returned to Spokane last week and hit a key 3-pointer late in the game to propel the Broncos over Washington State at the Arena.

On the girls side, Central Valley couldn’t defend its 2019-20 state title, so the Bears did the next best thing – their senior-laden team defeated Mead 63-60 in the “East Region” title game.

This fall, Mead brought home the State 3A volleyball title and girls cross country team title while Gonzaga Prep and Mt. Spokane made runs to the football quarterfinals.

Gonzaga baseball qualifies for regionals

Gonzaga’s baseball team finished the regular season with a 33-17 record and a No. 14 national ranking, and the Bulldogs claimed the WCC crown with a 20-7 conference mark. GU consequently earned a No. 2 seed at the Eugene Regional, the program’s first regional trip since 2018.

Bulldogs hurler Alek Jacob fired a four-hit shutout in a 3-0 win over LSU in the regional opener on June 4. Jacob struck out nine and walked one in his dominant 119-pitch outing.

While Jacob kept the Tigers’ bats neutralized, Gonzaga broke through with a pair of runs in the bottom of the second inning. Guthrie Morrison’s single to right field drove in Grayson Sterling for the first run, and Morrison scored after Ernie Yake’s two-out double down the right-field line.

GU’s Brett Harris added an RBI single to score Jack Machtolf for a three-run cushion in the sixth.

Harris, Sterling and Morrison each had two hits for the Bulldogs.

GU lost its next two regional games – 7-3 against Oregon and 9-4 in a rematch against LSU – and finished 34-19.

WSU’s Manzardo named All-American

Kyle Manzardo provided an impact bat during his three years at Washington State following his prolific prep career at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound first baseman produced a special junior campaign with the Cougars in 2021, resulting in a first-team All-American selection by Collegiate Baseball.

Manzardo battered opposing pitchers in 47 games with a .365 average, 11 home runs, 60 runs batted in and a .640 slugging percentage. He set a team record with a 43-game on-base streak, and his 27-game hitting streak was the second longest in WSU history.

Manzardo’s All-American honor was the Cougars’ first since Aaron Sele in 1990 and the first for a WSU position player since John Olerud in 1988.

He was drafted in the second round at No. 63 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays on July 12. He was assigned to the organization’s rookie-level Florida Coast League affiliate one day after signing a professional contract on Aug. 8. Manzardo batted 15 for 43 (.349) with two home runs and eight RBIs in 13 games.

WSU women soccer reach second round

Washington State continued to enjoy great success on the women’s soccer field in 2021 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars finished the season 14-3-4 and ranked 17th in the nation.

WSU hosted two teams then ranked in the top 10 in the country when No. 5 USC and No. 8 UCLA came to Pullman on Oct. 21 and Oct. 24, respectively. The Cougars tied USC 0-0 and UCLA 1-1 and stayed in close pursuit for a Pac-12 title through the season’s final weekend before finishing third.

WSU secured a 3-0 home win over Montana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Nov. 13. Marin Whieldon scored her first goal of the season in the 37th minute for a one-goal lead, and Sydney Pulver scored on a penalty kick and later assisted on Grayson Lynch’s goal in the second half to cement the win.

The Cougars’ season ended in the tournament’s second round with a 2-0 loss to Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Cougar volleyball returns to NCAAs

Four straight defeats to start the season belied the success Washington State generated on the volleyball court by the end of the year. The Cougars defeated then-No. 6 Washington in a five-set marathon in Pullman on Sept. 26, swept a pair of matches against a top-20 Oregon team and collected a three-game sweep of Northern Colorado in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 2 in Waco, Texas.

Kalyah Williams posted 11 kills in the 25-17, 25-15, 25-20 rout of Northern Colorado, and Magda Jehlarova added a team-high five blocks. Argentina Ung and Katy Ryan added nine and eight kills, respectively, and Hannah Pukis had 33 assists.

Baylor, the tournament’s fifth seed, swept the Cougars in three sets on its home floor in the second round. WSU finished the season 20-12.

WSU women end NCAA drought

The Washington State women’s basketball team wasted no time building a resume that would end the program’s 20-year run without an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

The Cougars opened the season with a win at Washington, and a win over then-No. 21 Oregon State capped a 3-0 start. WSU squeaked past then-No. 7 Arizona for a 71-69 overtime win at home on Jan. 7. A 67-63 win over then-No. 5 UCLA in Pullman on Feb. 5 proved critical for the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament bid.

WSU was rewarded with a No. 9 seed for its regular-season success, the team’s first tournament berth since 1991. The Cougars faced No. 8 seed South Florida in the tournament’s first round, and USF made enough plays in the fourth quarter to escape with a 57-53 win in Austin, Texas, on March 21.

Charlisse Leger-Walker was honored as Pac-12 Freshman of the Year for the Cougars, who finished 12-12.

EWU nearly stuns Kansas at NCAAs

The Eastern Washington men’s basketball team surpassed preseason expectations with a run to the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship and a third trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Eagles had won 13 of 14 games, including all three contests at the conference tournament, and earned a No. 14 seed in advance of playing third-seeded Kansas in the first round. EWU sought an upset behind Tanner Groves, who was the best player on the floor and finished with 35 points, and younger brother Jacob Groves, who added 23 points and nine rebounds.

EWU led 46-38 at halftime, and Tanner Groves’ layin gave the Eagles a 52-42 lead with 17:58 remaining. The Jayhawks outscored EWU 31-14 over the next 10 minutes to seize a 73-66 lead, and the Eagles didn’t get closer than five points the rest of the way.

EWU finished the season 16-8 overall and 12-3 in Big Sky play.

Barriere’s big day in season of highlights

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere deservedly has been showered with accolades in the aftermath of the redshirt senior’s record-setting campaign in 2021. Barriere was named to the second team of the American Football Coaches Association FCS All-America Team and was selected as the Big Sky Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

No game exemplified Barriere’s dynamic play more than his sensational performance against Idaho on Oct. 16 at Roos Field in Cheney. He completed 26 of 35 passes for 600 yards and seven touchdowns, and he led EWU to touchdowns on its first seven possessions.

Receiver Freddie Roberson piled up nine catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Andrew Boston added five receptions for 175 yards and a score, and Dennis Merritt had three catches for 102 yards and a touchdown.

Barriere steered the Eagles to the FCS playoffs, where EWU defeated Northern Iowa 19-9 in the opening round in Cheney on Nov. 27 before suffering a season-ending 57-41 defeat at Montana in Missoula on Dec. 3. The Eagles finished 10-3.

Townsend beats buzzer, BYU

Jill Townsend was afforded just enough time to get off the most important shot of her season.

Gonzaga trailed BYU 42-41 with six-tenths of a second left in the championship game of the WCC women’s basketball tournament on March 9 in Las Vegas. Standing under BYU’s basket, Kayleigh Truong inbounded the ball to Townsend on the left side of the floor, and the senior guard quickly elevated and hit a 17-foot jumper to lift the Bulldogs to a 43-42 win and WCC Tournament title.

Townsend swished the shot as the horn sounded and then raced down the floor, screaming in celebration as a mob of jubilant teammates chased after her.

GU earned a No. 5 seed at the NCAA Tournament but was upset by 12th-seeded Belmont in a 64-59 first-round defeat on March 22. The Bulldogs ended the season 23-4.

Indians battle back to reach playoffs

The Spokane Indians appeared to be a boat with no wind in its sails as August began in their inaugural High-A West campaign. Everett (50-26 on Aug. 1) enjoyed a 6 1/2-game lead over second-place Eugene (44-33), and the Indians (37-40) were languishing 13 1/2 games behind the first-place Aquasox.

Spokane beat Everett four games in a row at Avista Stadium from Aug. 3-6, however, and the series set the stage for the Indians’ dramatic rise and Everett’s freefall in the league standings over the next two months. Spokane won 30 of 39 games in August and September to finish 67-49, just a half-game behind regular-season champion Eugene (69-50). Everett lost 30 of its final 41 games to finish third at 61-56.

Eugene beat the Indians 15-7 and 3-0, respectively, in the first two games of the championship series held at Avista Stadium. Spokane bounced back to win 6-1 behind Mitchell Kilkenny’s seven-inning performance on the mound in Game 3, but the Emeralds closed out the series in Game 4 with a 5-0 shutout.

GU’s Mwaura earns All-American bid

Gonzaga men’s cross country runner James Mwaura stumbled quite literally at the start of the NCAA National Championships in Tallahassee, Florida, on Nov. 21. The junior did more than recover from the fall less than 100 meters from the starting line, though.

Mwaura stormed back to place 36th overall for GU’s best finish at nationals and the first All-American honor in team history. He finished the 10-kilometer race in 29:29.2, setting a personal best.

Kyle Radosevich, Cullen McEachern and Riley Moore also posted top-200 finishes for Gonzaga, which placed 26th overall in the team standings with 612 points.

In the women’s race at nationals, Gonzaga’s Kristen Garcia placed a career-best 90th overall in the 6K race with a time of 20:26.4.

Guermali sets team record in 1,500

Gonzaga track standout Yacine Guermali shaved more than three-tenths of a second off of the previous team record in the 1,500-meter run at the Portland Distance Carnival on May 16 in Sherwood, Oregon.

Guermali, a redshirt sophomore, completed the race in 3:43.59 to break Andy Phillips’ record of 3:43.59 set six years prior. Guermali’s effort was good enough to place second among 31 runners behind Portland’s Caleb Webb (3:42.57).