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Washington State Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew (16) signs a young admirer's shirt after defeating Oregon during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, October 20, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 34-20. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Year in review: 2018 a tough year to beat when it comes to success of local sports teams

When it comes to annual stories-of-the-year lists, it’s pretty tough to top 2018 for local sports.

The Washington State football team beating Iowa State in Friday’s Alamo Bowl for its program-best 11th victory. Gonzaga men’s basketball falling to Florida State in the Sweet 16 during a “rebuilding” year. The Gonzaga women’s basketball team beating No. 8 Stanford, highlighting their best nonconference start in history. Eastern Washington men’s basketball star Bogdan Bliznyuk becoming the Big Sky Conference’s all-time leading scorer. Whitworth beating Linfield on its way to winning the Northwest Conference football title for the first time since 2007. Gonzaga-bound Anton Watson helping Gonzaga Prep win a State 4A boys basketball title.

And those are just some of the stories that didn’t make the final list. Because when you boil the year down to just a few headlines, four seemed to stand out the most (in no particular order):

ESPN GameDay finally coming to Pullman on a day that saw Gardner Minshew and the Cougars beat Oregon, 34-20.

Gonzaga basketball knocking off No. 1 Duke – viewed at the time as unbeatable – for the Maui Classic title.

• Eastern Washington football earning a trip to the FCS Championship with a victory against Maine.

• And twins Lacie and Lexie Hull carrying Central Valley High School to the State 4A girls basketball title, and also a national crown.

ESPN College GameDay comes to Pullman

The years of flirting and teasing finally came to an end. At 8:35 p.m. on Oct. 13, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit broke the news from his Twitter account, sending Cougar fans everywhere into a crimson frenzy.

“You start to look at the drawing board of where College GameDay should go for week eight and there’s really no debate,” Herbstreit said. “It’s been a long time. The 15-year anniversary is this Saturday for that beautiful flag Ol’ Crimson that’s been traveling around College GameDay, so there’s only one place for College GameDay to go. Oregon at Washington State. We will see you in Pullman.”

Squeezed into one of the best seasons in school history, the first visit from ESPN’s award-winning College GameDay show brought thousands to the Palouse. Some of them made the early morning drive from Spokane, while others loaded up cars on the other side of the country for a once in a lifetime pilgrimage.

Pullman anticipated such a crowd that the city council issued an emergency declaration four days ahead of time.

Martin Stadium and hundreds of Ol’ Crimson flags illuminated the backdrop of the GameDay set. Signs bearing Mike Leach’s face and Gardner Minshew’s mustache were lifted high every time the ESPN cameras panned to the crimson sea.

The flag that had made 215 consecutive GameDay appearances finally made its way to Pullman for No. 216. Tom Pounds, the man who was there for No. 1, stood in the center of the crowd and wove his Ol’ Crimson flag from side to side as the show went live at 6 a.m.

For the next three hours, Pullman was buzzing. The show aired WSU-specific segments, featuring Minshew, the famed “popcorn guy” and the late Tyler Hilinski.

It all culminated with Lee Corso’s pick. The crowd booed when the renowned analyst picked up the Duck head, but roared with approval when Corso traded it for a Cougar head and finally slipped it over his skull.

Legendary WSU quarterback Drew Bledsoe reacts as he and ESPN's Lee Corso make their picks during a filming of ESPN's College GameDay on Saturday, October 20, 2018, in Pullman, Wash. 

Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Legendary WSU quarterback Drew Bledsoe reacts as he and ESPN's Lee Corso make their picks during a filming of ESPN's College GameDay on Saturday, October 20, 2018, in Pullman, Wash. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

And then, a fitting end: WSU raced out to a 27-0 lead, then held on in the second half to upend No. 12 Oregon in front of a capacity crowd. The day’s hero was none other than Minshew, who passed for four touchdowns and surfed through the crowd as fans leaked onto the field to celebrate a historic day.

– Theo Lawson

Zags beat Duke in Maui

There aren’t many firsts left for the Gonzaga men’s basketball program.

The Zags have reached No. 1 in the AP poll three times in seven years, including a two-week stint earlier this season. They reached their first Final Four and played for the national title in 2017.

They have a 20-year – and counting – streak of NCAA Tournament appearances and a 10-year – and counting – streak of first-round wins. They’re the only team in the country to reach four consecutive Sweet 16s.

But they checked one more item off their dwindling wish list on Nov. 21. The Zags outlasted Duke 89-87 to win the Maui Invitational championship inside a packed Lahaina Civic Center.

The Gonzaga bench rushes the floor after they defeated Duke 89-87 to win the Maui Invitational in an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Marco Garcia / Associated Press)
The Gonzaga bench rushes the floor after they defeated Duke 89-87 to win the Maui Invitational in an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Marco Garcia / Associated Press)

The Zags won the prestigious holiday tournament in 2009, but they’d never defeated a No. 1-ranked team before edging Duke, which looked nearly invincible over the first two weeks of the season. Gonzaga’s highest-ranked win had been a November 2006 victory over No. 2 North Carolina at Madison Square Garden.

It’s arguably the biggest nonconference victory in program history. It propelled Gonzaga to No. 1, leap-frogging unbeaten No. 2 Kansas, in the ensuing poll. It cast a wider national spotlight on the Zags and Rui Hachimura, who was voted tournament most outstanding player and instantly became a contender for national player of the year.

The Zags were 0-2 in previous matchups with top-ranked opponents. They were 0-3 in the series against the Blue Devils, scoring just 52, 41 and 54 points along the way.

Gonzaga pulled it off in dramatic fashion. Duke led 2-0 on Zion Williamson’s basket. Hachimura connected on a 3-pointer on the next possession and Gonzaga never trailed.

The Zags led for nearly 38 minutes. They led by 16 early in the second half but Duke rallied to tie it at 87. Hachimura posted up RJ Barrett for the go-ahead basket. Hachimura and Brandon Clarke both rejected two shots in the final 46 seconds.

“What a basketball game,” coach Mark Few said.

– Jim Meehan

EWU survives injuries, earns FCS championship berth

Nearly a dozen starters suffered season-ending injuries since the start of fall camp, but Eastern Washington still barreled its way into the FCS national title game.

The loss of All-American quarterback and three-time Walter Payton Award candidate Gage Gubrud appeared to be the biggest blow, but sophomore Eric Barriere proved to be latest in a string of gifted EWU signal-callers.

Barriere set a FCS playoff record in a 50-19 thumping of Maine in the semifinals in Cheney, passing for seven touchdowns – four to receiver Nsimba Webster – to lead EWU back to the national championship game for the first time since 2010.

Eastern Washington Nsimba Webster gets a hug after the win against Maine in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington Nsimba Webster gets a hug after the win against Maine in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

“I’ve done it three times now, and this one is way better because we’re going to the championship, you can’t beat that,” said Barriere, referring to two seven-touchdown games in high school. “It hasn’t hit me yet, it felt like a regular game but once I settle in and listen to my mom going crazy, it will.”

The Eagles (12-2) face top-ranked North Dakota State (14-0) in the FCS title game on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.

Barriere was given the reins in Week 6 after Gubrud’s toe injury, and went on to complete 177 of 286 passes for 2,252 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions in nine games. The speedy three-star recruit of out La Habra (Calif.) High also rushed for 603 yards and seven scores, earning All-Big Sky Conference third-team honors despite playing just half the regular season.

Maine led the nation in run defense (68 rushing yards per game) and was second in sacks (47), but EWU racked up 568 total yards (216 on the ground) and didn’t yield a sack. An early interception by Josh Lewis and a strip-sack and fumble recovery by defensive tackle Keith Moore helped put Maine in a quick 14-0 hole.

“It was hard work inside, so we wanted to do some things that maybe we haven’t shown this year,” said second-year head coach Aaron Best, who shared Big Sky Coach of the Year honors with UC Davis’ Dan Hawkins. “But we didn’t want to get too far away from what has gotten us to this point. We stayed true to our identity and (offensive coordinator) Bodie Reeder and (defensive coordinator) Jeff Schmedding called great games.”

– Ryan Collingwood

Central Valley girls earn state, national titles

The Bears cruised through another undefeated regular season – their third in a row – behind their three Division I recruits: the Stanford-bound Hull twins, Lexie and Lacie; and Idaho signee Hailey Christopher.

The biggest question entering the state tourney wasn’t whether CV would win. It entered ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today and beat opponents by an average of 44 points.

It was whether anyone was going to give Central Valley a serious, 32-minute challenge.

The Bears answered that all tourney long with an oppressive, record-setting defensive effort with three convincing victories and yes, another state title.

Members of the Central Valley girls team celebrate their 70-39 win over Woodinville in the state 4A championship game at the Tacoma Dome on Saturday, March 3, 2018. (Dave Nichols / The Spokesman-Review)
Members of the Central Valley girls team celebrate their 70-39 win over Woodinville in the state 4A championship game at the Tacoma Dome on Saturday, March 3, 2018. (Dave Nichols / The Spokesman-Review)

Lacie Hull scored 19 points with 10 rebounds and six steals and CV (27-0) shut down fifth-seeded Woodinville (22-5) 70-39 in the State 4A championship game at the Tacoma Dome on March 3.

CV beat 10th-seeded Kentlake 61-16 in a state quarterfinal, shutting out Kentlake in the second half, setting tourney records for lowest losing score and largest margin of victory.

It was the Bears’ second title in three years and fifth overall.

“We got back to the top of the mountain,” said Central Valley coach Freddie Rehkow, who won national coach of the year honors. “I thought the girls took care of business tonight.”

CV had such a dominant tournament, it prompted talk about if they could win a title in some boys classifications.

“Maybe. I don’t know,” Christopher said. “I haven’t seen them play.”

Three weeks later, Lexie Hull scored 13 of her 26 points in the fourth quarter and CV beat Hamilton Heights of Tennessee 66-61 to win the GEICO Nationals title game at Christ the King High School in New York.

Lexie Hull was named Gatorade state player of the year for the second consecutive season and voted the Associated Press Washington state all-classification girls player of the year for 2018.

The twins finished their high school careers with a 100-6 record – and one loss in the final three years.

– Dave Nichols