We’ve crossed the six-month threshold for 2010. Halfway home. Has it been a good year for San Diego sports so far?
Our city has celebrated a championship and a near-title, the local nine is shockingly in first place, and March Madness brings back some great memories.
We can only hope the Chargers and Padres will fill the second half of the year with even greater moments, the types of which only a professional, major sporting championship could provide. Certainly the Bolts left us with our worst memory so far of 2010, Shonn Greene’s scamper to the end zone, with Antonio Cromartie in his wake.
By year’s end, we’ll undoubtedly have a Top-10 list of San Diego sporting highlights. But six months in, why not cut things in half and bring you the Top 5 moments of the San Diego sports scene?
5) SDSU men upset New Mexico and UNLV, win MWC Tournament
The Aztecs, who won the MWC Tournament, provided one of the best sports moments of 2010 so far. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)
Heading into Las Vegas, the Aztecs appeared to be on the outside of the NCAA bubble looking in. Without any marquee road or non-conference wins to point to, SDSU had the sheen of yet another 20-win NIT squad. Running the table, in Vegas, seemed like the only sure option to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
So, the Aztecs went ahead and won the whole damn thing.
You might have forgotten by now, but the glorious dance to March Madness started with a near-stumble. SDSU fell behind Colorado State 7-0 in the MWC tourney opener, and needed two free throws from D.J. Gay in the final 10 seconds to edge the Rams 72-71. Keep in mind, this was an Aztecs team that did NOT make free throws (they missed 10 in the CSU game), and Gay had already missed in a similar key spot at New Mexico earlier in the year. But, in what was to become the best run of his Aztecs career, Gay rose to the occasion and lifted the Aztecs into the semis.
This is where the odds-makers were sure the run would end, as San Diego State faced 8th-ranked New Mexico. Behind 28 points from Billy White and another key late shot from Gay, this time a three pointer, SDSU sprung the 72-69 upset and moved off the bubble and into the “last four in” column in the never-ending bracketologists’ predictions.
But could you ever truly trust the NCAA selection committee to do the right thing and select San Diego State? Steve Fisher’s boys left nothing to chance, taking down UNLV on their home court 55-45 behind a 16 point, 21 rebound performance from precocious freshman Kawhi Leonard.
The Aztecs wound up traveling all the way across the country to Providence to face Tennessee, and gave the Volunteers quite a tussle before falling 62-59. With all five starters and even more bench depth returning, the Aztecs are now a sexy Top-25 pick for the upcoming season, and we can dream of their adding to the list of great memories in 2011.
4) Padres beat Mets 5-1 in 11 innings on Adrian Gonzalez grand slam
Only one Padres moment on the list? Is this another snub?
Understand, it’s hard for me to compare any single game in the first half of a regular season with a championship moment like those which dot this list. And we don’t know yet how the Padres’ story will end in 2010.
But it’s been a magical ride so far, as San Diego has exceeded everyone’s expectations (including our own) by leaping out to a 48-33 mark at the halfway point of the season. They’ve done it with elite pitching, benefiting from surprisingly airtight defense. Having already played 30 one-run games, the Padres have gone an MLB-best 19-11 in those affairs.
And if I were to pick one game which encapsulates what the Padres have been about this season, June 2nd would fit the bill. In this one game, San Diego managed to feature every highlight of their remarkable first half.
The Padres got elite pitching, with Clayton Richard working six strong innings, allowing just one run. Their bullpen troika of Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams and Heath Bell all appeared in the game, combining to allow just one hit over three innings with three strikeouts.
The Padres played great defense, with David Eckstein knocking down a ball that would have scored an extra run for the Mets. San Diego scuffled offensively (also highly representative of their first half), spinning their wheels against a struggling Johan Santana, who needed more than 120 pitches to work through seven frames.
Down 1-0 in the 9th, Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez ran into his old Angels teammate Eckstein again, and Capt. Clutch delivered a two-out, two-strike single to plate Tony Gwynn from second base. Eckstein delivered more clutch hits in the first half than any human physically should be able to produce.
In the 11th, it was San Diego’s MVP candidate rising to the occasion, as Adrian Gonzalez (who else?) launched an opposite-field (where else?) grand slam to beat the Mets 5-1. 619 Sports talked to Adrian after the game.
So far, it’s been some kind of season, and magical moments like these are to be cherished.
3) UCSD advances to Division II College World Series championship game
The way the Padres have been playing in 2010, they’ve taken a page from the UCSD playbook. That’s about as high a compliment as we can pay to Dan O’Brien’s UCSD Tritons baseball team, the best college team in San Diego.
Picked No. 1 to start the season, the Tritons never lost their steely-eyed determination to return to Cary, N.C., host city of the Division II College World Series. They rolled through the regular season, won the CCAA going away, and then swept through the West Regional in three games, completing the first step of their goal.
Much like the Padres, this UCSD team did it with pitching, defense, and timely hitting. Hustle over muscle. Execution, little-ball, and dirty uniforms. Senior shortstop Vance Albitz, three-time defensive player of the year, caught everything hit in his direction. A starting staff led by Tim Shibuya and Matt Rossman went four-deep, giving the Tritons a luxury on the mound.
In Cary, UCSD proceeded on a phenomenal run to the championship game. Each of their first three contests were classics. First Grant Bauer provided the late dramatics with a walkoff single in the CWS opener, 3-2 over Georgia College.
Then, in the greatest pitching performance in UCSD history, senior right-hander Matt Rossman worked 11 pressure-packed innings, outlasting No. 2 Central Missouri 2-1. It was a game that, due to rain, started after 9:30 p.m. local time. Rossman made sure it would last well beyond midnight, striking out twelve and retiring 34 of the 37 batters he faced. In this, his final college start, Matt Rossman finished with a moment he will never forget.
UCSD would continue their season-long theme of team effort in their third game, as starters Kirby St. John and Guido Knudsen, the 3rd and 4th starters in the Tritons’ rotation, combined on a 6-3 win over Franklin Pierce.
While the Tritons’ run ended in a winner-take-all championship game against Southern Indiana, their brilliance could not be diminished by a single loss. Dan O’Brien’s team set the standard for local college baseball, going further in his respective division than either the Toreros or Aztecs have been able to accomplish.
2) SDSU women upset Texas in Austin, go to Sweet Sixteen
Halfway through their 2009-2010 campaign, the SDSU women’s basketball team was lost at sea. Not playing as a team. Underachieving in the Mountain West. Unlikely to make even a ripple in the college hoops pond.
By the time March 2010 came around, the Aztecs made a Texas-sized splash.
Just like the men, Beth Burns’ Aztecs needed a MWC tournament run to even reach the NCAA field. Unlike the men, they had virtually no chance to get in as an at-large.
After a sluggish start in the first round (just like the men), they pulled away from Wyoming 60-51, then trounced BYU 77-47 in the semis. In the final, it took overtime, and a 22 point performance from tourney MVP Quenese Davis, but the Aztecs outlasted Utah 70-60 and punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
It was a ticket to Austin, where SDSU would have to face the host Texas Longhorns in the first round. The Aztecs were the #11 seed, the Longhorns the #6. A crowd of 5,000 in burnt orange greeted Jene Morris and the rest of the Red and Black. It would take something insane to defeat this team in this atmosphere.
Something like, say knocking in seven of your first eight three pointers? Done. Jene Morris scored 32, and SDSU shocked Texas 74-63 to advance to the second round.
If the story had ended there, it would have still been on this Top 5 list. But probably not as high. Facing 3rd seeded West Virginia, the Aztecs marshaled a defensive effort which will lead Beth Burns’ highlight reel for years to come. Morris and Davis both poured it in from inside and out, and the result was a history-making 64-55 win, pushing SDSU into the Sweet Sixteen of a 64-team field for the first time in school history.
We talked to Jene Morris that night as she was about to board the plane and have the picture taken you saw at the start, with the net around her neck. What a moment for Jene, a true example of a great student-athlete and an incredible human being:
The Aztecs had come all the way back from a season filled with doubts to fulfill the promise of a group of talented and committed women. SDSU lost to Duke 66-58 in the round of 16, with dead legs. The legs were dead from the longest and greatest run in the history of SDSU women’s basketball.
1) San Diego Sockers win the PASL-Pro North American Championship
Homer pick, you scream! How could you put a minor league soccer team’s title over the great season of the Padres, or Jene Morris’ heroics, or…well, anything?
One simple sentence: flags fly forever. And so do banners.
The Sockers will hoist an 11th championship banner into the Del Mar Arena rafters this November, and for a team starved for a taste of a title, the Sockers are the one place we can count on for a full meal.
Unlike everyone else on this Top 5 list, the Sockers not only had something to win, they had something to lose. This was the fourth and possibly final incarnation of the indoor soccer greats. Arena soccer, due largely to the rise of the MLS and outdoor soccer in the USA, had diminished from its national level of the ’70s and ’80s, when the San Diego Sports Arena would be packed.
Behind new owners Phil Salvagio, David Pike and Carl Savoia, the Sockers were reborn again, placed at the Del Mar Arena, and entered into the PASL-Pro. Their players were a mix of old and new, with salty former Sockers vets Paul Wright and Sean Bowers being joined by a host of players who had trained for years with the San Diego Fusion, the developmental program which helped spawn players like Chiky Luna and Riley Swift. Salvagio was the coach and GM.
Everyone involved knew that anything short of a championship could be the death knell once again for the franchise. It had been years since the Sockers were great, and to recapture the imagination of the city, they would need to be great again.
But a championship was anything but guaranteed. While the Sockers dominated the PASL-Pro with a 13-3 record, they would need to face the top teams from Mexico and Canada in addition to the United States in order to hang another banner.
Hosting the PASL-Pro North American Championships at the Del Mar Arena, the Sockers squared off against Mexico City in the semifinals and needed a Luna goal with :19 remaining to outlast the Sidekicks 6-5. We broadcast the game live on 619Sports.Net and then caught up with Luna after the game.
The championship final was equally thrilling, as the Sockers jumped out to an early commanding lead but then had to hold on for dear life against a determined side from Guadalajara.
Paul Wright, the most recognizable veteran from the previous era of Sockers glory, recaptured his magic with a goal and four assists. Wright’s clever passes set up San Diego’s current goal scoring star, Kraig Chiles, who netted a hat trick.
The end result was a 9-8 win which gave the San Diego Sockers their 11th major indoor championship.
It’s one thing to win but another to do so when a loss could cost you everything. Now, the Sockers have recaptured their tradition, given themselves a championship platform to build upon this winter, and brought (at last) another title to the city of San Diego.
Championship? Check. Nobody else can say that so far this year in San Diego. And thus, the Sockers top my half-year list.
(Hang on, they’re calling everyone back into the jury room. What’s that? Please fill out your exit interview form?!?!?! Sweet! Add this to my personal Top-5. OK, my public service is done, off to watch the World Cup!)