WSU's new hire tops memorable year in Mid-Columbia

HERALD STAFF January 1, 2012 

Has another year gone by already?

Time does seem to fly when you're watching sports, and the Mid-Columbia has certainly done it's share to fill the news cycle during 2011.

A couple of local athletes made a splash on the national stage, and all three Tri-Cities' sports franchises made a push for league championships. A few high school teams reached the pinnacle of their sport by winning state titles.

There were lots of changes, both at the high school and college level, and Dave Villwock ruled the Columbia River once again.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, here's a list of the top sports stories from 2011:

1. WSU hires a new football coach.

It's Pirate time in the Palouse.

Mike Leach, exiled by the college football community after accusations that he locked a concussed player in an electrical closet, finally caught a break when Washington State fired Paul Wulff in November after a 4-8 season.

Leach was the first choice of WSU athletic director Bill Moos, who hopes the former Texas Tech coach can turn around a program that went 9-40 in Wulff's tenure. Leach led the Red Raiders to an 84-43 record and 10 bowl appearances in 10 seasons before he was fired in 2009.

Leach sued Texas Tech over his termination, and the case remains in the Texas court system. Those who wish to read his side of the story in his autobiography, Swing Your Sword, might have a long wait if they want to buy the book in Pullman. The tome remains a bestseller at the WSU student bookstore.

At his final news conference, Wulff left a strong parting shot for his alma mater. Amid reports that Leach was targeted by Moos weeks before Wulff's firing, Wulff said, "I believe the innocence of Wazzu has been lost today."

But perhaps victories will be gained instead under Leach, whose hiring has spurred season-ticket sales at WSU. Besides wins, Leach's other big plans for 2012 include a visit to Kennewick on Feb. 3 for "A Night with Cougar Football."

2. CBBN re-alignment.

After a lively two-hour discussion on Dec. 15 at West Valley High School in Yakima, Columbia Basin/Big Nine principals voted 8-7 to split the CBBN into two geographical divisions -- North and South -- beginning in the fall of 2012.

The move was designed to cut travel costs, curb students' time away from school and foster the natural local rivalries within the new divisions.

If the new format holds, it will feature eight schools in the South Division: Chiawana, Hanford, Kamiakin, Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, Southridge and Walla Walla. The seven-team North Division would include Davis, Eastmont, Eisenhower, Moses Lake, Sunnyside, Wenatchee and West Valley.

Each division will include teams from 3A and 4A classifications.

3. Kellen Moore.

Prosser High School graduate Kellen Moore finished a strong four-year career as Boise State University's quarterback, as the left-hander led the Broncos to a 56-24 win over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22.

It was the 50th career victory for Moore as BSU's QB, setting an NCAA mark.

Moore finished the year with 3,800 yards passing, 43 TD passes to just nine interceptions.

His four-year career numbers? How about 14,667 yards, 142 TD passes, and just 28 interceptions thrown.

Earlier this week, Moore was invited to play in the Senior Bowl next month. The Senior Bowl selects the top seniors from around the country to spend a week with NFL coaches before playing in the game.

4. Dust Devils.

Dust Devils play for NWL championship: The Tri-City Dust Devils won the East Division title for the third time in the last five seasons and fell one game short of winning the Northwest League crown. Vancouver won the title, but Tri-City left its mark in the league record books, tying the NWL mark with 10 shutouts in one season.

The Dust Devils put two players on the NWL all-star team: pitchers Christian Bergman and Ken Roberts. Those two were shining examples on a dominating pitching staff that recorded the lowest ERA (3.03) in Colorado Rockies' short-season history.

Second baseman Tim Smalling led the NWL with seven triples and 19 doubles, while the defense recorded a league-low 83 errors. Tri-City manager Fred Ocasio was named NWL manager of the year.

The team also set a franchise attendance record for the fifth season in a row, reaching 85-953 fans, and also broke the single-game mark with a crowd of 3,811.

5. Hope Solo.

It was the summer of Hope for the U.S. women's soccer team.

Richland native Hope Solo was back in goal for the Americans at the Women's World Cup in Germany, and she and her teammates gave fans back home an exciting ride clear through the final.

The Americans finished second in Group C behind Sweden, but the real fireworks didn't start until the quarterfinals against Brazil. After Abby Wambach of the U.S. scored in the 122nd minute to tie the score at 2 and set up a penalty shootout, Solo did her part in goal. Her diving save on a kick by Daiane helped the Americans win on penalties 5-3.

After a 3-1 semifinal victory over France, it was on to the July 17 final against Japan in Frankfurt. Again, the match was decided on a penalty shootout with the score 2-2. This time, the Americans' magic ran out as they lost 3-1 on penalties, giving the Japanese their first World Cup title. For her efforts, Solo was named the Golden Glove winner for best goalkeeper of the tournament.

Solo turned 30 at the end of July and traded her soccer cleats for dancing shoes this fall when she signed on for the 13th cycle of the ABC program Dancing With the Stars. Her fiery personality and the even hotter temper of pro partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy did not always sit well with viewers or the media, but the duo appeared to patch up their differences and reached the final four.

6. Connell football.

The Connell Eagles had one goal in 2011: to get back that state championship football trophy.

Doing it against Cascade Christian -- the school that beat them for the 2010 state title -- made it that much better.

Thanks to Matt Hadley's 168 yards rushing and three touchdowns, Connell beat Cascade Christian 28-7 to take the 1A crown in the Tacoma Dome on Dec. 3.

But this Eagles team wasn't just about Hadley, who finished his prep career with 124 touchdowns and is headed to BYU on a football scholarship.

Kade Eppich intercepted three passes in the championship. Tyson Brook had three sacks. And quarterback Chandler Salisbury ran the offense to perfection.

Hadley, Eppich (at WR), OL Keennan VanHollebeke, DL Brook and Salisbury (at LB) were all named to the Associated Press' all-state first team for Class 1A.

7. Fever.

This time, coach Adam Shackleford got a full offseason to put together his Tri-Cities Fever roster.

And while the Fever didn't win its Indoor Football League division title -- the Fairbanks Grizzlies did that -- Shackleford's squad got hot at the right time.

The Fever beat the West Texas Roughnecks in the first round of the playoffs, edged the Colorado Ice in the next round, then beat the Allen Wranglers in the third round to play in the United Bowl, the IFL's championship game.

Alas, the Fever couldn't overcome the veteran-laden Sioux Falls Storm on the road, losing 37-10 in the title game.

Still, the good news was Shackleford's game plan didn't have his team going this far in 2011, and the team finished with a 13-5 record.

A number of players on the team were signed by Arena Football League teams.

The team's MVP, quarterback Houston Lillard, signed a contract to come back to the Fever for the 2012 season, as have a number of players from last year's squad.

8. Americans.

It seems as if every season, the Tri-City Americans go deep into the Western Hockey League playoffs.

But for the first time in four seasons, the Ams did not win the U.S. Division title.

They finished third with a 44-24-2-2 record, but they also swept Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs before falling in six games to the Spokane Chiefs in the second round.

Still it was a good season, considering the injuries and suspensions they had to fight through.

The Americans suffered without Brendan Shinnimin early in the season when he was suspended 12 games for a checking-from-behind penalty. Tri- City weathered that storm, only to be faced with others along the way, including injuries to goaltender Drew Owsley and forwards Adam Hughesman, Mason Wilgosh and Neal Prokop.

Things have gotten better for the 2011-12 Americans, as they enter the new year with the best record in the WHL at 27-7-0-0.

9. Columbia Cup.

For the three previous seasons, driver Steve David and the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto team had ruled the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup, winning the unlimited hydroplane race each time.

But in 2011, it wasn't to be.

Dave Villwock, who became the sports winningest all-time driver earlier in the season, drove the U-96 Spirit of Qatar to a victory in which he had to run down David.

David had nailed the start and had a good lead. But the Qatar crew put together the right gear-propellor combination in the boat, and Villwock -- aiming to avoid the mess on the inside where all of the other boats were -- started way out on the outside.

But his driving talent and the boat got him to catch the Oberto on lap 3 of the five-lap final, taking the lead that he never lost for his 64th career victory.

The victory also comes with an added bonus: the winning team gets to park its boat at the east end of Lampson pits the following season, underneath the only tree in the pits that provides shade on a hot summer day.

10. Hermiston wrestling.

The Hermiston Bulldogs continued to dominate the regional wrestling circuit, capturing their fifth consecutive Oregon state 5A championship at Portland's Memorial Coliseum in February.

The Bulldogs topped its nearest competitor by 60 points, as four Hermiston grapplers collected individual state championships, including freshman Tyler Berger at 125 pounds, senior Fabian Scotto at 140, junior Joey Delgado at 135 and senior Curtis Berger (189), who won his third state title.

Delgado earned his third state title in as many seasons, completing an undefeated campaign at 53-0. This year, the Oregon State-bound senior will try to become just the 20th wrestler in state history to win four state titles.

Senior Bryce McMahon finished second at 152 pounds. Four other Bulldogs placed in the top 5.

Also voted on by the staff were the following:

Anthony Armstrong wins state titles in track, cross country: The Kamiakin senior lived up to the hype, becoming the first Tri-City runner to capture an individual 3A or 4A cross country championship since 1998. He also won the 3A state 3,200 and 1,600 meter crowns in the spring.

4A, 3A WIAA baseball finals move to Pasco in 2012: The Tri-Cities scored a major coup when it outbid competitors for the 4A and 3A high school state baseball championships. The event, held in late May, will be held at Gesa Stadium in Pasco in 2012 and 2013.

Basketball tournament: The WIAA initiated a dramatic reformatting of the state basketball championships in 2011, taking control of the state's regional tournaments and turning them into state tournament games. The largely unpopular move took money out of the pockets of the home team and funneled it to the WIAA.

Sheridan McDonald: The Kiona-Benton senior earned pioneer status in Washington state wrestling history, becoming the first girl to earn four state championships, winning the 135-pound title at Mat Classic in Tacoma.

Prosser basketball: Mark Little came out of coaching retirement to guide the Prosser girls to the second state championship in program history. Behind tournament MVP Tamara Jones, the Mustangs beat Burlington-Edison 50-33 for the 2A title in February.

Sun Downs: The good news is, horse racing will be back at Sun Downs race track in Kennewick in the spring. The bad news is the sagging economy has trimmed it down to fewer races.

Billy Harris dies: A Tri-City sports legend and one of the few remaining Brooklyn Dodgers, passed away on May 27, 2011. He will be remembered as a great athlete and an even greater soul.

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