As we close the books on the 2015 calendar, it doesn’t take much digging to see the past one has been very good for Mid-Columbia sports fans.
From gold medals to Gold Cup, state titles for high school teams to consistent excellence for a college program, and a big year for the area’s Big 3 — Dust Devils, Americans and Fever — 2015 will be a tough act to follow.
Here’s a look back at the year’s biggest local sports stories:
1. Tri-City Dust Devils The Tri-City Dust Devils started its new relationship with the San Diego Padres with a banner season, making it all of the way to the Northwest League championship series before losing to the Hillsboro Hops in the final.
“No matter what happens with me in my future in coaching, I’ll always come back to this team and the way they went about their business,” Tri-City manager Anthony Contreras said after his first year with the Dust Devils. “The chemistry they had in the clubhouse, on the bus or on road trips — I know what it looks like now. Any time I have problems in the future, I’ll know what to come back to to round up the troops and get them back on board.”
At 42-34, the Dust Devils finished with the third-best regular-season record in team history, trailing only to the 2009 club that went 47-29 and the 2011 team that finished 44-32. They also set some team records along the way, as the pitching staff struck out 675 batters, an average of 8.9 per game. Tri-City hitters drew 357 walks, an average of 4.7 per game, to smash the previous team mark of 334. The Dust Devils’ league-leading on-base percentage of .351 helped score 390 runs, an average of 5.1 per game.
The Dust Devils had three players — SS Peter Van Gansen, OF Jose Carlos Urena and LHP Elvin Liriano — selected to play in the NWL-Pioneer League All-Star game on Aug. 4. Urena struck out twice, but Liriano pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings and Van Gansen hit a walk-off RBI single to win the game for the NWL in the 10th inning.
The Dust Devils broke the team attendance mark of 86,095 fans, set in 2012, with a season total of 89,674, a sign that minor-league baseball is still alive and kicking at Gesa Stadium.
2. High school football The Mid-Columbia picked up two state football titles in December, with Prosser beating Tumwater 22-15 in the Class 2A final.
Royal shut down King’s 28-7 to earn the Class 1A championship.
Richland gave eventual Class 4A champion Gonzaga Prep a tussle in the state semifinals, taking the lead early in the fourth quarter at Edgar Brown Stadium in Pasco before losing 31-17. Prep would go on the next week to beat Skyline 34-16 in the state championship.
John Lesser’s standout prep career ended on a sour note when he and his Liberty Christian teammates fell to Almira/Coulee-Hartline 82-70 in the Class 1B state semifinals. But it didn’t put a damper on the outstanding career Lesser had for the Patriots.
The Liberty Christian quarterback set national 8-man records for career rushing yards (9,019), all-purpose touchdowns (147) and career scoring (1,076), and was named the Class 1B player of the year.
3. Gold Cup hydroplanes. In a rare chance to host the Gold Cup, unlimited hydroplane racing’s Super Bowl, the Tri-Cities shined in late July for the area’s 50th anniversary event.
All weekend long, Jean Theoret and the U-96 Ellstrom E-Lam Plus dominated the field.
But Theoret made one mistake before the Gold Cup final, going through a DMZ area that meant automatic disqualification. But race officials needed to watch the video, so Jimmy Shane in the U-1 Oberto left nothing to chance and kept the boat at full speed, even when Theoret was way ahead.
He came back to the pits after the race, and everyone was celebrating over in the 96 camp ... until they weren’t. Officials notified the team they had been DQ’d and the next boat, Oberto, was named Gold Cup champ — setting off a bedlam-like celebration in the pits.
4. CBC sports. What a banner calendar year for the Columbia Basin College sports program.
Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams made the championship tournament.
So did the CBC baseball and softball teams. And Pasco High grad Neydeen Martinez won the NWAC title in women’s golf.
The volleyball team finished the year by making it to the NWAC tournament too.
As a side note, the NWAC moved the championship basketball tournaments to Everett after having a 14-year run in Kennewick at the Toyota Center.
5. Tri-Cities Fever. The Fever made a return to the Indoor Football League playoffs after a two-year hiatus, only to be bounced by the Nebraska Danger in the semifinals in June.
But it was still a memorable season.
Wide receiver Steven Whitehead led the IFL in receiving yards (1,032) and receptions (81). He also added 17 TD receptions, ranking second in the IFL.
He was named IFL Offensive MVP.
Head coach Adam Shackleford left the team for Spokane, when the Shock franchise dropped out of the Arena Football League into the IFL.
That opened the door for former assistant coach Ryan Lingenfelder, who was named head coach by Fever co-owner Teri Carr.
6. Tri-City Americans. It was a tough year for the Americans, who made the Western Hockey League playoffs in March as an eighth seed, but lost 4-1 to top seed Kelowna.
The Ams continued to have a tough go of it in the new season, where the team sits near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
Brandon Carlo made the U.S. team, though, and is playing in the World Junior Hockey Championships.
7. Kamiakin girls track. The Kamiakin girls track team dominated the state track championships in May, scoring 92 points to win the Class 3A title.
Holy Names Academy was second with 71 points.
Heather Donais won the 100 and 300 hurdles titles, and the Braves’ 4x100 and 4x200 relay teams were also winners.
8. State basketball. The Richland boys, led by Steven Beo and Landon Radliff, advanced to the final eight of the Class 4A state boys basketball tournament.
The Bombers, however, went 0-2 in Tacoma.
The Hermiston girls made it all the way to the Oregon girls Class 5A title game before losing to La Salle Prep 51-46.
Sara Ramirez led Hermiston (25-3) with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Tavin Headings scored 12 points, and Jansen Edmiston had 10 before fouling out with 13 seconds to play.
9. Southridge girls soccer. The Southridge girls soccer team, led by Haley Thomas, made it back to the Class 3A state finals for the second straight year before losing to Seattle Prep 1-0 in the final.
Considering the Suns had lost all-star McKaley Goffard to a knee injury before the season started, it was an outstanding achievement to make it back to the final.
“Part of me was (surprised we did so well this season) because of our early loss of McKaley,” Suns coach Greg Sambrano said. “On the flip side of that, it forced us to play as a team.”
10. Softball stars. The Richland High School softball team went 24-4 in the spring and looked dominant before running out of gas in the Class 4A state final, losing 9-1 to Tahoma.
The Bombers were led by star slugger April Utecht, who will play at Oregon this coming spring.
Meanwhile, Liberty Christian beat Almira/Coulee-Hartline 10-2 to win the Class 1B state title.
Liberty Christian outscored its state opponents 36-3.