Iron sharpens iron: Gonzaga’s biggest gains come from tough enemies | Sports


Is something considered a cliché if it is true? Because the expression “to be the best, you have to beat the best” is one of the oldest mantras in sport that refuses to go out of fashion. From varsity ranks to pro teams, gaining “stated wins” against very talented opponents is seen as a turning point in the right direction.

A season-winning record doesn’t mean as much when it comes to below-par competition, and it doesn’t help mentally prepare for a possible playoff run, either.

Example: the last two decades of athletics at Gonzaga University.

Starting with the obvious, the men’s basketball team thrived on tough non-conference schedules. Long before the team started playing at the McCarthey Athletic Center, the ‘marquee’ clashes for the Zags were mostly against state rivals, as well as a few Idaho schools that didn’t shy away from the short trip. in Spokane.

The programming relied heavily on geographic proximity, which is understandable from a financial perspective, but this did not help the growth of the program.

As for the miraculous run to the Elite Eight in 1998, which GU fans claim to be the show’s defining moment, consider the roster of opponents the Bulldogs faced earlier in the season. Two of the opening three games were against top 15-ranked teams, including a road game against Kansas’ No.8 on opening night, as well as two more top-25 programs at the end of the season. year.

Showing no fear against the college basketball bluebloods paved the way for more intriguing non-conference clashes. North Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona have all ventured into the interior northwest in the past 20 years. There are also the countless holiday tournaments or neutral site matches that stand out in ESPN’s broadcast schedule.

The team in the locker room next door are not looking for an easy exit either.

Although consistent success came later than the men’s program, the GU women’s basketball team followed a similar card to the top of the mountain. Over the past decade, GU has battled with teams from the PAC-12 and the SEC, arguably the two best conferences in the sport to date.

Stanford, last year’s champions who have reached at least the Sweet 16 in the last 13 NCAA tournaments, are almost a regular on the schedule at this point, with most of the clashes happening on the wire.

Battles against countries like South Carolina and Louisville instead of small local schools have led to seven NCAA tournament appearances in the past eight playoffs with rosters that feature growing talent. This trend will most likely continue this season as the Zags prepare to face six teams that appeared in the “Big Dance” last spring.

Of course, putting a program in a position to lose is not ideal, as are the growing pains that follow. Difficult and ugly losses are inevitable for small schools, but valuing the process rather than the result will benefit the long-term success of the team.

And over the past few years, it’s evident that GU has taken this mentality to other sports outside of basketball.

While the women’s football team has shown it can compete in the hotly contested West Coast Conference (WCC), its hot start to the 2021 campaign is recorded as the best start in program history. At 9-1 and on a seven-game winning streak, the Zags are atop the WCC alongside Pepperdine, who is No. 9 in the country according to the United Soccer Coaches poll.

Despite a few tough seasons, the Bulldogs have continued to seek the best competition in Texas, Washington, Georgia and Purdue, with the latter two coming earlier this season. Things won’t be any easier once the conference game kicks off, as Santa Clara, Pepperdine, and BYU are all ranked in the top 25.

The same goes for the men’s program. A tough WCC slate follows a tough stretch that included UNLV, Bowling Green State and Denver.

On diamond, the early-season playoffs against Dallas Baptist, TCU and Oregon State, for example, help shape one of the most successful seasons to date. GU ended 2021 with an appearance in an NCAA tournament after going 34-19 in the regular season.

Through basketball, football, and even baseball in recent seasons, GU has exhibited a competitive attitude hard to find in other middle schools, especially in several sports. At one point or another, all of the programs mentioned have seen seasons under 500, burst losses and heart breakers, but their spirits have never wavered.

Tough Love has paid dividends for GU athletics and will continue to act as a catalyst for successful seasons to come.

Cole Forsman is a sports writer. Follow him on twitter: @CGForsman.

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