WALLA WALLA — Two thousand and nine — the last year of the first decade of a new century.
To say that 2009, from a sports perspective, was a curious mixture would be, in a word, accurate.
Because it was a year in which one area team made it to the championship trophy room and so many others were left standing at the doorsteps.
A year in which some well known coaches would reach major milestones while so many others would come and go.
It was a year in which we gained a new golf course, a summer baseball team and a refurbished athletic facility, but we lost three good friends.
And there were so many other moments to remember along the way.
But let’s begin with that one area team that was successful in bringing home a championship at its highest level of competition.
And it was just last month, too, when Walla Walla Community College’s women’s soccer team defeated Eastern Division rival Columbia Basin 1-0 in Tukwila to capture its first NWAACC championship in the program’s history. And considering it was the Warrior women’s sixth appearance in the title game, it called for quite a celebration.
Meanwhile, WWCC’s men’s soccer squad became one of the area bridesmaids as the Warriors fought all the way to the NWAACC finals before losing to Bellevue 2-1. It was a flip-flop from 2008 when the Warrior men celebrated their first NWAACC championship and the WWCC women settled for second place.
But the Warrior men had plenty of company in their runner-up role, including another Tausick Way resident.
WWCC’s softball team also finished second in the NWAACC Championships. A satisfying second, too.
The Warriors went to the tournament as the fourth seed out of the Eastern Division.
But they beat every team they faced in the tournament at Portland’s Delta Park other than Mount Hood, which handed Walla Walla 4-2 and 5-1 setbacks to claim the championship in the double-elimination affair.
When it was all over, the Warriors were 37-19 and owners of a third consecutive 30-win season.
Also last spring, the DeSales and Touchet baseball teams and the Touchet softball team all settled for second-place state trophies on the same Saturday in Yakima.
The Irish baseball team, in pursuit of its 17th Class B state championship, suffered an 11-10, eight-inning defeat at the hands of Northwest Christian in the championship game. It was a bitter defeat for a DeSales team that had rallied for three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 10-7 lead after seven regulation innings resulted in a 7-7 tie.
Touchet’s baseball team made it to the new Class 1B finals but came up short as Wilbur-Creston prevailed 10-4. And the Indians softball team suffered a similar fate as Colton, one of Touchet’s Southeast District rivals, pounded out a 13-1 championship game victory.
It was no doubt even more disappointing for Helix’s volleyball team in November’s Oregon Class 1A state tournament. After winning the Big Sky Conference Eastern Division and district championships yet again, the Grizzlies fought to the finals at state before losing to Imbler in three games.
It marked Helix’s fourth consecutive state tournament appearance, and the Grizzlies’ third trip to the finals. And all three ended the same sad way.
Mac-Hi’s boys soccer team came up one victory short of a state championship as well. But for the Pioneers, who were back-to-back state champions in 2006-07, their 2-1 defeat at the hands of La Salle in the Oregon Class 4A championship game probably didn’t hurt quite as much.
Unless, of course, you consider that it was La Salle that thwarted Mac-Hi’s bid for a threepeat by ousting the Pioneers in the 2008 quarterfinals.
The consolation prize came a few weeks later when junior forward Oscar Flores was named the Oregon Class 4A Player of the Year for his amazing 38-goal season.
As usual, there were numerous other area teams that reached state-level competition but didn’t have quite the staying power to make it to the finals.
One of those was Wa-Hi’s boys basketball team that made it back to the Class 4A state tournament for the first time since 2003. The Blue Devils, after finishing second in the Big Nine Conference’s Cascade Division, came on strong in the postseason, winning the district title for the first time since 1990 and placing second at the regional tourney.
Wa-Hi opened state play in Tacoma with a victory over Todd Beamer, but losses to Federal Way and Inglemoor ended the Blue Devils’ season and sent them home with a final 20-9 mark.
Also during the basketball season: Walla Walla Community College’s women’s team made its ninth straight appearance in the NWAACC Championships and brought home the fourth place trophy; Pomeroy returned to the Washington Class 2B girls state tourney and placed eighth, collecting the first state trophy in the program’s history; Helix qualified for Oregon’s Class 1A state tourney for the first time in 20 years, but the Grizzlies dropped their first two games in Baker City and headed home; and Burbank’s boys and girls teams both qualified for the Washington Class 1A state tourney in Yakima, although neither made it to Saturday’s trophy round.
Wa-Hi’s girls basketball team won the Cascade Division and district titles. But the Blue Devils saw their season end when they ran out of gas at regionals.
Springtime saw Walla Walla Community College qualify it’s men’s and women’s rodeo teams for the College National Finals after defending their Northwest Regional titles. The men’s team tied for third in the final national standings and the women placed seventh.
Wa-Hi also qualified its softball team for the Class 4A state tourney. And it was a remarkable journey for the Blue Devils, who won the Big Nine’s Cascade Division title, the district championship and the regional crown before winning five of their six games at state, including four straight in the losers’ bracket, to claim the third place trophy.
The Mac-Hi and Weston-McEwen softball teams also qualified for state playoffs. The Pioneers lost to North Mason in the first round of the Oregon 4A playoffs and Weston-McEwen fell to Monroe in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs.
The football season offered some intrigue as well as Wa-Hi, DeSales, Waitsburg-Prescott and Touchet qualified for the postseason.
As the third-place team from the Cascade Division, Wa-Hi earned a first-round home game against Moses Lake and prevailed 12-7. But the Blue Devils’ second postseason assignment was at Cascade Division champion Eisenhower, and the Cadets’ 26-20 victory ended Wa-Hi’s season.
Touchet was likewise the No. 3 seed out of the Southeast 1B-8 League, duplicating its 2008 campaign. And like last year, the Indians’ playoff run was a short one as they lost at Almira-Coulee-Hartline in the first round.
The most attention was focused on DeSales, Waitsburg-Prescott and Asotin, who finished in a flat-footed tie for first, second and third places in the Southeast 2B-11 League. And since there were only two playoff berths available, they got together in Dayton for a three-way mini-playoff to decide the debate.
Ironically, DeSales, considered by most to be the outsider, grabbed the top seed, W-P secured the second playoff ticket and Asotin, the defending champ and prohibitive favorite going into the season, was sent home.
Colfax, on its way to the Gridiron Classic, eliminated both DeSales and Waitsburg-Prescott in the 2B-11 playoffs. The Bulldogs whipped W-P in the first round and DeSales two weeks later in the state semifinals, but not before the Irish had posted playoff wins over White Swan and La Salle to become their league’s last team standing.
In other notable team achievements, the Wa-Hi and Mac-Hi boys golf teams claimed district titles, Mac-Hi’s wrestling squad won the district championship for the first time since 1998 and finished 12th at the Oregon 4A state meet, and Waitsburg-Prescott’s boys track and field team was a district champion and placed third at the Class B state meet.
Individually, Pomeroy’s Tye Knebel was the state B wrestling champion at 145 pounds and W-P’s James Lehr was a double state track champion in the shot put and discus.
Blue Devils Gary Winston (Idaho) and Michael Weisner (Montana) signed college basketball letters of intent and Wa-Hi’s Rachel Todorovich (Washington State) did the same in volleyball.
Former Wa-Hi basketball standout Thomas Kelati got a pro tryout with the Los Angeles Lakers and DeSales’ T.J. Conley did the same with the New York Jets after leading the nation in punting at the University of Idaho. Neither survived the final cut.
But another another former Blue Devil, left-handed pitcher Eric O’Flaherty, found a home in the Atlanta Braves bullpen after being lost through waivers by the Seattle Mariners.
Bobbi Hazeltine, WWCC’s veteran women’s basketball coach, celebrated her 200th Warriors victories during the 2008-09 season. And her counterpart at Whitman College, Michelle Ferenz, recorded her 100th Missionary coaching victory.
The coaching carousel began to spin in January when longtime Touchet football coach Wayne Dickey announced he was stepping down. During his 30 years on the Indians’ sidelines, Dickey logged a 188-111 record, won four 8-man state championships, nine conference titles and posted three undefeated seasons.
Dickey remains at Touchet and continues to coach the Indians’ baseball team. Gary Dorman, Dickey’s faithful assistant during 29 years of his 30-year tenure, took over the football program.
Wa-Hi athletic director Don Wilkens has been kept busy dealing with one coaching change after another.
Harvey Wellington, the boys head track coach for 31 years, announced his resignation last spring after leading the Blue Devils to yet another dual-meet championship season. Wa-Hi posted a 104-3 dual-meet record during Wellington’s final 10 seasons in charge.
Pat Graham, one of the Blue Devils’ offensive assistant football coaches, left to take the head coaching position at his alma mater, DeSales. And Ryan Carter, head baseball coach and defensive coordinator on the football team, left to become the head baseball coach at Kamiakin High in the Tri-Cities.
Then, at the conclusion of the Blue Devils’ football season, head coach Marc Yonts announced that he was stepping down.
Keith Gradwohl, a former head coach and longtime assistant, has been named Carter’s replacement as head baseball coach. But neither Wellington’s nor Yonts’ head coaching vacancy has been filled.
Jack Mehn stepped down as Wa-Hi’s girls head basketball coach and Jill (Watkins) Meliah, a former Blue Devil standout, was promoted to head coach. And Mike Washington took over Wa-Hi’s boys soccer program from Kelati Waldegabber.
In a major coaching change at WWCC, Mike Cummins was not retained as the head baseball coach and Dave Meliah, one of his assistants, was promoted.
And at Whitman College, Jared Holowaty was hired as the Missionaries’ new head baseball coach, replacing Casey Powell, who resigned to take an assistant baseball coaching job at Seattle University.
Whitman also made news in 2009 by eliminating its NCAA ski programs and by unveiling its refurbished Sherwood Center indoor athletic facility.
The Wine Valley Golf Club — Walla Walla’s spectacular 18-hole links course just west of town — opened for business in the spring.
And in the fall, it was announced that the West Coast League was placing an expansion franchise in Walla Walla. The Walla Walla Sweets, a wood-bat baseball team, is owned by a Seattle group with Whitman College ties and will begin play in a revamped Borleske Stadium in June.
Finally, Walla Walla lost three very good friends in 2009 when Tim Corfield died in August, Gerwyn Jones in November and Dick Monahan just a few days ago.
Corfield, 66, was a former rodeo coach at Walla Walla Community College who served for many years as the National Collegiate Rodeo Association director; Jones, 99, regarded as the father of Little League baseball in Walla Walla, was active throughout his life in this valley; and Monahan, 69, was a former Wa-Hi and University of Idaho football standout who turned a horse racing hobby into an amazing climb through the American Quarter Horse Association that would have led him to the organization’s presidency in 2011 had he lived.