When the North Carolina men's basketball team visited Spokane recently, everyone acted like Spokane had finally made it. Between the party at the Pavilion and the talk of a "rivalry" with the Tar Heels, for one night we mattered to people on the East Coast.
That's a rare feeling. If those on the East Coast know we exist at all, they often think Spokane is a Seattle suburb, a distant land full of evergreen trees and kayaktivists. Sports, at least, can help TV watchers with basic geography. Spokane? That's where Gonzaga plays. Pullman? That's where Mike Leach talks about football and insurgent warfare. There have been several nationally recognized teams from the area this decade that helped put the Inland Northwest on the map for those snobby East Coasters. Here's a list of five, in no particular order:
GONZAGA MEN'S BASKETBALL
The Zags machine established itself as a top program in the country before this decade started, of course. But it rose to another level in recent years after two Elite Eights, an appearance in the Final Four and a national championship game against the Tar Heels they could (and probably should) have won.
GONZAGA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL
Marked by an Elite Eight appearance in 2011 and three other Sweet Sixteen runs this decade, the Zags have become a consistently solid women's basketball program. And they sent one of their best, Courtney Vandersloot, to the WNBA, where she's a two-time all-star.
EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL
As a student at EWU at the time, I can still hear the roars echoing across Cheney in 2010 when the Eagles won the FCS championship in a thrilling 20-19 victory. Ever since, EWU has stayed near the top of FCS with incredible talent — EWU alum Cooper Kupp, in particular, has turned into a monster receiver for the Los Angeles Rams.
EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY MEN'S BASKETBALL
For a year, in 2014-15, it was EWU that felt like the region's Cinderella team in the NCAA. The squad had the nation's leading scorer, Tyler Harvey, and they generated plenty of buzz before the national tournament, where they ultimately lost to Georgetown.
WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL
Mike Leach has made watching the Cougs fun again. If we're going by national recognition (which I am), his ramblings and rants to the media generate just as much national buzz as any local program. And the hysteria over Gardner Minshew alone is enough to justify a place on this list.
WSU women's soccer, which made its first-ever trip to the College Cup this year. ♦