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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Top sports stories of the year

    Lute Olson
    Lute Olson

    1. The Lute-K.O. saga

    Kevin O’Neill certainly didn’t sign up for this.

    Nobody in the program did.

    Things weren’t quite right from Nov. 4, the morning of the first men’s basketball exhibition game, when UA head coach Lute Olson announced he would take an indefinite leave of absence. Nobody in the program had many answers from there.

    On Dec. 6, Olson announced he would be extending the leave of absence for the entire year, and on Dec. 18, the interim head coach O’Neill was named Olson’s successor, an offer that has since been rescinded.

    During Olson’s leave, rumors circulated of tension between Olson and O’Neill, with O’Neill apparently unhappy about Olson talking to the players and Olson unhappy with the way O’Neill slowed down his team’s typically high-octane offensive attack, which grinded on some players as well.

    “”It’s definitely not what you signed up for,”” forward Chase Budinger said of the circumstances of the year. “”I came in last year thinking we were playing one style and the next year coming around and just totally flip-flopping and playing a different, another style, that kind of got to me a little bit.””

    Then during Olson’s chippy April 1 news conference he announced O’Neill would not be returning to his staff next year, leading to his eventual shameful demotion to a very well-paid fundraiser.

    Although the Olson-O’Neill partnership ended up being a nightmare, O’Neill still led a depth-starved team to the program’s 24th straight NCAA tournament appearance during a tumultuous season of drama.

    “”People don’t realize K.O. was put in a tough spot from jump off, and fans need to realize what a good job he’s done,”” said senior Jawann McClellan. “”This is not your typical Arizona team where you have eight or nine pros running up and down the court. He’s done a great job, we made the tournament again, and basically we’ve played five players all year long. I think people need to give credit to K.O., too.””

    – Michael Schwartz


    2. Swim squads deliver national championships

    The No. 1 Arizona men’s swim team added to the program’s historic season after winning the 2008 NCAA men’s swimming national title.

    The Wildcats’ 500 points topped Texas (406), Stanford (344.4), California (332.5) and five-time defending NCAA champion Auburn (316.6), as they brought a second national championship in as many weeks to Tucson after the women’s side bested two-time defending national champion Auburn by 136 points in Columbus, Ohio, one week prior to the men’s title run.

    The two national titles capped an already impressive list of accomplishments for both the men’s and women’s squads. The men went undefeated in dual meets (9-0), the women won a third-straight Pacific 10 Conference Championship and both squads won national titles, all firsts in the history of Arizona swimming.

    “”I came from Brazil and I had no idea what ‘a team’ meant,”” said junior Nicolas Nilo. “”My freshman year I was kind of confused and I was learning a little bit about everything. Now I think I finally got the definition of the word ‘team,’ and this is it.””

    As Arizona head swim coach Frank Busch had harped on all year, it would take a total team effort to win, and the teams did exactly that. No single person stood out too far from the rest as both squads had two swimmers win individual titles – senior Lacey Nymeyer in the 100-yard freestyle and junior Lara Jackson in the 50y freestyle for the women and seniors Albert Subirats’ repeat win in the 100y butterfly and Darian Townsend’s 200y individual medley title.

    The women had an NCAA maximum 18 swimmers qualify for the meet, enabling them to qualify many swimmers for the finals and earn valuable points toward the team title. The men’s team followed suit and qualified 13 swimmers for the NCAAs.

    While the women dominated their meet by sweeping all five relay events, an NCAA championship meet first, the men took three of the five relays (400y medley, 800y freestyle and 400y freestyle), and placed second in the other two events (200y freestyle and 200y medley).

    “”It was one of the fastest meets in NCAA history and just to make it to this meet was an accomplishment,”” Nymeyer said of the women’s championship. “”It just shows the strength of our team.””

    – Brian Kimball


    3. Softball wins back-to-back titles

    It has almost become a summer tradition for the fans of Arizona athletics: The softball team wins a national championship. Last June, the Wildcats won their second consecutive national championship, the eighth title in the program’s illustrious history.

    The Wildcats came back from a 1-0 deficit to beat Tennessee twice in the championship series to capture the title.

    Arizona, which finished the season 50-14-1, became the first squad to advance through the loser’s bracket to win a national championship since UCLA did it in 2003.

    “”This was by far one of the most memorable College World Series that I have been through in a long time,”” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said in the post game press conference. “”The grit, the focus, the relaxing, the fire, (Taryne Mowatt in the circle), our seniors stepping up on when it counted.””

    Unlike the year before, the Wildcats had to face much adversity as they took their journey toward another national championship. The Wildcats survived five elimination games to win the title, just the third team to accomplish that feat in 26 years.

    – Ari Wasserman


    4. ASU owns UA, minus swim

    In past years, Wildcat students looked up north at ASU and joked about the Sun Devil athletic program. Its football team wasn’t great, its men’s basketball team was laughable and their most famous baseball alumnus was Barry Bonds.

    But recently, the Sun Devils have taken no prisoners and have whipped the Wildcats into submission. ESPN.com even took notice and wrote an article in April about the 180-degree turnaround.

    The UA men’s basketball team had beaten ASU 24 of its last 25 meetings before being swept this past season – the first time that happened since 1995.

    The UA football team lost to ASU for the third straight year to crush any hope of going to a bowl game. Arizona’s softball team was swept by ASU for the first time in two decades.

    The only Arizona varsity teams that topped ASU this past academic year were the gymnastics team and the men’s and women’s swimming teams.

    In February, UA football head coach Mike Stoops compared ASU to a junior college in a press conference and apologized a couple days later. Stoops certainly learned from this mistake: If you can’t walk the walk, you can’t talk the talk.

    – Lance Madden


    5. Bonvicini fired

    The Arizona women’s basketball program witnessed the end of an era this season when 17-year head coach Joan Bonvicini was dismissed from the final year of her contract.

    The news came just weeks after the Wildcats ended their 2007-08 campaign with a dismal 10-20 record, the teams’ third straight year finishing below .500.

    Bonvicini left as the program’s winningest coach with an Arizona record of 287-223 and a career record of 612-294 and also led the Wildcats to seven NCAA tournament appearances.

    “”This is much less about our past and much more about our future,”” said UA athletic director Jim Livengood in a press release.

    Livengood found a replacement three weeks later in former Kentucky assistant and former Tennessee player, Niya Butts.

    – Bobby Stover

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