The Ems Were Named One of the Top Sports Stories of 2016 by The Register-Guard
By Mark Johnson
DEC 26, 2016
It was a year of pink slips, gold medals and Emerald crowns.
The local sports palette in 2016 was colored with championships, drama and stellar performances, and for the fans of a certain football team, filled with frustration from the first of the year to the end.
The saga of the Oregon football program dominated local news throughout 2016, beginning with a colossal collapse in the Alamo Bowl and ending with the dismissal of its head coach. The U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials returned to Hayward Field, where many faithful fans feel is the rightful home, and the local contingent of athletes used it as a springboard for an impressive medal haul in Rio. And the Eugene Ems, perhaps borrowing a little magic from its parent club Chicago Cubs, dominated summer baseball to win its first championship in 41 years.
Yes, the 2016 sports year was anything but bland. Here are The Register-Guard’s top local stories of the year:
1. Oregon football
The foreshadowing came quickly, in an Alamo Bowl the first week of January that will be remembered as one of the worst losses in school history. In what was dubbed “the most insane bowl game of the season,” Oregon raced to a 31-0 halftime lead over TCU and then gave up 31 consecutive points after losing quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. to an injury. The Ducks finally fell 47-41 in triple overtime.
Oregon thought it might have solved its biggest offseason question mark when it found Adams’ replacement in senior transfer Dakota Prukop. But a quarterback wasn’t the answer to a porous defense that never seemed to improve and finished the season as one of the nation’s worst.
The Ducks opened with home victories over UC Davis and Virginia, but then fell at Nebraska and followed that with four straight Pac-12 losses as conference opponents began slapping back at a program that had once dominated them. Oregon could only muster wins against Arizona State and Utah the rest of the way.
Notable losses included a 70-21 beatdown by Washington at Autzen Stadium, which snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Ducks, and a 34-24 come-from-behind Civil War victory by host Oregon State, which used running back Ryan Nall as a battering ram in the second half.
One bright spot was the emergence of Justin Herbert, the hometown product from Sheldon who was the first true freshman to start at quarterback since another former Sheldon standout, Chris Miller in 1983, when he took over signal-calling duties against Washington. He finished the season with seven starts and passed for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns, and rushed for two TDs.
The Ducks finished 4-8, their first losing campaign since 2004 and worst season since 1991, and 2-7 in Pac-12 play. The fate of coach Mark Helfrich was in limbo for three days before athletic director Rob Mullens announced the Coos Bay native and his coaching staff had been fired.
A week later, the 2017-18 season began with the hiring of South Florida’s Willie Taggart as head coach.
2. Year in track
The area’s elite track and field athletes certainly had every reason to feel comfortable in 2016. With the U.S. and World indoor meets in Portland, the Prefontaine Classic as a tune-up and the U.S. Olympic Trials back in Eugene, the season felt like a five-month-long home meet.
On a newly constructed track at the 7,000-seat Oregon Convention Center, the U.S. Indoor and IAAF Indoor meets were held within a 10-day stretch in March. It was the first time the World indoor meet was held on U.S. soil since 1987. A trio of locals won World gold medals, led by the king and queen of Duck multievents, Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton. Fellow former Duck Matthew Centrowitz whipped the capacity crowd into a frenzy with his win in the 1,500 meters. But those were only precursors to the summer outdoor season.
The U.S. Olympic Trials returned to Eugene with record-setting crowds that totaled 176,972. Twenty-eight athletes with local ties advanced to become members of Team USA for the Rio Olympic Games. Former Ducks Eaton (decathlon), Centrowitz (men’s 1,500), Galen Rupp (men’s 10,000) and English Gardner (women’s 100) all won individual titles at the trials, as did UO redshirt sophomore Devon Allen, who brought the house down with his win in the men’s 110 hurdles.
Oregon’s Olympians played no small part in making the Rio Games a spectacular success for the U.S. track and field team, coached by TrackTown USA president Vin Lananna. They won eight of Team USA’s 32 medals — including five golds. Earning golds were former Ducks Eaton (his second in the decathlon), Centrowitz (the first for the U.S. in the men’s 1,500 since 1908), Gardner (4×100), Phyllis Francis (4×400) and Gresham’s Ryan Crouser (shot put). Others with Oregon ties winning medals were Mo Farah (Portland, competing for Great Britain, golds in the men’s 10,000 and 5,000); Paul Chelimo (Portland, silver in the men’s 5,000); Evan Jager (Portland, silver in the men’s steeplechase); Francine Niyonsaba (Eugene, competing for Burundi, silver in the women’s 800); Rupp (Portland, bronze in the marathon); and Theisen-Eaton (Eugene, competing for Canada, bronze in the heptathlon).
3. Oregon men’s basketball
Despite an impressive finish, the season was nearly derailed by mid-January. An unranked Oregon won its first six games, but lost road games at UNLV and Boise State in December and dropped its conference opener at Oregon State. The Ducks were 3-2 in the Pac-12 after a loss at Colorado and it was gut-check time.
Oregon responded by winning 11 of its final 13 conference games and made a substantial run in the NCAA Tournament to finish 31-7, building a case to be considered among the best teams in school history. The Ducks claimed their second regular-season conference title since 1945 and fifth overall league championship, and the 31 victories were a school record. Oregon won the Pac-12 championship and tournament title in the same season for the first time and also claimed its first No. 1 seed to the NCAA Tournament.
At the tournament, the Ducks opened with a 91-52 victory over Holy Cross before downing Saint Joseph’s 69-64 and Duke 82-68. That set up a game against Oklahoma with a berth in the Final Four on the line. But the Sooners, led by Buddy Hield’s 37 points, ended the Ducks’ run with an 80-68 win.
Coach Dana Altman reached an NCAA Regional final for the first time in 27 seasons as a head coach and was named Pac-12 coach of the year for the second consecutive season and third time in four years.
Sophomore Dillon Brooks and senior Elgin Cook earned all-conference honors.
4. Oregon golf
The Ducks may have had a super sophomore in its arsenal, but it took teamwork and a homegrown hero for the Oregon men to win the NCAA golf championship on its home course in June.
Junior Sulman Raza, who won a state high school title at South Eugene in 2012, buried a 6-foot putt on the third playoff hole of the match-play final at Eugene Country Club to clinch a 3-2 victory over No. 1 Texas for the Ducks’ first national championship. It was also Oregon’s first NCAA title in any sport other than track, cross country or basketball.
The Ducks also got victories in the final from Edwin Yi and Zach Foushee, who gave Oregon a 1-0 lead before the teams teed off because Texas all-American Beau Hossler had to concede his match after an injury. Oregon star Aaron Wise lost his match in the final, but that didn’t detract from the sophomore’s winning the individual championship. Wise, who turned pro and qualified for the U.S. Open after the tournament, became only the second player to win both individual and team championships in the same year on his home course.
The Oregon women claimed the eighth and final spot in the NCAA match-play quarterfinals but was eliminated by UCLA. Caroline Inglis, the Eugene native and lone senior on the team, finished 16th in the individual standings. She turned pro after the season and earned LPGA Tour playing status after finishing 44th at the final qualifier.
5. Oregon track and field
How dominant was Oregon during the spring? It swept the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, with the women winning their sixth title in seven seasons and the men grabbing their third consecutive crown. A total of 35 Ducks earned all-American status, including 27 first-team selections.
Edward Cheserek alone took home three all-American awards, thanks to his victories in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters and his leg on UO’s winning distance medley relay. Devon Allen added a victory in the 60 hurdles. Raevyn Rogers led the Oregon women with a title in the 800, and the Ducks finished ahead of Arkansas.
In the outdoor season, the UO men and women won the Pac-12 Championships with their eighth consecutive sweep (and men’s 10th straight title). The NCAA Championships didn’t go as well; the Ducks failed to repeat their men’s and women’s sweep of the team titles from 2015.
Cheserek led the Oregon men to a fourth-place finish with victories in the 10,000 and 5,000. His five victories during the indoor and outdoor seasons gave him 15 NCAA championships overall — five outdoor, seven indoor and three cross country — to tie him with UTEP’s Suleiman Nyambui for the NCAA record. For the Duck women, redshirt freshman Ariana Washington was the breakout star, winning the 100 and 200, but Oregon couldn’t overcome an injury to star sprinter Hannah Cunliffe and a dropped baton in the 4×400 relay and finished second.
In cross country, the No. 12-ranked Oregon women stunned the field by becoming the lowest-ranked team in history to win the NCAA Championship, beating Michigan by one point. On the men’s side, Cheserek’s quest to win a fourth straight men’s crown fell short after he faded to third place. The No. 12 Oregon men finished ninth.
6. Eugene Emeralds
Nobody waited longer for a Northwest League baseball championship than Dave Elmore. The man who bought the Eugene Emeralds one year after their last championship — a shared title with Bellingham — was finally able to celebrate 35 years later when Eugene defeated Everett 2-1 on Sept. 13 at PK Park to clinch the league title. It was the Emeralds’ first outright championship in 41 years.
Eugene, which finished with the best record in the league at 54-22, rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat Hillsboro in a best-of-three series in the first round. It then split the first two games against Everett (48-33) before setting up a winner-take-all third game.
In the title game, Eugene broke a 1-1 tie with a run in the fifth inning, and then Wyatt Short came out of the bullpen in the ninth inning to retire the AquaSox in order to end the game.
7. Oregon softball
Bolstered by eight seniors, the Oregon softball team had dreams of getting back to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series in 2016. Instead, the season ended in Eugene when the No. 5-seeded Ducks fell twice to No. 12 UCLA in the NCAA Super Regional.
Oregon finished 48-10, including 20-4 in the Pac-12 and 17-5 in its first season at the new $17.2 million Jane Sanders Stadium. UCLA handed Oregon four of those home losses, including the agonizing back-to-back 2-1 defeats that put the Bruins the WCWS.
The four-time reigning Pac-12 champions — UCLA is the only other team to win four consecutive conference titles — included three-time conference pitcher of the year Cheridan Hawkins and conference defensive player of the year Janelle Lindvall.
8. Oregon women’s basketball
The semifinals of the WNIT might not seem a high enough climb for the Duck women’s basketball team to be included as one of the top 10 local stories of the year. But consider where these Ducks came from — especially after losing All-American Jillian Alleyne (19.0 points, 13.6 rebounds per game), who suffered a season-ending knee injury that derailed Oregon’s late-season push to make the NCAA Tournament.
Still, Oregon found new life in the second-tier WNIT. It ripped off victories over Long Beach State, Fresno State, Utah and UTEP before losing at South Dakota.
Oregon brought back eight players from that roster to merge with a nationally ranked recruiting class for coach Kelly Graves’ third season as coach.
9. Harrisburg football
Harrisburg was confident that it would have a good football team for 2016. What the Eagles didn’t know was how the close-knit group would deal with the death of assistant coach Eric Knox just weeks before the season began of a heart attack at age 44.
Harrisburg bounced back from a 1-2 start, shrugged off a rash of injuries and then carried its momentum all the way to the Class 3A state championship with a 34-27 victory over Salem Academy. The Eagles’ first football title in 50 years served as an emotional tribute to Knox, whose sons Hunter and Gabe, and nephew Joey, were members of the team.
10. Sheldon track and field
The Irish, led by Jackson Mestler and Jenner Higgins, used their staggering depth to capture the boys team title at the Class 6A Track and Field Championship. They rode several impressive performances — including a school-record victory in the 4×400-meter relay — to knock powerhouse Jesuit from its perch atop the Oregon prep hierarchy. That relay victory gave Sheldon 81½ points for the meet, easily topping Jesuit (70) and avenging second-place finishes to the Crusaders in 2013 and 2014.
Just missing the cut for the top 10: The Oregon State women’s basketball team wins the Pac-12 regular season and tournament and advances to the Final Four of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournamment before losing to eventual champion UConn in the semifinals; the Northwest Christian men’s basketball team advances to the NAIA Division II Tournament; the Lane women’s basketball team wins its fifth NWAC Tournament crown; the Lane men and women extend their dominance and sweep the NWAC track and field championships, and the Lane women capture their first NWAC cross country title since 1985; two of the biggest names in world soccer, Paris-St. Germain and Inter Milan play an exhibition match on a grass-covered field at Autzen Stadium; Marist’s Madisyn Bryant wins her fourth Class 5A girls tennis singles title; and Bill Wagner is rehired as Springfield girls basketball coach, leads the team to the Class 5A title game, and then steps down.
Notable high school state titles include: Churchill, Class 5A softball; North Bend, Class 4A football; Sutherlin, Class 4A girls basketball; Sweet Home, Class 4A/3A/2A/1A girls swimming; Nathan Hampton of Churchill, Class 5A boys tennis singles; Celie Mans of Siuslaw, Class 4A girls cross country; Michael Brown of North Bend, Class 4A boys cross country; Bandon, Class 3A/2A/1A boys cross country.