Hansen's Sunday Notebook: Title caps emotional week for UA cross country squad

This week, Star sports columnist Greg Hansen dishes on James Li and the UA cross country team's success, T.J. McConnell's growing group of fans, golf news from top instructors to Phil Mickelson's local investment opportunity, a new swimming instructor for the U.S. Navy Seals with local ties and the Salpointe football team's chance to win a title in Tucson.

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  • In its 18 sports, men’s and women’s combined, Arizona had won 22 Pac-12 championships this century. That’s how hard it is.

    That’s 22 out of 234 total opportunities, or a bit less than a 10 percent success rate.

    So when coach James Li’s women’s cross country team won its first-ever Pac-12 championship Saturday – the school had been 0 for 27 since it began official competition against league foes in 1986 – he knew what it meant.

    “The margin for error is so small,’’ he told me Wednesday. “This conference is unbelievable. Usually if you finish even in the top half, you are a nationally-ranked team.’’

    The No. 1 Wildcats had six times been second in conference women’s cross country.

    Even the great Amy Skieresz, a three-time NCAA individual cross country champion in the 1990s, could not get her team over the hump and win the league title.

    Li had an unusually emotional week. His top women’s runner, Elvin Kibet, who finished second overall Saturday, was chosen the Pac-12’s Women’s Cross Country Scholar Athlete of the Year on Friday.

    Two days earlier, Li was forced to shut down the NCAA’s top men’s distance runner, junior Lawi Lalang, who will miss the rest of the season with a calf injury.

    “It’s devastating for us, but we are not going to do anything to hurt Lawi’s career,” Li said. “His injury is relatively minor, but in running, when you have to give 100 percent every time, even a minor injury becomes big.’’

    Lalang, who has won seven NCAA distance running titles, is unlikely to return for his senior cross country season in 2014.

    “His value as a professional will be too great,’’ said Li. “He will in all probability turn pro next summer. It’s the right thing for him to do.’’

    Kibet and Lalang are from the same area of Kenya and have a strong bond. When Lalang’s injury lingered, they talked.

    “Lawi’s struggling a little bit now, but I told him, ‘You are the best runner and everybody knows it,’” Kibet said. “There’s no need for him to feel bad. The time will come that he is back on top.”

  • Arizona’s T.J. McConnell was in complete control Monday night in an exhibition game against Augustana. He had eight assists and no turnovers. Augustana’s coach, Tom Billeter, said McConnell “makes them a different team.”

    When Arizona junior point guard T.J. McConnell opened against Augustana College with an eight-assist, no-turnover performance last week, it drew significant attention.

    But for McConnell, it was business as usual.

    Amazingly, during his freshman year at Duquesne, McConnell had a six-game stretch Jan. 12-30, 2011, in which he committed just two turnovers in 176 minutes, over six games. In that period he was credited with 29 assists, 13 steals and scored 69 points.

    That’s a 14.5-to-1 turnover-to-assist ratio.

    And it wasn’t against a bunch of stiffs, but rather St. Louis, Dayton, Rhode Island and LaSalle, among others.

    McConnell isn’t a dribbler, eating up shot-clock time. He moves the ball. That’s a considerable change from his two predecessors, Mark Lyons and Josiah Turner.

    After leaving Tucson last week, Augustana coach Tom Billeter told Yahoo.com: “We’ve played Arizona three times in the last five years, and I thought (McConnell) makes them a different team. The other thing is he can also shoot the ball. We started the game doubling off him because of their size, and he made us pay. He can knock it down.’’

    True, McConnell has yet to play a Pac-12-type schedule of strong point guards, but he’s off to a good start.

  • Coach Jerry Carrillo, who learned his basketball at Salpointe Catholic and as an undergrad at the UA, won his 400th career game Friday night at Cochise College. Carrillo’s Apaches whipped visiting Westwind Prep of Phoenix 124-94 in the first game of his 19th season at Cochise. That’s 22 victories per year. ACCAC coaches predicated the Apaches to finish third in the difficult conference this year; his teams have gone 50-12 the last two seasons. Entering his first season at Pima College, Brian Peabody’s Aztecs were picked 11th.

  • Cholla High and Cochise grad Ajak Magot is expected to start at center for Idaho State; he’ll have a homecoming of sorts when ISU plays at Arizona State on Nov. 15.

  • One of the reasons Salpointe senior Krystal Quihuis was disappointed last week when she came up a stroke shy of winning a third straight state golf championship was because of the company she would’ve joined. Only LPGA standouts Grace Park, 1994-96, and Heather Farr, 1979-81, were able to win three straight state titles in Arizona. Quihuis, who has said she will play at Arizona next year, is still in elite company. Current LPGA regulars Cheyenne Woods and Amanda Bulmenhurst won back-to-back state titles.

  • I saw Sahuaro basketball coaching legend Dick McConnell walking into Richard Jefferson Gymnasium the other day, invited by Sean Miller to watch the Wildcats practice. Miller doesn’t invite just anybody; the RJ Gym is usually in lockdown. It is a magnanimous gesture to have Arizona’s career-leading prep basketball winner, 774 games, in your house.

  • Tucson High grad Christine Clark, twice a first team All-Ivy League guard at Harvard, begins her final college basketball season this year. She hoped to play a game at Arizona, in McKale Center, during her career, but the Wildcats did not make a date available. Clark, a seven-time Ivy League Player of the Week, will play at Arizona State on Dec. 7-8 as part of the ASU Classic. Close enough.

  • When Sabino grad J.J. Hardy won his second consecutive Golf Glove Award last week, the Baltimore Orioles shortstop became just the fifth active shortstop with multiple awards. It is elite company: Derek JeterAlex RodriguezJimmy Rollins and Troy Tulowitzki. Hardy earned a $75,000 bonus for his Gold Glove. In July, $500,000 was added to his 2014 contract for making the American League All-Star team. Sweet.

  • Golf Digest magazine this month ranked the top 20 golf instructors in Arizona and regrettably lists 19 from the greater Phoenix area. It ranks Ventana Canyon teacher Susie Meyers No. 11 overall, even though she has tutored two reigning PGA Tour champs, Michael Thompson and Derek Ernst. Among the many Tucson instructors the magazine overlooked are Crooked Tree pro Rich Mueller and veteran instructors Dave SimmJeff BrandtPam Drake and Glen Griffith, among others.

  • Tubac Golf Resort suffered a significant loss this fall when Dennis Palmer, a Salpointe and UA grad, was hired as director of golf at La Paloma Country Club. Palmer had been the face and personality of Tubac Golf Resort as it evolved from a sleepy, underperforming golf facility into a first-class operation.

  • Over the last few years, Phil Mickelson and his partners have bought four golf facilities in Phoenix and Payson and have been in negotiations with Stone Canyon Club, which is one of Tucson’s most treasured golf properties. It’s no secret that Stone Canyon, as with many of Tucson’s upscale clubs, has struggled with declining membership. The Mickelson brand could help to change that.

  • Former UA golfer Jim Furyk will be in Tucson later this month to help his alma mater at its annual men’s golf fundraiser. Last week he sent a personal message, on his stationery, congratulating Stone Canyon director of golf Mike Russell for shooting a 59 in August. Furyk shot a 59 a few weeks later at the FedEx Cup’s BMW championship.

  • Pro Rodeo Association barrel racer Sherry Cervi, added further honor last week. Tucsonans Chuck Rex and his wife Deanna Rex were inducted simultaneously into the Senior Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Chuck, a bronc rider who has been a U.S. Marshall in recent years, and Deanna, a barrel racer, are believed to be the first couple inducted into the Hall of Fame. They met while on the rodeo team at Central Arizona College.

  • In the ongoing absence of Arizona swimming coach Eric Hansen, who is on a personal leave, the Wildcats have been able to maintain a high level of recruiting. In the past 10 days, the Wildcats have received commitments from top-50-type recruits Zach Luttrell of Pennsylvania; Chris WeiserNicholas DeVito and Jenna Bauer of California; Austin Van Overdam of Texas; Alexandra Martelle of North Carolina and Phoenix swimmer J.J. Osborn, who is generally ranked as the state’s No. 2 overall prospect.

  • After being fired at USC and being asked to leave at Arizona, Kevin O’Neill is back in college basketball. He has been hired as an analyst for Fox Sports’ telecasts of Big East Conference games. Good work if you can get it.

  • On the advice of his doctor, Andy Lopez did not attend last week’s induction ceremony to the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame. The UA baseball coach was only three weeks out from a quadruple bypass heart surgery.

  • Small world department: Joel Favara, former Tucson High halfback, the state’s 1952 Player of the Year, is the father-in-law of Cienega High School football coach Nemer Hassey, one of eight coaches in Tucson history to win more than 100 career football games. Favara was inducted into the PCSHF last week; it will soon be Hassey’s turn.

  • Two undefeated Tucson teams won state championships at Arizona Stadium in the last 20 years: Wayne Jones’ Mountain View Mountain Lions capped a 14-0 season in 1993, beating Sahuaro 63-32.

    And in 2009, Dusty Peace’s CDO Dorados beat Sabino 40-0 at Arizona Stadium, finishing 14-0.

    Now comes 10-0 Salpointe Catholic. Dennis Bene’s team has outscored its opposition 497-53; no team has scored in double-figures on the Lancers.

    To make the possible scenario better, the state AIA governing board has scheduled the Division II state championship game at Arizona Stadium the night after Thanksgiving, Nov. 29.

    Even better, the AIA this week eliminated the scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time and changed it to a more fan-friendly 6 p.m. Now all Bene’s team has to do is to win three straight games, which is never easy in November, to reach its first state title game since 1991.

    Salpointe has not won a state football championship in its existence, almost 60 years. Now’s the time.

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