Westward trek – BYU to join Gonzaga in West Coast Conference

The latest migration from Utah won’t involve oxen and covered wagons – but it will include an ambitious journey from the mountains to the coast.

BYU will join the West Coast Conference in 12 sports beginning next June including basketball, women’s soccer, golf, tennis, baseball and cross country. Photo courtesy of the BYU Athletic Department

On Aug. 31, Brigham Young University announced it would join the West Coast Conference in a dozen sports while going independent in football. BYU will depart the Mountain West Conference officially in June 2011.

For local BYU fans like Eric Lovinger (BYU class of ’82) the announcement means his favorite team will be visiting Spokane on a regular basis to compete against Gonzaga University in basketball, cross country, tennis, baseball and other sports.

“I think it will be good overall,” said Lovinger, a member of the Ponderosa Ward in the Spokane East Stake who attends several BYU football games in Provo each year. “With so many LDS people in this area, I think you’re going to see a lot of BYU fans turning out to support their team against Gonzaga.”

Like most residents of the Inland Northwest, Lovinger roots for the Zags and has developed an appreciation for the success of the men’s basketball team on the national stage. The program has qualified for the last 12 NCAA tournaments and won 13 regular season WCC titles.

The BYU men’s basketball team, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, can anticipate a challenge when facing Gonzaga in Spokane on a home court known as “The Kennel,” sold out each game to the tune of 6,000 fans. Photo by Craig Howard.

On a recent family vacation back east, Lovinger was asked by a Boston native about his home. While the mention of Spokane drew little more than a blank stare, the man did recognize the town’s most notable athletic team.

“He didn’t know where Spokane was, but he’d heard of Gonzaga basketball,” Lovinger said.

Lovinger’s family has also been part of Zags’ folklore. His oldest son traveled back to Utah in 2006 when GU played Xavier and Indiana in the first two rounds of the NCAA bracket. A homemade poster celebrating the All-American status of local hero Adam Morrison also made the trip from Spokane. Still, Lovinger said he plans to stand for the blue and white when his alma mater faces the hometown squad.

“I’ll root for Gonzaga except when they play BYU,” he said.

Several dozen BYU fans turned out to support the Cougars this March when the team visited Spokane for a three-game series against Gonzaga. Photo by Craig Howard.

Peggy Cannon will likely be found in the other cheering section.

A member of the Evergreen Ward in the Spokane East Stake, Cannon went back to Gonzaga to earn her degree in organizational leadership in 2003. Now an administrator with the West Valley School District, Cannon’s office resembles a Zags’ mini-museum. Autographs of stars like Jeremy Pargo, Morrison and David Pendergraft are among her collection.

Despite connections to BYU – her son graduated from there as did a number of friends in her ward and stake – Cannon said she will stick to the Zags’ side.

“I’ll root for Gonzaga, but I think BYU will do good things for the league,” she said. “At work, I’ll probably stick up for BYU when people talk about them not playing on Sunday.”

BYU will join Army, Navy and Notre Dame in 2011 as the only college football programs to play an independent schedule. In sports like swimming, track and field, men’s volleyball and softball, BYU will compete in makeshift leagues. A new arrangement with ESPN and BYU-TV will also mean more televised games throughout the year.

Jason Richardson of the Sixth Ward in the Spokane Stake graduated from BYU in 2004. He catches all of the Cougar football games on TV and said the transition to the WCC in other sports will mean “a step up in competition” from the Mountain West Conference.

As far as local BYU supporters turning out to root on teams from Provo, Richardson said he anticipates a good showing.

“I see them becoming more invested in other sports,” he said. “I think Spokane is going to be surprised at how many BYU fans come out of the woodwork.”

The Cougars will be the ninth team in a conference formed in 1952 that currently includes teams from Washington, Oregon and California. In addition to Gonzaga’s success in men’s basketball, the WCC has produced 26 NCAA Division 1 individual and team champions over the years. Pepperdine won national titles in men’s tennis in 2006 and baseball in 1992. The Santa Clara women’s soccer team earned a national championship in 2001.

Lovinger said it also makes sense for BYU to “align with other faith-based institutions.” Each of the current WCC schools has some religious affiliation.

“I think they respect our values and understand why we don’t play on Sundays,” he said.

Joe Sorenson is one of a growing number of LDS students enrolled at the Gonzaga School of Law. He attended BYU’s in-state rival, the University of Utah for his undergraduate studies and said he “might show up at a Gonzaga game to root against BYU.” In terms of team loyalty, Sorenson said many fans think local first.

“You have a lot of members of the Church who live in this area and whose allegiance is with hometown schools like Gonzaga, Washington State or Eastern Washington,” he said.

JoAnn Howard is a BYU graduate and Gonzaga fan who admits she will have “mixed emotions” when the two teams begin competing in league play next year.

“I’m looking forward to it even though I probably won’t be able to get tickets to the basketball game,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a great rivalry – may the best team win.”

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