Iron sharpens Iron

Gonzaga will continue to grow through tough adversaries.

Is something considered a cliché if it’s true? Because the phrase “to be the best, you have to beat the best” is one of sports’ oldest mantras that refuses to go out of style. From the college ranks to professional teams, earning “statement wins” against highly talented opponents are seen as turning points in the right direction.

A winning record on the season doesn’t mean as much when it comes against sub-par competition, nor does it help mentally prepare for a potential postseason run.

Case in point: the last two decades of Gonzaga University athletics.

Starting with the obvious, the men’s basketball team has thrived off challenging nonconference schedules. Long before the team began playing in the McCarthey Athletic Center, the “marquee” matchups for the Zags was against in-state rivals for the most part, as well as a few Idaho schools who didn’t mind the short trip to Spokane.

Scheduling was based in large part on geographic proximity, which is understandable from a financial standpoint, but it wasn’t helping the growth of the program.

As for the miraculous run to the Elite Eight in 1998 that GU fans claim to be the program’s breakthrough moment, consider the slate of opponents the Bulldogs faced earlier in the season. Two of the first three games were against teams ranked inside the top 15, including a road game against No. 8 Kansas on opening night, as well as two more top 25 programs by year’s end. 

Showing no fear against college basketball’s bluebloods paved the way for more intriguing nonconference matchups. North Carolina, Michigan State and Arizona have all ventured to the Inland Northwest in the last 20 years. There’s also the countless holiday tournaments or neutral site matchups that stand out on ESPN’s broadcast schedule.

The team in the locker room next door isn’t looking for an easy out, either.

Though consistent success came later than the men’s program, the GU women’s basketball team has followed a similar map to the top of the mountain. Over the last decade, GU has battled with teams from the PAC-12 and SEC, arguably the two best conferences in the sport to date.

Stanford, last year’s champions who have made it to at least the Sweet 16 in the last 13 NCAA tournaments, is almost a regular on the schedule at this point, with most matchups coming down to the wire.

The battles against the likes of South Carolina and Louisville instead of smaller, local schools has led to seven NCAA tournament appearances in the last eight postseasons with rosters that continually feature more and more talent. That trend will most likely continue this season as the Zags prepare to take on six teams that appeared in the "Big Dance" last spring.

Of course, putting a program in a position to lose is not ideal, as is the growing pains that follow suit. Tough, ugly losses are inevitable for smaller schools, but valuing the process over the result will benefit the long-term success of the team. 

And over the last few years, it’s evident GU has adopted this mentality in other sports outside of basketball. 

While the women’s soccer team has shown it can compete in the highly contested West Coast Conference (WCC), its hot start to the 2021 campaign is on record as the best start in program history.  At 9-1 and riding a seven-game winning streak, the Zags are at the top of the WCC alongside Pepperdine, who sit at No. 9 in the nation according to the United Soccer Coaches poll.

Despite a few rough seasons, the Bulldogs continued to seek out the best competition in Texas, Washington State, Georgia and Purdue, with the latter two occurring earlier this season. Things won’t get easier once conference play rolls around, as Santa Clara, Pepperdine and BYU are all ranked inside the top 25.

The same can be said for the men’s program as well. A tough WCC slate follows a challenging stretch that featured UNLV, Bowling Green State and Denver.

On the diamond, early season series against Dallas Baptist, TCU and Oregon State for example help mold one of the most successful seasons to date. GU finished 2021 with an NCAA tournament appearance after going 34-19 in the regular season.

Through basketball, soccer and even baseball over the last few seasons, GU has shown a competitive attitude that’s hard to find in other mid-major schools, especially across multiple sports. At one point or another, all the mentioned programs experienced sub-.500 seasons, blowout losses and heartbreakers alike, but their spirit never wavered.

Tough love has paid dividends for GU athletics, and will continue to act as a catalyst for successful seasons to come.

Cole Forsman is a sports editor. Follow him on twitter: @CGForsman.

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