Year That Was 2021

Top 21 Southern Arizona Sports Developments of 2021

As a new feature this year, took look back at the top local developments monthly. With they year closing, we recount the most important events of 2021.








1. Arizona women’s basketball earns first trip to Final Four and reaches the national title game

Adia Barnes embraces Aari McDonald during Arizona’s remarkable run through the NCAA tournament (Arizona Athletics photo)

The team that was overlooked looked over a fallen women’s basketball giant it knocked out. Arizona, fueled by being the only Final Four team omitted from an NCAA promotional video, dominated a UConn program in its 13th straight Final Four with a 69-59 victory on April 2 to advance to the national championship against Stanford. Arizona tried to complete an epic run beating two women’s college basketball giants — UConn and Stanford — in the Final Four to achieve the unthinkable. The Wildcats, in their first NCAA Tournament in 16 years, came an off-balance 3-point attempt by Aari McDonald at the buzzer from living out a dream. Stanford, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, escaped with a 54-53 win April 4 at the Alamodome at San Antonio. McDonald, drawing triple teams most of the game, could not get a good look on the 3-pointer but the ball did meet the back of the rim. The ball just didn’t fall. “Aari is a tremendous player,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said to ESPN after the game. “We’re fortunate to come out with a win.” The mighty Huskies with Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma also had their 18-game winning streak snapped by McDonald and the Miracles (line stolen from our own Steve Rivera) a la Danny Manning and the Miracles that won the national title for the Kansas men in 1988. “Arizona played amazing,” Auriemma said. “It was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done. and I thought the intensity level that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end, we just didn’t respond.” Arizona returned to Tucson on April 5 after its Final Four experience and was welcomed by a large gathering of fans at Arizona Stadium.

2. Mike Candrea retires after coaching Arizona’s softball program for 36 years

Mike Candrea during the opening round of the 2021 Women’s College World Series (Troy Hutchison/

After arriving in Tucson in 1985, and taking over a program that was not close to being on the radar nationall, Arizona coach Mike Candrea  announced his retirement June 7. “It has been an honor to represent the University of Arizona for 36 years,” said Candrea. “I am indebted to every player, coach and member of my support staff that has made the Arizona softball experience one that I will cherish forever. When I arrived in 1985, I wanted to build a culture of excellence and compete consistently at the highest levels of Division 1 softball. Most of all, our goa was to prepare our student-athletes for life after softball and build relationships that would last a lifetime.” During Candrea’s time in Tucson, he turned Arizona softball into the gold standard, racking up 1,647 wins, making an NCAA record 34-straight postseasons, 24 appearances in the Women’s College World Series, and winning the national title eight times. He was also the U.S. Olympic coach in 2004 (winning the gold that year in Athens) and 2008.

3. Arizona parts ways with Sean Miller after 12 seasons

Sean Miller was 302-102 with three Elite Eight appearances in his 12 years as Arizona’s coach (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona announced on April 7 that it was parting ways with coach Sean Miller after 12 seasons as the head basketball coach. During Miller’s time at Arizona, he was 302-102 while winning five conference titles, three Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards with seven NCAA tournament appearances, including five Sweet Sixteens and three Elite Eights. Over the last three seasons, while dealing with the FBI investigation into the corruption of college basketball, Miller was 55-35, including missing the 2021 NCAA tournament due to self-imposed sanctions. “After conferring with Dave Heeke since the season’s end, it has become clear that our men’s basketball program – and our University – needs to write a new chapter in our history, and that begins with a change of leadership,” said Arizona president Robert C. Robbins in a release. “Arizona Basketball means so much to so many and, as stewards of the program, we must always act in the best interests of the university. I believe our future is bright, and I look forward to welcoming a new head coach to the Wildcat family.” Miller said in a statement, “It was an honor to be the head basketball coach at the University of Arizona. Over the last twelve years, Tucson, Arizona became our home. It’s where our three sons grew up and attended the University of Arizona. It’s also the place that we made friendships that will last a lifetime.”

4. Arizona hires longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd as head coach

Tommy Lloyd at his first Arizona practice (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona hired longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, 46, on April 14 to replace Miller as the head coach. He beat out a host of former Arizona players for the job, including names like Josh Pastner (Georgia Tech), Damon Stoudamire (Pacific) and Miles Simon (Lakers assistant). Lloyd is the first assistant coach Arizona has hired since Fred Snowden in 1972. “While there are certainly potential obstacles ahead for our program, I embrace the challenge as we will build on the foundation in place to compete for Pac-12 and national championships,” Lloyd said in a statement. “I know how much Arizona Basketball means to the institution, its fans, its community and the state, and I cannot wait to get started. That works begin now. My family and I are excited to settle in Tucson and begin a new chapter.” Lloyd retained Arizona star Jason Terry on his staff as well as associate head coach Jack Murphy, an Arizona graduate who was the director of basketball operations under Lute Olson. Kerr Kriisa also removed himself from the transfer portal and announced he was staying with the Wildcats.

5. Arizona Bowl canceled after Boise State unable to come because of COVID-19 protocol

Arizona Bowl graphic

The Arizona Bowl, in existence since 2015 without a previous cancellation, even last year despite COVID-19 concerns, announced Dec. 27 that this year’s scheduled game between Central Michigan and Boise State on New Year’s Eve will not take place. The bowl, scheduled to be at Arizona Stadium, was canceled after Boise State could not travel to Tucson due to COVID-19 cases within their program. Central Michigan, which arrived in Tucson on Dec. 26, will instead play in the Sun Bowl at El Paso on Dec. 31 against Washington State. The Cougars originally slated to play Miami in that game but the Hurricanes also had to withdraw because of COVID-19 cases. “We would like to thank our conference partners and corporate sponsors for their support,” the Arizona Bowl mentioned in a statement released on Twitter. “We look forward to providing a world class bowl experience in 2022.” Teams from the Mid-American Conference and Mountain West are affiliated with the Arizona Bowl through 2025. Last year’s Arizona Bowl between San Jose State and Ball State was nearly canceled but the game was played in front of no fans at Arizona Stadium because of COVID-19 protocol. The game pitted the champions of the Mountain West and MAC against each other.

6. Arizona great Steve Kerr named U.S. Olympic coach

USA Basketball graphic

The unreal life story of Steve Kerr added another chapter on Dec. 20 with his selection to be the next U.S. Olympic basketball coach starting in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. From an unknown high school guard out of Pacific Palisades, Calif., to a folk hero at Arizona leading the Wildcats along with Sean Elliott to the school’s first Final Four to five NBA titles in 15 years a pro to three more NBA titles as coach of the Golden State Warriors to now the Team USA men’s basketball coach … the legend grows stronger. “This is truly humbling when I think about how few coaches have ever had this opportunity to be the coach of the Olympic team in USA basketball,” Kerr said Monday morning during his introductory press conference. “I have been very blessed, very lucky in my career and this opportunity is a result of being in the right place at the right time, working with the right people. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and I can’t wait to work with all these guys.”

7. Local coaching legend Rich Alday passes away

Rich Alday (Andy Morales/

Legendary Pima baseball and Ironwood Ridge softball coach Rich Alday passed away on Jan. 6 at age 71. Alday closed his Pima career with a record of 517-251 in 17 seasons when he retired in 2018. He coached the Aztecs for 16 seasons, from 1974 to 1989, before returning in 2017 aspiring to notch his 500th career victory with Pima. Alday coached at New Mexico for 18 seasons, becoming the Lobos’ most victorious coach, compiling 515 wins. He finished with a total of 1,032 wins in his collegiate career. Alday also was Ironwood Ridge High School’s softball coach from 2014 to 2017. He coached that team to state championships in 2014 and 2016. His record there was 107-33.’s Andy Morales wrote of Alday, “Without exception, his many friends and former players will use the words ‘decent’ and ‘good guy’ to describe him. I cannot think of another sports figure, or otherwise, in the Tucson area to have this kind of loving following. All kind words for such a kind man.” Alday’s brother Sammy, a former Tucson High and Pima baseball standout who went on to coach Sunnyside’s softball team, passed away eight days after his brother Rich on Jan. 14. Sammy played for Rich at Pima. He was a teacher in the Sunnyside Unified School District and local disc jockey for more than 30 years.

8. Sunnyside great Roman Bravo-Young wins first NCAA title at Penn State

Roman Bravo-Young won his first NCAA title on March 20 (Penn State photo)

Sunnyside High School wrestling legend Roman Bravo-Young added a national championship to all of his accolades on March 20. The Penn State junior, the No. 2 seed in the 133-pound bracket of the NCAA tournament, defeated top-seed Daton Fix of Oklahoma State by a 4-2 sudden-victory decision at St. Louis. His quick takedown of Fix, an Olympic hopeful last year when he redshirted, in overtime brought him the title. “I was hanging on there at the end, but I just moved my feet and hit an angle,” Bravo-Young told ESPN2 about his takedown. “I don’t care what happened in that match. A national title is a national title. It feels amazing. I put a lot of work into this. It’s a lot of pressure sometimes but I got it done and now I’m a national champion forever.” Bravo-Young, who won four state titles at Sunnyside and went 182-0 in his career with the Blue Devils, also became a three-time All-American by advancing to the NCAA Tournament semifinals. Bravo-Young also earned his first Big Ten title defeating Iowa’s Austin DeSanto by a 5-2 decision on March 7 at University Park, Pa.

9. Tucson High grad and Arizona diver Delaney Schnell earns Olympic silver medal in 10-meter Synchro Dive

Jessica Parratto (left) and Delaney Schnell (USA Olympics photo)

2016 Olympian Jessica Parratto and 2019 World Bronze Medalist Delaney Schnell, a Tucson High graduate competing at Arizona, teamed up to win the silver medal in the Women’s 10-Meter Synchro Finals July 27 in Tokyo. It was the first-ever medal for Team USA in 10-Meter Synchro. Yuxi Chen and Jiaqi Zhang won gold for China. Schnell, 22, and Parratto, 27, joined up 10 days before trials after Schnell’s original partner, Tarrin Gilliland, pulled out with an injury. “When Tarrin eventually dropped out, Jess and I just ended up making it work,” Schnell said. “It really just took a lot of faith in each other and a lot of trust in each other, and I think that’s really what helped pay off.” Schnell scored a record 504.15 points to capture the AIA state diving championship as a freshman in 2013 for Tucson High. It is a point total that might never be broken. She is now excelling at Arizona.

10. Pima men’s soccer wins NJCAA Division II national championship

Pima men’s soccer celebrate a national title (Pima photo)

The 2021 Pima Aztecs men’s soccer team earned a national championship after winning an overtime thriller Nov. 20 at Wichita, Kan., against the CCBC Essex (Md.) Knights on penalty kicks by a score of 3-2. It was tied, 3-3 in penalty kicks when Juan Suarez (Desert View grad) saved the biggest shot of the season for his team. Pima found itself with an opportunity to win the match with a final goal scored. Salpointe grad Francisco Manzo, who scored the first goal earlier in the match, was up to the challenge. CCBC Essex’s goal keeper guessed right on the direction the ball was going. Manzo put it just far enough out of reach to hit the back left corner of the net, allowing the Aztecs to win the 2021 national championship. They also achieved a title in 2018 under coach David Cosgrove. Manzo was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Suarez and Ulysses Torres (Sunnyside) were named to the all-tournament team.

11. Chip Hale returns to coach Arizona baseball’s program

Chip Hale introduced by Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke (Troy Hutchison/

Standout former Arizona player Chip Hale, an NCAA national champion player and a World Series champion coach, was named head coach of Arizona Baseball on July 5. Hale, the Wildcats’ career leader in games played, hits, and total bases during his time in Tucson from 1984-87, brings nearly two decades of professional coaching experience to Arizona. He becomes the sixth head coach in Arizona’s modern history and the 17th overall. Hale will received a five-year contract. He was officially introduced in a press conference on July 7. Hale’s salary structure with Arizona: $500,000 to $520,000 annually for five years in base salary not including APR and performance bonuses. Hale left his third-base coaching job with the Detroit Tigers to replace Jay Johnson, who departed in June to take the LSU job. “People always ask me what is your dream job? I got to do it, I got to be a big-league manager (with the Diamondbacks),” Hale said. “But like I told the coaches back at Detroit (his most recent big-league coaching job with the Tigers), my dream job was to be the coach at the University of Arizona. I’ve dreamt about this for years and years and years. My wife (Judy) knows. We live here in Tucson. This is our community. We’ve lived here for more than 30 years now. I grew up in California, but this is my home. I finally get to come home.” Hale kept Dave Lawn on his staff from the Johnson regime and hired Trip Couch as an assistant and recruiting coordinator.

12. Caitlin Lowe named Mike Candrea’s successor to lead Arizona’s softball program

Caitlin Lowe during her press conference at McKale Center after her hire to replace Mike Candrea (Troy Hutchison/

Following the retirement of Candrea on June 7, Arizona Athletics announced later that day the promotion of Caitlin Lowe to become the head coach. One of the best players in Arizona history and the history of the sport, Lowe has spent the last nine seasons under Candrea and will now become the Wildcats’ seventh head coach in program history.  “Coach Candrea has built a culture of excellence that puts his players at the forefront,” said Lowe. “He has shown us all what it looks like to fiercely pursue our passion. He has led this team with integrity, class, and the upmost humility. I could not have asked for a better mentor in this game and most importantly in life. I take great pride in carrying on the tradition of what it means to be an Arizona Wildcat. I am so honored and extremely humbled to represent Tucson and the University of Arizona as your next head coach. Bear Down!”

13. Sunnyside’s Audrey Jimenez wins Tucson’s first female wrestling state title

Audrey Jimenez is a high school girls wrestling pioneer (Andy Morales/

Audrey Jimenez won by fall in 3:53 over Valley Vista’s Brianna Reyes to claim the 113-pound girls wrestling state title at Gilbert Mesquite High School on March 6, becoming the first female from Sunnyside to achieve that feat. Jimenez, a freshman who attended Gallego Intermediate, is also the first female wrestler from Tucson to win a state title. “It’s a great accomplishment for me and others,” Jimenez said. “Hopefully this will be the start of growing girls wrestling at Sunnyside. I’m hoping that more girls follow in my footsteps.” Jimenez was selected the Roman Bravo-Young Southern Arizona Wrestler of the Year by on March 24.

14. Aari McDonald selected No. 3 overall in the WNBA draft by Atlanta

Aari McDonald is the highest drafted player in Arizona history (Atlanta Dream graphic)

McDonald was selected as the No. 3 pick in the WNBA draft by the Atlanta Dream on April 15. She is the highest drafted player in the history of Arizona women’s basketball. McDonald took Arizona from the depths of 12 losing seasons in 13 years and no NCAA tournament appearances since 2005 to its highest ground in her three-year career. Arizona achieved its loftiest ranking (No. 6) in program history this season and the Wildcats advanced to their first Final Four and national championship game. McDonald was not named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, but she certainly was worthy. Chris Paul tweeted: “Excited to watch Aari McDonald in the W(NBA)….watched her in the ncaa tournament and she is tough!!!!!” Hillary Clinton said after the national title game that McDonald is “amazing.” Said McDonald of what her lofty draft selection means to Arizona: “I’m paving the way for all the future Wildcats out there.”

15. Jay Johnson leaves Arizona after six years to coach at LSU

Jay Johnson at his LSU introductory press conference (LSU photo)

LSU hired Jay Johnson away from Arizona on June 24 with a base contract of $1.4 million contract. His base salary at Arizona is close to $550,000. Johnson, 44, went 208-114 with two College World Series appearances in six years. “This is the opportunity of my lifetime,” Johnson said during his introductory press conference at LSU. “A lot of people will look at it and go, wait, why did you do that? What are you doing? You are a West Coast guy. That’s comfortable. That’s not what I’m about. You stare down the challenge of that, you figure out how to put the pieces in place to be successful, and then we’re going for it.” Arizona team finished 45-18 this season and won the Pac-12 title, the program’s first outright conference title since 1992. Arizona played in Omaha in Johnson’s first season in 2016, when the Wildcats lost in the championship series in three games against Coastal Carolina. LSU had a vacancy when Paul Mainieri retired after 15 seasons with the Tigers. He made five trips to the College World Series and won the championship in 2009. Nate Yeskie, Arizona’s high-profile pitching coach the last two seasons, also left to become Texas A&M’s pitching coach. Johnson is the first Arizona baseball coach to leave for another coaching job. J.F. “Pop” McKale, Frank Sancet, Jerry Kindall, Jerry Stitt and Andy Lopez all retired from coaching when they left the program. Hours after news broke of Johnson’s hire, 2022 infielder Mikey Romero flipped from Arizona to LSU. Twelve Arizona players reportedly entered the transfer portal, including All-American infielder Jacob Berry.

16. Salpointe legend Wolfgang Weber wins eight state title, eclipses 700 career wins

Legendary coach Wolfgang Weber won his eighth state title at Salpointe (Andy Morales/

Led by solid defense, and a stellar performance from freshman midfielder Adrian Franks, Salpointe Catholic beat Walden Grove 5-1 on March 20 to capture the 4A state boys soccer championship. It is legendary coach Wolfgang Weber’s eighth state title and the 699th win of his 39-year coaching career. He achieved win No. 700 early in the 2021-22 season. Sophomore forward Nico Valenzuela and junior defender Sergio Ruiz De Chavez each scored a goal, but it was Franks’ hat trick performance that stole the show.  “It feels good to get some recognition for the 39 years that I’ve been there, but I tell you this is real special, I’m really happy for them,” Weber said. “Let me also say that it’s not just me, but it’s my associate head coach Luis Gonzalez, he has been there the whole year carrying the large burden of the daily training.”

17. Sahuaro’s Alyssa Brown caps career as state’s No. 2 leading scorer in history

Alyssa Brown is the best all-around girls basketball player to come out of Southern Arizona (Andy Morales/

Sahuaro senior forward Alyssa Brown finished her storied career as the No. 2 scorer in the state behind Catalina Foothills great Julie Brase, who scored 2,913 points from 1994-98. Brown ended with 2,680 points while leading the Cougars to the 4A state semifinals on March 17, when it lost at Salpointe. Sahuaro finished 17-2, about 10 games below its normal total of games. If COVID-19 protocol did not delay the season and wipe out those 10 games, Brown could have become the first 3,000-point scorer in state history. She is now playing for UNLV as a freshman.

18. Southern Arizona High School All-Star Game takes place to showcase seniors

The Southern Arizona High School All-Star Showcase was a chance for local seniors to have one last game to conclude their high school careers (Javier Morales/

The Southern Arizona High School Football All-Star Showcase took place June 4 at Tucson High School. Recently graduated Walden Grove placekicker/punter Adrian Alvarado embodied the spirit of what the showcase was all about. His season was cut short to only three games because of COVID-19, a horrendous disease that unfortunately claimed the life of his father Raul in December. Talk about having to persevere through a difficult time in a young person’s life. The nearly 80 players who participated in the game each faced their own tribulations during the pandemic, some with their entire season canceled. Many of the players were denied the experience of completing their careers appropriately. Local businesses and the Arizona Bowl made it possible for them to have that one last chance on a high school football field with positive lasting memories. “Even though it’s tough, I still went through it and I did it for him,” Alvarado said of his dad, a monitor at Walden Grove who was highly popular at the school over the last decade. I’m not going to back down from any challenge.” Alvarado’s 42-yard field goal and his four punts that averaged 43 yards, including a 63-yarder that pinned the Blue team at its 1-yard line, were significant in the Red team (coached by Salpointe legend Dennis Bene) prevailing 10-5 in front of close to 2,000 fans at Gridley Stadium.

19. Sunnyside wrestling earns 34th state title, fourth consecutively

Sunnyside after it won its 34th state wrestling title (Andy Morales/

Sunnyside earned its 34th state championship in program history after scoring 198 points to 166.5 from Liberty in the Division 1 state competition. Anthony Leon coached the Blue Devils to a state title in 2013 at the Division I level but four straight years of finishing in second place followed. That kind of result would be a dream for lots of programs but the Blue Devils wrestle for the top and Leon brought them back there in 2018. That championship led to another one in 2019 and still another in 2020 at the D-II level and then the team was bumped back up to D-I for this season. Sunnyside distanced itself from Liberty after it was announced that Bravo-Young won the 133-pound national championship for Penn State that same day. “Today was a great day with Roman Bravo-Young winning the NCAA championship,” Leon said. “That really lifted our hopes. We love that guy and everybody on the team looks up to him. Quite frankly, everybody in Tucson looks up to that kid. When he won, I felt like it was pre-ordained (for his team to win the title).” Sunnyside’s state champs included James Armstrong (113 pounds), Sebastian Robles (160) and Rene Fragoso (182).

20. Salpointe softball goes 24-0 and wins third straight state championship

Amy Rocha congratulates Alyssa Aguilar after Aguilar hit the game-winning home run in the state title game (Andy Morales/

Salpointe became the seventh softball team in the state to win a championship unbeaten after the Lancers held on to defeat Vista Grande 5-4 May 17 at Hillenbrand Stadium on the Arizona campus. The victory gave the Lancers their fifth state championship as the program finished 24-0. Head coach Amy Rocha guided the program to three straight championships with a 2020 out of the equation due to COVID restrictions. Alyssa Aguilar was the winning pitcher and she it the game-winning home run.

21. Arizona finishes 1-11 in Jedd Fisch’s first season after snapping 20-game losing streak

Jedd Fisch (Arizona Athletics photo)

Where else do you see a team win the statistical battle – sometimes more often than you think – and still fail to win the game? Arizona, of course. Such is life for Arizona football. The afternoon of Nov. 27 was not exactly a stroll in a Tempe park because the Arizona State Sun Devils didn’t allow it in defeating Arizona 38-15 at Sun Devil Stadium. It was the fifth consecutive loss to the Sun Devils for Arizona and fourth time this season where Arizona out did its opponent – statistically – and lost. Once again, Arizona played well enough to play close but not well enough to win. Welcome to most of the 2021 season and Jedd Fisch’s first year. Arizona failed to score more than 17 points six times. Only once did it win. Of course, it helped the Wildcats snap that horrendous 20-game losing streak and finish 1-11 in the first year of the Fisch era. “I’m looking for many a game with many points,” Fisch said. “It’s how you bounce back, right? We’re turning it around and I’m excited where our program is headed. There’s no question in my mind we’re going to be a good program over the course of time.”



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MARCH 2021

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APRIL 2021

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MAY 2021

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JUNE 2021

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JULY 2021

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Click on the photos to access the top local developments of December 2021

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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