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Fans and supporters of San Diego-area sports franchises are maddeningly un-jaded by postseason success. The Padres and Chargers have made occasional forays into the playoffs, but aside from a 1963 championship in the eight-team American Football League, neither has won the championship of their respective major league. Alas, the current iterations of our baseball and football standard-bearers show little sign of contending anytime soon.
If one digs a little deeper into the local sporting landscape this week, however, one may find refreshing respite from the aforementioned lack of playoff achievement.
The Tijuana Xolos play Brazilian power Atlético Mineiro in the second leg of their Copa Libertadores quarterfinal on Thursday evening. The long trip to Belo Horizonte, Brazil and the quality of their opponent make for a difficult task. That endeavor looked a bit easier for Tijuana until the 93rd minute of the first leg at Estadio Caliente, when Atlético pulled back a second crucial away goal to draw the Xolos 2-2. It was a heartbreaking finish for Club Tijuana after leading 2-nil at half time.
The two-leg Copa Libertadores match is scored on aggregate (total goals). So while Tijuana emerged with an overall tie, they are essentially behind going into the second leg. The away-goal tiebreaker means that a 0-0 or 1-1 result would eliminate the Xolos. A 2-2 draw in Belo Horizonte would send the match to penalty kicks, while a 3-3 draw or any Tijuana win would send the Xolos to the semifinals and the city of Tijuana into pandemonium.
Adding to the intrigue is speculation that Xolos coach Antonio Mohamed, who recently announced he was stepping down to return to his native Argentina, may abandon his post after the match regardless of the outcome.
The Atlético-Xolos match can be seen on Fox Deportes tonight at 6 p.m.
It’s been a wild couple of weeks in Mexican soccer. The Liga MX championship, won last season by the Xolos, was snatched away in stunning fashion by Mexico City’s Club América. Down a goal to Cruz Azul and playing with 10 men in a driving rainstorm, América tied the game on a deflected header by their goalkeeper in the dying seconds of regulation at Estadio Azteca. América’s eventual win on penalties gave rise to this fantastic GIF by a Deadspin commenter of the exulting América coach.
The Xolos play Club América in an exhibition match at Petco Park on July 6.
On this side of our border conurbation, the University of San Diego Toreros baseball team continues on a postseason run of their own. USD third baseman Kris Bryant’s dinger-proficiency did his school proud as the Toreros won the West Coast Conference tournament.
Bryant knocked his 31st home run of the season in the win over BYU that sent USD to the tournament final, but it was the out-of-nowhere performance of freshman pitcher Troy Conyers that sealed the championship for the Toreros. Conyers, from El Capitan High School in Lakeside, threw a complete-game shutout at the San Francisco Dons to slam the door on a 2-0 win and a spot in the NCAA tournament. It was the first start of Conyers’ college career, and it won him the WCC tournament Most Valuable Player award.
USD wasn’t the only local baseball concern to snag a conference crown. The Toreros’ cross-town rival San Diego State Aztecs will join their municipal brethren at the diamond big dance after vanquishing the strongly favored New Mexico Lobos to win the Mountain West Conference tournament.
The Aztecs were aided by timely pitching as well, but it was the unbelievable offensive output of freshman Tyler France that led SDSU to victory. France went 16 for 21 over six games in the tournament, with four doubles, two home runs, eight runs batted in and nine runs scored. He, too, won his respective tournament’s MVP award.
The conference title had to be a uniquely proud moment for Aztecs coach, legendary Padre and baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who has battled oral cancer for more than two years. SDSU baseball’s Twitter account posted this photo of Gwynn holding the MWC championship trophy after the big win.
The two San Diego Cinderellas could be on a collision course. Both the Toreros and Aztecs were selected to the Los Angeles regional of the NCAA baseball tournament. The Toreros open against the Cal Poly Mustangs on Friday at 2 p.m. at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, while the Aztecs take on the Bruins at 6 p.m. Friday. The double-elimination regional continues through Monday, if necessary. SDSU and USD would have to defeat their higher-seeded opponents in order to meet in an all-San Diego showdown for advancement in the tournament.
Another Aztec alum is distinguishing himself as a professional in his team’s postseason campaign. Former SDSU basketball star Kawhi Leonard has emerged as a key player in a supporting role of the San Antonio Spurs return to the NBA finals. As a collegian in 2011, the Riverside native led the Aztecs to their most successful season, when they won 34 games and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
Skeptics questioned Leonard’s decision to declare for the NBA draft after just his sophomore year of college. Despite missing the first few months of his rookie season while an NBA lockout kept players sidelined, the choice has proved fruitful. Leonard was fortunate to land at a top-level organization in San Antonio, with great coaching and elite players like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Grantland recently chronicled the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the draft-day trade of Leonard’s rights from the Pacers to the Spurs.
Finally, it was heartening to learn that longtime North County Times and U-T San Diego reporter John Maffei survived the latest round of layoffs at the flagship daily. This week, among his other work, Maffei checked in with La Salle pitcher and La Jolla High School alum Pat Christensen, along with a progress report of other local athletes. You could do much worse than to burn a few monthly clicks on Maffei’s articles.
Here’s wishing us all health, happiness, continued prosperity and vicarious playoff euphoria.