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The Best of Times at My (Other) Alma Mater

Lately, it’s been good to be a San Diego State Aztec.

SDSU RB Ronnie Hillman capped off the football season with a 228-yard performance in their Poinsettia Bowl rout of Navy, 38-14.

For those living outside of the pseudo-state of Southern California, the state school set in the scenic ocean city has made quite an impression on major college sports over the past couple months. And, as a Master’s graduate from San Diego State University, I have never been more excited for a school’s sports program.

2010 brought a renaissance to the San Diego State football team. Under second-year head coach Brady Hoke, the Aztecs had their best season in 12 years. They hadn’t gone over .500 since 1998, when SDSU went to the Las Vegas Bowl at 7-5. Despite going 1-3 against ranked opponents, they played them tough, losing by an average of only 4 points. Under QB Ryan Lindley, dynamic freshman RB Ronnie Hillman, and WRs DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown, the Aztecs managed to post the 16th-ranked offense in the nation. Their numbers in total offense finished ahead of NCAA powerhouse teams like Alabama (23rd), Wisconsin (22nd) and Ohio State (20th).

Their regular season highlight came on November 13, when they played the #3 team in the nation, TCU. The Aztecs took a surprising 14-point lead in the first quarter. While the third-ranked Horned Frogs scored 37 straight points by the end of the third quarter, San Diego State outscored TCU 21-0 in the fourth, and came to within one drive of the huge upset, succumbing 35-40. For their efforts, they were rewarded the San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl against Navy on Festivus Night. It turned into Hillman’s coming-out party – he tied a career high 228 rushing yards on 28 carries, with four touchdowns, as they routed the Midshipmen, 35-14, to win their first bowl game since 1969. Despite Hoke’s departure to take the Michigan job yesterday, the Aztecs should continue to flourish under new head coach, and former SDSU defensive coordinator, Rocky Long in 2011.

Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team has achieved unprecedented success. Under head coach Steve Fisher, formerly of the 1989 National Championship team in Michigan, the Aztecs have progressed year in and year out. Narrowly missing the NCAA tournament in 2009, San Diego State, led by seniors Lorrenzo Wade and Ryan Amoroso, reached the NIT Final Four, falling to Baylor in the semifinals. 2010 brought bigger fortunes to the men’s squad, as freshman phenom PF Kawhi Leonard, forwards Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, and PG D.J. Gay led the Aztecs to a second-place finish in the MWC. They ultimately played their way into the NCAA tournament, defeating UNLV for the MWC tournament championship. While they fell to Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee Volunteers in the first round, they played an SEC team to a three-point loss.

No. 6 in the country, the Aztecs are led by impressive seasons by F Malcolm Thomas (left) and Kawhi Leonard.

And, now, for this 2010-2011 season, the Aztecs, considered a dark-horse to make national noise in the NCAA, have bolted to a 17-0 record (as of today), with a tough test in 13-3 UNLV tonight at Viejas Arena. Their undefeated start stands up as best in school history, and their #6 rank in the country, while unexpected, ranks among their greatest accomplishments. Some college basketball analysts have gone so far as to compare them to the Butler Bulldog squad that came to within a missed half-court shot of winning the National Championship.

Led by Leonard and Thomas, D.J. Gay provides vital backcourt help from behind the arc. Leonard has long been called “the best player in the country no one has heard of”, while Gay has recently been named a finalist for the prestigious Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard. Meanwhile, Thomas has come into his own as an elite player, a threat to score a double-double on any given night. With the Aztecs coming to the forefront of the national stage, there’s no telling how high the team can soar, projected to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA tournament.

With the new year underway, San Diego State appears to be flourishing as an athletic program. Only time will tell what it has in store in the future, but, in the meantime, I can honestly say I’m enjoying every minute of it.

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