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The Ascent of the Aztecs

San Diego has been through a lot. When the Chargers first moved to town in 1961, great things were expected and good things came about, including an AFL title in 1963. Since that decisive win over the Patriots, no San Diego-based team has won a championship in any sport. They've been to a few though.

The Padres were the first, going all the way to the World Series in 1984 but losing to a dominant Detroit squad in five games. they repeated the feat in 1998. Between those years, the city witnessed greatness in the form of Tony Gwynn, a player with a stroke many a ballplayer envied and always with a wad of tobacco in his cheek.

Yes, Tony Gwynn was quite the enigma. But he was so much more than that. Playing sports at the collegiate level is never easy, but somehow Gwynn played TWO at the same time. While he built his legacy on the baseball diamond, he also proved to be excellent on the basketball court, setting multiple school records in assists. Despite his excellence, the Aztecs never reached the postseason in any of his four years. Still, he was good enough to be drafted by both the San Diego Clippers and the Padres on the same day, making him one of the rare athletes to be drafted in two sports.

Obviously, Gwynn chose baseball and the rest is history. The city fell in love with its adopted son and cheered him on as he led the Padres to two World Series appearances. They lived vicariously through him. They had to as the Chargers were beginning their descent into mediocrity.

But that era of mediocrity was only for a short span of time for the Bolts. Soon, one of their own would be drafted by his hometown team and leave an impression that will never be vanquished. Growing up in Oceanside, Junior Seau was San Diego through and through. The legend from USC brought his passion for the city the moment he was drafted, shouting "Diego! Diego!" from the stage, brimming with pride for his beloved city. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that he would do whatever it took to bring his beloved hometown its first championship since 1963.

But it never came to be. Despite his best efforts, the Chargers rarely reached the playoffs during his 13 years with the team and lost badly in its only Super Bowl appearance. Eventually, he left for greener pastures in Miami and New England, always searching for that elusive ring that he could never attain in his home. And so San Diego's elusive search for its first championship continued.

Throughout San Diego's history, its never been known as a great basketball city, even though it hosted two NBA teams at bookended moments of the 1970s. The Rockets stayed there for just a few of their early years before leaving for Houston in 1970, eventually winning two NBA titles in the mid-90s. The Clippers were there for a short while too, before moving to Los Angeles in 1984. Time after time, it seemed like San Diego could not catch a break with the NBA. They were starting to feel left out as they saw the fortunes an NBA team could bring to its city.

But hiding in the shadows stood the Aztecs. Sure, they were a college team, but they resided in San Diego and they had built some winners over the years. There was Smokey Gaines's finest squad in 1985 finishing 20-8 with not a single member ever catching a sniff from the NBA. Somehow, they found a way to lose to UNLV by just five points in the NCAA Tournament's opening round, despite the fact that the Runnin' Rebels would finish the season ranked ninth in the country and were led by Anthony Jones and Armen Gillam with two players who had futures in the NBA.

They didn't know it at the time, but when SDSU hired Steve Fisher in 1999, the program had turned a corner. The coach of Fab Five fame hungered for redemption after losing twice in the national championship game with Michigan. Sure, it took a while for Steve Fisher's system to gel with the program, but when it did, the Aztecs dominated. Of course, much of this can be attributed to the greatness of Kawhi Leonard, a quiet but lanky player who would often sneak into the gym with his own lamps to get in a few extra shots, setting the standard for the whole program. From then on, this was the kind of mentality expected of every player that came through the Aztec program. It's no coincidence that since Leonard's freshman year of 2009-2010, San Diego State has rarely missed out on March Madness.

But like every athletic team that has resided in the city, the Aztecs have had little luck in postseason glory. Until this year, they had never been past the Sweet Sixteen. That's why it was so surprising that they found a way to go all the way to the national championship game. But it's only surprising to the outside world. Within the program, there is a confidence that has built over the years.

And now here they are, led by Brian Dutcher, a protegé of Steve Fisher who had been with him when the Wolverines lost in the national championship. Like Fisher and the city of San Diego, he hungers for the national title. After all these years, the Aztecs are in the national spotlight, about to go up against a program with so much more history. Not only does UConn bring the memories of four national titles, but they also boast an excellent recruiting class for 2023 with their sights set on dominance for years to come. San Diego on the other hand doesn't have that kind of luxury. They know that this is their time to shine. They don't have the luxury of waiting another year. For while victory may be fleeting, the joy of winning a national title will last a lifetime.

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