2019 is coming to an end, and to celebrate we are taking a look back at what we think were the Arizona Wildcats’ top individual performances of the year.
Men’s basketball — Zeke Nnaji impresses in debut
McDonald’s All-Americans Nico Mannion and Josh Green were the headliners of Arizona’s 2019 recruiting class, but Zeke Nnaji quickly showed he belongs in that category by posting 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting in just 20 minutes in the season-opener vs. NAU. It hasn’t been a fluke. Through 13 games, the 6-foot-11 Minnesotan leads the Wildcats in both scoring (16.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.8 rpg).
They said it: “He reminds me a lot of Derrick Williams because he’s also very agile. He’s not a big, strong guy that can’t move. He’s a big, strong guy that can really move. And the sky’s the limit for Zeke. If you talk to our players, he’s one of our team’s hardest workers, and he’s really gotten a lot better over the last year and a half. Go back to his junior year of high school to where he is today, he has a very, very bright future and I’m certainly glad we have him.” — Arizona coach Sean Miller
Football — Grant Gunnell shines in first career start vs. UCLA
There weren’t many bright spots for Arizona football in 2019 but fans got a glimpse of the future on Sept. 28 when true freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell threw for 352 yards and a touchdown in his first career start, a 20-17 win over UCLA.
The 6-foot-5 gunslinger wound up being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week and made several other appearances throughout the season, compiling a 65 percent completion percentage and a 9 to 1 touchdown-to-interception ratio when all was said and done. He will be Arizona’s starter in 2020 barring any surprises.
They said it: “The first thing you look at with a true freshman quarterback is number one, poise, how he handled situations. I thought he was very, very mature how he handled things, how he went about his business. Second thing that’s probably the biggest plus is zero turnovers. … We talked about at the hotel before we came over, ‘hey, look, it’s not on Grant. It’s on the 10 other guys that are on the field to make him make this thing work tonight. We gotta block, we gotta protect, we gotta hang on to the ball, we gotta fight for every yard’ and that’s what they did.” — Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin
Softball — Jessie Harper’s three homers vs. Auburn
Jessie Harper had a game of the ages to propel Arizona into Super Regionals. The junior shortstop launched not one or two, but three homers to lift the Wildcats to a 12-3 win over Auburn at Hillenbrand Stadium. Harper had two other hits that day, ending 5-for-5 with five RBI. She finished the season with a nation-best 29 homers.
They said it: “We’ve had quite a few pretty good home-run hitters here. So the great thing about our tradition is you get to get in line because someone has probably done it. (Harper) will definitely go down in the record books and the history of Arizona softball, but she’s not done. She’s a junior. And it’s one thing to have power, but it’s another thing when you can put that power on display in games. Especially big games like today.” — Arizona coach Mike Candrea
Women’s basketball — Aari McDonald sets single-game scoring record in upset at Texas
Arizona captured a statement win in Austin last month, routing then-No. 22 Texas 83-58. It legitimized the Wildcats as more than just an up-and-coming team. Aari McDonald cemented herself as one of the top guards in the country by dropping 44 points on the Longhorns, a new UA single-game scoring record. The junior went 14 for 18 from the field and a perfect 14 for 14 from the free throw line.
They said it: “I kept telling my team that I’m in my bag, like I feel it. I just feel different. And then after the first three shots, I was like ‘OK, I’m feeling it.’” — Aari McDonald
Soccer — Hope Hisey saves game at Washington State
Freshman goalkeeper Hope Hisey was something of a revelation for Arizona soccer in 2019 and her stop-stopping prowess was on full display in Pullman when she made a pair of leaping and diving saves to help Arizona secure a 1-0 win over the 15th-ranked Cougars. Looking back, the win is even more impressive than it seemed at the time. That same Washington State team wound up making a run to the Final Four.
They said it: “Oh my God, Hope was unreal. There were times where I really thought the ball was going in and we were going to have to fight back for the tie, and she just came out with amazing saves.” — senior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra, who scored the game-winner
Really?!#CougsVsEverybody | #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/wKSXkZt2K5— Washington State Soccer (@WSUCougarSoccer) October 11, 2019
Volleyball — Paige Whipple’s career-best 29 kills lead Arizona past No. 22 Washington State
Pac-12 wins were hard to come by for Arizona volleyball, which was ravaged by injuries, but it managed to take down No. 22 Washington State on Nov. 24. Junior outside hitter Paige Whipple had a career-high 29 kills on 67 swings to lead the Wildcats to a 3-1 victory. Later in the season she would become just the seventh player in school history to reach the 1,000 career kill mark as a junior.
They said it: “I was just feeling it. Julia (Patterson) and I were connecting really well and everyone was hyping me up and I was trying to do the same for everyone else. We were all just leaning on each other, and I felt that energy, which helped me play well.” — Paige Whipple
Baseball — Quinn Flanagan tosses complete game shutout vs. Utah
Pitching was Arizona’s Achilles heel in 2019 but freshman right-hander Quinn Flanagan dazzled on March 16 when he tossed a complete-game shutout in an 8-0 win over Utah. Flanagan allowed six hits and walked three while striking out four. Flanagan missed his junior and senior seasons of high school because of an arm injury, so this outing proved he could pitch at a high level again.
They said it: “Mostly fastball, I was working in and out with that. Cutter was really good. Curveball finally was feeling good out of my hand. Worked a lot of good ones in there.” — Quinn Flanagan