THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: It’s a big deal when Zags show up for local youth games

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Courtesy photo The Beastmode Ballers won the fifth-grade boys championship in the Spokane AAU league. In the front row from left are Justin Fagan, Taylor Smith and Joshua Caywood; second row from left, Hudson Gray, Rylan Braga, Jackson Anderson, Ben Murray, Thomas Taylor and an elf with the head of assistant coach Will Fagan; and back row from left, Gonzaga Bulldog players Corey Kispert, Ryan Woolridge, Killian Tillie and Admon Gilder, and Beastmode coach James Anderson.

Every now and then, a photo of a local youth team submitted to The Press for our weekly youth sports roundup includes, well, some folks who are more likely youths at heart.

There’s a good reason.

Just hours after shellacking the Saint Mary’s Gaels the previous night in Moraga, Calif., in what was supposed to be a West Coast Conference showdown but instead was a 30-point laugher in favor of the Zags, several Gonzaga players were at West Valley High in Spokane on Sunday, as the Spokane AAU basketball league crowned its champions.

When the Beastmode Ballers captured the fifth-grade boys championship, they received their individual awards from some pretty famous folks — Corey Kispert, Ryan Woolridge, Killian Tillie and Admon Gilder, members of the team ranked second in all of college basketball.

THE ZAG quartet posed with the Beastmode Ballers for a team photo following the victory.

“The kids are totally starstruck by seeing the Zags players sitting behind their bench watching the game,” said James Anderson, Beastmode Ballers coach who is also coach of the Lake City High girls basketball team. “We walked past Filip Petrusev (another Zag) on the way in to the gym and that blew them away. Then when they saw Tillie, Kispert, Gilder, and Woolridge come in to their game they noticed right away — even though we were in a tight game in the second quarter.

“I think it’s such a great thing for them to do that,” Anderson said. “It means a lot to the kids. I loved it as a dad. The Zags represent the community well.”

Anderson, who coaches his son, Jackson, on the Ballers team, noted that “most people respected their presence,” meaning they gave them their space.

THAT’S ONE of the many ways the Zag players, beloved throughout the Inland Northwest, give back to the community — showing up at the local AAU tournament and handing out awards to the players.

Last year, when the North Idaho Stars won the seventh-grade girls division in the Spokane AAU league, three Zags presented them with their awards and posed with them for a team photo after the victory — Kispert, Petrusev and Joel Ayayi.

Don’t think that isn’t something the locals notice, and will remember.

“For our family, and I believe this to be true for many families, it’s very exciting for the kids to see the Gonzaga players at their events,” said Ingrid Yates, whose husband, Eli, coached that Stars team. Their oldest daughter, Ava, played on that team. “The kids definitely notice. They come and cheer them on, are always more than gracious with autographs and photographs. I think it says a lot about the program at Gonzaga and the expectations that (coach) Mark Few and his staff have for their players. Their players are role models — for our local youth especially — and have always arrived being nothing less than perfect role models. They have always been smiling, encouraging and excited to share their love for the game with our local youth. My daughters are huge Zag fans.”

As if the faithful around here didn’t have enough reason to root for the Zags, as they gear up for another bid for a national title ...

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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