March 11, 2002 11:00 pm

This winter has been the year of exceptional female sports teams in Northeast Oregon. From the La Grande Tigers to the Cove Leopards to the Eastern Oregon University Mountaineers, our areas teams have shined this year. They deserve a hearty congratulations for proving that when it comes to athletics, Northeast Oregon cannot be taken lightly.

The Lady Tigers and Lady Leopards extended their seasons to the last day of their divisions seasons. Both teams advanced to state championship games. For most teams, just getting to a state tournament is reason to celebrate. But La Grande and Cove took the celebration another notch, right up to the title games. Few teams ever reach that level.

The Tigers surprised a lot of people at the state Class 3A tournament. Despite being ranked No. 2 going in, there probably were more doubters than believers that a team from Eastern Oregon could make it to the championship game. Getting there wasnt easy. The Tigers had to knock off highly touted Molalla to get the right to take on Marist of Eugene, and the Tigers did just that. No one expected the Tigers to beat Marist, but they did that, too, setting up a showdown with defending champion Wilsonville, a school that will bump up to the 4A level in the future.

Knocking off a defending champion isnt easy, as the Tigers discovered in Saturdays title game. They came out strong and went into halftime with a seven-point lead. Wilsonville came back tough in the second half and

La Grande went cold, but the Tigers didnt let the defending champs run away with the game. Wilsonville managed a seven-point win, but the game was a lot closer than the score indicated because the Tigers had to start fouling.

Understandably, the Tigers were disappointed with the outcome of the game. But they shouldnt let that loss take the glimmer off a fantastic season and an excellent tournament. The Tiger girls played like champions through the tournament, and nothing can take away the teams accomplishments this year. The Lady Tigers did themselves, their school and the community proud.

The same can be said for Cove, which played for the 1A title. As much as winning a championship game is the goal, getting there is what proves what a team is made of. The Lady Leopards became a force to be reckoned with in the Old Oregon League, at the district tournament and at state. Few teams can boast the kind of season Cove had this year. The Lady Leopards made this a year to remember.

The Lady Mountaineers of EOU may have been the biggest surprise of all this year in our region. A winning season would have been a moral victory, but the team went far beyond that. It compiled a 14-game wining streak on its way to a conference title. That the Lady Mountaineers didnt advance in the playoffs was disappointing, but not to the extent that it would overshadow the teams accomplishments and what those accomplishments will mean to womens athletics at Eastern.

What a winter its been. The Tigers, the Leopards and the Mountaineers have made our region proud. Congratulations!