State

A special day for talented Bispo clan

Pardon Karlee Bispo for interrupting a few hellos with well-wishers. After all, it was time to sing "The Eyes of Texas" with her teammates.

And forgive Brad Bispo for leaving before the end of his sister's first collegiate meet. After all, he had a football game to play in about four hours.

Fact is, Karlee splashed into a new phase of her swimming career Saturday not long before another game for Brad at UC Davis. And -- get this -- both found a way to attend the other's competition.

Along with, by the way, more than 50 family and friends.

Said UC Davis coach Bob Biggs, "If he (Brad) weren't up there to support his sister, I would have kicked him in the rear."

Biggs' words wrapped a huge bow -- colored Aggie blue and Texas burnt orange -- around an eventful day with the Bispo family. Packed schedules are business as usual for the clan of Frank and Deanna Bispo and their five children, but this Saturday sparkled more than most.

Karlee, 18, and the Texas Longhorns swam into Berkeley for a season-opening duel against Cal. About an hour away, Brad, 22, and his UC Davis team welcomed Iona for a nonleague game that night.

Which meant for a memorable and perhaps unprecedented road trip for the Bispos and friends, and not just because No. 7 Texas overwhelmed No. 5 Cal 175-123 and the Aggies ran away from Iona 55-24.

"I'm excited. It doesn't get much better than this," Brad said. "Karlee and I always have been close. Sports drew us closer. We've always shared things together, like what to do and what not to do."

Brad, a junior tight end for the Aggies, thanked his coaches for relaxing the game-day rules and letting him get away. Conversely, Texas coach Kim Brackin OK'd Karlee's trip to Davis before the Longhorns' plane trip home early Sunday morning.

And look what brother and sister, both Downey High graduates, accomplished:

In her first collegiate race, Karlee gradually reeled in Cal freshman Sara Isakovic, the Olympic silver medalist from Slovenia, to win the 200-yard freestyle.

Karlee also won the 100 freestyle, recorded a lifetime-best 23.09 seconds to place second in the 50 free and kicked off a Texas victory in the 400 free relay.

Brad, backing up Davis starter Dean Rogers, saw extensive action despite a sore knee. Though he didn't catch a pass, he did some heavy lifting for an offense which plundered Iona for 649 yards.

All of it was watched by a Bispo rooting section that switched during the day from Texas to Davis attire. Standing tall in the crowd was Karl Finch, 69, Deanna's father and the longtime Modesto High coach, who counts 17 grandchildren as his own.

"It's almost like reliving things," Finch summarized.

Yet even for a family blessed with first-rate athletic genes, it's Karlee who's raising the bar.

Clearly, she has put aside her disappointment over not qualifying for the Olympics. Her brilliant collegiate debut underscored the limitless potential for her and the Longhorns' gifted freshman class.

Karlee, an aggressive starter by nature who's held on in the second half of her races, already has changed strategy. Brackin, a part of seven NCAA championships during her tenure at Auburn, has convinced the Modestan to pace the first portion of her races and then rally at the end.

Karlee demonstrated her new bring-it-home style at Cal. She stalked Isakovic in the 200, closing the deficit from lap to lap, before overtaking the Olympic star on the final turn.

"I was real excited to go that fast so early. It definitely helped having my fans here," she said. "Training under a different coach has been great. She (Brackin) knows what she is doing. I'm learning from her."

Brackin, who beamed while her precocious freshmen won 12 of the 16 events, believes Bispo will be a star.

"We don't want her to force the front half of her races. The idea is for her to be more controlled and then finish because she's such a great athlete. It's amazing that she's learning it so fast," Brackin said. "She has the potential to be an NCAA champion and an Olympian."

Later, Brad hustled home to Aggie Stadium, in its second season as Davis' new football home. Twenty-six years ago, Frank Bispo -- Brad's father -- started at fullback for the Aggies and caught a 92-yard touchdown pass from Chris Petersen (now the coach at Boise State), the second-longest scoring pass in school history.

Brad, whose Davis career was slowed by a serious ankle injury, has one touchdown catch this season. He admits one thing without hesitation: His sister is developing into an outstanding athlete.

"She's taking her work ethic to a new level," Brad said. "I'd say she's more athletic than I am. I do all right, but there is something special about her."

Both acknowledge the normal tiffs between brothers and sisters over the years, but to a deeper degree, theirs is a two-way admiration. Their big day was filled with more than just a little symbolism. Karlee's final collegiate choice came down to Cal or Texas, and there she was, breaking in her career in, of all places, Berkeley.

"He (Brad) is doing the same thing I'm doing, and that's great," she said. "I was so excited to watch him play."

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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