The question was asked more often as the weeks dragged on: How good is Modesto Christian star Isaiah Burse?
When the answer became a proven, "You bet he's good," another question crept into the conversation: How good are the Modesto Christian Crusaders?
The answer: Great.
Burse, coach Mike Parsons and the Crusaders wrote their 2009 season into the history books this month. They tied a California high school record by going 15-0, a run climaxed by a pulsating 44-40 win over Parker of San Diego in the CIF Small School Bowl.
Modesto Christian is the first Stanislaus District team to take home the big trophy from Carson. The valley has witnessed greatness in various shapes and sizes over the years, but it has never seen football perfection, at least 15-0 perfection, until now.
The Bee salutes the Crusaders by making their state football title the top local sports story of the year.
Here is the top 20:
1. Modesto Christian runs a full-throttle winged-T, which sometimes looks like the second cousin of the old-fashioned single-wing. But Burse, the district's most dynamic talent and the ringleader of the MC attack, probably could gain yards in a phone booth. MC averaged 49 points a game and, incredibly, increased the pace to 52 points during its remarkable postseason.
The MC bandwagon didn't fill to overflowing, however, until its back-to-back cuffings of Escalon and Central Catholic in November. Escalon, believing it could challenge the Crusaders after a narrow 21-16 setback during the regular season, was overwhelmed in the rematch 49-7. Then it was Central Catholic, a rival that Modesto Christian never before had beaten on the football field, which submitted 40-21. An entertaining 61-40 victory over Placer of Auburn in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV final led to MC's date with history against Parker.
2. Bicycle racing icon Lance Armstrong rode into Modesto during a February storm and brought his colleagues in the peloton with him. For the first time, the city witnessed a finish to a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, the world's most prestigious bike race outside Europe. The turnout, stunning given the miserable weather, trumpeted an official new entry in the city's sports calendar.
3. Jeffrey Moorad, a graduate of Downey High and Modesto Junior College, has progressed from Leigh Steinberg's money manager to respected sports power brokeer and to CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Last April, Moorad again surprised the sports world by becoming the managing general partner of the San Diego Padres.
4. The Modesto Relays, finished here after 67 years and 32 world records, was believed to be relocating to Sacramento. But uncertainty over sponsorship forced postponement to 2010, meaning there were no Relays, period. Local diehards couldn't even drive an hour north to see their favorite event.
5. Riverbank High graduate German Fernandez, a sophomore at Oklahoma State, already is one of the nation's most decorated collegiate runners. As a true freshman, won the NCAA 1,500 meters title with a personal best of 3:39 to become the Cowboys' first individual champion in 23 years. At the USA Track and Field Championships, he placed fifth in the 5,000 meters with a 13:25.46, an American junior record.
6. Stockton 99 Speedway, an old friend to local motorsports fans until its closure two years ago, reopened in March to great rejoicing. About 4,200 ignored threatening weather and enjoyed the 50-lap Western Late Model main event. For once, the recession -- which tabled the planned housing development at the speedway site -- was celebrated.
7. Hundreds of friends and admirers attended the memorial service this month of Jim Bowen, 66, the coach behind Cal State Stanislaus' twin NCAA Division III baseball titles in 1976 and '77. Bowen and his Warriors gave the fledgling college its first major sports exposure but, more important, he inspired countless ballplayers and students for nearly four decades.
8. The Modesto Christian girls, perhaps spurred by the state-title trophies won by the MC boys over the years, pursued one of their own last March. Led by junior standout Brandi Henton, the Crusaders went 27-8 and won their second Northern California title. But in the state Division IV final, played during breakfast time at Arco Arena, MC was outscored 15-2 down the stretch and fell to Mater Dei of Chula Vista 54-51.
9. Beyer High graduate Matt Bettencourt, a quintessential golf journeyman, didn't arrive on the PGA Tour until he was 34. Once there, however, he proved his staying power. A tie for fifth at the Memorial and a tie for 10th at the U.S. Open keyed his finish of 111th on the money list ($740,037), which clinches his Tour card for 2010 and a berth in the Open at Pebble Beach.
10. Downey quarterback Jason Lee lit the fuse of arguably the nation's most explosive 2-8 team. Throwing on nearly every down as the Knights constantly clawed from behind, Lee led the country in passing yardage until late in the season. He finished with 3,972 yards, a regular-season state record, and also toppled state standards with 297 completions and 469 attempts.
11. MJC (7-4) salved the wounds from late-season losses to Chabot and Laney by smoking San Jose 54-13 for the Pirates' second straight Graffiti Bowl victory. The win capped the productive careers of two two-year stars -- quarterback Greg Panelli (Newman) and inside linebacker Keith Yamamoto (Patterson). Yamamoto earned JC All-America honors.
12. The tradition-rich Cal State Stanislaus golf program was thought to be in rebuilding mode under first-year coach John Cook. Instead, the Warriors rallied to a tie for sixth at the NCAA Division II Championships north of Seattle, Stanislaus' best performance at the nationals in three years and its eighth top-10 finish this decade.
13. The Modesto Nuts bowed out of the California League playoffs in a first-round loss to Bakersfield but, upon closer inspection, the season still sparkled. It marked the fourth playoff appearance in the last five years for Modesto, which again drew record attendance to Thurman Field. Ten sellouts and three crowds in excess of 5,000 means local fans still love the Nuts.
14. Four months before Enochs High graduated its first senior class, the Eagles' boys and girls teams clinched the school's first Modesto Metro Conference titles on back-to-back nights. The boys improved from six wins as juniors to 21-8 a year later and truly came of age with a win at home over Pitman in the first round of the playoffs.
15. Keith Larsen, the earnest and amiable basketball coach of the Cal State Stanislaus Warriors, was fired after only one winning season in six as the program -- underfunded compared to others in the California Collegiate Athletic Association -- continued to struggle. He was replaced by Larry Reynolds, who coached Cal State Long Beach into the 2007 NCAA Tournament appearance and also probation for illegal recruiting activity by his assistant coaches.
16. Scott Speed, the perfectly named graduate of East Union High, resurfaced this year as a driver on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. He had bounced around in recent years from Formula One to even the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year.
17. Cal State Stanislaus sports signaled new progress when it unveiled its new 2,100-seat soccer venue. The university announced that the men's team drew 8,897 fans, a CCAA season record. The support no doubt factored into the Warriors' surprising 11-6-2 record and second-place finish in the CCAA North. That was Stanislaus' best season since 1991.
18. Five years ago, Russell Cardoza of Farmington identified his goal -- a berth in the Wrangler Nationals Rodeo, the sport's Super Bowl held each December in Las Vegas. Cardoza, 23, got there this month, thanks to his 12th-place finish for the season among team roping heelers. He and partner Charly Crawford then placed third in the WNFR aggregate, leaving Cardoza ($128,544 for the year) in ninth place in final world standings.
19. The Modesto Junior College women's water polo team spent parts of the season ranked No. 1 in Northern California. The Pirates (18-5), featuring Eric Crain and Meghan Devlin, eventually placed third at the Northern California Championships and qualified for state for the first time in 10 years. The finished fifth at the season-ending tournament in Huntington Beach.
20. No one is sure if Ripon star Renae McFadden (No. 2 in the state with 45 goals) redirected the cross from Kallie Jacobs into the net. All we know for sure is that the ball found the goal three minutes into overtime, giving the Indians the 1-0 win over Central Catholic in the section's Division V final. Ripon, 24-1-1, blanked its final four opponents.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.