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Golden Moments: The Sports Highlights of a Decade

It speaks to Erin Cafaro's competitive spirit that her first reaction to winning an Olympic gold medal was to begin the campaign for another one.

"I felt almost lucky to get it. I was so new (to rowing), I had so much to improve on and so much more to give to the sport," Cafaro said last weekend. "I'm trying to see how much I can get out of myself."

Cafaro responded to the obligatory White House trips, television appearances and keys to the city -- the tangible rewards for her women's eight rowing gold medal at Beijing -- by never taking any time off training.

This year, the graduate of Modesto High and Cal collected more accolades. Cafaro was named the Rower of the Year by USRowing after she won gold in both the pair and the eight last August at the World Rowing Championships in Poznan, Poland. She and boatmate Susan Francia became the first pair in U.S. women's rowing history to win the world title.

But what Cafaro did at the 2008 Olympics still resonates around these parts. In a decade full of inspired comebacks, heartbreaking exits and unprecedented achievements, Cafaro clutched the grandest hardware of all. Her feat filled The Bee's front page the following day, and why not?

Cafaro, 26, the fourth Modestan to claim Olympic gold, gets our vote as the top local sports story of the decade.

"Some people think they reach a plateau in a sport. I try to improve a little bit every day and every year," she said. "I don't want to be doing something like a secretary job in a cubicle. I'm definitely making more of an impact doing this."

Here is the top 10 for the 2000s:

1 There are no riches awaiting rowers. Theirs is a private low-profile discipline begun before dawn and often ending in gut-searing pain. Cafaro worked for seven years, ignoring the people who said she wasn't tall enough and her arms not long enough. Undaunted, she started as a walk-on at Cal, and locked onto the sacrifice, commitment and, in the end, the glory.

"All worth it," she summarized.

Cafaro occupied the bow seat on the Americans' women's eight and surveyed the field before the gold-medal race. Though Romania sought a fourth straight Olympic title, one the USA had not won since 1984, Cafaro sensed a changing of the guard.

"I looked left and right and sized up everybody," she remembered. "I knew we would be fit and tough."

The Americans jumped into the lead, extended their advantage at the halfway point and held off the Netherlands, which edged the stunned Romanians for the silver. By the way, the next Olympic stop is 2012 in London.

"It (winning the gold medal) makes me feel like I should train harder so I can justify it," Cafaro said. "Now, I don't want anything less."

2 The end of the Coca-Cola Modesto Relays, the city's signature sports event for 67 years, came in a teary-eyed meeting between loyal volunteers and meet officials in October of 2007.

The Relays, an old-school symbol of track and field's heyday in this country in the 1950s and '60s, was the nation's third-longest running meet. But it had outlived its time. After 32 world records and performances to savor by everyone from Carl Lewis to Ralph Boston to Stacy Dragila to Evelyn Ashford to Jeremy Wariner, the Relays folded after dwindling crowds and general apathy forced the hand of SaveMart Supermarkets, the meet's sponsor for a decade.

"I noticed that the Modesto Nuts outdrew the Relays this year," said Bob Stewart, one of the many Friends of the Relays since the '50s. "That told me it was over."

3 No Stanislaus District football team ever had finished 15-0. No district team ever had won a state title decided on the field. And then came the 2009 Modesto Christian Crusaders.

Modesto Christian, coached by Mike Parsons and engineered by do-it-all Isaiah Burse, found a second wind in the playoffs. Its 44-40 victory over Parker of San Diego in the CIF Small School Bowl in Carson, a win sealed by a dramatic goal-line stand in the final moments, validated MC as a team for the ages in the Central Valley.

The era calls for almost silly football longevity, from August to nearly Christmas. But Modesto Christian pushed forward in the playoffs by beating Colfax 64-7, Escalon 49-7 in an anticipated rematch, 40-21 for its first-ever win over Central Catholic and 61-40 over Placer of Auburn in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV final.

All Burse did was account for 3,607 yards and 57 touchdowns and, on defense, 90 tackles. His fourth-and-goal blitz against Parker star Deon Randall, the final act of a splendid one-on-one duel, forced a quick pass and preserved the Crusaders' state title.

4 Suzy Powell admits her distinguished track and field career is near its end. When she's done, the graduate of Downey High and UCLA will reflect on three U.S. junior titles, three Olympic appearances and one amazing comeback in 2007.

Denied a trip to the 2004 Games due to a knee injury before the Trials, Powell struggled for 18 months. Then she switched coaches, adjusted her approach in the ring and refound her form.

Powell, taking full advantage of the Hawaiian tradewinds, tossed the discus 222 feet in April of '07 to break a 16-year-old American record. That mark still stands today, but Powell continued that year by winning her second national title. One year later, she again was Olympics-bound.

5 When the news of Tom Moore's death was announced at a pre-Relays banquet, the crowd hushed. The younger athletes did not know Moore as well as the veterans, but the track and field world understood the loss and its surreal timing. Moore, the lifeblood of the city's premier sports event from its beginning, died on the eve of the 61st Relays in 2002. The former world-record holder in the 120-yard high hurdles was 88.

The sport's icons over the years, from Ralph Boston to John Carlos, often honored Moore by taking part in the Relays for not much more than a meal. They saw something more in the man than his reputation as one of the nation's most respected starters.

"He showed me what love is all about," Carlos said during a testimonial to Moore a few months before his death. "He put Modesto on the map."

6 One year after the loss of the Relays, up stepped the Amgen Tour of California and Lance Armstrong to pull the city out of its sports funk. The February day (earlier this year) emerged wet and cold, but that didn't keep thousands from rooting for the peloton from Stage 3's beginning at San Jose to the 2.8-mile finishing loop in downtown Modesto.

Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion and cancer survivor who made the Tour his comeback from a 3½-year retirement, lent the event some major starpower. More important to the valley, the Tour gave Modesto -- one of 16 cities to host what Armstrong calls "the best bike race outside Europe" -- a fresh burst of confidence.

More than 350 volunteers and many sponsors lined up to support a new civic celebration that promises not to end soon.

7 Neil Parry of Sonora would have preferred not to meet two presidents and inspire an entire nation. To him, the tradeoff for losing the lower part of his right leg wasn't worth it. All that mattered to him was his vow to play football again, somehow and some way.

Parry's ordeal, from a freak football injury in 2000 to his return to the San Jose State football team three seasons later, grew into a triumph of the human spirit. Twenty-five operations and countless hours of therapy brought the undersized Spartan senior back onto the field, prosthesis and all, one memorable 2003 evening against Nevada. The crowd chanted, "Parry! Parry!" and gave him a standing ovation.

Later that season, he stole the show at the East-West Shrine Classic by making a clean solo tackle in kick coverage.

8 They shot for the stars and came within a basket of reaching them. They were the 2000-01 Modesto Christian Crusaders, the Division I section and Northern California champions, the team of Chuck Hayes, Richard Midgley, David Paris, Bobby Cole II, Eric Pratt and the rest. They went 34-4 and carried local fans on an epic journey documented in a video "Crusade to Victory."

The campaign ended at the state title game at Arco Arena before a record crowd of 13,495. That MC failed to hold onto a fourth-period lead and lost to Mater Dei 54-51 only slightly diminished the season. Hayes matured into a fan favorite at Kentucky, Midgley won an NCAA Tournament game for Cal and the 2000-01 Crusaders walked into local basketball history.

9 Professional baseball in Modesto arrived at a crossroad in 2004. Its team had not won a California League title in 20 years, since the days of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. But in the final year of a three-decade term under Oakland Athletics affiliation, the Modesto Athletics ended their championship drought.

Hard-hitting outfielder Brian Stavinsky was named the league's MVP while the A's beat the Lancaster JetHawks in the league championship series. Modesto, guided by manager and St. Mary's High graduate Von Hayes, won both halves of the North Division and compiled the Cal League's best overall record.

But one month before season's end, Oakland declined to renew its player development agreement and eventually moved its Cal League ballclub to the new portside park in Stockton. To the rescue came the Colorado Rockies, however, who transplanted its league team from Visalia to Modesto.

The A's became the Nuts by Opening Day of 2005.

10 Riverbank graduate German Fernandez has been called the nation's best-ever high school runner. He's lived up to the billing at Oklahoma State, where he's already set Big 12 Conference and NCAA records and anchored the Cowboys' drive to their first national track and field championship.

It was Fernandez's farewell performance as a Riverbank Bruin, however, that validated all that schoolboy potential. Within two unforgettable hours at the 2008 State Championships at Norwalk's Cerritos College, Fernandez set a state record in the 1,600 meters, then shook off leg cramps and sped to a national high-school record in the 3,200. It was the first double in those events since 1994.

Fernandez, who heard his name chanted as he sped into high school lore, signed autographs before he left the stadium that night.

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

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