Top area athletes honored tonight

The 43rd annual Outstanding Athlete Awards Banquet, Stanislaus County sports' version of the Academy Awards, promises an event-filled program tonight at the Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club.

A crowd of about 400 will watch the naming of the county's athletes of the year in the high school and college/open divisions. Headlining the night is guest speaker Rick Neuheisel, soon to begin his third season as head football coach of the UCLA Bruins.

Modesto Christian's magical 15-0 football season will result in the Crusaders' receiving the team-of-the-year award. They became the first state high-school champion football in area history, and coach Mike Parsons — the new head coach at Clovis West — will attend.

Former Grace Davis and Modesto Junior College football and baseball star Ray Lankford, better known as one of baseball's best outfielders during the 1990s, won't be present when he becomes the 34th inductee to the OAA Hall of Fame. Family members will receive the award on behalf of one of the best two-way athletes the city has produced.

Lankford transferred from Compton to Modesto in 1983, launching his epic two-year run as tailback for the Spartans. In 1984, Lankford rushed for 1,710 yards, scored 18 touchdowns, intercepted eight passes (two for touchdowns), returned a punt for a touchdown and ranked third in tackles for the defense.

Davis won its first 13 games, virtually two of them without Lankford while he nursed an ankle injury, before the Spartans fell to Elk Grove in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I final. One year later, he became the first MJC running back to top 1,000 yards for a season.

Lankford's future, however, belonged to baseball. His combination of power and speed led to a long career as an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1997, the year he started in the All-Star Game, he batted .293 with 31 home runs, 105 RBIs and 26 stolen bases.

Lankford batted behind Mark McGwire in the lineup the following year, and his late-season surge was instrumental in McGwire's march to 70 home runs. He remains the only player in franchise history to top 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases five times.

Receiving the Darell Phillips coaches' award, named for the former Bee sports editor, is longtime coach and administrator Wayne McGhee. He coached the 1984 Modesto Panthers to a 33-2 record and the State Division II title.

The Tom Mellis Scholarship Award, in honor of one of the SOS founders, will be given to Patterson High's student body president and basketball and softball player Kianna Weinzheimer.

The program also will include the announcing of the Jay Pattee Award for public service to the sports community. A new award also will be unveiled in memory of the late Lt. Daniel B Hyde, the Downey High three-sport star and student body president who was killed last year in Iraq.