James Burns: From tragedy to triumph, our top fall stories

James Burns

Bart McAfee and John Henson hope to become regulars on this seasonal list of the best of the best.

Rob Scheidt and Merced football already are.

As we wave goodbye to the fall sports season and head indoors for the winter, let us pay homage to the top stories from October, November and December.

The fall was full of amazing highs and lows. We celebrated ground-breaking victories and championships, and prayed with heavy hearts as multiple tragedies cast a thick cloud over the games.

While there were many memorable moments -- both good and bad -- we've narrowed the field down to a small sampling that seemed to be the catalyst for this year's first wave of sports.

So without further ado, the top-5 sports stories from the fall season:


The firsts rolled in like waves for the Buhach Colony boys water polo team this season.

BC won its first-ever Central California Conference title, securing its first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section postseason berth in the process.

But its shine was tarnished when tragedy stopped teammate Eric Baker's season.

Baker suffered severe head and neck injuries during a diving accident at a water polo tournament in Modesto, and was hospitalized.

Some encouraging news: Baker was a special guest at Buhach Colony's year-end awards banquet recently, and according to one team source, is continuing his physical therapy at Valley's Childrens Hospital in Madera.


On paper, it looked like another dominating season by Bernard Bolden, Stephon Mathis and the Merced football team.

Eleven wins, including marquee victories over a few big-name programs (Loomis Del Oro, Napa), and just two losses -- both to teams with serious Division-I talent (Fresno Edison, Stockton St. Mary's).

But let's not kid ourselves: The fall was a serious struggle for coach Rob Scheidt and the resident CCC champs.

Merced did clinch its third straight league crown, but it needed some last-minute magic in back-to-back victories in the city of Turlock in the final two weeks.

Eddie Beavers and Kenny Cooper made circus-like grabs in wins over Turlock and Pitman, respectively.


For now, the Sac-Joaquin Section banner sits in the office of Merced athletic director Scott Winton.

Waiting to be hung.

Waiting for direction.

After all, this is new territory for Merced, which had never won a soccer section title of any kind.

Cristian Alvarez scored the eventual game-winning goal in the 44th minute, lifting Merced to a 1-0 victory over perennial power Yolo Davis in the Division I championship.

The real drama, however, came in the semifinal round. Merced beat CCC-rival Pitman in a penalty kick shootout that included a clutch save by first-year goalie Junior Estrada.


The cheers came pouring out of the stands with less than four minutes to go, powered by 4,000 red-clad Chowchilla football fans.

"Nah-nah-nah-naaah. Hey, hey, hey ... goodbye."

Chowchilla exorcised three years of playoff frustration in fine, fine fashion.

Electric wingback Fred Gaines scored on two long touchdown runs, and the defense put the clamps on Kingsburg's spread offense in a 20-0 victory in the Central Section Division IV Valley Championship game.

It was Chowchilla's first title since 2004. Chowchilla reached at least the semifinals in each of John Henson's first three seasons as coach.


Frank Marques called his shot ... back in August.

Back then, the Hilmar coach believed his football team could surprise Central Catholic.

"Bring on Central. This year, I don't care. I've got those games circled," Marques said in the Sun-Star's preview section. "With these guys, with this talent, I'll take on anybody."

And in their second meeting, on the section's grandest stage, Marques' boys delivered.

Donovan Smith landed the first blow with a 58-yard touchdown reception, and the defense shut down CC's ground game in a 17-6 victory in the Division IV championship game.

The section title was Hilmar's first since 1989.

Hilmar continued to practice after the victory, hoping it would be selected to play in a CIF state bowl game in Carson.

Ultimately, Hilmar was passed over by the selection commitee, but they're stature in this part of California is set.

For one season -- the fall sports season -- they were No. 1.

Best of the Rest

TELEGRAPH FIRE: Mariposa opens season with 21-14 win over Truckee, weeks after players and coaches were displaced by Telegraph Fire.

BIG-LEAGUE DREAMS: Former Golden Valley star Dusty Ryan (catcher) shines in late-season call-up with the Detroit Tigers.

TIGHT RACE: Golden Valley won a close CCC race, holding off Atwater and Buhach Colony.

EARLY SIGNS: Six local athletes signed national letters of intent during the early signing period, including three from Buhach Colony: Dylan Floro, Morgana Dallas and Cassie Kalapsa.

NECESSARY MEASURE: Measure M passed with 61.62 percent of the votes. The bond will allow for venue upgrades across the county and lights at three local high schools.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at