Sports

James Burns: Goodbye, 2008 -- and you can keep the bouquet

James Burns

Good morning, Merced and Mariposa counties.

Same to you, 2009.

Now that we've dispensed with the pleasantries, how about a resolution to kick off the first day of the new year?

With a sports twist, of course.

So everyone grab a glass, raise it high in the air...

May the next 12 months bring us health and prosperity, gold plaques and blue banners, and please, no more bouts of mononucleosis or herpes or strange skin rashes.

For all intents and purposes, 2008 was a memorable year for hundreds of athletes, coaches and fans here in the Valley.

A handful of sports reporters found reason to smile, too.

We enjoyed amazing highs, from Hilmar football's shocking victory over Central Catholic in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship to Dusty Ryan's red-hot September call-up with the Detroit Tigers.

We watched as Golden Valley wrestler Jack Anderson caught lightning in a bottle and closed his career atop the podium stand in Bakersfield.

And we witnessed history.

Twice.

With heavy hearts (more on that in a bit), the Buhach Colony boys water polo team secured the program's first conference title and postseason berth.

The Merced boys soccer team also stamped their names into the record books, becoming the first soccer team -- boys or girls -- to win a section championship.

Cristian Alvarez scored the eventual game-winning goal as Merced knocked off one of the section's true powerhouses (Yolo Davis) to win the Division I title.

But 2008 wasn't without its rainy days.

It's hard to imagine an area as talent-rich as this with so few major championships, but...

That was 2008.

Save for a few small-sport prep successes, it was the Year of the Bridesmaid for our local programs.

Of the four big high school sports -- football, volleyball, basketball and the combination of baseball and softball -- this area produced exactly four Sac-Joaquin or Central section champions and zero state champions.

Two were from Chowchilla (baseball, football). The others from Hilmar (football) and Le Grand (softball).

For the large-school fans, our Division-I staples were left holding the proverbial bouquet -- watching as another (usually a private school) rode off into the sunset with their glory.

Merced football, with all its Division-I dandies, was knocked out of the SJS playoffs by Stockton St. Mary's for the second consecutive season.

Buhach Colony built contenders in baseball, softball and volleyball, but only baseball reached the doorstep of a section championship.

Unfortunately, it ran into its own private-school buzzsaw, Carmichael Jesuit, which, I swear, fielded a team of minor leaguers.

Jesuit was big.

And played big, too.

Golden Valley challenged, making deep playoff runs in baseball and volleyball, but ultimately came away with tear-soaked cheeks.

But those defeats hardly compared to the real-life scares felt by so many in our corner of the sports universe.

The Mariposa football team found comfort and shelter in the weight room after the Telegraph Fires -- one of the state's worst summer blazes -- had chased most of them from their homes.

And the Merced water polo team, drained from an afternoon hike in the foothills, mustered enough energy to retrieve a body from the depths of a natural pool.

Why?

No one else would.

Then there was the odd onset of illnesses. The Gustine wrestling team battled a strain of herpes and a few high-profile athletes contracted mononucleosis.

But it was a near-tragic accident that befell one of our own that truly reminded us of the grim realities of life.

Buhach Colony water polo player Eric Baker suffered severe head and neck injuries after diving into the shallow end of a pool in Modesto in October.

Baker was hospitalized, while teammates chased their first league title.

The Buhach Colony senior is confined to a wheelchair now, unable to move his lower limbs, but his spirit has endured.

He plans on returning to school this month and hopes to graduate with his teammates in June.

I know it's early, but I'll go ahead and jot those two down as the No. 1 and 2 stories of 2009.

It's a good morning, indeed.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. he can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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