Sports

Shawn Jansen: Who's Merced High's best running back ever?

Freddy Bland, Wendell Mathis, Jhay Roland and Lloyd Winston (center) have all been mentioned in the great debate. Who is the best running back in Merced High history?
Freddy Bland, Wendell Mathis, Jhay Roland and Lloyd Winston (center) have all been mentioned in the great debate. Who is the best running back in Merced High history?

One of the great things about sports is the debates they can spark.

Watching Eric DeAnda break the Merced High single-game rushing mark with his 307 yards last week against Buhach Colony got me thinking: Who is the best Merced running back ever?

There have been so many.

Just listen to the list former Merced coach Mark Speckman came up with off the top of his head.

"I wish I could take all the credit, but I was blessed with some great players," said Speckman, who coached Merced from 1986-93 and won two section titles.

"Freddy Bland was a guy that could do it all. He carried us. Jhay Roland was a special player. He was big and fast. We had a better team around him and he didn't get as many carries.

"Stephon Jackson was a special talent. The Eastman brothers, Marvin and Jeff, should both be mentioned.

"Anthony Volsan and John Rushing were great."

The list has continued to grow under current coach Rob Scheidt, who can tout players like Wendell Mathis, Garrett Turner and Stephon Mathis.

Another back on the short list might be Greg Mills, who was a big name in the 1970s.

Or Rodney Ellison, who played in the '60s and may have been the first back with breakaway speed, setting a trend at Merced High for years to come.

Who is the best ever?

"Objectively, I vote for Bland. But in my heart, it's Jeff Eastman," said former Sun-Star sports editor Joe Cortez, who covered Merced for 18 years. "When I was 11 years old, I played junior football in Merced, and on one November night, all the junior football players were granted free admission to the game at Stadium '76.

"Eastman gave us all a treat that night. He rushed for a then-school record 256 yards against Sonora in a driving rain. I thought he was superhuman. To this day, when I see him around town, I'm too embarrassed to talk to him. And as a sports writer, I've talked to all kinds of professional athletes. But to me, Jeff Eastman is still superhuman. He was a hero to a lot of kids in town back then."

Ask four different people and you might get four different answers.

I picked the brains of people much older and wiser than I, former coaches and people who have been around the program.

It wasn't easy.

Asking coaches to pick their best players is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child.

But that's why I'm here: To ask those tough questions.

Here's the four players most people mentioned when asked to name the best running back out of Merced High.

Lloyd Winston

Winston played for Merced in the '50s. Legend has it he was a man amongst boys.

Defenders just bounced off the much bigger Winston.

"He was hell on wheels for his time," said Harlan Dake, who has been around the Merced program since 1969 and has heard stories about Winston.

Cortez worked alongside another former Sun-Star sports editor in Vern Williams, who worked at the paper for almost 40 years.

"I know Vern always voted for Lloyd in these types of conversations," Cortez said.

Winston definitely has impressive credentials.

He went on to play at USC and played a couple of years in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.

"Football in those days was a lot different," said Sam Diele, who was an assistant coach at Merced from 1955-72. "Kids are a lot bigger now. If we had a 220-pound tackle, we thought we were doing great.

"Lloyd was big, but he had a good blast. If he got through the line he was hard to bring down. He was powerful."

Jhay Roland

Roland could do it all -- and did.

He helped lead Merced to three straight section title games.

"Jhay Roland was the best back during my era," said Buhach Colony coach Kevin Swartwood, who was the offensive coordinator under Speckman at Merced from 1985-93.

"He could run, catch and make the move when he had to. He played hurt. He played with a crack on his ankle.

"Freddy Bland was right there. Stephon Jackson was special. Anthony Volsan was the fastest running back in my era.

"But Jhay was the best I ever coached. His ability to stop and go, he was up to full speed faster than anyone I ever saw."

Val Fogelberg, who was also an assistant under Speckman, agreed.

"For me, it's pretty easy. Jhay Roland is the best running back at Merced over his career," Fogelberg said.

"He might not have had the best statistics, but he was an all-around player.

"Not many people know how good of a blocker he was. He was a three-year varsity player and all three years we made it to the section championship."

Swartwood's favorite Roland story took part over two years.

Roland signaled for a fair catch while fielding a punt during the 1989 section title game, but a Nevada Union player hit him with a cheapshot.

The hit broke Roland's jaw.

"I think it was three months his jaw was wired shut and he's drinking through a straw," Swartwood said. "The whole time he keeps saying, 'Coach we need to play those guys again.' "

"Well, we do. I remember being in the (Modesto Junior College) locker room and Jhay stood up before the game and gave a speech. He talked about how he loved coach Speckman and all the coaches and his teammates.

"He said he was ready to die for us tonight. He went out, carried the ball 20 times and carried us to victory."

Freddy Bland

Interesting that Speckman went a different way than some of his assistants when asked to make his pick.

Bland was Speckman's choice.

"Freddy was a tremendous talent," Speckman said. "If we wanted to pass, we'd line him up at receiver. If we wanted to run a sweep, we'd put him at flanker. If we wanted to run the ball, we'd put him in the backfield."

Bland still holds the school record with 42 career touchdowns.

Unlike previous years, where Speckman had a stable of ball carriers, Bland was a one-man workhorse.

Bland practically carried Merced to the section title game by himself in 1993.

"The best back I ever saw play was Freddy Bland," Cortez said. "He possessed the greatest combination of power and speed I ever saw. His running style was very similar to O.J. Simpson's ... powerful, yet graceful."

Wendell Mathis

Scheidt calls Mathis the best football player he's ever coached.

The former Merced back still owns the career rushing record with 3,493 yards and finished with 41 career touchdowns.

"Wendell just took over with his speed and his power," Scheidt said. "With what we had around him, everyone knew he was going to get the ball and he still put up those run totals he had."

Mathis went on to UCLA and later transferred to Fresno State.

He rushed for 1,313 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2005 for the Bulldogs.

He also spent a couple years on the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad.

"They were all really good. They all did different things," Dake said. "Jhay Roland was a rock. Freddy Bland was tough. Anthony Volsan had the speed.

"But the best all-around would be Wendell Mathis. I remember his freshman year he was playing for the sophomore team. The very first kickoff against Madera in the first game he returned it for a touchdown. The rest was history."

Scheidt remembers the night Mathis broke the single-game rushing record with 283 yards against Ceres in 2000.

"On that night, he was making cuts down field and as he made the cuts he was gaining speed," Scheidt said. "We had to rewind the tape about 10 times to figure out how he did that."

Picking one of these guys is nearly impossible.

I'm not going to do it.

Instead, I'll let the debate continue.

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.

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