June 5, 2008

The 'Willies': Bee writer picks best of Modesto area high school sports

As the 2008 school year closes, Modesto Bee sports writer Will DeBoard awards the annual "Willies" to the Modesto areas top high school athletes.

As Sam Smith's final putt rolled into the cup at the CIF State Boys Golf Championships at Santa Maria Country Club, so ended the 2007-08 high school athletic season.

And what a year it was. Stanislaus District athletes burst into the national spotlight with some outstanding performances, and some teams did just fine as well.

So here it is: The 11th Annual Willies, The Bee's season-ending high school sports column.

TOP ATHLETES: This was a tougher choice than most years on the boys side, because there were so many great athletes in this area, but it's tough to ignore what Riverbank senior German Fernandez has done.

Last weekend, he won two state titles at the CIF State Track and Field Championships, breaking two state meet records in the process. First, he won the 1,600 meters in 4:00.29, about one tick away from a sub-4-minute mile. And, two hours later, he won the 3,200 in 8:34.23, shattering the national record by seven seconds. That's not just one of the state meet's best performances, it's arguably the greatest single-day performance by a district high school athlete ever.

National track pundits are calling Fernandez's day the greatest distance double in national high school history. No arguments here.

And Fernandez also is a cross country star. He smashed the course record at Fresno's Woodward Park by 14 seconds in winning the CIF State Division IV cross country title in the fall.

He's on top of a loaded field. Central Catholic's Louis Bland was The Bee's football player of the year, and completed an undefeated wrestling campaign. Oakdale's Rudi Burtschi was an all-District football player, and — like Bland — completed a perfect wrestling season. And Modesto Christian's Reeves Nelson is one of the country's top junior basketball prospects.

On the girls side, we like Downey's Karlee Bispo, who set a national record in the 200 freestyle while completing her fourth consecutive undefeated season. Bispo, the No. 6 ranked college prospect in the country according to, is headed to the University of Texas.

In the two-sport category for the girls, we like Pitman's Tiare Jennings. She was an all-District basketball player, averaging 16 points a game, then batted .556 for the Pride softball team. She'll play softball for New Mexico State next year.

STORY OF THE YEAR: For the first time, a Stanislaus District school played for a state football championship. Central Catholic rolled through the Western Athletic Conference and won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V title; then the Raiders were selected to represent the North in the CIF Division III State Championships Bowl Game. For the first time in years, Central Catholic was an underdog, and it lost 35-21 to St. Bonaventure of Ventura. But the Raiders hung tough against a superior foe.

One semi-local story outshadowed everything else, though: Franklin High of Stockton's getting caught up in a section investigation that showed people affiliated with the Yellowjackets' football program — including head coach Tom Verner — were illegally recruiting players from American Samoa to come to Stockton and play ball.

The conflict went beyond sanctions when Verner defiantly played three players who were already deemed ineligible, forcing the section to issue the "death penalty," canceling all of the school's athletic programs. Since then, the athletic programs were reinstated while Verner, Stockton Unified School District athletic director Joe Martin and district superintendent Jack McLaughlin have since left.

TOP PERFORMANCES: Modesto Christian's Nelson set a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff record when he scored 53 points in a 122-100 victory over Encina in the Division IV semifinals. The UCLA-bound forward also scored 52 points in a regular-season victory over Clovis East. ... Central Catholic's Bland rushed for 196 yards and a touchdown on offense, then had five tackles on defense, never leaving the field in the Raiders' loss to St. Bonnie in the state championship bowl game. Bland outplayed numerous NCAA Division I prospects. ... Orestimba shortstop Juliana Santos batted .677 for the Warriors this season. Yes, .667! Three times this season, the LSU-bound Santos hit safely in 10 consecutive at-bats. ... Beyer senior Jennie Marshall drew constant double-teams while on the soccer pitch, but still scored a state-leading 53 goals as the Patriots won the Modesto Metro Conference title, advancing to the section Division I South semifinals.

LOS BANOS LOVES ITS GRAPPLERS: Each year, Los Banos High chooses its top two male and female athletes in its graduation class. And this year, it chose wrestlers on both sides.

The boy was Andrew VanderPoel, who played football, water polo, competed for the wrestling team (he qualified for the state meet twice) and threw the shot put and discus for the track team.

The girl athlete was Kayla Garza, who played water polo and track as well as wrestling. She's a four-time state girls placer, and has received a full-ride athletic scholarship to wrestle for Menlo College.

HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETE OF THE WEEK COUNTDOWN: With our new format, a record 170 district students from 39 schools received athlete of the week honors.

Modesto Christian saw six girls and four boys win the award, tops for all of our schools this year. Three large schools saw eight of their students receive athlete of the week honors: Oakdale (six boys, two girls), Turlock (four boys, four girls) and Johansen (five boys, three girls).

That's it, we'll see you in the fall.

Will DeBoard's high schools column appears Thursdays. E-mail him at, write him at P.O. Box 5256, Modesto, CA 95352-5256, call 578-2300 or fax 238-4551.

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