More so than most years, it seems, 2016 has been an annal of triumph and tragedy, agony and ecstasy for sports fans and their teams in Kern County.
There were Central Section (and a state) championships but also tragic deaths. A trip to the big dance and a dance into stardom for a local product. A fire that couldn’t stop the show and ice that won’t melt. A local quarterback who entered the NFL and a local baseball team that exited our lives.
Here, we have the difficult task of ranking the top 10 Kern County sports stories of 2016. If you don’t see your favorite story, we either forgot or it simply was pushed out in a year with many stories that won’t soon be forgotten.
1. A BIG SHOT LEADS TO THE BIG DANCE
When his high-arcing 3-point shot swished through the net March 12 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Cal State Bakersfield junior Dedrick Basile changed the course of CSUB basketball history: The Roadrunners, who had never before defeated New Mexico State, vanquished the Aggies 57-54, won the Western Athletic Conference Tournament and advanced, for the first time as a Division I basketball program, into the NCAA Tournament.
Once in the Big Dance, the Roadrunners put a scare into eventual Final Four team Oklahoma in an 82-68 loss on March 18 in Oklahoma City. But a successful year on the court and in the stands — CSUB had two sellouts in the calendar year, its first such crowds since 1993 — means the good times are rolling for the Roadrunners.
The news Bakersfield pro baseball fans had been dreading for decades finally came Aug. 22, when Minor League Baseball announced that the Bakersfield Blaze and High Desert Mavericks would be contracted from the Class A California League at the end of the season in favor of two new franchises in the Carolina League. Long rumored because of poor attendance and a badly outdated facility at Sam Lynn Ballpark, the demise of affiliated professional baseball had finally arrived.
The Blaze didn’t go quietly. The team won the second-half title of the Cal League’s North Division and beat San Jose in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Visalia for the North Division championship.
In December, the Pecos League announced it would be bringing a team, the Bakersfield Train Robbers, to Sam Lynn in 2017. The Pecos League is a pro league that plays from May-July but is not affiliated with Major League Baseball.
3. CARR’S STAR SHINES BRIGHTER
In his third year in the NFL, Bakersfield Christian graduate Derek Carr went from one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL to one of the best quarterbacks, period. The surest sign of this yet is that he led the Oakland Raiders to an 12-3 start and their first playoff berth in 14 years, though his individual statistics are also impressive (through 15 games): 3,933 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions to earn his first Pro Bowl berth.
Carr, whose name is mentioned as a league MVP contender, was in line for an even bigger 2017 until his season game to an abrupt halt after suffering a broken right fibula in Saturday’s victory over the Colts: He was in line to play in the NFL playoffs in January (perhaps even the Super Bowl in February), and his rookie contract expires at the end of the season. ESPN has reported that the Raiders are working with Carr on an extension that would pay him upwards of $100 million for a five-year contract.
4. PINNING DOWN A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
For most programs, state championships don’t come along very often, but for Bakersfield High wrestling, five years without so much as an individual title counts as a deep drought. It all came to an end March 5 at Rabobank Arena, when 138-pound junior Navonte Demison pinned Dinuba’s Jacob Wright in the state finals. Demison — who was the state runner-up as a sophomore — jumped up, leapt into the arms of Drillers coach Andy Varner and etched his name forever into Bakersfield wrestling lore.
Demison is back at BHS for his senior year, which has already started with a bang: He played football for the first time since he was a freshman. As you’re about to read, that turned out pretty well.
5. KINGS OF THE VALLEY
There was a time during the 2016 season when it seemed as if Bakersfield High’s football team would fade, just as the Drillers had done in the two seasons since their magical 2013 run to a state championship. On Sept. 23, BHS lost 48-9 to Valencia, the program’s worst defeat since 1985, and quarterback Josh Maran went down with a broken collarbone. The team didn’t have a home field because of renovations at Griffith Field and appeared to be in a tailspin. Instead, BHS rallied behind backup QBs Cam Williams and Caden Ochoa and didn’t lose again until it had defeated Fresno-Central 21-14 on Dec. 2 for the Central Section Division I title — adding to a state-record haul of 37 championships.
Across town, Bakersfield Christian was having a special season of its own behind second-year coach Darren Carr and his NFL veteran brother, offensive coordinator David Carr. The Eagles won 13 games in a row to capture the Division III section title and defeated Selma in a 28-27 thriller to advance to the CIF Division 4AA state championship game. Because the CIF long (???) didn’t have state playoffs, it was the first state title game in Bakersfield since 1924. Although Moraga-Campolindo beat BCHS 31-7 on Dec. 17 for the state title, a crowd of more than 5,000 created an atmosphere worthy of the occasion.
6. LIBERTY NETS HISTORY
It’s been less than 20 years since Liberty High School opened, but the Patriots’ volleyball team already has a storied history that includes the Division II CIF state championship in 2002. One thing the program had never accomplished, however, was a Central Section Division I title — until Nov. 12, when Liberty swept Clovis West for the D-I title in Lemoore.
The same day, Garces took home the Division II volleyball championship and Bakersfield Christian won its fourth consecutive section title, a streak that began in Division IV and has continued with back-to-back titles in Division III.
7. KESSLER, WALLACE GET THE CALL
After a three-year run as the starting quarterback at USC, Centennial graduate Cody Kessler received the call that would change his life on April 29: The Cleveland Browns had selected him with a third-round pick.
Kessler would make his NFL debut as the Browns starter Sept. 25 in an overtime loss at Miami. Injuries and the return of starting QB Robert Griffin III meant Kessler has only seen action in eight games for the winless Browns. His rookie statistics: 1,369 yards, 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions.
In June, another former prep star, Bakersfield High’s Tyrone Wallace, became the first local player taken in the NBA Draft in more than a decade when the Utah Jazz selected him out of Cal with the final pick of the draft. Wallace has been assigned to the Jazz’s NBA Development League team in Salt Lake City.
8. DIFFICULT LOSSES
The year wasn’t without tragedy, and that included the Sports department at The Californian. Steve Merlo, a beloved outdoorsman and TBC columnist for nearly two decades, died in his sleep Oct. 18. Merlo was 68, and his death echoed with sorrow within Kern County’s hunting and fishing communities.
Others the local sports scene tragically lost:
• Ali Sakr, 19, a former Kennedy basketball standout and aspiring referee who died in a car wreck in February.
• Jacob Briones, 16, a Frontier football player who took his own life in March and was mourned by the entire Frontier community.
• Sierra Gabbert, 17, was West High’s starting catcher in softball and a popular student, died in April after suffering a heart attack.
• Charlie Beard, 77, an oilman who resurrected the Kern County Raceway Park project and then led the venue to years of prosperity. He died in May after a brief illness.
• Brian Carter, 41, the well-liked South High boys basketball coach and former East High standout. He died in a car accident in October.
• Jordan “Turk” Eliades, 93, a fighter pilot in World War II who became synonymous with North High, where he coached from 1953-1985, winning 177 games and touching countless lives.
9. OUTDOOR HOCKEY AND SO MUCH MORE
Here’s an item that will almost certainly be on next year’s top 10, too, considering the grand finale of the Condors’ Winterfest doesn’t come until Jan. 7, 2017, when Bakersfield’s AHL team takes on Ontario in an outdoor game at Bakersfield College’s Memorial Stadium. The night before, the temporary rink will host an alumni-celebrity game featuring Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille, among others.
But the Condors, who played in an outdoor game in Sacramento in January, announced the expansive Winterfest project in 2016. The event began Friday after completion of an ambitious project that turned Memorial Stadium, surrounded by palm trees, into a winter wonderland complete with public ice skating, snowman making and a zipline. Construction took less than two weeks (see a time lapse at Bakersfield.com), and winter has never been so cool in this California city.
10. FIRE AT FAMOSO
A blaze erupted at Auto Club Famoso Raceway in the early morning hours of Jan. 6, leveling a storage room and a VIP suite and damaging the timing tower. Safety and timing equipment was destroyed along with office items, golf carts and a specially equipped truck for cleaning up fires and oil spills. Damages totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to track general manager Blake Bowser, but he and his team were able to repair and replace enough of it to host the Good Vibrations Motorsports March Meet, the track’s signature event, by early March.
• BC’s Derrick Vickers named All-American
• C.J. West (Garces) begins career at Cal while Erica McCall (Ridgeview) stars at Stanford
• Bakersfield Jam leaves town, no D-League expansion to replace it
• Stockdale senior Lexi Keene wins second Central Section girls golf title
• CSUB softball wins WAC Tournament, reaches NCAAs
• BC men’s basketball, volleyball reach state playoffs
• Liberty’s Dennis Hicks finishes second in state in boys triple jump
• Frontier freshman wrestler Jaden Abas finishes second in state at 120 pounds, later moves to San Diego
• Ridgeview reaches sixth consecutive Central Section football championship game
• Tehachapi coach Steve Denman earns 300th career victory
• D.J. Fernando wins fourth Kern County Amateur Championship
• McFarland boys, girls sweep county cross country titles
• Bakersfield Fight Club announces series of 2017 MMA cards at old Jam facility.