SOMEWHERE IN THE VALLEY - 31 years ago, Dan Shannon packed up his Foothill boys basketball team on the Amtrak and headed north in what is still known as one of the most historic high school sports moments in Kern County history.
The Trojans went up to what is now known as Oracle Arena — home of the Golden State Warriors — and beat Menlo Atherton, 66-61, for the 1988 CIF State Division III championship. It was the first state title for a basketball team from the county and, still to this day, there are just two. The last time Kern County had a team play for a state title in basketball was East, when the Blades won the D-II title 25 years ago, in 1994.
Only two girls teams, Wasco in 1989 and Rosamond a year later, have played for state championships. Neither came home victorious.
Two-and-a-half decades later, I took Amtrak train No. 703 heading north to Sacramento on Thursday, as the Foothill boys and McFarland girls are about to embark on a historic day for Kern County basketball as a whole.
On Friday, the Trojans will play for the state D-V title at noon at the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento against Mt. Shasta. The very next game will be the McFarland girls taking on Oakland High for the D-III title.
Here we are, two teams playing on the same day — in consecutive games — for state titles. It would be rare for one local team to be undertaking the feat. To have two is unprecedented.
I took the time during the five-hour train trip north to provide a running dialogue of my thought process of why this is historic and the people — past and present — that have made it such a special journey to the state capital.
6:08 a.m. - I took the train plenty of times from Sacramento — my hometown — to Clovis to visit family in my childhood. Back in the 80s, it was safe for a 10-year-old to do that. And I loved it. But I cannot recall the last time I used this mode of transportation. Seeing how the weather is less-than-ideal for driving this week and the hotel I'm staying at — along with the Golden 1 Center — are within four blocks of the train station, and it seemed like the best route.
Plus, riding a train is one of the last bastions of American travel to see the world from a different angle.
With that, it’s time for a coffee break.
7:10 a.m. - Using the word historic in reference to a county as vast and talent-rich as Kern County can sometimes seem hyperbolic. But in terms of state championships, nothing compares to the McFarland boys cross country team. Yes, the Bakersfield High football team has nine state titles — like the those runners at McFarland — but eight of those came nearly a century ago. Take nothing away from the feat, but we are going to speak in modern times, for today.
As the train was creeping up into Fresno County it began closing in on where the Cougars became world-wide famous. Woodward Park, on the east side of Fresno, has been the home of the state cross country team since 1987, the first year McFarland won the first of nine team state championships. Johnny Samaniego was on that team and now has been the girls basketball coach for the Cougars for the last 13 years.
Also, one of his four four-year varsity players Neli Diaz — who is the school record-holder in career points — is the daughter of David Diaz, who just missed out on state cross country glory in his heyday. David graduated in 1986.
Also in terms of multi-state championship programs in county history, Foothill can become the first local basketball team to take home state gold more than once. Along with the cross country program at McFarland and the football team at BHS, the Trojans can join the girls track and field program at BHS (1988, 1990) and the Drillers boys wrestling team (2002, 2004, 2010) as the only local outfits with multiple state championships on their resume.
7:52 a.m. - Got off the phone with former Foothill coach Dan Shannon, who now lives on the central coast in Grover Beach. When I told him that I was on the train, he almost fell out of his seat in excitement.
Reflecting back 31 years ago when he took that state championship team to Oakland on the train, Shannon said, “That was a great trip. It was so much fun.”
In an almost symbiotic moment, Shannon also remembered how the team was able to be part of a fun experience when the former glam-rock band, L.A. Guns, celebrated signing a new record deal with Vertigo Records on the train back to town.
The band’s self-titled album, the most heralded for the band, had just released that year and the celebration of pop culture and sports blended together.
After talking to Shannon, I texted former Foothill great Art Charles, who was on that 1988 team, about the experience.
“They were just getting their big break,” Charles recalled about the band. “They even talked about giving us a shout-out on their album. They were really good guys. They laughed and joked with us like they’d known us forever.”
Can’t make this stuff up.
9 a.m. - Spoke with Wes Davis, the boys basketball coach at Foothill. About three hours before leaving for Sacramento, the idea that his team was still playing basketball and traveling to the state championship, “still feels like a dream” he said.
That’s the historic sense of this. With just four Kern County teams ever taking the floor in the history of the state championships — and none since 1994 — it’s special to have two playing the same year, on the same day, in consecutive games.
9:36 a.m. - Approaching Modesto, which means Sacramento is closing in. Just got off the phone with McFarland girls basketball coach Johnny Samaniego. His team was in the middle of a pep rally parade through town, passing Horizon Elementary School. With two more stops at the middle school and back to the high school campus, it’s time to hit the road north.
“This is so far and beyond what the community and school board could have done," Samaniego said. "I keep telling the girls to keep soaking it all in.”
10:23 a.m. - In Stockton. For as long as I can remember, this was the station where I had to transfer from bus to train going south and vice versa on my travels as a child. Not this time. The train from Bakersfield to Sacramento is closing in.
Stockton is also the home of Spanos Center, where the BHS boys wrestling team won the first of three boys wrestling state titles in 2002.
11:09 a.m. - We are pulling into the station in Sacramento. The five-hour journey for me has concluded, but the story for Foothill and McFarland has yet to be written. Both of these teams are forging ahead and Friday will forever be remembered as the first time two Kern County basketball teams played for a state title on the same day. That means something. As I peak out and see the top of the state capitol building, it’s a reminder of how great this state is and how difficult the journey for these two programs really are.
Relaxed and ready to leave the train and take in the California Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. As things change, some things stay the same.
Safe travels, all.