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Plenty of achievements jam-packed into a busy 2021 prep sports schedule

Talk about making up for lost time.

Years from now, when reflecting on the past year in high school sports, that is what I will remember most.

On the heels of a disappointing 2020, which was marred by cancellations, postponements and delays as part of COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the prep sports scene returned in earnest as restrictions were lifted.

With very little advance notice, the result was a flood of events, as Kern County teams returned to courts, fields, tracks and courses — albeit with limited or no fans permitted — cramming all of the fall, winter and spring seasons into a four-month stretch from February through June.

It was madness, but faced with the alternative, it was also a welcome sight and led to some of the best individual and team performances in recent memory.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from prep sports in 2021:

Baseball

Despite an abbreviated schedule, and the elimination of “official” league play, the competition level on the diamond made for a very entertaining season. Centennial sophomore Jordan Mora and Frontier junior Hudson Barrett each tossed no-hitters, and Stockdale and Liberty tied for top honors in the makeshift Southwest Yosemite League, with the Patriots advancing to their first Central Section Division I final and earning an at-large bid into the SoCal regionals. Liberty coach Tony Mills was recognized as the National Federation of State High School Associations state coach of the year. Bakersfield Christian also made a solid run, winning the section D-IV title, with Kennedy taking home the D-VI crown.

But that all pales in comparison to the playoff run Ridgeview made. On the strength of Jacob Gutierrez, the BVarsity All-Area player of the year, the Wolf Pack won the SoCal Regional Division IV championship, rallying for a 5-4 victory over Simi Valley-Royal. Gutierrez, who finished 7-2 with a 1.17 ERA on the mound, ignited his team’s rally with a grand slam in the fifth inning to erase a 4-1 deficit.

Basketball

Bakersfield Christian dominated the headlines in both boys and girls action. Led by senior point guard Seth Marantos, the BVarsity All-Area player of the year, the Eagles boys team captured its second straight section D-III championship, following up its SoCal regional title the year before. A potential state title was cut short when their game was canceled due to COVID-19.

The Eagles girls squad shook off a loss in the section D-IV final and rolled to a SoCal regional 4-A championship. Dami Sule, the BVarsity All-Area player of the year, had 37 points and 29 rebounds in the title game, a 60-46 win over San Diego-Academy of Our Lady of Peace. Bakersfield High also continued its area dominance, advancing to its sixth straight section final, before losing to Santa Maria-Righetti in the title game.

Cross country

Following an abbreviated two-week season in the spring, area runners wasted little time showcasing their talent in the fall. The Highland girls team, led by talented sophomore Mia Torrecillas and junior Lianna Guerra, won the section D-III title. Torrecillas and Guerra finished 1-2 in the event to help the Scots advance to the CIF State meet.

The Wasco girls joined Highland at the state meet along with the Frontier boys and girls teams. Liberty’s Nicole Bridges and Trinity McLean from Independence qualified for the event as individuals. Although no boys qualified as individuals, Bakersfield High’s Sergio Lizarraga and Nathanael Rodriguez had standout seasons.

Football

Fighting through several delays due to COVID-19, teams finally took to the gridiron for a five-game spring season in March and April. Shafter and Liberty each went 5-0, with Generals quarterback Tyson Dozhier throwing for more than 900 yards and 17 touchdowns during a three-game stretch. Dozhier was joined by Garces running back Ian Jernagin and South quarterback King Ellis as BVarsity All-Area players of the year for the spring. The fall season selections will be announced in the next few weeks.

Back in their normal fall slot, the Patriots picked up where they left off, winning their fourth straight SWYL title before tacking on Liberty's first regional championship and advancing to the state Division 1-A final. Independence turned its season around after losing its first six games. The Falcons won nine straight en route to their first section and regional crowns.

It was a banner year for local teams. Undefeated Wasco, which has played in the D-IV playoffs the last several years, was rewarded for its 9-0 start with a slot in the D-II bracket by a computer-system implemented by the CIF for the first time. The Tigers defeated Centennial in their opening game before falling to Frontier. Although Wasco’s journey was cut short, six area teams reached the section finals. Bakersfield, which started 0-3, changed coaches and missed three weeks because of a positive COVID test, recovered to reach the D-II title game under interim coach Rashaan Shehee. Shehee was hired as the permanent coach a few weeks ago. Bakersfield Christian lost in the D-III final on a last-second field goal, just moments after making an apparent game-saving interception that was ruled an incomplete pass. Taft (D-VI) and Mojave (8-man) also made title game appearances.

Garces finished second in the SWYL and advanced to play in its first section D-I playoff game in football. And let's not forget about Foothill, which was undefeated most of the year and won its first league title since 1981.

Golf

Stockdale senior Iris Han continued her domination in girls play, winning her second straight section title in the spring before closing out her career with a second-place finish in the fall. The two-time BVarsity All-Area player of the year, who has committed to play at Cal State Bakersfield next year, was 11th at the SoCal regionals last month. Frontier’s Faith Hamstreet and Allison Bailey also qualified for the regionals.

On the boys circuit, Liberty’s Adam Duncan closed out an impressive career with a 15th-place finish at the SoCal Regional championships. The Patriots senior was third at the section tournament. Duncan was one of four area golfers to qualify for the regionals, joined by Highland senior Madhav Raja, and Stockdale juniors David Chhuon Chan and Akhil Gorla.

Soccer

Garces senior Alex Halevy was named the Gatorade player of the year and BVarsity All-Area player of the year for the second straight season after leading his team to its third consecutive section title in the spring. Halevy tied the school record with 43 goals, accomplished in just 15 games due to a shortened schedule.

Highland capped a comeback season by winning the section D-III boys championship, defeating top-seeded Tulare-Mission Oak in the final. The Scots finished runner-up the year before after losing to No. 1 Foothill in the final. In girls play, Arvin posted its third straight section title, defeating Fresno Christian 4-0 in the D-VI final.

Softball

Highland capped a magical season by winning the SoCal Regional D-IV championship with a comeback victory over host Holtville, located 300 miles to the south. The Scots outscored their six postseason opponents a combined 81-5, clinching the section D-V championship with a 9-0 victory over top-seeded Shafter along the way.

The Scots swept the BVarsity All-Area honors, with coach Jackie Puente being honored along with Marissa Campos and Briana Solis. Campos, a senior third baseman, hit a team-high .508 with three home runs and 26 RBIs. Solis, a junior pitcher, was 9-1 with a 1.18 ERA and also batted .417 with 17 RBIs.

Swimming and diving

Stockdale senior Karlee Taylor posted the lone Division I section title, winning the 1-meter diving competition to cap her high school career with BVarsity All-Area honors. Tehachapi’s Alaina Riggs was named the All-Area swimmer of the year after helping her team to a second-place finish at the D-II championships. In addition to helping her 400 freestyle relay team finish first, she was second in the 200 and 400 free.

On the boys side, Garces junior Rory Begin was named the BVarsity All-area swimmer of the year after leading the Rams to a sixth-place finish in the section. Begin finished second in the 200 freestyle (1:40.86) and third in the 100 freestyle (45.85) at the section meet, and also was part of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams that each placed fifth at the event.

Tennis

Kylee Limpias and Jocie Sala had a busy year for Garces. The dynamic duo captured two section girls doubles championships during a five-month stretch, following up their victory in the spring with another the first week of November. In addition to individual accolades, the pair teamed with a talented Rams squad that includes No. 1 singles player Kelsey Abraham to win their first section D-I title since 2011.

On the boys side, Centennial junior Brett Yackovich led his team to their first section title since 1999, powering the Golden Hawks past top-seeded Reedley-Immanuel in the D-II final. Individually, Yackovich won the SWYL title and finished as runner-up in the section.

Track and field

Liberty senior Faith Bender completed one of the most dominant seasons, recovering from a serious back problem to win the Central Section title in the discus. She also won the South Area meet in the shot put. Bender followed up her title with first-place finishes in the discus at the unofficial California State Track and Field championships and The Outdoor Nationals presented by Nike. Her discus throw of 173-9 at the state meet was the top high school mark in the nation this year. Bender’s Patriots teammate Bella Rigby finished second in the section in both the discus and shot put, and was runner-up to Bender at the state (160-1) and national (163-2.25) meets.

In boys action, Stockdale senior Luis-Ramon Torres posted personal records in winning the 110 (15.13) and 300 hurdles (39.89) at the section meet, and also placed 10th in the 100-meter dash with a personal-best 11.07. Shafter junior Nicholas Godbehere won the section shot put title and was 12th at the Outdoor Nationals. Garces senior Zach Buckey was honored with the Mayor’s Trophy. He won the discus at the South Area championships with a personal-best 190-0. The throw was the top in the Central Section and third best in the state this season, but Buckey opted to skip the section meet to prepare for his freshman season playing football at Stanford.

Volleyball

Several area teams made an impact this season following an abbreviated season in the spring with no playoffs. Liberty and first-year coach Morgan Dake dominated SWYL play, finishing undefeated and 21-5 overall, with Centennial close behind. Both teams were eliminated on the road in the D-I playoffs.

Third-place Stockdale, the top seed in D-II, heated up in the playoffs and won its first section title since 2004. Another SWYL team, Garces, rolled to the section D-IV championship with a victory over East, and reached the SoCal regional final. The Blades went undefeated in SEYL play and advanced to their first regional volleyball match.

Water polo

With the Kern High School District adding the sport the year before, several area athletes finally got a chance to compete in the pool after COVID-19 wiped out its inaugural season before it even got started.

Of the KHSD teams, Bakersfield High was selected to play in the section D-III boys playoffs, along with the Liberty girls (Division II) and Centennial, Stockdale and Frontier (D-III). Of the four, the Golden Hawks were the only team to post a win, but the sport received plenty of momentum along the way.

The Garces boys and girls teams each reached the section Division I semifinals and advanced to play in the SoCal Regionals.

Wrestling

The high school wrestling season was one of the only high school sports not to compete in the spring, but competition resumed in the fall. The Rumble for the Rig tournament, hosted by BHS, returned after a two-year hiatus earlier this month. The city is scheduled to host the CIF State Wrestling Championships at Mechanics Bank Arena, Feb. 24-26.

Gone, but not forgotten

There were also a few notable deaths among the high school community. Former Shafter and Bakersfield College football star Dick Witcher, who played eight years in the NFL, died in February at 76. Local running and music enthusiast Paul “Andy Noise” Anderson, died in May just two days after his 58th birthday. Former NFL defensive lineman Spain Musgrove, a standout at BHS and BC, died in August at 76. Longtime Arvin football and baseball coach Chuck Chamberlain lost his fight with cancer in October. He was 81. Most recently, former Garces and BC football player Joe Hernandez, who went on to an eight-year football pro career, died at 81 from COVID-19 complications.

Other 2021 highlights

• The Bakersfield Condors capture the Pacific Division title, winning a dramatic three-game series over the Henderson Silver Knights.

• Bakersfield College baseball coach Tim Painton wins his 600th career game.

• Locally-owned thoroughbred Rock Your World competes in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

• Three area baseball players are selected in the MLB Draft. Sean Mullen (Stockdale) went in the 11th round to the Tampa Bay Rays, Jacen Roberson (Garces, CSUB) was chosen in the 16th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Kris Anglin (Frontier) went 19 picks later by the Atlanta Braves. All three signed contracts with their respective teams.

• BC’s Jonathan Hunter is named the state’s outstanding wrestler after winning the CCCAA championship at 184 pounds.

• Bakersfield College inducts its inaugural class into the school’s Hall of Fame.

• Bakersfield racer Derek Thorn wins the final nine races of the season to secure his record sixth SRL Southwest Tour points championship.

• CSUB makes its debut as a member of the Big West Conference.

• The Bakersfield Magic, an expansion team in The Basketball League, announces it will join the professional league in 2022.