Before we ring in the new, time to reflect on the old.
The year 2016 was a turbulent one for central San Joaquin Valley sports. There were plenty of triumphs by our athletes and teams, at the state, national and even international levels, but each of those was overshadowed by the disaster that was Fresno State football.
Without further delay, time to roll out the Top 10 local sports stories for 2016. All selections are mine, so you know whom to credit (or blame).
1. Collapse of Fresno State football; DeRuyter axed
In the 95-year history of Fresno State football, there had never been a season this lousy. Despite facing only modest expectations, the Bulldogs managed to limbo them by going 1-11 and finishing on a 10-game losing streak. The only victory came Week 2 against Sacramento State, an FCS team that finished 2-9. Fifth-year coach Tim DeRuyter didn’t survive to see the end of it. He was terminated Oct. 23 by athletic director Jim Bartko hours after the team flew home following a loss at Utah State (and with $3.1 million remaining on his fully guaranteed contract). Unfortunately for fans the season had to keep going. Fresno State lost all four of its remaining games under interim coach Eric Kiesau, who was eventually dismissed along with the rest of the staff. The last two defeats, by a combined three points to Hawaii and San Jose State, came before some of the tiniest home crowds in decades.
2. Bulldogs snap NCAA Tournament drought
Five years into coach Rodney Terry’s incremental rebuild, the Fresno State men’s basketball team ascended the ladder of success by reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001. The Bulldogs overcame injuries and absences during the regular reason before surging in the Mountain West Tournament, which culminated with a pulsating 68-63 championship victory over San Diego State at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center. Fresno State traveled to Denver as the No. 14 seed in the Midwest Regional, where they ran into a tall roadblock in No. 3 Utah and lost 80-69 in the opening round. The 2015-16 season will be long remembered for the superlative efforts of MW Player of the Year Marvelle Harris, who surpassed Melvin Ely as the program’s all-time leading scorer, and some clutch shooting by fellow senior Julien Lewis.
3. Carr steers Raiders back to playoffs
When the Raiders drafted Derek Carr in 2014, it was easy to assume the Fresno State star would get swallowed up by a Black Hole. Stuck in a dysfunctional franchise that hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2002. Three years in, the picture couldn’t be more different. The Raiders are 12-3, leading the AFC West and assured to play games in January, while Carr blossomed into one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks and a legitimate MVP candidate despite being lost for the season Saturday. Even while in the East Bay, Carr maintains a Valley presence that maintains his status as the region’s most popular athlete – by a wide margin.
4. Tedford tapped to fix football
Nineteen days after bidding adieu to DeRuyter, Fresno State welcomed back one of its own with the introduction of Jeff Tedford. The new head coach is a former player – he quarterbacked the 1981 squad that opened Bulldog Stadium – and offensive coordinator under Jim Sweeney and Pat Hill who went on to steer Cal to eight bowl games during an 11-year run that ended in 2012. Under the gun to hire assistants and recruit, Tedford loaded his staff with three ex-Bulldogs (plus a CFL defensive coordinator) and a pledge to recruit California and the Valley. So far, the results have been encouraging.
5. Valley Olympians shine in Rio
More than 11,500 athletes competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, including six with Valley ties. Former Fresno State basketball star Paul George, back from a severe leg injury, won a gold medal with Team USA. Just missing a medal was Visalia’s Brooke Crain, fourth in BMX. Jenna Prandini, the “normal” girl from Clovis, couldn’t reach the 200-meter final – but former College of the Sequoias sprinter Deajah Stevens did. Two others represented foreign countries: Visalia’s Lauren Billys (and horse Purdy) in three-day eventing for Puerto Rico and former Clovis West High standout Nikki Okwelogu heaving the shot put for Nigeria.
6. Buchanan pins Clovis’ state streak
After years of playing second fiddle to the juggernaut down the street, 2016 was the year Buchanan High wrestling took its solo. In January, the Bears served notice things would be different by halting the Cougars’ 91-match win streak against in-state competition. Then in March, Buchanan completed the coup by winning the CIF State Championship – and ending Clovis’ record five-year reign. The Bears notched a record-tying 10 medalists and three state champions in Matt Olguin (106 pounds), Ethan Leake (113) and Zakary Levatino (220).
7. Valley towns bask in section football titles
For four small, one-high school cities, it was an autumn to remember. Sanger (Division II), Selma (D-IV), Mendota (D-V) and Strathmore (D-VI) all captured Central Section football titles, and all did it by going undefeated against area competition. Selma ended the longest drought, winning its first crown since 1980 under second-year coach Matt Logue. Strathmore went the deepest in the CIF State playoffs, advancing to the Division 6-A final before losing a heartbreaker at home. In Sanger, they’re hoping 27-year coach Chuck Shidan doesn’t step away.
8. Fresno State wrestling relaunch official
Talk about a slow burn. Way, way back in November 2013, Fresno State President Joseph Castro announced wrestling would return. The reinstatement process certainly hasn’t been rapid – Castro first needed to hire an AD – but things accelerated May 12 when Castro and Bartko introduced Troy Steiner of Iowa fame as the Bulldogs new coach with plans to compete in the Big 12 Conference starting in 2017-18. In the meantime Steiner has been busy signing recruits, hiring assistants and making preparations for the program’s relaunch.
9. Ramirez packs ’em in, stays unbeaten
Avenal’s favorite son, Jose Ramirez, continued to pillage boxing’s super lightweight division by winning three bouts including two held in the Valley. After winning a unanimous decision April 9 in Las Vegas, Ramirez returned to The Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoore on July 9 for a second-round knockout over Tomas Mendez. Then on Dec. 2, with 13,700 watching at Save Mart Center, he recorded a six-round knockout over Issouf Kinda. What’s next for the 24-year-old, now 19-0 as a pro with 14 KOs? Perhaps a world title fight.
10. Lincecum turns back the clock
For one glorious evening (June 12), it was 2007 all over again. Tim Lincecum was back on the mound at Chukchansi Park and 10,192 Fresno-area baseball fans came out to watch. Except this time the former Giants ace wasn’t pitching for the Grizzlies – he was pitching for the Salt Lake Bees. The 32-year-old may no longer have a 96 mph fastball, but his stuff was good enough to produce seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 Bees victory. Grizzlies fans cheered the two-time Cy Young Award winner the entire time.
Also considered: Dribble-drive guru Vance Walberg returns to Clovis West; Fresno State softball rise and reshuffle; James Hoyt sets Grizzlies save record; Clovis North’s Rhesa Foster wins state long jump; stadium name reunites Bob Bennett and Fresno State; Immanuel basketball sweeps section titles, again; Fuego reach postseason after coach abruptly quits.