Some inspired in life. Another in both life and death. Some as a group.
As I reflected over the 2017 calendar year and cherry-picked my top five prep sports stories of the year, “perseverance” was an apt word to illustrate what these stories have in common.
5 Turning 30
When I started covering prep football as a teenager for the Journal in 1985, Artesia had 14 state football championships. Earlier this month, the Bulldogs won their 30th.
I’ve been fortunate to cover several of these last 16 titles — most notably, that scoreless tie in 1987 in Lovington, the last football final to end in a tie in New Mexico — and the continued supremacy and excellence of Artesia football might be the single most impressive achievement in state high school athletics.
The effort, planning and sheer fortitude required to win a single state championship is a veritable mountain to climb. To be this consistently great for this many decades? And in a city that doesn’t exactly cotton to anything less than a blue trophy?
4 Cameron Can
Even if we allow that Cameron Clarke’s nearly catastrophic neck and back injuries, suffered in a fall at his house in the summer of 2016, were largely his own doing, we must also concede that his road back to the coaching circle is something he also owned.
Cibola High’s boys soccer coach returned to the sideline this year to coach the Cougars, about 13 months after he suffered a clean break of the C5 vertebrae in his neck and bruising to his spinal cord.
But that backyard accident at his home, which left him paralyzed from the chest down, did not dissuade his recovery, and — calling himself a “quadriplegic that can walk” — he returned to his former job.
It was a physical and emotional grind for Cameron, who continues to battle some of the effects of his injury. But his was a journey that warrants our admiration and our applause.
3 Goodbye, John
John Gunther lived life on his terms. He died on his terms.
Sandia High School’s beloved baseball coach passed March 15, following a 15-month battle with colon cancer. His death, as upsetting as it was, was not a surprise.
But it was the manner in which he chose to die that touched so many, including me.
John was not a famous coach by any of the traditional definitions. But those who knew him the best described him as a tremendous and selfless man, father, husband and friend. His death inflicted widespread pain in this community.
He had made the decision to bypass further treatments on his aggressive and practically irreversible cancer, choosing instead to inject his life with all the love and warmth as he could squeeze into time he had remaining.
A remarkable guy. He is missed.
2 The Color Purple
The play is called Zoom 24 Whopper Escort.
That is the play that won Manzano its first state football championship earlier this month.
It was a jet sweep, a play the Monarchs loved to run. The ball was handed off to receiver Andrew Erickson, sprinting across the formation, and Erickson took it nearly half the length of the field for a fourth-quarter touchdown, a score that catapulted the Monarchs to a 14-7 victory over rival La Cueva in the Class 6A final.
The victory capped an undefeated season for Manzano, which began playing football in 1960. The Monarchs were the first unbeaten Albuquerque state champion since La Cueva in 2004.
I’ve said this before: This was a wonderful step in the growth of football in this city, and let’s hope it encourages other schools to believe it can be done.
1 Flying High
Every school year arrives with the opportunity to write about state championship games, and teams. It’s the single best perk that goes with this job.
However, sometimes, even that particular perk comes loaded with some extra juice from time to time, and so it was with the Volcano Vista boys basketball team.
There is little rhyme or reason, even now, nine months later, to understand what the Hawks managed in March as they won the Class 6A state championship.
Saddled — rightfully so — with a No. 12 seed, the Hawks reeled off four playoff victories over higher-seeded teams, including No. 2 Las Cruces in the final, and hoisted a blue trophy.
This is my choice for the top prep sports story of 2017.
We often celebrate the New Mexico state tournament for bringing together all the little guys who dream of turning the Pit into their personal time machine.
It just so happens that in this case, the little guy … well, he wasn’t so little. But it doesn’t change the majesty of Volcano Vista’s triumph, a stirring reminder of why high school sports can transfix the populace and be so damned magical.
Have a happy and healthy 2018, friends. One and all.