Rural schools like McFarland High prove they belong in the sports arena

In the early 1970s, a Delano High School football team led by a Filipino quarterback ventured onto Lamonica Stadium at Clovis High School for a Valley playoff game.

What the rural school team and its fans saw was not normal: The referees wore microphones to announce their calls, the game ball was delivered by a helicopter, the high school had a cannon that spit out fire, smoke and ear-splitting booms after each score.

I was there to cover the game for the Live Wire, the school’s weekly publication. I was in awe at the pageantry. Not even the legendary Delano High coach Gene Beck could have guided the players to victory that evening against a Clovis team that looked as professional as any NFL team.

Zoom to the future.

After criss-crossing the San Joaquín Valley recently to cover winter sports playoff games in McFarland, Orosi, Coalinga, Madera, Selma and Mendota, the rural schools are starting to close the competitive edge against those schools from Fresno, Bakersfield, Visalia and Tulare.

Not only that, but Latinas are taking vital roles in helping their schools accomplish big things in the sports arena.

Here are my rankings of the top achievements among high schools this winter:

1. Tiny McFarland High – the school that embraced its cross country team on its way to an unprecedented nine state championships that resulted in a Disney movie – came within one win of pocketing a state title in a different sport.

Had the McFarland girls basketball team beaten Oakland High in the state Division III title game at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Arena, it would have given head coach Johnny Samaniego another state title to go with the team cross country title he won as a sophomore in 1987.

Instead, McFarland, with an enrollment of 929, lost the state Division III title to Oakland High (1,568 enrollment), 51-35.

McFarland ended its most successful season with a 31-6 record and the CIF Southern Section championship. Neli Díaz, whose father was on the 1987 cross country team, finished her high school career with a school-record 2,016 points.

“We stayed relentless throughout the whole game,” said Samaniego.

“I’ve been proud of this team since Day 1,” said Díaz.

McFarland fell in the CIF Central Section Division IV title game to San Joaquín Memorial, 50-38.

2. Serena Ybarra returned from a knee injury to lead Coalinga High to a 26-5 season record that ended in a thrilling 62-60 overtime loss to Sierra High in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division V playoffs.

Ybarra scored 30 points for the home team in the defeat. A teacher painted her as an ideal student.

The senior captain had a season-high 37 points in a game against Firebaugh High.

3. They call her Fish, but Felicia Ramírez was more than that for the Caruthers High girls basketball team that captured the CIF State Division V championship with a 62-38 win over Ramona High.

The senior guard scored almost 1,800 points in her career as Caruthers ended the season on a 21-game winning streak en route to a 32-4 record.

4. Selma High center Yesenia Sánchez, at 6-foot-1, is only a sophomore. She was among the reasons the team posted a 28-4 record that included the CIF Central Section Division III championship following a 71-39 win over Fresno High.

Sánchez scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the victory.

5. There were no state titles in soccer, but don’t tell that to Madera South High coach Enrique García after his team scored a 4-2 win over Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco for the CIF Northern California Division III title.

This year’s team finished its campaign with a 25-5-1 record that included the school’s first CIF Central Section title.

Juan Esparza Loera has been editor of Vida en el Valle since it first published in August 1990. Send questions, comments, suggestions to: jesparza@vidaenvalle.com