By Ray Hamill — This week here at Humboldt Sports we’re taking a look back at the top local sports stories of the year.
On Tuesday, we broke down Nos. 21-30, and today we’ll be taking a look at Nos. 11-20.
On Thursday, we’ll unveil the top-10 local sports stories of 2018 and a few of our own favorites for good measure.
20 — Mack boys win Big 5 in basketball
The Big 5 boys basketball race went down to the final night, with Fortuna, McKinleyville and Del Norte each tied at 5-3 and crowned co-champs.
The Panthers then went on to win the series of tiebreakers, defeating Fortuna in a playoff to secure the top seed and a home NCS playoff game.
It was the program’s first league crown since 1997, and only its second ever.
A memorable achievement for the Panthers.
19 — The growing culture of MMA in Humboldt County
There are still relatively few competitors in the sport of mixed martial arts here in Humboldt County, but the number is growing, and the level of competition is getting better.
And the majority of them are home grown, including many former H-DNL star wrestlers.
In addition to Cass Bell, who competed twice this year at the prestigious Bellator events, the Cosce brothers, Orion and Louis, who went to Hoopa Valley High, each made successful pro debuts in 2018.
The list of quality competitors locally has grown too, with the Institute of Combat and the Lost Boys Gym, both in Arcata, each providing a platform for the sport here on the North Coast.
Just as impressively, the popularity of MMA has soared locally in recent years, with the Bear River Casino fight nights a huge success, selling out the 1,100 seat area almost every time.
More on the impact of local MMA a little later in our list of biggest sporting stories of 2018.
18 — Fortuna boys soccer dominates the North Coast
A new-look Huskies team, with just four returning players from the previous season. kept the dynasty going strong with a thoroughly dominating season against North Coast opposition.
The only team that really came close to challenging Fortuna was a surprise Del Norte squad, which almost knocked off the Huskies in the NCS championship game at Fortuna High.
The Warriors were the only other H-DNL team to take any points off the Huskies — tying them in the league finale — and pushed them all the way in dramatic 3-2 double overtime loss in the section championship.
The NCS title was the second in three years for Fortuna, which also claimed a sixth straight H-DNL title.
The Huskies were led by seniors Jackson Fairbanks, Kevin Noel and Luis Atilano, as well as sophomore standout Fernando Atilano.
17 — Vera, Martel-Phillips qualify again for state
In the midst of the NCS scheduling mess this past fall (more on that a little later), four local runners advanced to the state meet, including H-DNL champions Adam Vera of McKinleyville and Riley Martel-Phillips of Arcata.
Vera set a school record at a dramatic league championships, which saw McKinleyville edge Fortuna in a tiebreaker.
It was the second straight individual league championship for Vera, who himself barely edged out Fortuna sophomore Collin Stockwell with his closing speed.
Martel-Phillips, meanwhile, won her third straight league crown and led a dominating Tigers squad to the H-DNL team title.
For both Martel-Phillips and Vera, it was their third trip to the prestigious state meet in Fresno, where they placed 51st and 65th, respectively.
Stockwell and McKinleyville’s West Wood each also qualified for the state championships.
Interestingly, and contrasting heavily with many of the Bay Area NCS football teams this fall, the H-DNL state qualifiers traveled more than 1,500 miles (25 hours) over a five-day period to compete.
16 — Putting the Bell in Bellator
Arcata’s Cass Bell made the biggest splash locally in MMA this year, winning both of his fights at the prestigious Bellator events.
Bell, a former Arcata standout wrestler, took his small army of green-clad fans to San Jose for both fights, defeating Khai Wu in May and Ty Costa in late September.
The Arcata pro is now 2-0 and is expected to be back in the cage sometime in the new year.
15 — Ja’Quan Gardner signs with the 49ers
It was a brief stay, but record-setting former Humboldt State running back Ja’Quan Gardner signed a three-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers late in the preseason, becoming the second former Lumberjack on an NFL roster in 2018, along with Tampa Bay’s Alex Cappa.
Gardner played just sparingly on special teams in the 49ers’ final preseason game.
He was cut a few days later, but the news of his signing was enthusiastically received by local sports fans.
14 — Eureka girls in a league of their own
If the Fortuna boys soccer team dominated its opponents this year, the Eureka girls outclassed theirs on a whole different level.
Say what you want about the diminished quality of the NCS, this Loggers squad was the most dominating the H-DNL has seen in some time.
They never once trailed in the entire season, giving up just three goals in 19 games and outscoring their opponents by a whopping 108 goals.
Led by ever-reliable seniors Olivia Stone and Athena Miller, as well as standout sophomore Klayre Barres, among many, many others, the Loggers finished 19-0 and cruised to a first-ever NCS crown.
13 — Panthers make history in golf
It may not have been received with quite the same fanfare as some of the other NCS championships this year, but the Panthers’ success story was arguably more impressive than any of the others.
The Mack girls, led by senior Molly Citro and junior Phoebe Sundberg, clinched a second straight NCS Division-II team title in golf in October, the first time a local golf team, boys or girls, has ever managed that.
Isabella Sundberg and Jayme Willis rounded out the Mack team, which beat second-placed St. Patrick/St. Vincent by 29 strokes.
The NCS crown was just the fourth ever for the H-DNL boys and girls combined, with the Arcata girls previously winning in 1998 and 2010.
12 — Will Omey leads NCS in total yards
Junior Will Omey wasn’t penciled in to be the starting St. Bernard’s quarterback when training camp began back in July, but he quickly earned that right and didn’t disappoint after that.
Omey was the most effective dual threat QB in the area, and statistically one of the best in the entire NCS, leading the section in total offensive yards with 3,084.
11 — Football realignment
Not everyone thought it was a good idea, but the new-look H-DNL in football was widely acclaimed as a success.
It certainly made for a more competitive Little 4, with a dominating St. Bernard’s program that had won 24 straight games against league opponents now moved up to the Big 4.
After decades of watching Ferndale and St. Bernard’s winning, fans of the Little 4 were treated to the most open campaign in a long time, with three teams (Arcata, Hoopa and Ferndale) still in the hunt going into the final weekend.
The Big 4 was dominated by Eureka, as expected, with all of the other games instant classics.
Most notably the game of the year between St. Bernard’s and Fortuna, a 56-54 overtime thriller won by the Crusaders.
The critics of realignment cite St. Bernard’s smaller roster size as an unfair disadvantage, and it was certainly problematic for the Crusaders in a very physical Big 4 in 2018.
On the upside, the new format opens the possibility of a new crosstown Eureka rivalry, with St. Bernard’s and Eureka playing football this year for the first time since the 1960s and just the second time ever.
The game attracted the largest crowd of the year in local high school sports.
Next up …
On Thursday we’ll continue our look back at the year in local sports, breaking down the top-10 stories of 2018.