By Ray Hamill — 2018 will go down as a controversial one in local sports, with Humboldt State and the North Coast Section front and center for the wrong reasons.
But there were plenty of positives as well, with several local athletes and teams making a name for themselves well outside the area, while leaving a legacy within it that will be difficult to match.
This week on Humboldt Sports, we’re taking a look back at the top local sports stories of the year.
Here is the complete list of the top 30 (actually 31) stories of the year, culminating with the top-10,
30T — Summer baseball thrills
No sport on the North Coast thrives as much as baseball.
From Little Leaguers all the way to the Humboldt Crabs, annually this area enjoys plenty of success on the diamond both in the spring and during the summer months.
No one, however, had a better summer in 2018 than the Humboldt Eagles 17U, who placed second in the state for the second straight year.
The Eagles featured just three 17-year-olds in 2018, so you can expect another challenge for a state championship in 2019.
A special mention to two other teams here.
The Humboldt B52s have evolved into a top-notch competitive summer collegiate team, playing at a new-look Bomber Field across from the Redwood Acres, and are one of the best kept summer sporting secrets here in Humboldt County.
And also the Humboldt Eagles 19U American Legion squad was a true North Coast all-star team this past summer for the first time in a long time, featuring the best players from throughout the entire H-DNL, while earning the top seed for the NorCal tournament for the first time ever.
30T — Arcata’s tennis dynasty
The Tigers know tennis.
In the spring, they swept their way to the boys Humboldt-Del Norte League title, and they followed that with a perfect girls league campaign in the fall.
It’s not just that they don’t lose any team matches locally, but they don’t lose many individual matches along the way either.
Arcata tennis is arguably the area’s most dominating high school sports program right now.
29 — The re-emergence of Del Norte football
Del Norte football was probably the most improved team in the H-DNL this year — in any sport.
After winning just two games on the field of play in 2017, the Warriors won nine in 2018, making it to the semifinal of the North Coast Section Division-IV playoffs for the seventh time in school history.
Led by seniors Ethan Price and Sebastian Puente, the Warriors memorably beat both Fortuna and St. Bernard’s in this year’s Big 4, solidifying their playoff status as the No. 2 seed in their bracket.
Their only losses came against state semifinalists Eureka and NCS champs Fortuna.
28 — Historic pennant for Fortuna wrestling
Led by senior Jacob Bernstein, the Huskies made their mark on the wrestling mats in 2018.
Fortuna edged out Del Norte by just 3.5 points to win the H-DNL crown, while also claiming a first-ever NCS dual meet team pennant.
Bernstein had 39 wins and qualified for the state meet, posting two wins there.
Six local wrestlers placed at the NCS meet, including Bernstein’s Fortuna teammate Adam Medeiros and Eureka’s Anthony Martinez, who were each fourth, barely missing out on state qualification.
St. Bernard’s Garrison Roach and Del Norte’s Skylar Moore and Ta-tes Boulby each also placed at NCS.
27 — Double delight on the diamond for South Fork
It was a good spring for the Cubs on the baseball and softball diamonds, with the school recording an historic sweep in the NCS.
The girls got hot at an opportune time, winning the Division-VI softball title with a 22-5 rout of Geyserville, while the boys followed that four days later with a 4-1 win over San Francisco Waldorf in Miranda for the Division-VI baseball crown.
Senior Scott Coffelt was instrumental in the baseball championship game, pitching a gem and also hitting a two-run home run in the first inning for what would prove to be the winning score.
The NCS title was the second in baseball for the Cubs — their first since 1996 — and the H-DNL’s 11th in 13 years.
The softball championship was the first ever for the school.
26 — Hoopa Valley softball wins Little 4
The Warriors ended a long run of dominance by Ferndale and St. Bernard’s in the Little 4 with their first league championship in a decade.
The Hoopa Valley girls capped an impressive unbeaten 12-0 league campaign by winning their final two games at closest rivals St. Bernard’s to seal the title.
Shortstop Alexia Jackson had a huge day on both sides of the ball in the league clinching doubleheader, while pitcher Hallee Colegrove was a rock in the circle all season.
It was one of the feel-good stories of the year, and one of the biggest surprises, with no one outside of Hoopa giving the Warriors much of a chance at the outset of the season.
25 — Eureka girls volleyball back on top
It was a very good fall for most of the Eureka High teams, including the Loggers volleyball team.
The Eureka girls ended an era of dominance by both Arcata and Del Norte in the Big 5, claiming their first league crown in several years.
They made it interesting too, storming out to a 6-0 start, before dropping their seventh match and then having to rally from 2-1 down against McKinleyville in their final league game to clinch the title outright.
It was a big breakthrough for head coach Rachel Evans and the Eureka program.
24 — The Humboldt Crabs
The Crabs are always the biggest local sports story of the summer in Humboldt County, and a tradition like no other in the area.
The longest continuous collegiate summer baseball team in the country celebrated its 74th season in 2018, and for many local sports fans, the Crabs are the biggest sports story on the entire North Coast every year.
They went 37-10 this year, but were particularly exciting, either rallying late in games or allowing their opponents to rally late in games, all of which made for several close finishes, and an unusually high number of walk-offs.
They also won a 20-inning game at the Redding Colt 45’s.
23 — Finck shuts down the Loggers
St. Bernard’s pitcher Garrison Finck enjoyed a stellar senior season, including shutting down a potent Eureka lineup that would go on to dominate the rest of the H-DNL.
Finck was the best pitcher on the North Coast in 2018, finishing the year with a record of 8-0 and an ERA of 0.68, including four complete games.
He held the high-octane Loggers to just two hits in one of those complete games, while striking out seven and helping the Crusaders to a memorable 4-0 win.
22 — Humboldt State women win CCAA Tournament
While the HSU men’s basketball team struggled last winter, the women’s team got hot at the right time with a memorable playoff run.
In addition to taking down nationally ranked UC San Diego in the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament championship game, the Jacks knocked off No. 1 seed Azusa Pacific in the opening round of the NCAA regional tournament.
The CCAA championship was achieved in unlikely circumstances, as the HSU women rallied from six points down in the final minute of the game to pull out the win.
It was one of the most thrilling finishes in local sports all year.
21 — Hoopa beats Ferndale in football
It was 23 years in the making, but Hoopa Valley finally defeated Ferndale on the football fields, and the Warriors apparently had so much fun doing it, they decided to do it again.
Not since 1995 had the Warriors defeated their biggest nemesis, a span of 42 consecutive games.
But on Sept. 21, Hoopa defeated Ferndale 36-26, ending one of the longest streaks in local sports.
They proved it was no fluke either with a second win over the Wildcats at Ferndale High three weeks later, giving them the season sweep and an official winning streak against their Little 4 rivals.
The Warriors capped a breakout year with their first trip to the playoffs in seven years.
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.
THE TOP 10
10 — CR’s state champ
College of the Redwoods freshman Angelo Flores enjoyed a phenomenal first season competing in collegiate track and field, winning a state championship in the javelin in the spring.
Flores, who came to CR to play football, was recruited for the track team by head coach Reed Elmore, and had an immediate impact, setting a new school record early in the season with a throw of 206-11.
That mark was not just the best in the state all season, but the second best nationally.
Flores, who is expected to compete for the Corsairs again in 2019, was part of a dynamic one-two punch for the school in the event, along with teammate JW Dauth.
Dauth surprisingly edged his record-setting teammate in the NorCal championships, with Flores placing second that day.
One week later, however, the Portland native closed out the season with the winning performance at the state meet.
9 — Exciting times for Fortuna boys basketball
As the No. 1 ranked Division-IV team in the state to close out 2018, the Fortuna Huskies might yet be the No. 1 sports story on the North Coast in 2019.
These are exciting times for a senior-laden and veteran Huskies team, led by Drew Gillette, Zac Claus, Kevin Noel and Bradley Willis and Donald Willis.
They have stormed out of the starting gates this winter at 12-0, winning their opening three tournaments, and will tip off the Big 5 in January as red-hot favorites.
The Huskies are also the top-ranked Division-IV team in the NCS, and heading into the new year it would seem that a section crown and perhaps a lot more is well within their reach.
8 — Moulton’s historic drive for five
It was another entertaining summer at the Redwood Acres Raceway in 2018, highlighted by Mic Moulton’s Late Models championship.
Despite a dominating campaign that saw him win all but one of the main events leading up to the final weekend of action, the Eureka driver had to fight all the way to hold off rival and friend David Henderson.
The championship was the fifth overall for Moulton in the Late Models division, including his third straight.
It was also his sixth overall at the raceway, solidifying his legacy as one of the all-time greats to ever grace the historic track.
7 — Arcata girls make history
The Tigers celebrated a remarkable achievement early in the year, winning a sixth straight Big 5 title and a sixth straight Dick Niclai Memorial Tournament championship.
Considering the competitive nature of the Big 5, that’s a feat that is unlikely to be matched again.
Head coach Dusty Scofield, who now coaches the school’s boys team, was in charge for the first five years of this dynasty, with long-time local coach Doug Oliveira taking over last season and not missing a beat.
Led by seniors Kaylie McCracken and Bree Northern, the Tigers closed out the season 20-8, losing just once in league play.
6 — NCS fails its athletes
Few local sports stories inflamed the public at large as much as the NCS scheduling fiasco in 2018.
The section decision makers failed to act quickly enough when the poor air quality caused by the wild fires disrupted the playoff schedules.
There were options available to them, but they stalled, and in the end the NCS was the only section in California not to get the playoff games in.
The end result was teams having to choose between forfeiting the chance to play in a state bowl game and finish out their NCS schedule, or go to a tiebreaker to decide who moves on and cancel the section championships.
The Eureka Loggers were forced into a coin flip to decide their fate, while Fortuna never got the chance to defend its state title, despite not losing a game in the playoffs.
It was embarrassing for the NCS, and disgraceful that this was forced on the athletes who had worked so hard to earn their opportunity.
And football wasn’t the only sport affected by the mess.
In cross country, half of the NCS runners had their section championships taken away from them, again because of poor planning more than anything.
Some of them, like the H-DNL girls, were literally left stranded at the starting line when word came down of the cancelation at the very last moment.
5 — Track and field’s record breakers
Fortuna’s Katie Hurst is pound-for-pound the most talented athlete in the area, and she continued to set new standards in 2018.
Hurst is a rare top-class Division-I prospect in track and field, who qualified for the indoor high school nationals in New York City in March, and followed that with another stellar season outdoors later in the spring.
She set a new league record in the triple jump in the spring as a junior, to go with the league record she already holds in the high jump, which she set as a sophomore.
Despite battling injuries and sickness most of the spring, and being limited in practice, Hurst closed out the season with a seventh-place finish in the high jump at the state meet, clearing 5-8, the same height that earned her a second-place finish in 2017.
It was her third straight trip to the prestigious meet, and Hurst will be expected to be a serious contender once again as a senior in 2019.
Joining her at the state meet in 2018, McKinleyville senior Lizzie Dolan also deserves a special mention after an impressive spring.
Dolan, who will compete for UC San Diego this school year, closed out her Panthers career with a remarkable six school records, including the 100 meter hurdles league record she set in May’s H-DNL championships.
She qualified for two events at state, the 300 and 100 meter hurdles, placing 21st and 22nd, respectively.
4 — Big year for Eureka football
The 2018 prep football season will be remembered for many reasons, including the NCS mess that took away the Loggers’ chance to play for a section championship.
That, however, is not the most newsworthy aspect of the Loggers’ season. Not by a long shot.
This was a team that will be remembered for a stellar senior class that completed a second consecutive undefeated regular season, something you rarely see on the local football fields.
(No other school here has even one in the past decade.)
But it wasn’t just the fact no one could beat them on the way to the state playoffs, but rather how they dominated opponents.
Only one of their regular-season opponents came within 20 points of them, and the Loggers featured a lineup with numerous playmakers on both sides of the ball, usually putting games out of reach in the first half.
Linebacker Tyce Mullins as well as linemen Miles Meynell and Isaak Gutierrez set the tone on a physical team, while quarterback Cruz Montana finished the season with the fourth-highest passer rating in the entire NCS.
Perhaps even more impressively, the senior signal caller, who barely put a foot wrong all season, played the CIF regional game with a broken jaw he suffered on the opening drive.
Montana was unaware of the severity of the injury, and went on to pass and run for touchdowns to lead his team back in the fourth quarter, before the Loggers ultimately lost to Menlo-Atherton.
That’s the stuff legends are made of.
For many different reasons, the 2018 Eureka High football season will be remembered as one for the ages.
3 — Huskies achieve historic NCS repeat
There’s something to be said for timing and preparation, not to mention a group of Fortuna seniors who leave behind them a legacy that will be difficult to top.
After finishing the regular season with a record of 5-5, including some tough matchups along the way and a winless Big 4 campaign, the Huskies got healthy in the drawn-out playoffs, and when they got healthy, they got hot.
They went on to win all four of their playoff games on the way to a second straight NCS Division-IV title, and it was a unique achievement locally for many reasons.
The Huskies had to win three straight road games against the top three seeds in their division, which no local team has ever done before, while becoming the lowest H-DNL seed (No. 6) to ever win an NCS football crown.
It was also the school’s fourth section championship in the sport, and it comes one year after the program’s historic first-ever state title.
Many of the seniors will walk away having never lost a playoff game at Fortuna High, with an H-DNL record 10 straight postseason wins.
It was a remarkable achievement for this group of players and one of the best coaching staffs in the area.
2 — And with the 94th pick, the Buccaneers take …
It wasn’t all bad news for Humboldt State football in 2018.
In late April, former HSU offensive lineman Alex Cappa made a little bit of local history when he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who traded up to get him in the third round with the 94th overall pick.
It was a memorable and exciting time for HSU football, although bittersweet in hindsight for a school that would announce it was cutting the football program less than three months later.
Cappa earned plenty of national attention for his performance (and appearance) at the NFL combine earlier in the year, eventually getting drafted two rounds higher than projected.
He became the first HSU player to be drafted since 1992 and the only one ever to go as high as the third round.
Cappa had an impressive training camp with the Bucs, comfortably making their final roster.
He made his debut with the team in November as he gradually makes the sizable leap from Division-II collegiate football to the pros, and is expected to have a bright future with the team.
1 — The end of an era at the Redwood Bowl
Without much doubt, the most impactful local sports story of 2018 was Humboldt State’s decision to cut the football program, with the announcement coming in July.
School president Lisa Rossbacher, who later announced her impending retirement, made the decision in conjunction with interim AD Duncan Robbins, citing budgetary problems as the sole reason.
Independent reports sanctioned by the school, however, indicate that this is not the case and that eliminating high participant sports such as football will only exacerbate the budgetary problems within the department.
Regardless, it was a decision that was met with anger from the local sports boosters, who were in the process of raising the $500,000 the community had pledged to help support the team.
Rossbacher, who did not meet with media when the decision was announced through a press release, and was out of town that week, claims the community failed to raise the necessary funds.
The problem was compounded by a somewhat farcical search for a new head coach for the team earlier in the year, which had dragged out for several months, with questionable restrictions — in terms of roster size, the hiring of assistant coaches and job security — being forced on any interested candidates.
Whatever way you look at it, the situation was very poorly handled by the school administration, a reflection of this president’s overall resume at HSU.
Robbins’ relationship with the local boosters also is not helping matters, and has deteriorated to the extent that the very mention of his name now angers and upsets local fans.
Boosters are pulling their support — emotional and financial — and that’s something that will be felt throughout the entire athletic department going forward.
In fact, judging by the recent attendances at the basketball games, it already is being felt.
That doesn’t even take into account the future effects this decision will have on the women’s teams at the school, with the numbers now way out of proportion in regard to Title IX.
The decision to cut football was always going to be about far more than getting rid of a sports team and saving some money.
And that makes it the most newsworthy local sports story of 2018, and one that will ultimately be far more impactful than any other this year.