Sports prove value to community, players and coaches after unprecedented return in 2021 | Year in Review

CHICO — A sigh of relief that sports were able to return is the first thought that came to many sports fans’ minds in 2021 following the cancelation of the fall 2020 season. Family and friends of athletes were once again able to see their loved ones on the field, on the track, on the diamond, in the gym, in the pool and on the mat — well kind of.

Teams were limited in the number of games they played in the spring season. Teams could only face off against opponents in adjacent counties due to local restrictions regarding COVID-19 and players’ exposure. In the fall teams returned to regular competitions and several teams made unexpected runs into playoffs. Still, with players able to compete, fans were limited. In many cases, tickets were limited to friends and family and had to be bought ahead of time, often digitally.

Following the cancelation of contests at the high school and collegiate level in fall 2020, nearly every high school sport returned for a condensed spring 2021 season. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the overlap of fall, spring and winter sports all in one. On one Tuesday in Paradise, the Bobcats hosted a baseball game, a softball game, a basketball game, as well as a track and field meet.

Athletes were mandated to play with masks on per local guidelines when sports returned in the spring, and at the end of 2021 athletes were able to compete maskless but fans were still required to wear masks while in attendance.

The return to the field was sparked by a series of rallies across California that made its way to Chico called “Let Them Play.” On January 15, a line of student-athletes, parents and coaches lined the sidewalk in front of Pleasant Valley High School hoisting signs showing phrases like “Let us play” or “I need a season” to the many passing cars driving along East Avenue. Student-athletes, parents and coaches also stood outside of Orland High School and Hamilton High School with signs of their own.

The Facebook group “Let Them Play CA” urged the state to allow high school sports in 2021, citing concerns over the mental health of student-athletes.

On Jan. 29 the Pleasant Valley and Chico High ski and snowboarding teams competed in a race at Boreal when California’s stay-at-home order was lifted and sports in the Purple Tier — cross-country, golf, tennis, track and field, ski and snowboarding — were allowed to compete.

A day later the Chico High and PV cross-country teams competed in the Butte County Invitational at Hooker Oak, marking the first local competition held in the area since March 2020 when the pandemic forced a shutdown of all youth sports. Chico High twins Della and Iresh Molina placed 1-2 in the girls race and Chico High’s Liam Sehorn won the boys varsity race.

“This was like the best day ever,” said Della Molina following the race. “It was the first normal experience of the entire year. We just haven’t had anything like it in a long time.”

On Feb. 19, California updated its regulations allowing the remaining high school sports to resume competition, and one week later both the Chico High and Pleasant Valley football teams resumed practice. Football games began less than one month later, with Biggs defeating Hamilton on March 12. Pleasant Valley began its five-game season on April 2 against Yuba City, and Chico High kicked off April 2 against Corning.

Despite these limitations, athletes who many lost a year of competition returned more excited than ever. Many athletes were quoted saying spring competition felt like competitive scrimmages, and that the pandemic taught them to be thankful for each and every game they played.

As the 2021 year came to a close, events from previous years that were forced to be canceled in 2020 began to return. The Chico Nuts’ Fathers Day Classic returned in June, and in October one of the most notable sporting events in Chico, the Almond Bowl returned for the 50th time.

2021 was a crazy, unexpected year that featured plenty of important and exciting moments for many schools in the North State.

Below, in no particular order, are the top local sports stories of 2021 from the Chico Enterprise-Record sports staff. Included are stories from current sports writer Justin Couchot, and former E-R sports writers Sharon Martin and Will Denner.

Martin left halfway through September for a job as the Night Sports Editor for Bay Area News Group (San Jose Mercury News, East Bay Times) after serving her hometown newspaper in Chico for the last seven years. Denner left at the beginning of August, returning to his home state of Oregon to serve as a sports writer for the Mail Tribune in Medford before moving on to The Columbian just north of Portland.

The E-R sports staff, like sports in spring 2021, was condensed to an all-in-one type formula following Martin and Denner’s departure.

Pleasant Valley wins Almond Bowl 50

When restrictions were lifted and high school football was allowed to return in the spring, with the limitations put in place by the county preventing the student bodies from the two schools to attend, Pleasant Valley and Chico High decided that it wasn’t right to consider the spring matchup an official Almond Bowl — much less the 50th Almond Bowl.

Since its days played at Chico State, and now rotated between the two schools’ home fields, the event often draws more than 3,000 people from the Chico community to a single football game each year.

The two schools faced off April 9th, with the Vikings winning 20-14 in double overtime. Vikings’ senior at the time Grant Garretson said it had the same energy and was the most memorable game he’d played.

Six and a half months later on Oct. 22, with PV holding a 4-3 record and having won four of its last five games and Chico High donning a 6-1 record and having won six straight, the two teams prepared for the big game. Two teams, two bands, two cheerleading squads and two sides of fans screaming for their team.

Entering the game Chico High held a 25-23 lead in the all-time scores, and in 1980 the two teams tied.

Chico High was without its star running back Dion Coleman, who had recently tied the Northern Section record for touchdowns in a game with eight. Chico entered the game having won the previous three Almond Bowls in 2019, 2018 and 2017. PV had last won in 2016 when they defeated the Panthers 35-6.

On a chilly night in front of a sold-out crowd of fans from around Chico, Pleasant Valley’s energy was evident as it jumped out to an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter and took a 21-7 lead into halftime. Chico came within a score at 21-14 in the third quarter, but PV took a 27-14 lead with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter. A sack by PV’s Chase Steele and an interception by Noah Thomas secured the win for the Vikings.

Pleasant Valley football coach Mark Cooley recently spoke about the pandemic and what players were forced to go through in the spring and fall 2021 seasons.

“As far as their ability to come from a season or be in a season like that with so many ups and downs mentally I think their growth is going to serve them well in the long run in whatever they do, whether it’s athletics or life,” Cooley said.

Chico High’s run for state

The winner of the Almond Bowl does not always decide who the best team in Chico will be at the end of the season. Chico High has won the Almond Bowl in each of the last three years it has been played, but in the last two years the game was played (2018 and 2019), Pleasant Valley has defeated the Panthers in the Northern Section playoffs. Many players say that while the Almond Bowl is a big game for the community, the end of the season results are what matters most.

This season Pleasant Valley won the Almond Bowl 27-14, but the Panthers won their first Northern Section championship in 31 years on Nov. 27 when they defeated Foothill 27-23 at Panther Stadium.

After both PV and Chico received first-round byes in the D-II Northern Section playoffs, Chico High defeated Enterprise 41-14 to advance to the championship. PV, who finished 5-0 in EAL play, lost at home to Foothill in the semifinals.

In the championship, Chico High trailed the entire game until halfway through the fourth quarter. With 6:37 remaining in the game Chico trailed 16-6 when Panthers’ running back Saxon Farkas scored to trim the Foothill lead to 16-13. Freshman Jaden Neugebaur intercepted a deep pass from Foothill quarterback Davis Smith and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown to give Chico High a 20-16 lead.

Foothill re-took the lead with just over three minutes to play, but the Panthers scored with 1:11 left when Farkas ran it in for his second touchdown of the game. Chico defensive back Dylan O’Hair deflected a pass away on a last-second deep pass by Smith and Chico knelt the ball in victory formation.

Chico High then advanced to the CIF Division 4-A NorCal Regional Championship for the first time. The Regional Championship was created in 2006, and since its start the only area teams to make it had been Hamilton in 2008, Enterprise in 2013 and 2015, and Pleasant Valley in 2016 and 2018.

Chico High’s historic run came to a close on Dec. 4 against Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep at Kezar Stadium — the original home of the San Francisco 49ers which has now been renovated to accommodate high school events.

The Chico High offense was never able to get momentum going and the Panthers lost 31-7, scoring on their final play on a 25-yard pass from quarterback Gage James to Kyron Smith.

Chico High’s season was capped off by defensive tackle Sam Ruffino being named All-Section Defensive MVP.

The Chico High girls tennis team also made a deep run in the state playoffs. The Panthers went 13-1-1 and were one of eight teams to make it to the NorCal State Championships. On Nov. 19 Chico High lost 6-1 to the defending state champion Menlo Atherton. The Panthers will have their No. 1 player Paige Sitanggang returning for her sophomore year in the fall 2022 season.

Soccer sparks at both high school and collegiate levels

Following no season in 2020, the Chico State men’s and women’s soccer teams were eager to get back on the pitch. Both teams entered with young teams — with the men having just three seniors and the women having just four.

Both teams made it to the California Collegiate Athletic Association playoffs, with the men clinching on the final game of the regular season.

The women’s team was led by junior Susanna Garcia, who led the CCAA in goals en route to being named CCAA Offensive Player of the Year and later earning All-American honors. On Oct. 1 Chico State women’s soccer coach Kim Sutton became the fifth NCAA Division II women’s coach to reach 250 career victories when the Wildcats defeated Cal State San Bernardino 2-1 at home under the lights of University Stadium.

“Our coach has gone above and beyond for us already so just to be able to give back to her and give her that 250th win just makes the night all more meaningful,” the captain Garcia said.

On Nov. 10, Chico High girls soccer players Taylor Dever and Priscilla Ward became the first two Chico High girls soccer players to sign Division I scholarships. Dever signed with UC San Diego and Ward signed with St. Mary’s College of California.

Local sports figures lost

The North State lost a pair of sports figures in 2021.

Riley Roullett, the 17-year-old captain and quarterback of the Las Plumas football team in the spring 2021 season, died in a single-vehicle rollover crash on Baggett Marysville Road near Georgia Pacific Way in Oroville on the morning of June 21.

Roullett, who also wrestled for LP and participated in Future Farmers of America, had recently graduated from Las Plumas High School.

Tim Harles, the athletic director and football coach at Las Plumas High, coached Roullett for one football season and said he was a leader for the football team both emotionally and physically.

Longtime Butte College basketball coach John Abell died on July 10. Abell was one of the most winningest coaches in Butte College history, coaching the Roadrunners to a record of 395-108 through 17 seasons at Butte. Abell guided the Roadrunners to two state championships, 14 conference championships, and 15 consecutive California State Junior College Tournament Appearances — including 10 in a row.

As a coach, Abell produced 15 all-American and 28 all-conference players.

Abell was inducted into the Chico Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and also served on the Chico Sports Hall of Fame committee. He’s also part of the Butte College Hall of Fame.

Butte College hires first female athletic director on a permanent basis

Following the retirement of long-time Athletic Director Craig Rigsbee, who retired at the end of 2020 after 15 years as AD and 16 years as head football coach, Butte College named its athletic trainer Mario Vela as interim AD.

After a nationwide search, the Roadrunners’ administration hired Melody Stockwell as head of the kinesiology and athletic departments at Butte College. Stockwell, who came to Butte from Long Beach City College where she served as Associate Athletic Director, became the first female to permanently fill the role as Athletic Director at Butte College.

Rigsbee returned briefly to hold down the fort once Stockwell was hired, but happily returned to retirement once Stockwell settled in.

Northern Section touchdown record broken, and later tied

The Northern Section touchdown record was broken by Biggs’ Shavon Gramps-Green on April 16. Green ran for eight touchdowns in a 67-6 win over Live Oak on senior to wrap up an unbeaten six-game season for the Wolverines.

Green entered the final regular-season game with 18 rushing touchdowns through five games, and on April 16 scored six rushing touchdowns and a pair of punt return touchdowns. Green’s record-breaking score came on a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown halfway through the third quarter.

Five and a half months later on Oct. 1, Chico High sophomore running back Dion Coleman tied Green’s record with eight touchdowns in a 57-25 win against Yuba City in front of his home crowd at Panther Stadium.

All eight of Coleman’s scores came rushing the ball, including five in the first half. Coleman began his record-tying night with a 60-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage for the Panthers and tied the record with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Coleman went on to score 25 touchdowns through five and a half games, before he injured his ACL against Foothill on defense on Oct. 15.

Las Plumas football gets, retains Victory Bell for the first time since 2016

Despite the Almond Bowl being postponed in the spring season and being delayed until the fall, the Victory Bell lived on twice in 2021. The battle between cross-town schools Oroville and Las Plumas was played in front of fans in both the spring and fall seasons.

Las Plumas, who revamped its program under head coach Tim Harles with full freshman, JV and varsity teams in the fall, hoisted the Bell for the first time since 2016 on April 23 after a 27-7 victory against Oroville.

Five months later on Sept. 24 LP retained the Victory Bell for a second straight season when it defeated the Tigers 47-0 at Harrison Stadium in Oroville.

Return of Silver Dollar Speedway

Sprint car racing returned to Silver Dollar Speedway on March 5 and 6 with the 32nd annual Silver Cup. Justin Sanders won the first race on March 5. The March 5 race was the first since July 26, 2020, when a field of cars raced in front of an empty grandstand.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, fans were not permitted into the main grandstand. The pit gate was open for the public and fans could watch the race from the pit area, as well as camp on the backside of the fairgrounds. Without any fans in attendance, the winner’s purse was reduced by 50 percent.

April 30th and 31st fans were welcomed back to Silver Dollar Speedway for the Spring Nationals — a pair of races consisting of the 13th Annual Bill Brownell Memorial on April 30 and the eighth annual David Tarter Memorial on April 31.

Gold Cup returned September 8-11 and was the biggest attended Gold Cup in over 11 years with promotor Dennis Gage at the helm.

Gage retired in November and a group led by three-time World of Outlaw NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Champion Brad Sweet and NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, as well as regional racer Colby Copeland took over as track promotors.

The group — called SLC Promotions — is aiming to, “Help rebuild 410 racing a little bit, provide a great spot for the racers and help to build Gold Cup back up,” Sweet said. “Provide that fun experience and atmosphere that the fans remember and enjoy. We’re young, enthusiastic and have a lot of great ideas.”

Silver Dollar Speedway will return in March with the first annual John Padjen Classic Silver Cup Race of Champions.

Aaron Rodgers makes statements on and off the field

February was a big month for Chico native Aaron Rodgers, who has shown his efforts on and off the football field in 2021.

The Pleasant Valley High School and Butte College alumnus and current Green Bay Packers quarterback was the NFL Most Valuable Player for a third time in 2021. With just two games left in the regular season and the Packers holding a 12-3 record atop the NFC North, Rodgers is making a push for a fourth MVP at age 38 in his 16th NFL season.

Off the field, Rodgers is making an impact as well. Rodgers teamed up with the North Valley Community Foundation in February to establish the Aaron Rodgers Small Business COVID-19 Fund. He began with a $500,000 donation to establish the fund, with the NVCF adding an additional $100,000.

Since its start Rodgers has donated $1,599,967 to 159 small, locally owned businesses in Butte and Glenn counties — with the largest donors being Rodgers himself, “Jeopardy!” and a golf event Rodgers played in called “The Match” in Montana. Rodgers beat Tom Brady for the longest drive and it was announced his charity of choice, the NVCF, would receive $200,00. Other donations came from individuals and businesses.

These were not direct payments to business owners, but payments to landlords or vendors, usually in the form of paying rent or mortgages.

The first round of grants went to restaurants and retail with fewer than 20 full-time equivalent employees. In the second and final round, it was expanded to include museums, bars, fitness centers, beauty salons and much more, in addition to restaurants and retail that didn’t get a grant in the first round.

More information on the fund can be found by visiting https://www.nvcf.org/aaronrodgers-small-business-covid19.

Along with his support of businesses dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, Rodgers found himself being criticized by many members of the public by misleading the media regarding his COVID-19 vaccination status.

Volleyball competition intensifies in North State

In the shortened five-game season in the spring PV went 5-0, and the Chico High finished 2-3. The competition between Pleasant Valley and Chico High volleyball got off to an exciting start in the fall 2021 season.

In the two teams’ first matchup of the season on Sept. 15, Chico High defeated PV 3-2 in a thrilling five-seat EAL season opener at Pleasant Valley. The win for Chico marked the first win against the cross-town rival Vikings since Nov. 10, 2017, and the first win in the regular season for the Panthers against PV since October 2012. PV struggled with service errors and the Panthers stayed consistent.

Three weeks later on Oct. 2, PV traveled to Chico High and swept the Panthers 3-0. The two teams faced off once more in the NSCIF Division II semifinals and PV won once again, this time 3-1 to advance to the finals against Foothill.

In the finals, PV, the No. 2 seed, traveled to the No. 1 seed Foothill and defeated the Cougars 3-1 leaning on seniors Emma Daugherty, Delaney Thau and Kenna Chapin. PV coach JJ Mitchell put the final point of the match on Daugherty’s hand, setting a play out of a timeout for the senior to spike the Vikings into a championship.

PV’s run came to an end in the opening round of the state playoffs to the Division II state champion Redwood from Larkspur.

Also making a run to the state playoffs for its first time ever was Orland, who finished its season 27-4 and 23-2 in the regular season.

Orland lost in the D-III championship to West Valley, but received an at-large spot in the state playoffs. The Trojans won their first two matches in the D-V playoffs but fell to Skyline in the regional semifinals.

Chico State men’s basketball off to historic start

After beginning its season with two straight wins Nov. 12 and 13 at the Conference Crossover Challenge, the Chico State men’s basketball team has continued its hot start and has won nine consecutive games to start its season. The Wildcats have won their last two games by a 20 point margin, most recently defeating Humboldt State (7-3, 1-3 CCAA) 86-60 on Dec. 18.

The defense has been key for the Wildcats in the 2021-2022 season, in addition to the teams shooting from the 3-point line. Chico State held Humboldt State to 33 percent shooting on Dec. 18. On Dec. 2, when the Wildcats defeated Cal State San Bernardino (6-1, 1-1 CCAA) 99-90, senior guard Isaiah Brooks went 6-of-6 from the 3-point line.

Chico State has four scorers averaging double-digits, and as a team is shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line.

The Chico State men’s team currently ranks No. 5 in the nation in the Division II Media Poll and No. 7 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

On the women’s side, Chico State has also set records. In the Wildcats’ final game of 2021, senior Bailey Jones set a new record for most 3-pointers in a single game with 13 in a triple-overtime loss for Chico State against Humboldt State.

Chico State (9-0, 5-0 CCAA) plays next at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Jan. 2 at home against Stanislaus State when the Wildcats will attempt to tie the best start in Chico State men’s basketball history of 10 straight victories. The record of 10 straight wins dates back to the 1942-43 season.

A win against Stanislaus would award the Wildcats an opportunity to break the Chico State record on Thursday, Jan. 6th at Cal State East Bay.

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