Lodi girls claim program's first section water polo banner

Lodi coach Robert Elrod and Lodi players react during the final seconds of Lodi's 5-3 win over Ponderosa in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II Girls Water Polo Championship on Saturday in Roseville. Nov. 13, 2021

With the return of high school sports in 2021, the big moments returned as well.

There were playoff runs, triumphs, heart-breaking losses, and more.

Here’s as few of the best moments of 2021 in local sports.

A triumphant return

After a year without high school sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sac-Joaquin Section voted in late January to allow leagues to set their own schedules and seasons for a shortened period. The action allowed leagues and schools to put together a shortened athletic experience within the state’s restrictions.

Tri-City Athletic League action began in late February with tennis and golf, and soon other outdoor sports such as baseball, football and soccer were underway.

Games were played under strict spectator restrictions, and out-of-county matchups were severely limited, but most teams were able to put together a 5- to 10-game season.

With high vaccination numbers by summer, a full season of sport was on tap for the fall.

A banner year in the pool

The Lodi High girls water polo team earned its first section title on Nov. 15, beating Ponderosa 5-3 in the SJS Championship Game in Roseville.

Sophomore Emily Engle took control in the third quarter, with three goals, while Lodi piled up 15 steals in the game to shut down Ponderosa.

After the game, the team dragged coach Robert Elrod into the pool before gathering to collect the blue section banner.

Lodi’s Morgan Vice was named the D-II MVP.

The Lodi boys team also played in the D-II championship game, with a 16-13 loss, also to Ponderosa.

Both teams qualified for the NorCal regional championship playoffs

A deep run in the fog

The Lodi High football team snagged a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, going 7-3 to earn the No. 9 seed in Division II.

The Flames then took it a step further by handing No. 8 Downey a stunning 38-19 loss in Modesto.

A week later, Lodi returned to Mo-Town for a showdown with No. 1 Central Catholic, and erased an 11-point deficit after a thick Tule fog rolled in at halftime. Lodi takes pride in its run game, and the fog made sure the game stayed mostly on the ground.

But in the end, Central Catholic eked out a 38-34 victory, with the help of a 32-yard pass from quarterback Tyler Wentworth to receiver Brooklyn Cheek, who couldn’t see each other but knew where the ball should be. Later in the game, the clock was turned off due to the operator in the press box being unable to see the field, so the referees kept time on the field and shouted the remaining time at the coaches between plays.

Lodi running back Maceo McDowell, who was used sparingly to that point, finished with 237 rushing yards on 9 carries, seemingly finding a huge gap every time he touched the ball.

“Every single one of our boys put out 110% of effort for this season,” said Lodi running back Bryce Powell. “No one expected us to come out and make it to the second round of the playoffs.”

Central Catholic went on to win the section D-II title, then lost to Mater Dei Catholic in the Division II-AA state championship.

The .500 club

It may have been a little less flashy, but Tokay football had something of a football renaissance itself in 2021.

In its first year under head coach Collin Rhoads, who was promoted from offensive coordinator after Michael Holst’s departure for Clovis West in Fresno, the Tigers went 5-5 for their first .500-or-better season since 2014.

“This was the tightest group I’ve ever been around. We break on family, and that’s what they were,” an emotional Rhoads said following a tough 49-0 loss to end the season. “Yeah, 5-5, that’s nothing special, but we haven’t won five games in... since I’ve been here. And you know, the program’s heading in the right direction, and it had to start somewhere, and it started with these guys.”

Tokay scored non-league victories over Lathrop, Bear Creek, Kennedy and Concord, then went 1-4 in a very tough TCAL with its lone win a 44-7 win over West.

A streak old enough to vote

The Lodi High girls cross country team captured its 18th straight league title in October in the TCAL Championship at Lodi Lake.

The Flames placed all five scoring runners in the top eight of the race, with sophomore Kiah Aitken leading the way with an 18-minute, 50.7-second run in the 5-kilometer run.

“They talk about it,” said Lodi coach Dylan Silva. “They know it’s a streak, don’t want to be the team that loses that streak, so they use that for some motivation.”

Lodi’s streak began in the San Joaquin Athletic Association, then continued when the school moved to the TCAL. There was no official league championship for the 2020-21 season, though there were a few dual meets in the spring.

Deaths

It wasn’t all triumphs in 2021. The local area lost several sports figures to accidents and illness.

In January, Galt High graduate Arath Chavez died in a motorcycle accident in Southern California. Chavez, 20, was born in Mexico and raised in Galt. He graduated in 2018 and went on to play for Sacramento State, where he was a top option off the bench in 2019, with five assists and two goals in 18 matches.

“Arath was such a positive influence on everyone — always upbeat and energetic with a smile on his face,” said Sacramento State soccer coach Mike Linenberger in a Wednesday press release. “He was dearly loved by his teammates and our staff. He will be missed immensely by all of us in his Hornet family and by everyone who knew him.”

In November, Lodi High golf coach Jim Staal died suddenly. A youth pastor, Staal coached the Lodi boys and girls golf teams, and spent many years coaching basketball at Lodi, Bear Creek, Franklin and Linden high schools.

Also in November, former Galt High athletic director Nicole Silvey died from COVID-19 complications. Silvey taught at Galt High for 24 years.

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