By ERIC WITTMERSHAUS
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Whether it was Petaluma National’s 10-run comeback in the Little League World Series, Levi Leipheimer’s testimony against Lance Armstrong or Kim Conley’s surge to capture a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, athletes with North Coast roots fueled national story lines in 2012.
Following are the Top 10 local stories of 2012, as picked by The Press Democrat’s sports staff. Vote for your favorite in a poll at pdpreps.com.
1. PETALUMA NATIONAL’S LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES RUN
For the better part of August, the Petaluma Nationals stirred the passions of their hometown, Sonoma County and the Bay Area with a run of nationally televised Little League World Series games in South Williamsport, Pa. The contest no one around these parts is likely to forget featured a 10-run rally to force a seventh inning against a powerhouse team from Goodlettsville, Tenn. Though Petaluma’s team of 11- and 12-year-olds went on to lose 24-16, they picked themselves up and beat a team from Panama for third place. The Nationals returned to a massive victory parade, visits with the A’s and Giants, a meeting with Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and the most incredible memories.
2. LEVI LEIPHEIMER COMES CLEAN
After a strong 2011 that saw Santa Rosa-based cyclist Levi Leipheimer win races in Switzerland, Utah and Colorado, 2012 brought a stunning reversal. Hit from behind by a car while training in Spain in April, Leipheimer suffered a broken leg. He finished sixth in the Amgen Tour of California and struggled in the Tour de France. Later, he withdrew for consideration for the U.S. Olympic team. In October, persistent rumors Leipheimer was a key figure in the Lance Armstrong doping investigation proved true, as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released hundreds of pages of testimony from Leipheimer and other former Armstrong associates. Leipheimer came clean to Press Democrat columnist Bob Padecky about why and how he cheated, the toll his choices took on him and his deteriorating relationship with Armstrong, who was stripped of his seven Tour de France wins. Leipheimer was suspended from competition for six months and fired by his pro team. Despite his tribulations, he presided over a successful GranFondo charity ride and was the subject of a flattering documentary called “The Levi Effect.”
3. EMPIRE ATHLETES LIVE OLYMPIC DREAM
Former Empire prep stars Kim Conley and Silas Stafford saw their dreams realized this summer when they landed spots on the U.S. Olympic team. After racing to an early lead in the 5,000 meters in June’s U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., Conley fell all the way back to eighth place and appeared dead on the track. But the former Montgomery and UC Davis star tapped into some hidden reserve, surged into contention and lunged at the finish line to land a trip to London by 0.04 seconds. Stafford, a track star at Santa Rosa High, rebounded from a broken rib to secure his berth on the rowing team. The last two cut for eight- and four-man boats, Silas and his partner, Tom Peszek, won three two-man races in three days to qualify for London. The pair finished eighth in the Summer Games.
4. LONGTIME PREP FOOTBALL COACHES RETIRE
In his 33 years coaching Montgomery High’s football team, Jason Franci became so synonymous with the program, the school named its field for him during a September game against Casa Grande. Over in Sonoma, longtime football coach Mick O’Meara retired after 34 years on the Dragons’ sideline. Top assistant Mike Mulas, another three-decade fixture, also called it a career. The three Sonoma County football icons’ departures came on the heels of Tom Kirkpatrick’s retirement from Healdsburg’s gridiron program after the 2011 season.
5. SCL-NBL REALIGNMENT
Traditional Sonoma County League powers Casa Grande and Windsor faced stiffer competition after their move to the North Bay League, while Piner and Elsie Allen have helped bring balance to the formerly top-heavy SCL. The stronger NBL led to higher playoff seeds for the schools that claimed league titles, while an undefeated Analy football team found itself seeded fifth in the North Coast Section Division 3 football playoffs.
6. GIRLS SOCCER TEAM ANCHORS HISTORIC SEASON FOR MARIA CARRILLO
It was quite a season at Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High, as the Pumas captured North Bay League titles in every sport but football. The eight fall sports programs went a combined 120-14-2, but none more typified the success than the girls soccer team. The Pumas put together a 20-0-0 season en route to a North Coast Section Division 1 title and a No. 1 national ranking among schools that play soccer in the fall. The Puma girls were so dominant, they only trailed for 12 minutes all season after briefly falling behind 1-0 in the NCS title game against Montgomery. Carrillo rallied to win that one 3-1.
7. STATE TITLES FOR SRJC ATHLETES
Following a year in which Bear Cubs women’s teams claimed multiple state titles, it was the men’s turn in 2012. In April, dominant relay teams propelled the men’s swimming program to its first swimming and diving title at the California Community College Athletic Association meet. In December, Andres Torres, who wrestled at Windsor High, brought home SRJC’s first state title in wrestling since 2006, winning the 125-pound weight class at the CCCAA meet in Lemoore.
8. SSU’S SAMANTHA LIPPERD SETS NCAA STRIKEOUT RECORD
Taking over as Sonoma State’s only softball pitcher for much of the spring, junior Samantha Lipperd struck out 396 batters to lead NCAA Division II, racking up 31 wins. Over three days in late March and early April, the Boulder Creek native tossed 781 pitches over 53» innings as the Seawolves won the Tournament of Champions in Turlock. Lipperd’s wins included four shutouts, one of them a no-hitter. Pitching both games of a Friday doubleheader, she set a Sonoma State record with 17 Ks in the first game. She followed with an NCAA Division II record 26 whiffs in an 11-inning win over Hawaii Pacific in the nightcap. Exactly one week later, she tossed another no-hitter. By season’s end, Lipperd had set 12 school pitching records. The reigning NCAA Division II All-West Region Softball Pitcher of the Year will have a chance to build on her career marks next spring.
9. FLAT-TRACK MOTORCYCLE RACING RETURNS TO SANTA ROSA
After a 42-year absence, flat-track motorcycle racing re-emerged at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in September with the return of the Santa Rosa Mile. An overflow crowd of around 12,000 turned out for the last of three days of racing, when Sammy Helbert held off Jared Mees to win the main AMA Pro Grand National Championship race.
10. SONOMA STATE WOMEN’S SOCCER TEAM RETURNS TO PROMINENCE
Led by former SRJC coach Emiria Salzmann Dunn, the Sonoma State women’s soccer team spent much of the season in the NCAA Division II Top 25. Ranked as high as No. 2, the Seawolves won the California Collegiate Athletic Association North Division title and qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament for the first time in 12 years. The Seawolves hosted a West sub-regional but were upset by Western Washington in the second round. Former SRJC and Maria Carrillo star Cara Curtin and Sara Studer of Oceanside received all-conference honors.
Leading a contingent of seven current or former Neptune Swim Club members to the U.S. Olympic Trials, Stanford star Maya DiRado falls just short of qualifying for London … Petaluma native Jonny Gomes returns to the Bay Area, hitting 18 homers for the surprising Oakland A’s, who won a division title… SRJC makes a coaching change following women’s state soccer title … Point Arena wins its first NCS baseball championship … Amanda Johnson is chosen in WNBA draft … Cardinal Newman and Northwestern grad Al Netter signs with 49ers following NFL draft, staying with team all season as a member of the practice squad … SRJC tennis player Gienna Gonnella receives Arthur Ashe award at U.S. Open … Sonoma State men’s basketball team earns its first CCAA playoff win … Anderson Valley girls volleyball earns an NCS Division 6 threepeat.
Eric Wittmershaus is The Press Democrat’s online sports editor. You can reach him at 521-5433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.