No. 1: Wildfires bring chaos to Empire’s fall sports calendar
The effects of the North Bay wildfires on high school athletics were immediate and widespread, and unlike anything in memory.
All across the Redwood Empire and beyond, the meets and matches and games came to a halt. Athletes and coaches were displaced — some permanently by devastating blazes, others temporarily by evacuation orders. Schools and athletic facilities were decimated. North Coast Section executive director Gil Lemmon said he hadn’t seen in all his years a single school closed by a wildfire, and this year in Sonoma County there were three.
Outdoor practices became impossible because of the dangerous air quality, so some teams took to the road to find safer sites. As sports administrators began to piece together a reworked schedule, the NCS relaxed qualification standards for its football playoffs and allowed additional games to be scheduled.
Teams began to reassemble, and a light of optimism broke through — North Bay League rivals Rancho Cotate and Cardinal Newman arranged to play an extra football game on Monday, Oct. 23.
It would be the first of three meetings between the teams during the season, but none would match the emotion of that night in Rohnert Park. First responders were honored before the game.
The Cougars won the game, but the result was a small piece of the overall victory. The headline on The Press Democrat’s sports section the next morning read “Football fights back.”
As the region began to heal, sports became an important part of the process.
No. 2: NCS realignment alters landscape
Three Napa County high schools wanted relief from their arduous regular-season travel obligations, beginning a months-long process that ended in a realignment. It drastically changed the face of Sonoma County high school sports.
The Napa schools — Napa, Vintage and American Canyon —were transferred to the North Coast Section, dramatically changing the NCS.
Beginning in 2018-19, there will be no Sonoma County League. Casa Grande, Petaluma and Sonoma Valley were grouped in one league with the Napa schools, including private school Justin Siena.
At the same time, the remaining SCL teams were absorbed in a newly designed North Bay League, with two tiers of competition in each sport.
Designed to promote closer competition, the new alignment will be reviewed every two years.
No. 3: Cardinals stand among state’s best
The Cardinal Newman girls basketball team had dominated the local scene for two seasons and came into the 2016-17 campaign as defending state champions in their division.
But the Cardinals had loftier goals.
They captured the North Coast Section Division 4 championship, a trophy that had eluded them the previous year, and then received the honor of honors — selection to the Open Division field of the CIF state tournament.
Newman became the first Sonoma County team in history to reach that level of the state tournament.
“It had been our goal since the Open Division was created,” said coach Monica Mertle. “It means you’re one of the top eight teams in all of California.”
The Cardinals were seeded seventh but won two games, including an upset of powerful Carondolet in the first round, before falling to top seed Archbishop Mitty in the regional finals.
TOP NATIONAL STORIES
1. NFL players who knelt during the national anthem said they were exercising their free-speech rights and trying to bring attention to social injustices. Critics, including the president, said they were disrespecting the flag, the country and the military. Colin Kaepernick sued the league when no team signed him.
2. College basketball comes under the microscope after a federal investigation reveals corruption involving recruiting practices.
3. Houston Astros win their first World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 to lift the spirits of a city devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
4. In a season that included his four-game suspension for “Deflategate,” Tom Brady engineers a record-breaking comeback as the Patriots defeat the Falcons in first-ever Super Bowl overtime.
5. The president of USA Gymnastics resigns amid a sexual abuse scandal that includes revelations by some of the sport’s biggest stars that they were victims.
6. Russia is banned from the Winter Olympics for a massive doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Games.
7. Clemson mounts a last-second comeback to beat Alabama for college football’s national championship.
8. The United States fails to qualify for soccer’s World Cup for the first time since 1986. Four-time champion Italy also fails to qualify.
9. New acquisition Kevin Durant leads the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
10. MMA star Conor McGregor steps into the boxing ring to face undefeated champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Top 10 national stories voted by Associated Press sports editors.
TOP BAY AREA STORIES
1. Golden State Warriors win NBA championship, sweeping through the playoffs with a 16-1 record to claim second title in three years.
2. Oakland Raiders win NFL owners’ approval to move the franchise to Las Vegas a year after the team failed to get the OK to move to Los Angeles.
3. Winless 49ers make a midseason trade with the New England Patriots to acquire quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who goes on a remarkable win streak after getting the starting nod.
4. Forty-niners owner cleans house, firing GM Trent Baalke and coach Chip Kelly, and turns the reins over to new general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan.
5. Ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner damages his throwing shoulder in an off-day dirt bike crash in Colorado, rendering him out of business for most of the season.
6. The Raiders end a 14-year playoff drought but are handicapped by injured quarterback Derek Carr’s absence and are eliminated by Houston.
7. NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant opts out of his Warriors contract, then re-signs a team-friendly extension that allows the team to keep almost everyone from the championship team.
8, Colin Kaepernick is given his release by the 49ers, launching months of debate about his worthiness as an NFL quarterback and a full season without a job.
9. Racked by age and injuries, the Giants struggle mightily and end up last in the NL West with 98 losses.
10. Among the preseason favorites to reach the Super Bowl, the Raiders enjoy none of the success they had in 2016 and finish well out of contention.
Top 10 Bay Area stories voted by The Press Democrat sports staff and regular contributors.