SportStars Magazine

10 Years Of SportStars’ Staff Memories & Favorites

Anniversary, Staff Memories, Favorites, SportStars

For Its 10th Anniversary Issue, SportStars Staff Members And Longtime Contributors Share Their Memories And Favorites From The Magazine’s First Decade Of Publishing •

On June 12, we released our 10th Anniversary issue. One of the cornerstones of the content were various staff accounts of their memories and favorites from our first decade. We’ve collected all 14 accounts here.

Seven different individuals provided memories of their work for the magazine, and we’ve organized them chronologically here. Do you have a favorite memory from our first 10 years? If so, please share in the comments. We’d love to hear it!

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SportStars’ Soft Open (2010) | Chace Bryson, Editor

Chizoba Okodogbe, Deer Valley, SportStars

Chizoba Okodogbe, SportStars’ first cover athlete, holds issue #1 while attending Oregon in 2015. (Jonathan Hawthorne photo)

For a magazine setting out to focus on high school sports, we did pick a curious time to launch — the last week of the academic year. 

It ended up being a blessing in disguise, however. It stretched our focus for feature topics and showed readers we were willing to highlight any sport, not just the high-profile ones. That started with our very first cover athlete, Deer Valley-Antioch track 400-meter star Chizoba Okodogbe. 

Knowing our first issue would release on June 10, it made sense to build our cover feature around an athlete with a shot at winning gold at the CIF State Track and Field Championships.

Though Chizoba wound up with silver and not gold, she turned out to be a truly engaging profile. The first generation Nigerian-American was extremely gracious with her time and access. She ended up having a pretty darn good Pac-12 career at the University of Oregon as well.

Our first four issues or so really allowed us to showcase the variety we wanted to bring to our coverage. We highlighted diving, tennis and Little League softball over our first two months. It was a summer that allowed us to really dial in what we wanted to be as a magazine. And it left us ready to hit the ground running for our first school year. 

Peerless Pacer (2011) | Jim McCue, Senior Writer

Shaq Thompson, SportStars Anniversary, Memories & Favorites

Grant-Sacramento football star Shaq Thompson poses during a 2011 SportStars cover shoot. (James K. Leash photo)

SportStars’ first Sac-Joaquin Edition of its Football Preview came in the fall of 2011. The area’s marquee player at the time was Grant-Sacramento star Shaq Thompson. He was a super-athletic multi-sport (baseball, track and field) star who would be wearing the Pacers’ coveted No. 1 jersey. Thompson, who now plays for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers at linebacker, was a two-way phenom that could beat you at quarterback, running back, cornerback or safety. 

My first memory of Shaq was meeting him after practice to learn that he did not get the message to have his game uniform for our photo shoot. But I could not even begin to be mad at a high school senior who was as soft-spoken and polite as he was athletic. 

Photographer James Leash (who I met for the first time at the photo shoot) and I took the hiccup in stride and were not disappointed with what Thompson gave us. Shaq patiently answered every question and gave us every pose and action shot we asked for. Following him that season — a season in which he was slowed by injury — and beyond has been a pleasure. It was made all the more special knowing that my first football preview cover feature subject would star in college and be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Big Eddie’s World (2012) | Jim McCue, Senior Writer

Eddie Vanderdoes, Placer, Football

Placer-Auburn football’s Eddie Vanderdoes lines up against a floor safe during a 2012 SportStars cover shoot playing off the lineman’s nickname. (James K. Leash photo)

With one Football Preview Issue under my belt, I was ready to kick it up a notch for the next extravaganza in 2012. The cover for the Sac-Joaquin Edition would feature a defensive monster to balance the Bay Area’s star running back cover. 

Placer-Auburn defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes had a personality as big as his 6-foot-3, 295-pound frame and was an instant classic in my career of prep sports coverage. “Big Eddie” was nicknamed “The Floor Safe” by the Sacramento Bee’s Joe Davidson, and he already had a burger named after him at the town’s popular Local Heroes eatery.

With that knowledge, we went all out to secure an actual floor safe for the photo shoot. And yeah, I also made sure to try a Big Eddie Burger for a sidebar to the feature. The photo shoot was one of my all-time favorites for more than just the looks on the faces of Vanderdoes and his Placer coaches and teammates as the safe was unloaded and placed on the natural grass field at Ralph LeFebvre Stadium. 

Big Eddie’s charisma was evident in the pictures we got and on the field that season. The Hillmen claimed their first league title in years with a narrow win over rival Center-Antelope. In the immediate aftermath of the championship victory, Vanderdoes handed out hugs and high fives to everyone in sight, including me, to cement his legend in my mind.

Eddie went on to a successful career at UCLA and started 13 games for the Raiders as an NFL rookie in 2017.

Seismic Spartan Shift (2013) | Chace Bryson, Editor

Bob Ladouceur, Justin Alumbaugh, SportStars Anniversary, Memories & Favorites

Bob Ladouceur, right, announces his retirement in January of 2013 as his replacement Justin Alumbaugh sits in the background. (Phillip Walton photo)

I began my Bay Area journalism career with the Contra Costa Times in the spring of 2001. This means I was only around for the last 26 games of De La Salle football’s famous 151-game win streak.

In those days, the Times’ prep sports staff was massive. It had a dedicated DLS football beat writer, and if you were 15th in seniority you weren’t dispatched to Owen Owens Field on Friday nights. Actually, my first De La Salle game in a working capacity was as a stringer for the Fresno Bee in 2004 when Clovis West-Fresno came to Concord the week after The Streak ended. Clovis West won, dealing the Spartans their first home defeat in 15 years. 

It was a rocky beginning to my time covering De La Salle football. But eventually, I rose to the newspaper’s DLS football beat role from 2007-09 and built great relationships while learning a ton about the program’s recipe for success. 

Once at SportStars, I needed to spread my football coverage around throughout the Bay Area. That meant my Spartans viewings dropped to just their two or three biggest games of the season. In 2012-2013, though, we got to use my history with the program to build great coverage around Bob Ladouceur’s monumental retirement (after 399 wins) and the dawn of the Justin Alumbaugh coaching era. 

Attending the Ladouceur retirement press conference was definitely something I won’t forget. It was a national news story in our own backyard, and everyone in the De La Salle auditorium that day could feel the gravitas of the moment. 

Eight months later, in August 2013, I spent the entire day with Alumbaugh on his first game day as head coach of America’s most famous high school football program. Chronicling that day for SportStars remains one of my favorite memories from our first 10 years. 

I remain grateful to Alumbaugh and the rest of the De La Salle coaches for letting me tell that story and give SportStars readers a little peek behind the Green Curtain.

Cover Hunting (2013) | James K. Leash, Photographer

Stephen Nogosek, Woodcreek Baseball, James Leash

SportStars’ May 2013 Sac-Joaquin Edition cover featuring Woodcreek-Roseville pitcher, Stephen Nogosek. (James K. Leash photo)

One of the things that stands out the most over the many years of covering athletes for feature shoots was all the wardrobe/equipment malfunctions. There were a lot of forgotten jerseys, shoes and balls etc., and trips to wherever to retrieve them so we could shoot. 

Case in point: For Issue #65 (May 2013,) writer Jim McCue and I waited anxiously in the Woodcreek-Roseville parking lot for senior pitcher Stephen Nogosek. He was returning home from Berkeley after watching Cal baseball face his future school, Oregon. Jim and I continued to wait as the sun inched closer and closer to setting. 

Luck would have it that he arrived in time. The shoot was going to take place in the wetlands behind the school to create this cover that expressed his two greatest passions, baseball and waterfowl hunting. He arrived with the essentials like waders, camo shirt, duck calls, decoys, face paint and younger sister — who came up clutch by rushing home to grab his ball cap and glove.

Stephen made his major league debut with the New York Mets in 2019, and remains an avid hunter. 

For all of our shoots, we always got it done no matter what was thrown at us. And I can say it’s been a pleasure to work with the literally hundreds of high school athletes and coaches over the last decade.

Crossovers & Checkmates (2014) | Jim McCue, Senior Writer

Jordan Ford, SportStars Anniversary, Memories & Favorites

Folsom point guard Jordan Ford drives to the basket during the 2014 CIF playoffs. (James K. Leash photo)

Interests and talents off the playing field are always fun to discover and learn more about.

While interviewing Folsom point guard Jordan Ford for a brief SportStar of the Week feature, I asked an innocent question. Do you have any hidden talents most people didn’t know about? Ford shocked me by sharing the fact that he was a California state chess champion at age 7 and a top player for several years before basketball became his priority.

It was a great treasure to unearth and share with our readership, and it made Ford more human than just a basketball star in my eyes. It also gave me some extra joy watching him lead the Bulldogs on a pair of memorable state playoff runs. Playoff runs are his thing, apparently. He showed as much at Saint Mary’s College. 

I will be thrilled to see what kind of chess moves a former SportStar of the Week might make in the NBA.

CIF Haas Power (2015) | Chace Bryson, Editor

Ivan Rabb, Lou Richie, Bishop O'Dowd Basketball

Bishop O’Dowd coach Lou Richie embraces McDonald’s All-American Ivan Rabb after the Dragons won the 2015 CIF Open Div. championship. (Berry Evans III photo)

The coronavirus-driven cancellation of the CIF State Basketball Championships this past March ended a personal streak of 18 straight years of covering the event.

Having gained the boys basketball beat early on in my newspaper career, the two-day state hoops spectacle is easily my most-attended CIF title event over the years. I’ve got some truly great memories of covering state champion basketball teams for SportStars. However, none top the two days at Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion for the 2015 state finals.

A number of different factors contributed to making that Friday and Saturday on the Cal campus so special.

It started with the venue. Due to a scheduling conflict, CIF was unable to book the event’s semi-permanent home of Arco/Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. Haas Pavilion won the bid and the state championships returned to the Bay Area for the first time in 20 years — and the crowds reflected a community thrilled to have the games back on its home turf.

And boy did the 24 teams put on a show for those crowds.

Seven of the 12 games were decided by single-digit margins, five were decided by four points or less. Four of the games needed overtime; three of them needed TWO overtimes. There were six first-time state champions — including the San Ramon Valley-Danville boys (who I wrote about for the Bay Area cover story) and McClatchy-Sacramento girls — and five other schools who played in their first state final.

Finally there were the two Open Division games, both won by NorCal teams (for the first and only time to date). Both games featured the state’s top two ranked teams. The St. Mary’s-Stockton girls won the program’s first Open title and seventh state crown overall. And in the final game of the weekend, Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland defeated Mater Dei-Santa 65-64 after McDonald’s All-American Ivan Rabb sank a game-winning free throw with 0.8 seconds left in overtime. 

So many close games and great stories, topped by a future NBA talent clinching a state title in his final prep game on what would be his collegiate home court. It was all too good.

Davis’ Distance Darling (2015) | Jim McCue, Senior Writer

Fiona O'Keeffe, Davis, Cross Country, Memories & Favorites

Davis High cross country state champion Fiona O’Keeffe is photographed during a 2015 SportStars photo shoot. (James K. Leash photo)

Football is obviously the primary sport we cover and the highest profile sport in high school athletics. However, the sometimes-overlooked sports can be home to memorable and decorated athletes. 

Davis cross country star Fiona O’Keeffe burst onto the scene as a freshman and won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I Masters title before winning the CIF State Division I championship as both a sophomore and junior. In the fall of 2015 — while she was preparing to run for a third state title that would eventually be denied primarily by injuries — I met Fiona, younger sister Olivia, mother Liv, and the family dog at one of her favorite training grounds. 

She ran effortlessly as the sun set behind her. I was impressed by the calmness she seemed to draw from running. It was a calmness and ease that translated to her character.

A Ripping Good Cover (2016) | Chace Bryson, Editor

SportStars, Cover, Najee Harris, Antioch

SportStars’ Aug. 2016 Bay Area Edition cover featuring Antioch football star, Najee Harris. (Phillip Walton photo)

The Anniversary issue was officially #182 of SportStars, but counting various editions and our SportStars Digital Weekly issues, we’ve produced more than 300 covers in these first 10 years. 

My favorite by far was the Bay Area cover of #121, our 2016 Football Preview featuring Antioch High’s Najee Harris. Najee, who will begin his senior year at Alabama this fall, was then a senior for the Panthers — and the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country. Period. While we’d covered his first two standout varsity seasons, this was the first time we’d be giving him the full-cover feature treatment

The cover that came out of that photo shoot, wasn’t necessarily what photographer Phil Walton and I went in expecting to get, either. 

We were set to meet Najee outside of the Antioch High locker room around 10 a.m.. It was a morning that was already teetering toward a blistering hot day in late July. He lived near campus and had walked, but had forgotten to bring a ball and some of his other equipment. I offered to drive him back to his apartment to grab them. By the time we got back to campus the heat had fully arrived. 

We wanted to photograph Harris looking as though he was ripping apart an old football that we’d pre-cut near the seams. He couldn’t rip it all the way though, because it was the only prop. So each time, he had to act out the aggression as if he was tearing it for the first time. It wasn’t exactly easy for him, but he kept doing it — smiling through it all. 

After countless pictures of fake-ripping, Phil asked Najee a question:

“How much do you care about that t-shirt? Would you be willing to rip it, Hulk-style?”

“Sure,” Najee said. “Let’s do it.”

He only had one shirt, so we had to get the shot on the first try. Najee and Phil nailed it. We knew we had our cover. We then walked to the football field where Harris gave us another hour of his time taking photos in uniform. Great kid, great shoot. Great cover. The last of which SportStars designer Mike DeCicco certainly deserves credit for as well.

Moved By Maiya (2017) | Mike Wood, Writer

Maiya Flores, Cardinal Newman, Staff Memories & Favorites

Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa guard Maiya Flores is photographed during the 2017 West Coast Jamboree. (Berry Evans III photo)

Sometimes the most memorable sports moments don’t happen during the game itself. 

Knowing that the Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa girls basketball team was playing for a championship at the 2017 West Coast Jamboree, I knew my SportStars assignment would be an emotional one. The Cardinals were playing in the prestigious WCJ just two months after the Tubbs Fire destroyed much of their campus and ravaged nearly 37,000 acres in Northern California.

After the Cardinals lost to Dimond of Anchorage, Alaska, in the Diamond Division finals, neither I nor anyone else in the College Park gymnasium were prepared for the raw emotion as Cardinal Newman senior guard Maiya Flores was announced as winner of the Jim Capoot Memorial Award. We heard that not only did she lose her campus, but her home was lost in the fire. The special award is named for the former Vallejo High girls basketball coach and Vallejo Police Department officer killed in the line of duty in 2011. The public address announcer’s voice understandably cracked with emotion. Truly there was not a dry eye in the house.

As players were departing, Flores graciously granted me a one-on-one interview. I was struck by her composure and personal strength as she discussed what she and her classmates had been through. (Read Mike’s story: “Out Of The Fire”)

As reporters, the inspiration we derive from athletes explaining how they have overcome adversity is priceless. 

For me, this little awards ceremony provided one of the most poignant, moving moments in my three decades of covering high school sports.

Ike’s Eye (2017-20) | Ike Dodson, Writer/Photographer

Joey Capra, SportStars, Cover, Placer

SportStars’ October 2018 Sac-Joaquin Edition cover featuring Placer Auburn lineman, Joey Capra (Ike Dodson photo)

Shooting prep sports has always been a thrill for me. SportStars has allowed a way for that enthusiasm for athletics to be captured in images that represent the greatest teams/athletes/stories throughout Northern California. 

My photography journey with SportStars started with photos from the 2017-18 wrestling season. It continued in the spring with softball features and playoff games. Then I captured images of two-way Turlock football star Gabriel Cordero, who was the 45th Lions All-Star Football Classic Defensive MVP on June 16, 2018 at Tracy High School. Cordero went on to join the Marines instead of pursuing a career at the next level

My photos have appeared on at least 10 different SportStars Magazine covers, including the image of Jackson Pavitt of Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa that was named a First Decade SportStars Cover Co-Champion. That photo’s full version is remarkably different from the cool crop used for the cover. I’ve had some portraits land on covers (like basketball star Jzaniya Harriel of Antelope), but I am a much bigger fan of the “candid portrait” which captures an authentic moment but can still achieve the same appeal. The cover shot of Placer-Auburn football star Joey Capra was like that. My first cover photo was an action shot of Sierra-Manteca softballer Lindsey Walljasper in June 2018. 

I think my favorite cover photo is probably the Pavitt pic. It’s hard to argue with the voters. I would say my favorite all-time photo for SportStars was a shot of Elk Grove wrestler Kendall Frank. He’d won a big upset just a few minutes after learning his uncle had died. His emotion in that match, captured in a single frame, was really powerful. That photo later became the cover photo for the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters wrestling program. 

I have really enjoyed shooting photos for SportStars and I look forward to getting back out there when the prep seasons get back in action.

Four Frenzied Finishes (2018) | Steven Wilson, Writer

Kenyon Bowyer, Capital Christian, SportStars Anniversary, Memories & Favorites

Capital Christian-Sacramento kicker Kenyon Bowyer delivers a game-winning field goal to defeat Placer-Auburn in the 2018 CIF Div. III final. (David Gershon photo)

Five weeks, three games, a combined five points to crown winning teams in the waning seconds of the playoffs. How could it get better?

The 2018 high school football postseason stands out to me as the most memorable experience covering sports in my career. To this day, I’m thankful SportStars assigned me three games from Nov. 9 through the first week of December. Each contest was decided by one score. It began with a Hail Mary touchdown pass with 29 seconds left from St. Mary’s-Stockton quarterback Noah May to beat Sheldon-Sacramento, 30-29, in the opening round of the Div. I section playoffs in Stockton.

Two weeks later, Central Catholic-Modesto clung to a touchdown lead in the waning minutes and forced two fourth quarter turnovers — including an interception in the end zone — to beat Inderkum-Sacramento 31-30 and advance to the Div. II semifinals. 

The third game also came down to the final minute of regulation as Capital Christian-Sacramento overcame a 22-14 deficit in less than four minutes to beat previously unbeaten Placer-Auburn in the Div. III final. The Cougars won 25-22 on a game-winning field goal from Kenyon Bowyer. To top it off, I covered Folsom’s overtime victory in the Div. I-AA CIF State Championship Bowl Game at Cerritos College in mid-December. Four one-score games in a single postseason—that’s lucky.

Capturing Cooper (2019) | David Gershon, Photographer

Cooper Hjerpe, SportStars Magazine, Woodland Baseball

The opening spread to SportStars’ March 2019 story on Woodland High pitcher Cooper Hjerpe. (David Gershon photo)

I have been shooting for SportStars Magazine over the last couple of years. My favorite athlete to shoot was Cooper Hjerpe, the left-handed pitching ace of Woodland High. I photographed Hjerpe in the spring of March 2019 for Steven Wilson’s article “Fastballs for Felix.” My favorite image from this story was the one used in the story’s opening spread.

I enjoy shooting all sports, and I am particularly fond of shooting baseball. Baseball is the one sport my father and I shared. It gave us common ground for us to have a great relationship. My dad was from Chicago and a huge Cubs fan. Even though the Cubs never won the NL Pennant, he never gave up on his lifelong team. At the end of every season, he would say, “Wait until next year, the Cubbies will take the pennant.” His pure enjoyment of the game carries over into my photography.

In all of my sports photography, I try to capture the emotion of the athlete. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Cooper Hjerpe shooting individual pictures in the workout room.  This well-grounded young man shared with me his passion for the game and desire to play at the next level. He’s a pitcher with great ball movement, velocity and control.

I wanted to get a shot of him pitching and capture his focus and throwing intensity in mid-windup. He had a three-quarter arm slot and had some twist to his upper body with a very smooth delivery. I had an image in mind, and knew the time to capture it was during the scrimmage. I had to set up in the visitor’s dugout about 15 feet down the foul line and shoot just above the dugout fence. In the end, I was very happy with the results and knew it would go well with Wilson’s story on Cooper. 

Hjerpe dominated his opponents during his senior year. As a freshman pitcher at Oregon State — in a virus-shortened season — he  had great stats. In 12 innings of relief work, he went 3-4 with 16 strikeouts. I look forward to seeing how the rest of his career unfolds.

Grappling For A Great Story (2020) | Ike Dodson, Writer/Photographer

Salahdin Farukh, Valley-Sacramento, Wrestling, Memories & Favorites

Valley-Sacramento wrestler Salahdin Farukh was featured in SportStars’ January 2020 issue. (Ike Dodson photo)

The beauty of contributing feature stories to SportStars is the kind of ambition it inspires.

While other publications may be chasing shorter-form storytelling, quick updates and scores, SportStars allows for in-depth journalism that tackles the real inspiring people who make prep sports so fun to watch. 

My favorite story may have been about Afghanistan native and Valley-Sacramento wrestler Salahdin Farukh, who was dangerously close to a suicide bombing shortly before his father moved the family to the United States. I enjoyed pursuing the story of the family journey and his father’s courage to aid the U.S. Army during the war in Afghanistan, which ultimately landed the Farukhs in Sacramento. 

Wrestling as a whole has been a thrill to cover for SportStars. Not many publications cover wrestling, and some significant publications downright ignore it. The sport has a dedicated fan base that puts eyeballs on content. I am proud to help SportStars become one of the major players in California prep wrestling coverage. 

I also like to diversify my writing, so whether it’s football, stunt cheer or golf, I am always down to chase a good story. 

Sometimes the ledes write themselves.

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