A once-in-a-generation distance runner and multi-sport star share the SJS spotlight
BOYS ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
RYAN ROBARDS | ELK GROVE | 2016 GRAD
Ryan Robards has long been an athlete in the truest sense of the word. From a young age, he excelled on the court, gridiron and diamond. He took his multiple talents to Elk Grove High School as a freshman in 2012 and made an impact for Thundering Herd programs for four years.
However, the 2015-16 academic and athletic year was by far Robards’ greatest on the playing fields. The senior capped his high school career with school records, a section championship and a college scholarship. His all-around efforts this year made him a model athlete and SportStars Magazine’s Sac-Joaquin Section Male Athlete of the Year.
“Ryan is a great athlete, but more importantly, he is a great person,” said Jeff Carlson, head baseball coach and assistant football coach at Elk Grove. “He is a great leader, plays hard, and leads by example on the field and is the same in the classroom. He is just a guy that everybody wants to be around.”
Being around Robards in 2015-16 meant being around a winner. In the Fall, Robards expected to be part of a running back by committee, but quickly assumed control as the backfield workhorse. Coach Chris Nixon and his assistants realized by Week 2 that they had something special on offense that would make the team better and would likely see their senior leader on the field for every snap.
Robards not only rushed for 2,884 yards and 43 touchdowns — both school records — but he also continued to be a force on defense and special teams. In the Herd’s 14 games, he scored a total of 50 touchdowns and 324 points. Robards intercepted four passes and returned a pair of them for scores, returned a fumble for a touchdown, returned two punts to the end zone, and caught a pair of scoring passes. As the team’s primary field goal kicker, he made 6 of 8 tries, including a career-long of 51 yards.
Robards was seemingly unstoppable despite being the primary focus of every defense he faced after a Week 4 scoring explosion against Delta League rival Grant-Sacramento. In that game, he scored five of his six touchdowns before halftime to set the tone for an undefeated league title run. The Thundering Herd advanced to the SJS Division I final against Folsom and gave the Bulldogs all they could handle before finally ending their season one win short of their goal.
Before the calendar turned to 2016, Carlson had accomplished more in four months than many high school athletes accomplish in four years. And he was just getting started because football — while possibly his greatest love — is not his strongest sport. Baseball loomed in the spring and the three-year varsity letter winner shifted gears to prepare for Elk Grove’s defense of its section Div. I championship.
Again, Robards did not disappoint, and again he played a big role in the team’s success. The outfielder played in all 36 of the Herd’s games and batted .386 with four home runs and 34 RBI. Already signed to a baseball scholarship to the University of the Pacific, Robards showed no signs of slowing and led the team on and off the field during a magical season that saw the program win its third section title in four years and 10th overall.
“He had an incredible football season where we were a touchdown away from winning section and going on to NorCals, and he was an immeasurable part of the success of the baseball program,” Carlson said, “but he has always been first class.”
And now Elk Grove’s first-class, all-around athlete can add another accolade to his resume before heading south to Stockton where his focus will oddly be on just one sport.
— Jim McCue
FIONA O’KEEFFE | DAVIS | 2016 GRAD
Fiona O’Keeffe’s desire to run may only be matched by her humility. The Davis High School graduate is among the most gifted and successful distance runners in Sac-Joaquin Section history, but, if she could, she might run just as far as she needed in order to avoid the spotlight.
The two-time state cross country champion and 2016 winner of the 3,200-meter race at the CIF State Track and Field Championships always had her Blue Devils’ team goals ahead of her personal goals. As a freshman, it was easy for O’Keeffe to blend in with her cross country teammates and quietly run to the front of the pack with little fanfare. But cross country and distance coach Bill Gregg quickly realized that he had a special individual who could lead the team to new heights.
“As her freshman year unfolded, I could see that the potential was real and that she could do some great things,” Gregg said.
In her first year of high school competition, O’Keeffe won her first of three consecutive SJS Division I individual titles, but was disappointed that Davis finished as the runner-up to St. Francis in the team standings. She would correct that with team section titles in 2013 and 2015, but the spotlight started to focus on the young runner after she finished sixth in the Division I race at the CIF Cross Country Championships as a freshman.
O’Keeffe followed up her debut season with state Division I individual titles in cross country in 2013 and 2014 to set up an opportunity to join a select few runners with at least three state cross country titles. Unfortunately, ongoing tendinitis and a tight calf slowed her in the postseason of her senior year, but she gutted out a 16th-place individual finish to pace a solid Blue Devils’ team effort that earned a second runner-up state finish for Davis during O’Keeffe’s four years.
Among her teammates during her final high school season was younger sister Olivia, a sophomore who finished 31st at state and shared the section team title. With athletic parents who ran competitively in college, it is perhaps no surprise that Fiona and Olivia have succeeded in cross country and track.
“I think that part of it is genetic,” Fiona said of her talent, “but probably what makes me good is how much I love it and the kind of coaching that I have gotten.”
Fiona will take her love for running a short distance away — for a Sunday O’Keeffe family run maybe — to Palo Alto where she will compete as a distance runner for the Stanford. With an eye on national and international events in her future, O’Keeffe is likely to focus on track and field events, such as the 3,200 meters and other distance events in college and beyond.
O’Keeffe was a three-time Section Masters champion in the 3,200 and two-time 1,600-meter winner. As a senior, she doubled in those events and finally added the exclamation point to her high school track career at the state meet in Clovis.
A year after being edged by Great Oak’s Destiny Collins in the 3,200-meter race at the CIF State Track and Field Championships, O’Keeffe outran her rival to claim a third state championship medal, and provided a convincing closing statement for her inclusion in the conversation of elite distance runners in recent California history.
She followed that up with her first statement as a high school graduate at the 2016 USA Track and Field (USATF) Junior Nationals held on the same track that hosts the California state high school meet. O’Keeffe shattered the meet record in the 5,000-meter race with a time of 15:56.84 that bested the Junior Nationals’ record by nearly 15 second and her personal best by more than half a minute.
As a top-two finisher at the USATF event, O’Keeffe qualified to race in the World Juniors meet to be held July 19-24 in Poland. The humble runner has yet to decide if she will make the trip, and will not likely seek much fanfare if she does choose to race against international competition.
In the absence of her commentary on her greatness, Gregg’s statement from the 2015 cross country season says enough.
“She could be one of the great young female American distance runners in the next 5-10 years.”
— Jim McCue
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