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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
By CALIFORNIAN STAFF REPORT
There is a NASCAR-quality race track that has sprouted up like a jewel amid acres upon acres of weeds in a field west of Bakersfield.
Long-awaited plans for a new minor league baseball stadium stadium were unveiled.
Pro cyclists sped along our roadways.
The Bakersfield College Renegades nearly filled spacious Memorial Stadium once again in football, and a Cal State bakersfield soccer player was drafted by the best team in the top soccer league in the United States.
But the greatest local sports storyline of all this year took place on an international stage, mano a mano , as the world looked on.
Bakersfield High graduate Jake Varner reached the very pinnacle of athletic success in August when he battled his way to an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling.
Varner's achievement headlines this year's list of top local sports stories, which, following Varner, are highlighted below in no particular order.
Gold rush for Varner
A two-time state wrestling champion at Bakersfield High and two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State, Varner added some more worldly hardware to his mantle, winning gold in the 96-kilogram (211-pound) weight class in freestyle wrestling at the London Olympics.
Varner, 26, entered the one-day tournament, which took place on the final day of the Games, as a contender for the gold but certainly not as the favorite. That all changed when he won a couple of close early matches, then came from behind to beat George Gogshelidze of Georgia 0-2, 1-0, 1-0 in the semifinals. He finished off his storybook run with a 1-0, 1-0 victory over Ukraine's Valerii Andriitsev for the gold medal.
"Every time I step on the mat I expect to win," Varner said. "But I think I smiled more than I usually do. It's just cool to have (this medal). It's so crazy."
Two more Bakersfield Olympians also turned some heads in London.
Jimmy Watkins, a local firefighter who graduated from Stockdale, competed in the track cycling individual sprint event. He came in as an afterthought in an event dominated by Europeans, but reached the quarterfinals and finished sixth in the world.
Meanwhile, Christine Sonali Merrill, a Bakersfield Christian graduate, was chosen by Sri Lanka's Olympic Committee to represent the country's track and field team. Sonali Merrill, whose mother is Sri Lankan, ran in the 400-meter hurdles.
State title for the Renegades
BC’s 35-14 win over City College of San Francisco gave the Renegades their first state football championship, played before 16,625, the largest BC home crowd in nearly 20 years. To get to the title game, BC had to beat two undefeated teams that had beaten the Renegades earlier in the season: Ventura and Mount San Antonio, with Mount SAC the five-time defending Southern California champion. And then BC beat CC of San Francisco, which has won seven state titles since the 1990s, including a win over BC in the 2000 state championship game.
A long dormant, partially paved half-mile racetrack was brought back to life in February and should be open for racing in March, 2013.
Original developers started the project in 2007 but the project ran into financial problems that led to bankruptcy then foreclosure. It sat dormant for nearly four years until a new investment group, headed by James Vernon and Daniel Smith, purchased the property.
The final paving of the Kern County Raceway track and infield was completed in November, and in early December NASCAR announced that a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race will be held there Oct. 26, 2013.
While the track is ready to go, working continues on the rest of the facility, including a four-story superstructure that will house concession and restroom areas on the ground floor, two levels of suites and a floor for race operations, offices and media.
New life for Blaze
In April, the Elmore Sports Group sold Bakersfield’s professional baseball team to local businessmen Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, who began their quest to build a new stadium.
In November, they announced a privately financed $20 million baseball stadium will be built off Coffee Road between Rosedale Highway and Brimhall Road as part of the 255-acre Bakersfield Commons property.
Hopes for a new stadium have been publicized for more than 20 years. This is the first time a plan using private funding has surfaced. Ground is expected to be broken in February.
In March, the Cal State Bakersfield soccer program was invited to join the Pac-12, the top conference on the West Coast, effective next fall. And after this fall season, Roadrunner forward Gyasi Zardes signed a professional contract with the two-time defending Major League Soccer champion Los Angeles Galaxy.
Zardes, a 2012 third-team College Soccer News All-American, was chosen Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Men’s Soccer Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. He scored a CSUB Division I record of four goals in a game, against Seattle University on Oct. 14.
Home for the Roadrunners
CSUB accepted an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference in men’s and women’s basketball, women’s soccer and volleyball, effective July 1. They join a conference with an automatic berth into NCAA tournaments in each of those sports.
Amgen Tour returns
Cycling’s Amgen Tour of California rolled through Bakersfield on May 17 with David Zabriskie (USA) of Garmin-Barracuda winning the 18.4-mile time trial in 35 minutes, 59 seconds. That was 23 seconds better than German Jens Voigt (Radioshack Nissan) and 34 seconds better than fellow American Tejay van Garderen (BMC). The race started and finished adjacent to Bakersfield College. Zabriskie, a six-time USA Cycling National time trial champion, averaged 30.66 miles per hour.
Kristin Armstrong of Boise, Idaho, won the women’s competition in 39 minutes, 59 seconds.
Golf gods are smiling
Bakersfield High graduate Bhavik Patel continued to add to his trophy shelf in golf. He also won the prestigious Southern California Golf Association Amateur Championship. After turning pro, he made it all the way to the PGA Tour Final Stage Qualifying, where he secured a spot on the 2013 Web.com Tour. He also lit up Bakersfield Country Club with a 61, and Stockdale Country Club with a 63 in 2012.
High standards for high schools
For the second consecutive year, Bakersfield High’s wrestling team finished as state runner-up behind Clovis. This time, the Drillers were buoyed by second-place individual performances from Silas Nacita (170 pounds) and Kyle Pope (182). Coleman Hammond (152) finished third.
Three local teams won section football championships at home, with Garces beating Sanger in Division II, Ridgeview hammering Dinuba for the D-III title and Wasco finishing up the Central Section's only undefeated season with a comeback victory over Bakersfield Christian. Despite its 13-0 record, the Tigers were passed up by the CIF’s state bowl system.
It was a big moment for a little town. McFarland’s boys soccer team won the first Central Section championship in school history, but the Cougars weren’t done. They reached the Southern California regional final — as far as a team can go — in Division III before falling 2-0 to Santa Monica-Crossroads.
Stockdale student Blake Haney continued to impress the distance running world, placing third in the state in the 1,600 meters in June. Haney suffered a serious IT band injury in his right leg in the fall and sat out most of the cross country season but is back in action.
Local girls basketball star Erica McCall ended four years’ worth of suspense when she announced in November that she would sign to play collegiately with Stanford, which has been ranked No. 1 in the country this season for six straight weeks. McCall, a 6-foot-3 Ridgeview senior, had played junior basketball for Team USA and is ranked the No. 12 player nationally in her class by ESPN.