Considering the fact that 51 western Nevada County teams took to the field, court, track or mat in varsity sports in the 2007-08 school year, The Union had no shortage of success stories to share with its readers.
And along with that success came the names of many athletes who deserved consideration for The Union’s male and female prep athletes of the year.
But in the end, two seniors – Caroline Reeves of Nevada Union and Ben Sparling of Forest Lake Christian – stood out among the best of the rest.
Both ballplayers have long drawn praise for not only their athletic abilities, which were on display in two sports, but also their leadership skills and willingness to put their team first.
Anyone who has watched Reeves or Sparling play basketball – the one sport they share – knows full well that they were capable of scoring more points than their per game averages. But Reeves and Sparling knew their teams needed help in other areas and decided to often defer the scoring role to their teammates.
Such a selfless approach paid off in the end, as both teams contended for league championships and earned playoff berths. And their teamwork also proved to fruitful in their fall sports, as Reeves was the starting setter for NU’s NorCal champion volleyball team and Sparling was the leading scorer for FLC’s Central Valley Christian League soccer champs.
Ask their coaches what each of our honorees meant to their program and it’s clearly not an answer that can be summed up in a sentence or two – which only helps to confirm that The Union has chosen its athletes of the year wisely.
“She was a fabulous player and incredibly versatile, as proven by her moving positions her senior year to setter from middle hitter,” said Bob Rogers, who along with Larry Peterson, led Reeves and her teammates to a section record-tying sixth straight Division I crown.
The move became necessary when senior teammate Jen Sager was sidelined for the season with an injury. But having seen Reeves in the role on occasion in the past, Rogers knew she could handle the ball and get it to the Miners’ heavy-hitting attack.
“Jen had gotten sick or had a minor injury,” Rogers remembered. “We moved Caroline in there a couple of days later and with almost no practice she stepped in and we won the tournament we were playing in.
“So I knew she could handle it.”
But could she handle the pressure of setting up fellow seniors Sarah McAtee, Kylie Miraldi and Christian Woodruff, along with junior Taylor Japhet, with a chance to make section history on the line?
“At first, I did feel like there was definitely a lot of pressure,” Reeves said. “But as we went through practices, all of my teammates made me feel really good about it.
“And a lot of times it happened the other way around, where they made me look good. They can hit anything.”
Reeves said her favorite memory from the 44-5 run to the state championship volleyball match had to be the final match played on the Ali Gymnasium floor. The Miners had home court advantage in the NorCal championship against Homestead (Cupertino) and the NU faithful did not disappoint. Nevada Union took to the floor with a standing-room only crowd behind them.
“There were just people overflowing in the stands,” she said. “There were people on the steps of the bleachers and people sitting on the ground, because there weren’t any seats left. It was amazing.”
The deep playoff run caused her to start her final season of basketball late, but her play for the Miners was worth the wait. Though she showed the ability to score in bunches – including season-high 24 points – when needed, Reeves didn’t deem it necessary for her to score to get NU the wins.
“This year we had a lot more scorers than other years,” said Reeves, whose scoring slipped from a 13.4 average as a junior. “That opened it up for us. I didn’t really have to score as much, because everybody was really good and confident.”
But Reeves showed she could still stuff a stat sheet, averaging 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 3.2 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. Her play helped power the Miners to a 19-9 record, second place in the SFL and a playoff berth in coach John McDaniel’s first season on the bench.
“She was the one you could count on every night,” said McDaniel. “You could count on her to get the rebounds, get the assists … well, you know the line. It’s amazing.
“She was definitely our team leader.”
Reeves, who plans to attend Cal Poly in the fall – though she hasn’t decided whether she’ll try walk-on to the basketball team, said she was honored to be The Union’s female athlete of the year.
“I think it’s really cool,” she said. “But I know there’s no way I would have gotten it if I didn’t have really supportive teammates and coaches.”
In the beginning, Sparling said, he only played soccer in order to get in shape for basketball season. He learned early on that all that running around the pitch could shed some pounds in a hurry.
And after starting a second sport, it never became much of a question whether he’d continue playing both.
“I was in junior high and I was overweight, so I played,” he said. “Slowly I got thinner and more fast, I guess.
“Until this year, basketball was my No. 1 sport, but this year (in soccer) was great. Sports were always what kept me going through school. I never really looked forward to school much, so for me, it’s always been the more (sports) the merrier.”
Count Thad Kopec among those happy to have had Sparling stick it out in soccer. After having played a supportive role to past soccer stars at FLC, Sparling stepped into the spotlight for his senior campaign.
He led the CVCL in scoring with 33 goals and also dished off 12 assists to his teammates on the season. The Falcons followed his lead to the a 14-6-5 overall record, including 7-0-2 for the program’s fourth-straight league championship, and a spot in the section semifinals.
“He had a fantastic senior year,” said Kopec, FLC’s veteran soccer coach. “Without him, we wouldn’t have won half the games.
“He really improved and stepped up his senior year. He played supporting roles as a 10th and 11th grader on very good teams. And basically, this year’s team was his team. Basically, he saw what the price was to be on a championship team.”
And 2007-08 turned out to be a championship year for Sparling in both sports, as during the winter he and his FLC teammates captured the CVCL crown and the school’s first boys basketball section title.
With brothers Andrew and Josh Ritchart up front, and Austin Maynard in the backcourt, the Falcons (22-10) weren’t short of options on the offensive end of the floor. Andrew, a fellow senior, averaged 15.8 points per game, while Josh, a 6-foot, 6-inch sophomore, scored 15.4 points per outing. Maynard averaged 12.2 points.
“We had a couple of guys, Adam Reed and Andrew (Ritchart) who were injured last year. So last year was kind of my year to go out and do my own thing,” said Sparling of his junior season, which saw him average 15.7 points per game. “This year, I realized we had four people who could score at will, so I tried to take on more of a defensive role.”
He still averaged 13.5 points per game as a senior, but his 4.1 steals per game – along with his 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists – led to the success of his teammates, as well. And, in his final season and his sport as a Falcon, Sparling wanted to go out a winner.
“Going out on top is the best way to go,” he said with a laugh. “It really was a team effort, though. You can’t take anything away from the Ritcharts and Austin.”
Sparling said he was a bit surprised by his selection as The Union’s male athlete of the year, but also pleased to hear the news.
“I feel very honored and very blessed,” he said. “I think God gave me some talent, but again, I think I was very lucky to be on the right team with teammates who made me look better than I was.”
To contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4240.
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The Nevada Union Junior Miners Football and Cheer teams traveled to Roseville to take on the Oakmont Junior Vikings in Sacramento Youth Football League action last Saturday.