Which Sport Defines Santa Barbara?

Pondering Our Region’s Most Meaningful Seasons, Squads, and Stars

Photo: Paul Wellman Amadou Sow, UCSB’s 6′9″ sophomore, exerted his power in the paint against Justin Bessard (13), Westmont’s 6′6″ senior. Bessard showed his shooting range at the other end, scoring a game-high 27 points. Sow had 20 in UCSB’s 87-66 victory UCSB Men’s Basketball hosts Westmont.

Looking at the deep history of athletics in Santa Barbara, I’ve wondered if there’s a sport that distinguishes us. There is a substantial list of candidates.

BASKETBALL:  Gyms are packed for the high school rivalries — the Santa Barbara and San Marcos boys’ teams will go at it Friday night (Jan. 10) at SBCC’s Sports Pavilion — and both UCSB and Westmont College are playing at a high level. The Gaucho men boast the best record (11-4) in the Big West heading into conference play. Westmont is 15-1, losing only when it played up to NCAA Division I against UCSB last Thursday. The Warriors figure to win a lot more in NAIA action.

The hoops were the marquee game when coaches Jerry Pimm and Bob Williams had UCSB playing the likes of UNLV, Houston, North Carolina State, Ohio State, and North Carolina before 6,000 hollering fans in the Thunderdome. Yet the Gauchos have won only one NCAA men’s tournament game, in 1990. Mark French led the UCSB women’s teams to 10 postseason wins, and they made an NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2004. Westmont won the NAIA women’s championship in 2013.

The Santa Barbara Court of Champions, started in 2014 to honor basketball players, coaches, and contributors to the game, has grown to 74 members. Among them is Jamaal Wilkes, a 2012 inductee into the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The nominees for the 2020 Naismith class include longtime resident Bill Bertka, who has earned 10 NBA championship rings as an assistant coach and scout with the Lakers. It will be revealed next month if the 92-year-old Bertka makes the cut to join the finalists on a list that includes Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett.

FOOTBALL:  In the 1960s and ’70s, it was a huge game in town, even after UCSB dropped its Division I program. The Santa Barbara High/San Marcos game filled all 16,000 seats in the university’s Campus Stadium, which was also the home field for Dos Pueblos. The SBCC Vaqueros drew thousands to La Playa Stadium. Friday nights in Carpinteria were all about the CHS Warriors, who won a CIF title in 1975 and added three more in the ’80s. Bishop Diego became a big-time small school in 2017, rolling to CIF section and state championships. Santa Barbara revived memories of old Golden Tornado glory by reaching the 2019 CIF Division 8 final.

The list of athletes in the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table (SBART) Hall of Fame clearly shows the significance of football over the years: It was the primary sport of 43 inductees. There are 27 basketball players, 21 baseball players, and eight softball players. Among the city’s gridiron greats are Sam Cunningham and Randall Cunningham, both of whom are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

BASEBALL:  During the period of football dominance, Laguna Park, the city’s downtown baseball stadium, was demolished. But lately, the grand old game has had a renaissance in town. UCSB made it to the 2016 College World Series. Two lads who grew up in Goleta, James McCann and Jeff McNeil, were selected to the 2019 Major League All-Star Game, and former Gaucho pitcher Shane Bieber was the MVP of that game. And the Santa Barbara Foresters have put together 29 consecutive winning seasons of summer baseball, claiming seven National Baseball Congress World Series titles.

The Foresters will host their annual Hall of Fame Dinner and Hot Stove Night on Saturday (Jan. 11) at 6 p.m. at the Carriage Museum. They will honor founding coach Bob Townsend and a pair of outstanding ballplayers: Delwyn Young and current major leaguer Ryan O’Hearn. For tickets and information, check out sbforesters.org.

VOLLEYBALL:  The induction of Dax Holdren and Mandy Bible into the SBART Hall of Fame last year grew the number of volleyball members to 15. I am inclined to say Santa Barbara is a volleyball town, because it is uniquely bound to the sport. There are the East Beach courts, deemed “a fertile nest” by former player and coach Jon Lee, where Henry Bergmann put craters in the sand. There is Santa Barbara High’s Karch Kiraly, indisputably the world’s most accomplished player, and three other Olympic gold medalists: Doug Partie (Dos Pueblos), Eric Fonoimoana (UCSB), and Todd Rogers (San Marcos).

The Gaucho men’s volleyball team has reached more NCAA finals — five — than any other UCSB team. They have yet to win the big trophy but are still trying. The Gauchos, ranked No. 5 on the national coaches’ preseason poll, open the 2020 season Thursday-Saturday (Jan. 9-11) by hosting the Asics Invitational at Rob Gym (see ucsbgauchos.com).

In women’s volleyball, UCSB rarely missed the NCAA tournament in three decades coached by Hall of Famer Kathy Gregory. Both the Gauchos and Westmont made strong showings in the 2019 postseason, the Warriors reaching the NAIA final. 

SOCCER:  It is much more than a kids’ game in Santa Barbara. UCSB won the NCAA men’s championship in 2006 and reached the quarterfinals last fall. It led all the nation’s colleges in home attendance for nine straight years. It has twice hosted the College Cup and will do so again in 2020. Santa Barbara High is a perennial power in the CIF. Ben Roach, who also was a volleyball star for the Dons, was one of the nation’s top goalkeepers in 2019 as a UCSB sophomore.

WATER POLO:  UCSB’s only other NCAA Division I title was claimed by men’s water polo in 1979. Terry Schroeder (San Marcos) won two Olympic silver medals with the U.S. men’s team and later coached it to another. In the brief history of Olympic women’s water polo, Santa Barbara players have collected six medals: Thalia Munro (bronze), Kami Craig (silver and two golds), Kiley Neushul (gold), and Sami Hill (gold). Neushul came out of a Dos Pueblos program that had a 67-game winning streak, and the current U.S. women’s team, which also includes her sister Jamie Neushul and Paige Hauschild (San Marcos), has won its last 68 games.

OTHERS:  Out of the Rincon surf came three-time world champion Tom Curren and current World Tour wave artists Conner Coffin and Lakey Peterson. Bill Toomey was a Santa Barbara schoolteacher when he won the 1968 decathlon gold medal, and Olympic heptathletes Jane Frederick and Barbara Nwaba continued the multi-event tradition in track and field. Ramiro “Curly” Guillen and Addi Zerrenner will be competing in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29.

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