Railroaders won first state title since 2011, third consecutive regional title
The Sparks boys soccer team is the 2016-17 Sparks Tribune Team of the Year.
After three consecutive years of frustration in the state semifinals, the Railroaders broke through in the fall, routing Chaparral 4-1, then blanking 3A South champ, Western, 2-0, one day later for their first state title since 2011.
They were the only local team to win a major-sport state title.
“I can’t describe it,” Sparks coach Jose Espana said postgame. “Point blank, I can’t describe it. It’s just been a lot of battling and making sure the team was solid.
“Just happiness. A lot of emotion. This group, again, we’ve been here the last three years and haven’t been able to break through. The year of breaking curses continues. We’ve never won all three things (league title, regional title, state title) … This is a goal we always set for ourselves and we’ve never gotten there.”
Espana took over the team in the offseason, but was hardly new. He spent the last several years unofficially directing the program from the head assistant position. In his first season officially at the helm, Espana led Sparks to a 25-2-1 record, its third straight regional title (fourth in five years), and sixth consecutive state appearance.
He was the head JV coach when the Railroaders celebrated their last state title in 2011.
“I felt like I was a part of it (in 2011), but when you’re the one in charge, or you’re the assistant coach that’s been with the team all season, that’s something else,” Espana said.
Sparks won its final 10 matches of the season (it had three separate winning streaks of at least six matches) and outscored its five playoff opponents 14-5 on aggregate.
The only two defeats of the year both came to Elko. The Railroaders avoided the Indians, the No. 2 seed, in the 3A North regional tournament, however, thanks to a North Tahoe upset in the semifinals. Sparks edged North Tahoe, 2-1, in the regional title game.
“The boys did a helluva job,” Espana said after the win. “Three in a row. Each one of them seems to get better and better. Hopefully we can keep this train rolling. I’m really proud of the boys.”
Senior Jesus Partida, who signed a letter of intent to play at UNLV in February, scored the game winner on a penalty kick in the 50th minute.
Partida was one of the best players in the state regardless of classification. He averaged more than a goal a match, finishing with a team-high 32 – six more than fellow senior Genaro Vazquez, who also passed out a team-high 13 assists.
In total for the season, Sparks outscored its opponents by a tally of 111-23. That includes a narrow 1-0 time-shortened non-league tournament win over Galena in late August. The Grizzlies eventually won the 4A state title at the same complex Sparks hoisted the 3A championship trophy. The two squads took a celebratory picture together before hopping on the bus.
The state title, the opportunity to snap a three-year losing streak in the state semifinals, and the shot at a third-straight regional title was almost collectively washed out in the Railroaders’ regional tournament opener against fifth-seeded Incline.
In a 2-2 tie with five minutes left in regulation, it was a non-starter who literally and figurately saved the season. Backup keeper Marvin Monreal was forced into the game late and made a diving play that allowed Partida to head in the game-winner during stoppage time.
“I go back to Marvin, in that save. That could’ve been it,” Espana said. “That could’ve been the end of it. And yet he stepped up in the moment when the team needed him, and look where we’re at now.”
Team of the Year Honorable Mention
Spanish Springs boys cross country – The Cougars backed up their first regional title in program history with the program’s first state title. They were the only other local team to win a state championship. Three Cougs finished in the top six in the meet held in Las Vegas. Spanish Springs’ run to the title came one year after taking second at state in its first team appearance in the final meet of the year.
Reed boys track – Reed defended its first state regional title since 1999 with another three weeks ago in Carson and went on to take second at state – also at Carson.
Reed softball – The Raiders remain one of the few Northern Nevada standing dynasties. Reed secured its fifth straight regional title, took second at state, and ended the year with a mark of 37-4-1. It rode a 30-game winning streak into the state semifinals. Ace Julia Jensen ended her career with a state-record 100 victories and owns the third most strikeouts in state history (1,140).
Spanish Springs wrestling – Speaking of standing Northern Nevada dynasties, the Cougs round out the list. They extended their streak of regional titles to five this winter and took second at state to Green Valley for the second straight year. Joe Imelli coached Spanish Springs to its 10th straight league title and ballooned the league dual winning streak to 60.
Reed football – Leading Damonte Ranch 31-7 at the half of November’s 4A North title game at McQueen, Reed appeared to have its sixth straight regional title secured. A couple special team lapses paired with costly turnovers upended the Raiders, 49-45. The stunning defeat snapped streaks of 26 straight wins against regional competition, 20 straight wins in the regional playoffs and 11 straight wins in 2016. It was also Reed’s final game with Ernie Howren on the sideline. The iconic prep coach took the head job at Bishop Manogue in January.
Spanish Springs boys basketball – Paced by two-time Player of the Year Marcus Loadholt, Spanish Springs went 16-0 in regional play and rejoiced over a league title for the second time in program history. The Cougars (23-5) won 16 straight before falling in the final seconds to Bishop Manogue in the regional semifinals. They won both regular-season games against 4A North champ, Reno, by 29 combined points.
*The 2016-17 Sparks Tribune Female Athlete of the Year will be revealed next week, followed by the 2016-17 Sparks Tribune Male Athlete of the Year.