Top story on top of a mountain |

Top story on top of a mountain

Steve Yingling

A third straight state Alpine skiing championship for South Tahoe High and Lake Tahoe Community College announcing the addition of its third team sport – Nordic skiing – would certainly rate as sports stories of the year in most areas the size of the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.

However, this mountain community of just over 20,000 people has come to expect much more from its athletes. And the athletic conquests of 1998 should only elevate those lofty expectations.

Opening the year with brash Shaun Palmer’s continuing invincibility in the Winter X Games looked like a tough act to top, but engaging 18-year-old Jonna Mendes’ took the South Shore where it’s never been before in Alpine skiing – the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

The year could have ended there and everybody would have been more than satisfied, but someone forgot to tell Brian Bruso, who played in the Korean pro basketball league’s all-star game. Then Matt Gerken, a privateer on the pro mountain biking circuit, rewarded Chevy Truck for a late-season sponsorship by capturing the U-23 national championship.

Ranking the top 10 South Shore sports stories of the year is fraught with the insensitivity subjectiveness creates. But here goes:

1.) This one is a no-brainer. Given Mendes’ limited World Cup experience, her inclusion in the Winter Games by the U.S. was somewhat baffling. But the teenager wasn’t unnerved by the grand theater and pageantry of the Games. Unlike most first-timers, Mendes wasn’t there to collect souvenirs. She demonstrated a unique ability to elevate her performances at the most opportune time and was the talk of the town as folks no longer mistook her for a race car driver or snowboarder.

For openers, Mendes finished 32nd in the super-G – her best event. The finish was overwhelming to her hometown, which couldn’t understand why CBS didn’t show any other American Alpine skiers besides Picabo Street. But Mendes only got better as the Games wore on, placing 17th in the downhill and 14th in the combined slalom and downhill.

“No one knows how good that is. She finished all her events and got better each time. It’s phenomenal,” said Noel Dufty, who helped groom Mendes for the Olympics with years of instruction on his Heavenly Ski Foundation team.

Before her season ended, Mendes captured a downhill silver medal in the Junior World Championships, met President Clinton, secured a downhill silver medal at the U.S. Alpine Championships in March in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and was selected Rolex Junior Olympian of the Year.

A career year for most, but Mendes has her sights set on the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

“The Olympics have definitely helped my confidence. I really came into the Olympics to get experience and do the best I could and not be disappointed with how I skied. I ended up skiing really well and the best I have all year, considering it was the Olympics,” Mendes said.

2.) South Tahoe basketball god Jerod Haase’s unexpected decision to retire from the game.

Young by most standards, the 24-year-old could no longer wait for a slow-healing scaphoid bone in his right wrist to come around. Haase originally broke the bone in the opening game of his senior season at Kansas, but played through the pain until the Jayhawks reached the Sweet 16 of the 1997 NCAA Tournament. Haase recently underwent a second surgery to repair the bone after a brief pro career in Macedonia.

“If I continued to play right now, I’d essentially trash the wrist and have trouble doing things later in life,” Haase said.

But Haase left open the possibility of a comeback somewhere down the line.

“It’s always a possibility I’ll try it again. I’m never going to say 100 percent. As a healthy player, I think I can go against anybody. But in my mind I’m done,” he said.

Haase endeared himself to Tahoe basketball fans with the passionate way he played the game. Janitors didn’t need to sweep the floor when Haase played because his all-out hustle cast him on the floor several times a game.

His unselfish and relentless style of play brought STHS a state championship in 1992 and helped propel Cal to a Sweet 16 appearance before he transferred to Kansas. Haase started in the Kansas backcourt for three seasons, leading the Jayhawks into the Elite Eight once and the Sweet 16 twice.

3.) Brooke Ballachey and Travis Ramos became the first South Shore freestyle skiers to step on a World Cup podium. Making their European World Cup debuts in late February, the U.S. Ski Team members finished third in dual moguls.

“It was a great performance for two young skiers who unquestionably are a solid part of the future of our moguls program,” said U.S. freestyle coach Jeff Good. “Travis and Brooke had a good chance to show what they can do, and they took advantage of that opportunity.”

The 18-year-old Ballachey proved to be one of the world’s best in duals, finishing fourth overall in the season-ending standings, while Ramos, 19, came in 12th.

4.) Featured by USA Today as possibly the world’s greatest athlete, the personable Shaun Palmer didn’t let his third consecutive Winter X Games boarder X title speak for itself.

“I keep coming off the couch and there’s no competition anymore,” Palmer told an ESPN reporter following his easy win in the boarder X finals Jan. 17. “The race was pretty much over when I got around the (first) turn. Everybody was blowing up behind me.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to win and if I can play some (mind) games, I’ll do it.”

Palmer missed most of the downhill mountain bike season with a broken collarbone but got off the couch to finish third in the national championships and qualify for the world championships.

5.) The recruiting saga of STHS volleyball star Adrian Hankoff, who verbally committing to national power UC-Santa Barbara, then reconsidered and gave up the balmy Southern California beaches for the frozen tundra and wheat of Washington State in Pullman, Wash. Hankoff justified the widest (in scope) recruiting war in STHS history by being named the Northern Nevada League player of the year for the second straight season and leading the Vikings to a zone title – their first since 1990 – without dropping a single game. Her 29 kills and 17 digs, however, weren’t enough as the Vikings were eliminated at states by Green Valley, leaving them one victory shy of the finals.

“It’s real hard to accept. All we’ve been working for is right here in front of us. But we did ourselves proud. We won zone,” Hankoff said.

6.) Brian Bruso, Haase’s teammate on the Vikings’ 1992 state championship team, made the most of his one pro season in Korea. The 6-foot-7 center repeatedly scored and rebounded in double figures and played in the Korean League All-Star Game. Bruso pulled down 17 rebounds as his all-stars emerged a 178-169 double-overtime victor. The winners received a $350 department store certificate.

7.) STHS products Bret Uppendahl and Ada May Lake sign letters of intent to play at major colleges.

The 6-3 Uppendahl, one of STHS’s most prolific passers ever, was sought by most of the Ivy League before settling on the Pennsylvania Quakers. The Quakers won the Ivy League this fall with Uppendahl serving as a reserve.

Meanwhile, Lake, a 1996 STHS graduate, parlayed an outstanding two-year stay at Sierra College in Rocklin into a two-year basketball scholarship at Cal State Fullerton. The 6-0 center averaged 12.9 points and seven boards per game for Sierra, which finished with a 27-9 record.

8.) You couldn’t help but feel good for Matt Gerken, who started his pro mountain biking season paying for everything out of his own pocket. Dropped by Devo after last season, the 21-year-old Stateline resident didn’t stay home and pout about his change in fortune. With his generous family motoring him around the country, Gerken caught the attention of Chevy Truck. By finishing 18th in the national championships in Mount Snow, Vt., Gerken claimed the natonal U-23 pro cross country title.

“Today was my biggest thrill so far. I’m on top of the world. The association with my new Chevy team definitely boosted my confidence for this race,” said Gerken, whose fortunes only got better afterward upon learning that U.S. coaches selected him to train for the next Olympics.

9.) Whittell High three-sport athlete Sarah Sufka won the state 800-meter title and was third in the 400 as the Warrior girls finished 10th overall in May. A week earlier, Sufka won zone titles in the 400 and 800 as the Warriors came away with four individual championships.

10.) The heartwarming victory of former Penguins star Mario Lemieux in the Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship. Friends and family were in tears after Lemieux drained an eight-foot birdie putt on the final hole to edge Dick Anderson and Billy Joe Tolliver by a stroke. Lemieux, a 20-1 shot to win the tournament, overcame greater odds before retiring from hockey by beating Hodgkin’s disease.

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