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San Diego sports year in review: Stadium game was talk of the town

12/29/2017, 1:15pm PST
By Tod Leonard


It is the most forlorn piece of property in Mission Valley.

The old, gray stadium that once was alive with more than 100 Padres, Chargers and Aztecs football games each year sits empty most of the time, surrounded by a massive blanket of faded asphalt.

To drive by what is now SDCCU Stadium is to remember that it hosted the NFL’s royalty for three Super Bowls, two World Series reached by Tony Gwynn and the Padres, and more great football games — not always won by or even including the Chargers and Aztecs — than any of us could ask for.

Yet it was excruciatingly quiet on Sundays this winter, with the Chargers having left for their temporary home at a soccer bandbox in Carson.

Columnist Nick Canepa: This was worst year ever in San Diego sports »

Bitter local fans who turned into Chargers haters reveled in the team’s 0-4 start and television ratings for the team here dropped dramatically. But the volume of the vitriol went down when Philip Rivers and the team rallied to win eight of the last 11 to give L.A. an outside shot at an AFC wild-card spot entering Sunday’s home game against the Oakland Raiders.

Owner Dean Spanos pulling up stakes for a team that played here 56 seasons likely will be the biggest sports story of the 2010s in San Diego, if not the entire century, but the battle that has ensued over the stadium land was the largest and most convoluted tale of 2017, and it most certainly will be in 2018.

The showdown is set for the ballot in November 2018, pitting the early front-runner development bid, SoccerCity, against San Diego State and some of its supporters, who snubbed the $4 billion SoccerCity proposal in favor of a similar, but more academia-friendly plan of its own.

In both proposals, San Diego gets a new and smaller stadium that would house either a Major League Soccer expansion team or San Diego State football, or potentially both.

Dueling deals

The Chargers hadn’t been gone long when SoccerCity leaders held a news conference Jan. 30 on the deck of the USS Midway Museum. Lending cache to the proceedings was San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

With popular U.S. national team star Landon Donovan as the man out front in the community, SoccerCity gathered enough signatures by the end of March to qualify the proposal going to a City Council vote, though the council eventually decided to let voters have their say.

Predictably, opposition from rival developers and, later, San Diego State arose. Those on Montezuma Mesa balked at the smaller size of the SoccerCity stadium proposal (23,500, though expandable), the cost it might take to expand it, and the dearth of student housing and classroom space.

Clearly behind on the planning side, SDSU took months to put together a proposal. An initiative sponsored by “Friends of SDSU,” a group of university supporters, was announced in late September, and two months later “SDSU Mission Valley” was unveiled. The 15-year development plan calls for a 35,000-seat stadium (expandable should the NFL want to return), two hotels, 4,500 housing units for students, faculty and public, and office buildings for SDSU departments and researchers.

SDSU, like SoccerCity, wants to buy the land at “fair market” value to be able to control the development, but it has yet to reveal a financial plan even as the Friends of SDSU group announced Friday it has gathered enough signatures to get on the November ballot (the county Registrar of Voters still must verify the signatures). Another issue could be how long the development would take, considering the city was planning to close the current stadium after the 2018 football season.

As the process plodded forward, San Diego missed out on one round of MLS expansion. The league awarded one franchise to Nashville this week, and while an announcement of a second has been delayed, Sacramento, Cincinnati and Detroit are in the running.

The two left out this time might be considered the front-runners for the next two expansion spots, while MLS’ enthusiasm for San Diego likely will hinge on the vibe it gets leading up to the November vote.

Padres keep the faith

The Padres may wind up benefiting from the Chargers’ exit, but the timing in 2017 was far from ideal. With professional football no longer in town, the baseball team plunged into its latest rebuilding season.

The Padres did not embarrass themselves under the spotlight — they actually outperformed expectations by going 71-91 — but they didn't exactly command attention, either. San Diego was the first club since the 2003 Detroit Tigers to carry three Rule 5 draft selections for an entire season. An inordinate amount of blowout losses contributed to a league-worst run differential. Petco Park drew 2.14 million fans, down from 2.35 million in 2016.

First baseman Wil Myers became the city's most prominent athlete, but his season qualified as a disappointment. In January, he signed a franchise-record extension worth $83 million over six years. From April through September, he dealt with cold stretches on offense and defense, failing to repeat as a National League All-Star.

As Myers searched for consistency, a number of his teammates began to establish themselves. Center fielder Manuel Margot had a promising rookie campaign, as did right-hander Dinelson Lamet. Hunter Renfroe's debut was more uneven, and the right fielder endured a late-season demotion to Triple-A. Catcher Austin Hedges came as advertised behind the plate, though he was not nearly as productive with the bat.

Lamet wasn't the only pleasant surprise. The others included left fielder Jose Pirela, who was the Padres' most valuable hitter, and second baseman Carlos Asuaje, a capable replacement after an injury sidelined Yangervis Solarte.

Reliever Brad Hand continued to increase his value, but after shipping off most of their veterans a year earlier, the Padres were relatively quiet leading up to the trade deadline. General Manager A.J. Preller's only significant move of the summer sent pitchers Trevor Cahill, Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter to Kansas City.

The most notable developments could be found below the major league level. Ownership made an unprecedented investment, spending $78 million on international prospects, roughly $10 million more than the Padres' opening-day payroll. Left-hander MacKenzie Gore, the third overall pick in the June draft, received a $6.7 million signing bonus.

Meantime, the organization's player development seemed to produce results. More than a few minor leaguers, largely on the pitching side, inched closer to San Diego. An 18-year-old shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr., emerged as one of the top prospects in baseball.

Hopeful for a playoff berth by 2020, the Padres now face the question of how to supplement their homegrown talent. They were one of seven finalists for Japan's Shohei Ohtani, only to see the two-way star choose the Los Angeles Angels. Elsewhere in free agency, the Padres have courted first baseman Eric Hosmer, who likely will require a nine-figure contract.

The Padres made a trade at December's winter meetings, reacquiring third baseman and former centerpiece Chase Headley from the New York Yankees. The main objective, however, was to purchase the rights of pitcher Bryan Mitchell, and many would be surprised if Headley, who joined an infield logjam, isn't flipped in the near future.

Regardless of what transpires before the 2018 season, the club has reaffirmed its faith in Preller's plan. The general manager in October signed a three-year extension, keeping him under contract through 2022.

On the Mesa

The emotions ran high and low this season for San Diego State’s football team.

Running back Rashaad Penny was brilliant, topping the nation in rushing with 2,248 yards while smashing teammate D.J. Pumphrey’s single-season school record set only last year.

Though Penny didn’t seem to mind much, his teammates and coaches were angry that he wasn’t invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony or included as a finalist in other high-profile awards (although he was named a consensus All-American).

For the rest of the Aztecs team, they impressively forged a third straight season of double digit wins at 10-3. But after surprising even head coach Rocky Long by winning their first six — including a thumping of Arizona State and a thrilling home victory over Stanford — they were dominated in home losses to Mountain West foes Boise State and Fresno State.

Those two teams captured their respective divisions (with Boise taking the MW title), while the Aztecs settled for second in the West Division and got Army in the Armed Forces Bowl. It proved to be a tougher-than-expected matchup, and though Penny scored four TDs, the Aztecs’ defense was manhandled in a last-minute, 42-35 loss.

The Aztecs men’s basketball team continues to be impressive at times, and absolutely confounding at others.

Look no further than recent results, when SDSU beat No. 12-ranked Gonzaga at home, only to go on the road for the Mountain West opener and lose by 13 to a Wyoming team picked to finish sixth in the preseason media poll.

This will be another season when the Aztecs have little (no?) hope of an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament and must win the Mountain West Tournament.

They put themselves in the same position last season, and couldn’t pull it off, losing to Colorado State in the conference semifinals. The 19-14 campaign (9-9 in the MW) didn’t earn a berth in even the NIT, and the Aztecs sat out the postseason for the first time since 2004-05.

In the aftermath, Steve Fisher stepped down in April after 17 seasons (eight NCAA Tournament berths), and the very patient head-coach-in-waiting Brian Dutcher took over.

On the Hill

How do they do it? With no scholarships and players who are simply playing for the love of the game, the University of San Diego’s football team moves forward with one successful season after another.

Under their old-school, no-nonsense head coach Dale Lindsey, the Toreros finished a second straight Pioneer Football League season in November undefeated at 8-0 (10-3 overall). They once again reached the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs, and won in the first round at Northern Arizona, 41-10, before falling a second straight year to powerhouse North Dakota State.

USD got tremendous play on offense from junior quarterback Anthony Lawrence (Grossmont High), who was second in the PFL in passing touchdowns (30) and fourth in both passing efficiency (170.1) and completion percentage (67.3). He was the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.

The Defensive Player of the Year was Toreros senior lineman Jonathan Petersen (Poway), who led the PFL in regular-season sacks (13) and tackles for loss (20), and was honored as a first-team All-American. His 44 career sacks set an FCS record.

The Toreros men’s basketball team has not enjoyed the same success, but there were signs late in 2017 that USD might be finally turning things around under third-year head coach Lamont Smith.

USD’s 5-0 start to the season was its best since 2013-14, and the Toreros finished their non-conference schedule 9-3. A year ago, they were 13-18 overall, 6-13 in conference and in March lost a West Coast Conference Tournament first-round game to Portland.

Pleasing to Smith is that four juniors are averaging double figures in scoring, led by Isaiah Pineiro (15.2).

Breeders’ Cup comes to Del Mar

You could say that they were two days of horse racing that were 80 years in the making.

Opened in 1937, the Del Mar racetrack never shone brighter than it did on the first weekend of November, when it hosted its first Breeders’ Cup.

Wealthy owners from around the world, flanked by sport’s best trainers and jockeys, poured into the seaside track and left with rave reviews about the facilities, the racing and the ocean views.

In a Breeders’ Cup Classic that always penciled out as a thriller, it was the Steve Asmussen-trained, 4-year-old Gun Runner who powered to an impressive, 2 1/4-length win over Collected that was worth $3.3 million.

The colt’s fifth stakes victory in six starts for the year assured him Horse of the Year honors.

Beaten in the Classic with a dead-heat finish of fifth was Bob Baffert’s Arrogate, who had been ranked as the world’s No. 1 horse before his inexplicable troubles on the Del Mar track began in the summer with losses in the San Diego Handicap and Pacific Classic.

San Diego got its own Breeders’ Cup feel-good story when trainer Peter Miller — a Del Mar stalwart from Encinitas — scored his first two world championship wins, with Stormy Liberal in the Turf Sprint and Roy H in the Sprint.

There weren’t any breakdowns of horses in Breeders’ Cup races, and that continued a promising trend for Del Mar, which took great lengths to reduce injuries. Eight horses in total died over the summer and fall meets in 2017, compared to 22 in the previous year.

As the year ended, Del Mar opened its backstretch to horses rescued from San Luis Rey Downs, where at least 46 horses died as a result of the Lilac Fire in Bonsall.

Schauffele is top golf rookie

San Diego native Xander Schauffle began his first PGA Tour season with the goal of every other rookie: keeping his playing privileges for the next year.

He ended up performing better than most rookies — ever. Groomed at Scripps Ranch High and San Diego State, Schauffele was voted Rookie of the Year after he became the first rookie to capture the season-ending Tour Championship, adding to his earlier victory in the Greenbrier Classic. He also was the first rookie ever to win a FedEx Cup playoff event.

The Tour Championship triumph moved Schauffele up to No. 3 in the final FedEx Cup standings behind Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, and Schauffele will play in his first Masters in April.

San Diego got a good look at another rising star when Spain’s Jon Rahm seized the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, putting an exclamation point on the win by making a 60-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole. (It was so long it took 13.5 seconds to drop into the cup.) Rahm also won twice on the European Tour and climbed to No. 4 in the world golf rankings.

Tiger Woods made his only U.S. appearance on the PGA Tour at the Farmers, missed the cut and, following another back surgery, didn’t return to play until the Hero World Challenge in late November.

In the LPGA’s Kia Classic at Aviara, Mirim Lee fired a 7-under-65 in the final round to match the tournament record with a 20-under-par total.

Plum sets NCAA scoring mark

She was the girl from Poway who they couldn’t keep out of the gym at La Jolla Country Day.

Day and night, Kelsey Plum practiced basketball to mold herself into a phenomenal shooter. That work led her to the greatest individual achievement in NCAA women’s basketball.

On Feb. 25 against Utah, Plum had the first 50-point game of her four-year college career at Washington, pouring in 57 points to become the all-time leading scorer. She passed Jackie Stiles and completed her career with 3,527 points — 134 more than Stiles.

Plum, who was the first overall pick in the 2017 WNBA draft by San Antonio, finished 270 points shy of Pete Maravich’s NCAA men’s all-time scoring record.

Gulls keep drawing

The city’s love of its minor-league hockey team has shown no signs of waning.

As the Gulls enter 2018, their announced average attendance of 9,149 for the season thus far at Valley View Casino Center is the best in the American Hockey League. They were the No. 3 draw last season (8,876) and second-best (8,675) in 2015-16.

On the ice, the Anaheim Ducks’ top affiliate again finished second and again lost in the second round of the playoffs, this time to San Jose.

Expansion on horizon

San Diego is a hotbed for startup sports franchises, though most don’t thrive or survive. At least one more, and possibly two, are on tap for the coming year.

An announcement came in August that a new franchise — the San Diego Seals — will be joining the National Lacrosse League in November 2018 and play at Valley View Casino Center.

San Diego’s North County is a hotbed for lacrosse, so maybe it has a chance, and the team will certainly be well-backed by its billionaire owner, Joseph Tsai, whose family lives in La Jolla. More interesting, perhaps, is that the Tsai-owned Blue Pool Capital is showing an interest in building a new arena downtown, and further developments on that front could come over the next year.

The other potential franchise is a minor-league soccer team, which chose either a really hip or really dumb name for itself — 1904 FC — and may or may not have a league to play in.

1904 FC, with plans to start playing at USD and eventually move into a pop-up stadium in east Oceanside, wants to compete in the North American Soccer League, but that entity’s status is in flux. The NASL has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation after the sport’s national governing body denied its application to remain a second-division league.

The league’s fate, which is supposed to be decided soon, rests with three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

State titles abound for preps

The Steele Canyon High School football team didn’t get much respect when it was seeded seventh at the start of the San Diego Section Division II playoffs.

Duly motivated, the Cougars reeled off six consecutive playoff wins, capped with a 44-42 victory over Half Moon Bay to capture the state Division 3-A title. It was the first state championship for Steele Canyon, a team that had never advanced beyond the section semifinals.

There were numerous other state titles won by teams and individuals in the past year. Point Loma and Maranatha Christian captured championships in girls volleyball; Poway’s Quentin Hovis and Rancho Bernardo’s Chasen Blair notched titles in boys wrestling, and Clairemont’s Stephanie Maldonado claimed a championship in girls wrestling.

Helix reached the state finals in boys basketball and football, finishing runner-up in both, and in one of this year’s most remarkable individual performances, Rancho Buena Vista’s Dorian Richardson set a San Diego Section record for rushing yards in a game with 499.

Staff writer Dennis Lin contributed to this report.

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutleonard

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