Sacramento isn’t a hockey town by any measure, but the other high-profile sports?
A bonanza of talent.
The past 15 months have shown how ripe this region has become in football, basketball and baseball with a record haul of five first-round draft picks.
Defensive lineman Arik Armstead from Pleasant Grove High School and Oregon was selected 17th overall by the 49ers in the 2015 NFL draft, and he bounds into his second season ready to make an impact, saying recently, “I strive for greatness.”
Shaq Thompson from Grant and Washington was selected 25th overall in that draft by the Carolina Panthers. He started in Super Bowl 50 and has been deemed one of the NFL’s fast-rising linebacker talents, adding, “I’m ready for a great season.”
The first-round whirlwind continued in last month’s Major League Baseball draft with hard-throwing right-hander Matt Manning from Sheldonselected by the Detroit Tigers ninth overall. Hours later, sweet-swinging power hitter Dylan Carlson from Elk Grove High went to the St. Louis Cardinals with the 33rd pick in the first round.
Last week, forward Marquese Chriss from Pleasant Grove and Washington was picked eighth overall by the Kings in the NBA draft and immediately dealt to Phoenix. Chriss has been described by draft experts as “an absolute freak athlete.”
Four of the five athletes came out of the Elk Grove Unified School District, where Armstead and Chriss hailed from the same high school, and Carlson and Manning played for rival schools a few miles away.
All but Chriss played multiple sports in high school, benefiting from the experiences. Chriss is the late bloomer of the lot, having picked up his sport as a freshman.
Carlson and Manning verbally committed to colleges but never enrolled, instead signing lucrative deals shortly after walking across the stage to accept graduation certificates.
Each local first-rounder proved to be a good teammate and was thoroughly researched and vetted, so to speak, by his employer. Some franchises reached back to the player’s middle-school coaches to gauge how much they enjoyed team play, how they got along with others, if they were coachable. And each had strong parenting, with Thompson and Chriss especially close to their mothers.
Chriss was the least heralded as a high school senior prospect, still growing into his frame and his game. There was no chaos to his recruiting, but there sure was with Armstead and Thompson.
Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey brazenly entered the math class of Pleasant Grove teacher John DePonte when Armstead was a senior, determined to land the 6-foot-8 dual athlete. In front of the class, Brey declared that if Armstead graduated at midyear, in a matter of days, he would be in the starting lineup for the Irish by the end of the week.
DePonte, also Armstead’s prep basketball coach, was flabbergasted at the recruiting ploy.
Thompson verbally committed to Cal as a senior at Grant but was thrown for an emotional loop when his recruiter from Cal, Tosh Lupoi, unexpectedly accepted a coaching position at Washington and asked Thompson to switch allegiances on the spot.
Thompson’s mother, Patty, was so disgusted by the request that she threw Lupoi out of the house. Shaq became a Husky anyway.
The tension for Carlson and Manning was entirely different: How much would their signing bonuses be? But what quick, effortless fun that was. Within days of being drafted, Carlson signed for $1.33 million, and Manning inked for a regional-record $3.5 million.
Only the 1972 Major League Baseball draft was this strong locally, with three players going in the first round: Joel Bishop of McClatchy and Mike Ondina and Jerry Manuel of Cordova. And only the 1983 NFL draft featured two other locals in the first round: Ken O’Brien of Jesuit and UC Davis and Tony Eason of Delta and Illinois.
And there may be more prospects on the rise.
Future NFL first rounders could include defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes from Placer and UCLA, and quarterback Jake Browning from Folsom and Washington. Malik Pope from Laguna Creek and San Diego State and Cameron Oliver from Grant and Nevada are potential NBA first-rounders.
Baseball is a bit more unknown.
At this time a year ago, Carlson and Manning were not deemed first-round material. But if history is a guide, the rapid rise of local talent is part of the game.