It was the heyday of softball and several of the best teams in the nation were based in California, three in the Central Valley alone.
The Hoak Packers were actually an offshoot of the Kingsburg Merchants, who had been organized by Fresnan Hal Britton, who became the All American catcher for the Hoakes and Hal Masini, who became the Packer's manager. Transition from a good town team to the best in the nation came in 1950 when the late James Hoak took over as club owner. That year, the Hoakes won their first of four Internation Softball Congress National titles. The others came in 1951, 1952 and 1954.
In 1950, the Packers beat the Hanford Kings 3-0 in the championship game, their fifth win in five tries in Greeley, Colorado. The following two years, they bested the dominating team in softball, the Long Beach Nighthawks. The Nighthawks won in 1953 in Selma, but in 1954, with the ISC tournaments again in Selma, the Packers took their final national title, this time against another Valley rival-Dinabua,. Leroy Zimmerman and Les Haney were the Hall of Fame pitchers for the Packers in all four championships. Bill Horstmann, who was missing part of a finger on his pitching hand, giving the ball a peculiar twist, was a regular pitcher in 1953 when the Packers reached the simifinals before losing to a team from Lorenzo, Texas. One thing is certain: when Hoak owned the team, it was a first class organization. Probably as remarkable, was the fact that the entire team was from San Joaquin Valley towns.
During the regular season, when games were scheduled at the same locale, the three-time world champion Fresno Rockets would share one bus with the Packers. Selma put in nearly 6,000 bleacher seats, with close to 10,000 in attendance for the Fresno Shriner-sponsored championship game. The team disbanded after 1954. Pitchers Zimmerman and Haney signed with a Nighthawk team that captured six staight championships to close out the decade. Catcher Hal Britton, a five-time All-American, was voted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2008.
Were they the best? Most experts will tell you that they were certainly the best in California and many claim they were the finest ever fielded by a high school. The latter probably would be up for debate and difficult to measure, but not many teams produced two solid major league pitchers and a catcher who was still active after fifty years in professional baseball, nearly all in major leagues.
The 1958 Fresno High School Warriors record speaks for itself. They were 18-0 in high school competition, setting state and national records, many that still stand. Their only loss in the 25-1 season was to the Fresno State freshmen, a team they defeated three other times. Other victims were the UC Berkeley and Stanford freshmen teams. Ollie Bidwell, tough on discipline and baseball fundamentals, said this was the best team he ever coached in fourteen high school seasons at three schools. Senior lefthander Dick Ellsworth was 15-0, senior right hander Lynn Rube was 7-1, and hard-hitting shortstop Jim Maloney was 3-0, striking out twenty-five batters against Mt. Whitney High of Visalia.
The pitching trio had fifteen shutouts, still a California record. Ellsworth struck out twenty in a three-hit shutout of Merced and whiffed sixteen in a no-hitter against Roosevelt High. Maloney spent a semester at Fresno City College before turning pro. He had nineteen scoreless innings for the Rams before signing with the Cincinnati Reds. Ellsworth went directly to the Chicago Cubs. Catcher Pat Corrales, who had several college football scholarship offers, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. He batted .394 during that 1958 high school season, had a deadly throwing arm, and was an outstanding defensive catcher. Rube joined the St. Louis Cardinals. Maloney was the most successful professional player, notching a 134-84 record in twelve major league which included 1,605 strikeouts, two twenty-game win seasons with a career 3.19 ERA and two no-hitters. Ellsworth’s thirteen-year major league career record was 115-137, including a 22-10 season in 1963. He pitched for five different clubs, but mostly with Chicago. Corrales took six seasons to reach the majors, but played nine years with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and San Diego. Others players were 6’4’’ third baseman Tom Jacobsen, who went on to star in basketball and baseball at Fresno State, the late Blair Pollard, Jim Albracht, Jerry Martinez, Chuck Smith, Fred Tuttle, Glenn Schmidt, and the late Jack Reinold. Coach Ollie Bidwell, Dick Ellsworth, Lynn Rube, Jim Maloney, Pat Corrales, Blair Pollard, Tom Jacobsen, Jim Albracht, Chuck Smith, Jerry Martinez, Dennis Schneider, Fred Tuttle, Glenn Schmidt, Jack Reinold, Clark Bridgeman, and Team Managers, Dennis Lewis and Jerry Clark.
Few people have had such an impact on the so-called secondary sports programs at Fresno State than Dr. Ara Hairabedian, whom everyone called "Coach." He also could have been named "Mr. Olympian" due to his trips to six Olympiads starting with Mexico in 1968. He traveled to Munich in 1972, Montreal in 1976, Los Angeles in 1984, the Winter Games in Calgary in 1988, Atlanta in 1996, and Greece in 2004. Hairabedian taught a class on the ancient and modern Olympic games, wrote numerous papers on the various Olympiads, and acted as a guide to groups of people attending the Games.
The former captain, fullback, and linebacker at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles was also All-City in high school gymnastics in tumbling and floor exercise events. He won the AAU national floor exercise in 1950 in Los Angeles. Hairabedian's brother, Tom related that after capturing the title, some skeptics said Ara won because the competition was in his home city of Los Angeles. However, he proved all the naysayers wrong at the 1951 Nationals in Detroit, where he had transportation one way and had to hitchhike home. Tom said Ara came in, collapsed on the sofa and went to sleep. The family was eager to find out the results, so when he awoke, they asked him, "How did you do?" To which Ara gave a sleepy reply: "Oh, I won." He was chosen to the All-American team both years as well. Twenty-two years later, he captured the Masters All-Around title, sweeping the floor exercise, parallel bars, rope climb and horizontal bar events.
Hairabedian received his B.S. degree from USC, completed his Master's at Penn State, and earned his doctorate at Stanford. He came to Fresno State in 1953, hired by then-athletic director Larry Pape who taught classes at USC, where Hairabedian attended. Pape thought he would fit in well at Fresno State, especially in aquatics, which was just being introduced. It was a good choice. By 1954, Hairabedian had formed both men's swimming and diving teams. In 1958 and 1959, he founded men's club water polo teams and by 1960 that sport was given an official Fresno State season.
While still coaching the aquatics teams, he founded gymnastic programs for men and women. It was interesting that the only swimming scholarship (a half-scholarship) my dad ever gave [was] to Art Ruble, who became the most outstanding swimmer in the history of the school," son Lance related. Hairabedian chaired the physical education department at Fresno State and hired outstanding track coach Red Estes.Sadly, Hairabedian, who always kept himself in top shape, died in 2005 from a heart attack.
Born and raised in Fresno, George Sarantos has stated that Dickey Playground was his second home. He spent every spare hour of his childhood at Dickey and learned to play everything from basketball to ping pong. What he didn't learn there were volleyball and tennis-the two sports in which he would gain national and world recognition. Sarantos, 5'6" and 125-130 pounds, didn't play basketball in high school until his senior year. He helped the Fresno High School Warriors, coached by Lee Angelich, to win the Yosemite League title and made the All-City team. He was a quarterback on the Class B team, just not big enough for the varsity. Fresno City College was his next stop where he played basketball for Coach Joe Kelly for two seasons. He also was ranked number one in singles on the Rams' tennis team. "Coach Kelly was an amazing man," Sarantos said, "He really, really knew basketball. We didn't have near the talent of Coalinga or Allen Hancock, but we still were able to compete. Joe really understood the game and his system worked."
Sarantos went from Fresno City to Fresno State. He played one season for Bill Vandenburgh and two for Harry Miller. "Harry was another guy who really understood and could teach basketball," Sarantos recalled, "His practices were physically tougher than our games. I was team captain for Harry and we won the conference my last year." Sarantos tried coaching for four seasons at Edison High School, winning a league championship in 1967.
The summer after he graduated from high school, Sarantos and all-round Fresno High Warrior athlete Richard Gunner began playing volleyball. Sarantos and Gunner spent a summer school semester at UC Santa Barbara, so they could play beach volleyball. They won several two-man tournaments. Sarantos broke into big-time volleyball in 1967 when he was the coach and setter on the National Championship men's team powered by John Alstrom of Fresno and his BYU teammate, John Stanley. The following year, the three players went to Hawaii to play for the Outrigger Canoe team coached by a man who would later become the assistant Olympic coach. Alstrom and Stanley made the U.S. Olympic team and Sarantos was an alternate.
George started the 500 Club on the corner of Maroa and Shields avenues and later opened Club One on Van Ness Avenue. "The club took all my time, so I played a year of volleyball To the San Francisco Olympic Club and dropped out of sports until 1985 when Leonard DeFendis talked me into playing tennis again." He stated Fig Garden Club tennis pro Coby Roberts really helped him with his tennis strokes and convinced him he could be pretty good. Sarantos never won an age group (60-65) national singles title, but took a dozen national doubles titles with several partners. When he teamed with Hank Leichtfried in 2004 and 2005, they were almost unbeatable; winning five of the six national tournaments and taking one world title. In 2001, Sarantos teamed with John Gorsky to capture the USTA 60 and Over National Clay Courts title and the following year, Sarantos partnered with Jerry Edgar for the indoor doubles title and with Suella Steele for the mixed doubles championship. Grass is the favorite playing surface for Sarantos and he had plans to play in the 2009 World Tournament in Perth, Australia; his first year in the seventy and over age class. Sarantos admitted keeping in shape was getting tougher each year. Despite a bad back, when his matches get going, the excitement of the game overcomes the pain even if he feels it strongly the next day. Harry Miller said during a team reunion, "inch for inch, George was as good as they come."
Larry Shehadey moved from selling soap to purchasing a major interest in Producers Dairy in 1949 and realized the American dream. Although Shehadey played baseball and football well enough to be inducted into the San Francisco Polytechnical High School Hall of Fame, the Great Depression made college not an option. Larry went straight to work and has the legacy to show for it. He turned Producers into a household name in the San Joaquin Valley. Shortly after buying into the business, Shehadey became the general manager. By 1955, he owned 100 percent of the company. Producers opened its plant at 144 E. Belmont in 1949 and Shehadey built the first Bar 20 Dairy Farms in Fresno in 1969. By 1972, another Bar 20 Dairy Farms milking operation was completed. The two facilities are capable of milking 3,000 cows twice a day.
He turned Producers into a household name in the San Joaquin Valley. Shortly after buying into the business, Shehadey became the general manager. By 1955, he owned 100 percent of the company. Producers opened its plant at 144 E. Belmont in 1949 and Shehadey built the first Bar 20 Dairy Farms in Fresno in 1969. By 1972, another Bar 20 Dairy Farms milking operation was completed. The two facilities are capable of milking 3,000 cows twice a day. The Tuolumne County native celebrated his 50th year with his company in 1999 and as his company grew. He became one of the most civic-minded givers in the City of Fresno.
Producers was the original sponsor of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame. Shortly after his business became a success, Shehadey began supporting and promoting Fresno State, Fresno City College, Fresno Pacific University, and local high school athletics. Youth groups such as the Boy Scouts, BigBrothers/Big Sisters, and Police Activities League also received monetary assistance. Shehadey contributed to the construction of an all-weather track at Fresno City College, one of the finest two-year school ovals in the state. In 1990, Producers Dairy donated $100,000 to jump start the first Dairy Bowl football game and provide scholarships for students at Fresno City and Reedley Colleges. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2002, Shehadey put $3 million dollars into the building of Fresno State's Save Mart Center for Bulldog men's and women's basketball teams. A long list of top entertainers have headlined in this state-of- the-art arena. For this generous gift, the eight-story clock tower was named in his honor and the main lobby bears the name of his late wife, Elaine. One year later, he gave Fresno Pacifie $500,000 for the university's Steinert Campus Center which contains student recreation facilities. Shehadey also contributed to the Leon S. Peters Building in the Sid Craig School of Business at Fresno State and was the recipient of the Leon S. Peters Award. Larry Shehadey passed away at the age of 102 in October 2009.
Gena Strang-Behrens, the first Fresno State athlete to earn All-American honors three years in a row, was a key member of the Bulldogs when they emerged in the 1980s as a national softball Powerhouse. During Strang-Behrens’ four-year career at Fresno State University 1985-1988 the team compiled a record of 202-64-1. She helped lead the Bulldogs to four conference championships and a runner-up finish in the Women's College World Series in 1988, with a career batting average of .280. Strang-Behrens, who played first base, was named to the All-Conference team four times and was Co-Female Athlete of the Year for Fresno State in 1987. The Pacific Coast Athletic Association named her the 1988 Female Scholar-Athlete. She collected 216 hits and 108 RBIs and ranks in nine Fresno State all-time batting categories. She never expected to leave such a mark on the Fresno State softball team.
Despite leading the Hanford High School softball team to a Valley Championship her senior year, Strang- Behrens figured she was headed for junior college, and would try to walk on to the softball team. "But my coach at Hanford, Leslie Steffen, got in touch with Fresno State, and all of a sudden, I was going to play softball for the Bulldogs, and with a partial scholarship as well. I was so excited," Strang-Behrens said. She played that first year for Coach Donna Pickel, who recognized Strang-Behrens' potential and batted her third or fourth in the lineup. Four games into her freshman season, she was the starting first baseman.
The following season, Margie Wright took over as the Bulldogs' coach. It was the beginning of a great program, one that would eventually lead to Fresno State's first NCAA Division One Championship. "Margie had a vision, and what she was teaching was great for me. Conditioning, structure, and discipline-and I learned a lot from it," Strang-Behrens said. "She was tough, but she knew when to be tough and when not to be." The combination of Coach Wright and players like Strang-Behrens, Martha Noffsinger, Carrie Dever, Lori Romeiro, and others helped Fresno State develop into a national force in softball. "We had a great time," Strang-Behrens stated, "The team really got along wel1, but we worked hard to get where we did. We fought hard and we knew we did the best we could." In 1992, Strang-Behrens was asked to try out for the Olympic team. Although she was tabbed for a second tryout, she was already focused on a business career. In 2006, she met former Fresno State quarterback John Behrens, whom she married a year later. The two athletes love to play golf together and work out at the gym. Strang-Behrens is director of annual giving for the St. Agnes Medical Center Foundation in Fresno.
Anthony Washington was born to be a football player and was a standout on every step of the ladder from Spartan League to Fresno High School, Fresno City College, University of California, Fresno State, and finally the big prize, the National Football League.
Washington had the physical body college and professional scouts long for in cornerbacks when he graduated high school. He was named All-Metro in football with a career high of thirteen interceptions and was a standout hurdler for the Warriors. He took his 6'3" and 200-pound frame to Fresno City College, where among his most remarkable plays were a ninety-nine yard interception touchdown and a ninety-six yard punt return after which he was chosen a second team All-American. He doubled as an All-State hurdler for the Rams. His size and speed attracted offers from several colleges and universities. Washington chose the Golden Bears at Berkeley under Coach Mike White. His junior year he was All-Pac 10 and led the team in interceptions with six, including touchdowns returns of seventy-nine yards against Georgia Tech and fifty-five yards against another team. Eventually, he left the school and returned to Fresno.
Bulldog coach Jim Sweeney welcomed him with open arms. Washington rewarded Sweeney's confidence with an All-PCAA, All-Coast and All-American honorable mention season for the Bulldogs. He also did well in the classroom. An additional Fresno bonus was he was able to team with his younger brother, Tim, another fine Bulldog cornerback. Washington was contacted by several NFL teams, but he and his family were elated when as Sweeney had predicted, he was drafted.
Washington was drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1981, the 44th player taken. The selection came after an outstanding game in the East-West Shriners game in San Francisco, the highest round draftee at the time for a Fresno State player. In a Fresno Bee story on the day of the draft, Anthony was quoted as saying "Going to Pittsburgh that early surprised me; although I was kind of hoping Pittsburgh would be the team because they have a winning tradition. Their scout [Dick Haley] was out at Fresno State a lot." Then Fresno State athletic director Russ Sloan stated Pittsburgh was the perfect fit because traditionally the Steelers were noted for their strong defense. Washington hoped to learn from Pittsburgh's All-Pro player, Mel Blount. Haley said Washington had the size and speed that characterized Blount. He played two seasons for the Steelers, then was traded to the Washington Redskins where he started in Super Bowl XVII. Washington showed the Redskins his ability in tracking the ball with five interceptions for the 16-3 team in 1983, including one against the Los Angeles Rams in a playoff game.
Washington also was known for his special teams play with the Redskins in 1984, when he was credited with sixty-four hits and fifty-one blocks on punt returns. With Pittsburgh, he started the first year and intercepted three passes. His second year with the Steelers was notable for blocked punts and field goals as a member of the special teams. Washington's mother, Ella, perhaps said it best, "Football has been Anthony's game ever since he was in Spartan League football, winning trophies in the Raisin Bowl. I can say he eats football; we think he is great."
It was always the same refrain and Ryan Wetnight used it as an incentive to prove his detractors wrong. And prove it he did, by playing tight end at Fresno City College, Stanford University, and then for the Chicago Bears. "The knock on me was that I was too small to play tight end. I was 200 pounds at Fresno City College and about 205 pounds when I went to Stanford," Wetnight said. "Funny, though, as I started two years at each place, although in my senior year at Stanford I finally bulked up to about 230 pounds." Wetnight's father, Dick, moved the family from Arizona to Fresno when Ryan was a year old. Ryan got his first taste of football as a five-year-old spectator at San Joaquin Memorial and Bullard High games. In junior high, Wetnight played soccer, baseball, and basketball. He arrived at Hoover 5'2" and 130 pounds, but he turned out for football because his friends did. "I played guard because I didn't realize I wasn't big enough to play guard," Ryan chuckled. "So I just played it. I had never played organized football, so I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know an offensive lineman from a skilled position."
Ryan spent his early years watching Fresno State football and basketball games with his father who was heavily involved in the Bulldog Foundation. "I remember going to the California Bowls watching Kevin Sweeney and great receivers like Henry Ellard, Stephone Paige and Stephen Baker," Ryan recalled. "Tll never forget the NIT champion basketball team. I knew Coach Boyd Grant and all the players. Everything revolved around Fresno State athletics and I loved it." He doubled as a backup tight end on offense and safety on defense as a sophomore, but was the starting tight end as a junior. He really began to learn the game and, at last, "knew what he was doing."
His senior year, Coach Pat Plummer needed a quarterback and chose Ryan. "So I finished high school as a quarterback," Wetnight said, "I threw my share of interceptions because I wasn't sure where cover two or three were. Pat really helped me. I just tried to find my guys and get them the ball." He did well enough that Hoover upset Clovis West and had one loss heading into the playoffs where the Patriots were hammered by Bakersfield.
Wetnight was a key player when Hoover was Valley Champion in basketball during his junior year. The Patriots reached the state playoffs, beating Mater Dei, but falling to Crenshaw in a close one. With no Division I offers, Wetnight enrolled at Fresno City College under Coach John Volek whose son Bill, a future star at Fresno State and in the NFL, was the quarterback. Wetnight asked Coach Volek where he could play and was told they needed a tight end. He started and excelled for two years, becoming a scholastic All-American. Volek convinced Stanford coaches to take a look. Wetnight had a big game in the Producers Bowl for the Rams. Stanford offered a scholarship, but he had to write an essay to the admissions board before he could enroll.
"At Fresno City, we had good coaching and great teams," Wetnight said, "I really got to understand the game and the speed of play. I felt I had an edge in experience over the freshmen and sophomores at Stanford. So I was able to slide in and start as a junior." Coach Dennis Greene had a good season with a young team. The Cardinals lost to Georgia Tech in the Aloha Bowl, but the future looked bright with nearly all starters returning. Then Greene took the Minnesota NFL head coaching job. Wetnight said the despair of losing a good coach was brief when Stanford hired Bill Walsh. "Greene had taught us everything he learned as an assistant to Walsh, so now we were getting it straight from the horse's mouth and everyone was excited again. We finished 10-3 and beat Penn State in the Florida Blockbuster Bowl. We beat Cal who was in the top ten and Notre Dame with Lou Holtz when the Irish were number six." A bonus for Wetnight and teammates was their opportunity to train with Jerry Rice and several 49er players who worked out at nearby Menlo College. Joe Montana would come by and throw passes to the Cardinal receivers. Wetnight was told that he was capable of playing in the NFL enough times to believe it. Ron Green was Wetnight's position coach at Stanford. but when Ryan graduated Green was the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. "Ron called me and said they [the Bears] were going to sign me as an undrafted free agent, which basically meant I could try out for the team in the mini-camp. He said 'I think you can play, but you will have to convince everyone here that you can." That was the challenge Wetnight needed. He started the opening game against the New York Giants at Soldier Field and said he was one nervous guy staring across at linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Wetnight related, "I worked through it and played seven seasons for Chicago. In my third season, with about three games left, my cleat caught in Detroit, my knee popped, and I tore my ACL. I ended up playing the rest of the game, but the next day my knee was swollen and I could hardly walk. I lost about four games and had to have surgery."
Most players miss a season due to an ACL operation. Wetnight had worked hard for a starting job, so he wasn't going to lose it. He was in rehab twice a day and up to full speed when training camp opened in July. The knee still hurt, but he played the whole year. When he left Chicago, he moved to Green Bay with Brett Farve. Doctors told him that concussions wetnight had received could be a problem, so he retired. “So I walked away from football at age thirty. It wasn’t easy having played since my days at Hoover.” Wetnight took a year off in Arizona to work with a consulting firm. He turned down an assistant coaching job at Ohio State because he wasn’t ready to subject his wife and child to a profession where four years is average at any one school.