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Champions on the rise
Photography by Sabin Orr
Keep an eye on these promising young athletes as they score big, break records — and make their hometown proud
UNLV Junior Baseball Starting Pitcher
Erick Fedde began laying the foundation for his eminent role as UNLV’s Friday night starter years ago — in family games of Candy Land. Intensely driven to win even as a kid, Erick would devilishly pre-arrange the stack of cards so his game piece would leap across the board, ensuring victory.
“My parents give me crap about it,” Fedde says with a grin. “I was never fun to play with as a kid.” The more things change: Even now, teammates enjoy watching him steam when he loses a card or video game in the clubhouse, which usually sends him stomping outside for fresh air. To say Fedde is the most competitive UNLV baseball player is an understatement.
It’s a trait that has served him well. With a steady diet of fastballs that reach up to 96 mph — not to mention his crafty sliders — Fedde has become one of the nation’s most coveted collegiate pitchers. Baseball publications have tabbed him at 12th and 20th for the pro draft in June. Fedde’s maturation is timely, since baseball players at four-year institutions can only be drafted after their junior seasons. He’ll start two Friday home games in March, two in April and one in May.
He became the full-time Friday ace last season, when he outdueled Stanford top hurler Mark Appel in the first game of a series at Stanford. That triggered an improbable three-game sweep over a program regarded as one of the finest in the nation. And that sweep surprised many: Appel, the first overall draft selection by Houston in June, was known to baffle many UNLV hitters. In the game, Fedde studied Appel, who remained relaxed, composed and smooth despite the intensity of the face-off. He never rushed his delivery or lost his cool.
Taking a cue from Appel, Fedde is working on refining his pitcher’s composure. He’s also improved his changeup and cutter in the off-season, aware that two additional weapons in his repertoire will keep batters off-balance. But his fastball and slider can be devastating. At a home game last season, he rejoiced after striking out all three Air Force batters in the ninth inning, making for his first career complete game.
UNLV assistant coach Kevin Higgins played for the San Diego Padres and saw Fedde’s type often in the big leagues: Such an intense competitor is genial and approachable for four days — but on the fifth, when he rotates onto the pitcher’s mound to throw, nobody talks to him, Higgins says. “The mound is his. The plate is his. He’s not giving in. He’s relentless.” As if he were playing Candy Land. — Rob Miech
For a second consecutive season, he’ll be the Rebels’ Friday night starter — the de facto ace of the pitching staff.
The Las Vegas High School graduate is projected by one baseball authority as the 12th overall pick in the next amateur draft.
Track and field
Randall Cunningham Jr.
Bishop Gorman High School Senior Boy's track high jumper
After Randall Cunningham Jr. cleared 7-feet-1 in the high jump at the state high school track meet in May, he requested the bar be bumped to 7-feet-3-1/4. He knew no student athlete in the nation had conquered that height in 2013. After he sailed over the steel, Gatorade hailed him as Nevada’s boys track and field athlete of the year.
Cunningham can thank exceptional genes and peerless coaching. Randall Sr., his pastor father, played quarterback for UNLV and threw for nearly 30,000 yards in 16 NFL seasons. Felicity, his South African mother, was a professional ballerina. In his lone season as quarterback, Cunningham also guided Gorman to its fifth consecutive state football title in the fall.
However, his heart — like his father’s — has always been in the high jump. A knee injury in his youth forced Randall Sr. to quit jumping, but he reignited his passion for the sport after football — this time as a coach. Randall Sr. has tutored a half-dozen recent Nevada prep champs, including Cunningham’s younger sister (and fellow Gorman student) Vashti, at either Calvary Chapel High School or on the Nevada Gazelles club team.
Next in Cunningham's crosshairs is James White, the University of Nebraska senior who established the national high school high jump record of 7-feet-5-3/4 in Missouri in 2009. Cunningham aims for 7-feet-6 this season, and he will increase his sprint distance from 48 feet to 74 for added propulsion. He can be found attempting the feat at various meets and invitationals in the valley through May. The state meet will be staged at Carson High School May 23-24.
Next fall, Cunningham begins classes at the University of Southern California on a full-track scholarship. That’s when he starts his assault on 8-feet-1 — or three-quarters of an inch higher than the world record established by Cuban leaper Javier Sotomayer in Spain in 1993.
Cunningham has dreamed about vaulting 8-1. In the dream, he’s at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The famous Maracana Stadium is fuzzy; the cacophony of exuberant fans is faint. But the bar is ultraclear. It doesn’t budge as a plush pad swallows him. He brings a world record and gold medal back to Las Vegas. He knows only one way to top that vision: by bringing another gold medal and world record home from the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. — R.M.
State prep high jump record-holder; Gatorade 2013 Athlete of the Year.
He plans to polish his technique at USC and represent Las Vegas at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Las Vegas premier soccer club Senior Soccer Center back
You win games in practice! Games aren’t won during games, they’re won in practice!
Football coaches often spew bluster and hyperbole like this, and the staff at Coronado High School was no exception last fall. That was one of the windfalls Aliza Madden took from her exceptional season kicking extra points for the Cougars. “That really got me hyped,” she says of the emphasis coaches put on practice, on precise execution and impeccable technique. “I train harder in soccer because of that.”
That will please UNLV women’s soccer coach Michael Coll and the rest of the Rebels next fall. Madden spurned offers from powerhouses Santa Clara and North Carolina, among others, to enable her family to follow her collegiate career in her hometown. She’ll be taking those lessons from the football field and applying them to the soccer pitch. Coach Coll knows Madden’s gridiron grit will bolster his defense. He already envisions her taking most of his team’s free kicks, believing her robust right leg will deliver many scoring opportunities from 50 to 65 yards.
In any case, she’s already in historic company, taking her place among Nevada women who’ve distinguished themselves in high school football. Luverne “Toad” Wise became the pioneer of the group when she booted six prep extra points in Alabama in 1939. Jessica Leverett became the first in Nevada, for Sparks High School, in 1986, and Ashleigh Shoughro (Palo Verde, 2006) and McKenzie “Jammer” Karas (Arbor View, 2009) occupy the short Silver State roster that now includes Madden.
With the elite Las Vegas Premier Soccer Club, Madden has participated in tournaments from New York to Hawaii. An accident last year, in which she tripped and caught the heel of a rival team member’s boot on her noggin, led to medical episodes that were ultimately diagnosed by a Salt Lake City neurologist as complex partial seizures. After Madden took a few months off from soccer, the seizures eventually disappeared; she had no recurrences playing for the Cougars’ football team. Madden wore a red Full90 padded crown — covering about half the surface area of the full headgear that famed Chelsea goalie Petr Cech dons in England — when she returned to the pitch, a practice she’ll likely continue at UNLV. It’ll protect her as she protects the Rebels with that powerful right kick. — R.M.
Madden joined an exclusive club when she kicked field goals for the Coronado football team this past fall.
Devoted to family, she turned down scholarship offers from several prominent soccer programs to play center back for UNLV.
Palo Verde High School Senior Varsity Lacrosse Defenseman
Go ahead, just try and find “lacrosse” in the Athletics section of the Palo Verde High School website. It’s not there. For all you’d know from browsing the school’s sports pages, lacrosse doesn’t exist. As a sport not sanctioned by the state organization that governs high school athletics, it’s less visible than flag football and golf.
And yet, for Jeremy Huber, it’s everything; tangibly, tens of thousands of dollars. That will be the ultimate value of his partial-tuition lacrosse scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, which Huber will attend this fall. The Palo Verde senior, who carries a 4.8 GPA, plans to study cognitive science at the Baltimore, Maryland, university. But the truly impressive accomplishment, for a kid from a state that doesn’t really even acknowledge lacrosse, is to have gotten financial assistance to play for the team ranked 17th in the country by the NCAA.
“Every kid who plays lacrosse dreams of playing for a Division 1 team like Johns Hopkins,” Huber says, explaining why he accepted a scholarship that will only cover a to-be-determined fraction of his tuition at an expensive private school.
But why lacrosse? Why stick with a relatively obscure sport, when he could, potentially, be going to UCLA on a full ride to play baseball or football? “A lot of kids think those other sports are really great,” Huber says, “but you get the best chance to meet people in lacrosse. I travel all over the country playing this sport.”
Gary Campo, who coaches both Palo Verde’s and UNLV’s teams, explains the choice more succinctly: “Jeremy is born to play lacrosse. He is a lacrosse player.”
Specifically, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Huber is a senior defenseman, which, he says, means he gets to “beat the crap out of people legally … I’m the one who makes sure nobody gets to score a goal.”
For those unfamiliar with lacrosse, the agility with which Huber consistently outruns and outmaneuvers his opponents might be surprising. Unlike defensive positions in football and other sports, a defenseman in lacrosse has to be quick on his feet.
Campo says lacrosse was already faster-paced than mainstream American sports when recent rule changes made it even faster. There are few timeouts, and when the ball is in play, it’s zigzagging around the field at lightning speed. Because of this, anyone who can run can play lacrosse; it isn’t exclusive to the monster-sized mutants who excel in other sports. But those who think fast and move fast — those like Huber — have the most success in lacrosse.
“Jeremy has that combination of athleticism and smarts,” Campo says. “His desire, his head for the game is beyond most of the kids here.”
Huber doesn’t seem intimidated by the prospect of leaving Las Vegas, where he’s lived since fourth grade, and moving to the East Coast, with its daunting concentration of Division 1 teams. He will miss his buddies, though.
“These guys are like my brothers,” he says. “I’ve known them most of my life. We’ve grown up playing lacrosse together.” — Heidi Kyser
Three-time varsity team captain, two-time state champion, multiple all-star team participant, honor student.
Huber plans to use his lacrosse scholarship to study cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University, a Division 1 lacrosse school, beginning this fall.
Sierra Vista High School Sophomore Roller Derby Jammer-blocker
Bugsey’s Babes (team)
Noelle Long’s dream of being in the Olympics is even more of a long shot than those of other 16-year-olds with visions of gold, silver and bronze dancing in their heads. That’s because her sport, flat-track roller derby, failed last year to make the cut of new sports that the International Olympic Committee accepted for the 2020 summer games. Protests have caused the committee to reconsider other sports, though, and Long, whose skate-name is Lone Wolf, isn’t giving up.
“My goal is to be in the Olympics,” she says. “Hopefully in 2020.”
Roller derby in the Olympics? Is it even a real sport? Oh, it is. It’s not — Long is serious about this — clownishly clad women on roller skates punching each other in the face. Well, OK, the athletes are given to creatively accessorizing their uniforms and equipment. But there’s definitely no punching. The rules forbid it. In fact, the rules forbid a lot of things. For instance, if, like Long, you’re a jammer (scoring points by skating past opposing team members), and you get shoved out of bounds, you must jump back on the track behind the furthest-behind person to have touched you before you went out.
Got it? No? “It’s complicated,” Long says. “There’s rules — a lot of rules.”
The well-developed structure of the game, along with the skill and strategy required to navigate it (not to mention the profusion of leagues mushrooming around the nation), explain why Long and other derby competitors bristle at the suggestion that it’s not a real sport. They dispatch that notion in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s tagline: “Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary.”
Actually, for Long, derby is more than a sport. Fumbling past words such as “career” and “passion,” she lands on, “It’s everything to me.” She doesn’t have specific ideas about college yet, but hopes to move to the Pacific Northwest after high school so she can continue competing in an area that has more and better teams.
On the track, she’s stoic. And fast. Watch her catch a pack of opponents unaware and zip through them like they’re vapor, and you’ll see the payoff of spare time spent honing her skating skills while other high-school sophomores are playing video games and reading vampire novels.
“What separates Wolfie and top competitors like her from others is that she doesn’t lose her head,” says Melanie Long (known as “Stardust Dunes” in the women’s league, Sin City Rollers), who is both Noelle’s mother and her coach. Roller derby is a contact sport; players fall a lot. They get injured, shaken.
“You have to be mentally strong as well as physically strong,” Long says. “Noelle has that strength.” — H.K.
Founding member of the city’s first (and only) junior flat track roller derby league, general bad-ass on eight wheels.
Long is crossing her fingers for roller derby to be admitted to the Olympics while she’s still young enough to vie for a spot on the team; either way, she plans to move to the Northwestern U.S. after high school to pursue a career in the sport where it’s more prevalent.
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