WATERFORD, CA – A historical and profound event is coming to Waterford High School a month from today. It's history as the first ever High School Basketball Tournament hosted by the young Waterford High School. It's profound by honoring the life and service of fallen Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Wallace.
The ever-growing Waterford High School Girls Basketball program is passing another milestone in its effort to expand into something more than just your regular high school basketball program. The seeds of this idea were planted by Varsity Head Coach Josh Whitfield two years ago when discussion from a group of smaller high school girls coaches expressed a need for an early season tournament with just division V and VI schools. (the smallest two divisions in Sac-Joaquin Section Basketball) In many local area Girls Basketball tournaments, division V and VI schools often have to face-off against division II, III and IV schools early in their schedules. While every reasonable coach wants to face tough opponents to ready their teams for later in the year, for many small schools it’s a tough challenge right out of the gate.
The questions continued to come in and swirl around these smaller school teams. Who could afford to host it? Where would be the best central location for the many smaller mountain schools to the eastern side of the section? Would there be enough interest to maintain an annual small-schools tournament? One man thought he had the answers to all of these questions and he felt his town was the perfect location in the region to act as the middle ground. That man was Waterford Head Girls Basketball Coach Joshua Whitfield. Whitfield a former Youth Basketball League Director, current Athletic Director and in his second year as a Varsity Girls Basketball host began to reach out to local small schools to measure interest in putting the big idea into an actual plan. Starting a year ago, Whitfield began to carefully learn and plan Waterford’s first High School Basketball Tournament. The big question mark was would there be enough interested D-V and D-VI not already committed to tournaments in the opening weekend of the CIF-SJS basketball season. The answer was incredible for a tournament that only needed eight schools to say yes. Waterford got requests from twenty-one schools. Schools as far south as Tulare, as far north as Redding and as far east as the state of Nevada. The eight schools that were accepted to participate in the inaugural year of the tournament were those closer to Waterford. “I felt we had to be steadfast first to the schools closest to our home, the schools we have already forged longstanding relationships. Both out of loyalty to our neighbors, but also for good common-sense logistics as well,” said Whitfield. The inaugural eight schools are: Aspire Langston Hughes Academy (Stockton, CA) [Mountain Valley League], Big Valley Christian (Modesto, CA) [Central California Athletic Alliance], Delhi [Southern League], Delta Charter (Tracy, CA) [Mountain Valley League], Denair [Southern League], Stone Ridge Christian (Merced, CA) [Central California Athletic Alliance], Tioga (Groveland, CA) [Mountain Valley League] and of course Waterford [Southern League].
As the planning process moved into full swing last year, Waterford continued to search for a namesake for their tournament. Many big Waterford names were thrown around and discussed. Phil and Myrna Stine, the late Betty-Jo Roenbaugh, the late Dolly Price, and the Bonner or Blagg families who are original boosters club members. Fate and tragedy would move Waterford to select a far different name, a name which despite having ties to the town as a local peace officer, was not actually from Waterford. During a solemn November morning in 2016, Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputy Dennis Wallace was shot and killed in the line of duty in neighboring Hughson, CA. Just a few months earlier, Wallace was praised in Waterford for having found a missing toddler who had gotten away from his parents’ home. Wallace was a career deputy who was a mainstay in youth sports in Hughson, especially youth soccer. Wallace was known to Waterford residents for his work as a law enforcement officer over his many different duty shifts in the town spanning years. A blue-collar agricultural community, Waterford is full of homegrown country pride and rural living values.
After the death of deputy Wallace, several girls basketball players lobbied Coach Whitfield to choose Deputy Wallace as the namesake of the tournament. Whitfield, who was friends with Deputy Wallace himself, was initially hesitant, even opposed to the idea. “I was very concerned we would be stepping on Hughson’s toes and their efforts to memorialize their dear friend and neighbor,” said Whitfield. “My friend Amanda Young, [the wife of the Mayor of Hughson] was already trailblazing efforts, along with many other folks, for monuments, park dedications and a memorial golf tournament in memory of Dennis. While my friend Dennis was well known here in our town, he was and is first and forever a Hughson man. As a combat veteran, I always shy away from too much memorializing. I didn’t want to drown out what others are doing in his memory.” Despite their coach's concerns, the players at Waterford refused to back down. Throughout the 2016-2017 season, the players continued their campaign to convince their coach. “At moments it was very annoying for me actually,” said Whitfield. “We were in the middle of our season, and this kept coming up from a select group of my players. So, I challenged [the players] to prove to me they were serious and not just trying to be in (sic) the moment with this. I won’t repeat what they brought back to me, but I will tell you it moved me close to tears, and it convinced me they truly wanted to honor a man who embodied service with an understanding of maturity beyond their years." Several Waterford players had previously been a part of Hughson Youth Soccer and another player is related to the little boy Deputy Wallace found when working an overtime shift in Waterford. A little boy he brought home safe and sound just weeks before his death. Whitfield added, "It became quite clear I would have a mutiny on my hands if I did not acquiesce to my players' demands on this.” While making no promises – Whitfield reached out to Hughson Mayor Jeramy Young and Councilman George Carr about the idea. Both are close friends of Deputy Wallace and his family. After receiving their initial OK, Whitfield then reached out to Wallace’s brother, who is also a peace officer at a local fundraising dinner. But it was not until Whitfield received the explicit blessing from Wallace’s widow did Waterford finally decide to christen the tournament: The Annual Dennis Wallace Memorial Tip-Off.
“It was a truly a game-changing moment when we decided to honor this great man,” said Whitfield. “We know we have a duty to ensure this tournament will honor Dennis in every way possible, which means that it would fully give back kids in all things. I hope we get it right. We are focused on getting this done right.” Unique and right this tournament will be. Waterford High School Girls Basketball will not make any profit from the Tournament. Instead, all profits after costs are going to an annual scholarship in Deputy Wallace’s name. Any Girls’ Basketball player who is in their Senior year, and participates in the tournament, from any school, are eligible to apply. A special selection committee headed by Deputy Wallace’s family and friends will select the scholarship winner each year. Waterford is even refusing to place their school logo on the Tournament materials, instead of having paid a graphic artist to create an official tournament logo with Deputy Wallace as the center focus.
Whitfield told us, “There was no way we could name this tournament after Dennis and not make it all about his legacy to the youth. This is no longer about Waterford Girls Basketball, this is about Dennis, for what he stood. It's about carrying on his legacy and example. We really hope, I really hope that this tournament will be accepted by those who knew Dennis best and will for decades to come remain a tradition here locally to carry on my friend’s legacy of community service and service to kids.” We have no doubt that will be the case, and we do not doubt that the persistence of a few young ladies, who convinced their coach to do the right thing and ensure Deputy Wallace’s legacy is honored in an annual regional event. As Waterford’s Coach said, “Not to take away from his legacy at home in Hughson, but to continue to help support it across an entire region.” What a tremendous thing a few young women, a couple of small towns, a coach, a mayor’s wife and the values of sports can accomplish. This is why we play these games, teach young people through the lessons of competition and to pass on the love of sport and community on to the future generations. This is what the peace officer, the coach, the community leader and most importantly the man Deputy Dennis Wallace was all about; service through sport. This tournament is already something special before the first jump ball even takes place.