Merced County Football Player of the Year: James Sams, Los Banos

By James Burns / jburns@modbee.comJanuary 10, 2013 

In sneakers and basketball shorts, James Sams, Los Banos' record-setting running back, shies from the spotlight.

The ball swings through him. Not to him. He chases, tugs and bumps the game's best players, not the other way around.

"I'm a defensive player," the senior said. "I'm not much of a shooter."

Imagine that.

Merced County's unstoppable force on the football field, a player who set up camp in the opposition's end zone, would rather spend his winter months a role player.

"I like to spread the ball around as much as possible," Sams said. "It's not that I can't shoot. I just know there are better shooters on the floor."

Therein lies the truth about Sams, the Sun-Star's Football Player of the Year.

For all his football talent and ability, and goofy video-game statistics, he's a team player, through and through. A guy comfortable living in the glow of others.

And for much of the season, the spotlight burned bright on Los Banos, the Western Athletic Conference runner-up.

With one of the area's most explosive and versatile offenses, the Tigers won 11 games and reached the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 playoffs.

Shares were split judicially. Chris Corpuz was a first team all-Western Athletic Conference quarterback. Delvonte Moore was the WAC's defensive player of the year. Keith Turner was an all-league wide receiver.

Still, the program followed Sams, its hard-charging, cut-on-a-dime running back.

"My main goal was to get to sections, and if we did, hopefully go to state," Sams said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen. ... Our team did great. A lot of people thought we'd have a down year, so I tried to be a leader in the weightroom and on the field."

When asked about his senior season, the conversation hangs on the moments that cost Los Banos a thrilling, four-overtime 42-35 loss to Escalon in a D-4 semifinal.

"The biggest thing we look back on -- me, DD (Moore) and Daeton (West) -- we look back and think how much farther we could have gone," he said.

Never mind that in that game, Sams eclipsed two individual milestones:

With 182 yards, he topped the 2,000-yard barrier for the season.

Secondly, he sprinted by Rodney Percoats (3,777 yards in three seasons) as the program's career rushing leader. Sams finished his two-year varsity career with 3,858.

Surely, those accolades were enough to dull the sting of that loss. Right?

"Even to this day, there's a part of that wants to go back and play that game again. Maybe this time we'd win," Sams said. "We gave it our all. We fought the hardest we could for the longest that we could. Going into all those overtimes and pushing and pushing, I'll always remember that -- the game that just wouldn't end. No one wanted to lose that game."

Los Banos football coach Dustin Caropreso would have loved to have seen Sams in uniform one more time.

The first-team all-WAC selection earned his place in Los Banos history -- and atop the Merced County mountaintop -- gashing defenses with a style suited for Saturdays.

Simply, he could run through a defender or around him. Either way, he was going to move the chains.

Sams averaged nearly 8 yards per carry and finished with 2,006 yards and 21 touchdowns. He topped 300 yards twice, rushing for a career-high 354 yards in a Week 3 victory over Manteca and 319 in a rout of Capital Christian in the second round of the playoffs.

And here's an important footnote: injury stunted his production. Sams played the entire season with turf toe and missed nine quarters with a high ankle sprain.

Caropreso said Sams established his leadership during that downtime. Against Livingston, he remained in tune with the game, cheering on and coaching up his teammates.

"He was more of a coach on the sidelines, which is pretty impressive for an 18-year-old," Caropreso said. "You see it in the NFL or college; guys can't play and they're on the sideline coaching others up. That's how he handles himself.

"He's all about the team when it comes down to it," he later added, "and that's what makes him so special."

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