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Top 24 high school sports movies to watch

I got my start in this business back in 1986 at the Merced Sun-Star. I was hired by sports editor Vern Williams, who would become a mentor, friend and a second father to me.

Each year, during the winter break, the local sports landscape can look rather bleak. “What am I going to write about?” is a common refrain heard in sports departments during the holidays. Vern would usually respond by saying, “Time to clean out the golf bag.”

An avid golfer, Vern would clean out his golf bag about once a year and find any number of interesting things. So interesting, in fact, that he’d frequently to write a column about these discoveries.

Whenever he was hard-pressed for something to write about … out came the golf bag.

Let me be totally honest with you: I’m scrambling for something to write about — and my go-to move is to compile best-of lists.

So, as we prepare to flip the calendar and head into ’24, here is my list of the top 24 high-school sports movies of all-time.

For those of you still on winter break, you’ve got a few days remaining to view some of the selections.

No. 24: “Bring It On” (2000) — Kirsten Dunst plays high-school cheerleader Torrance Shipman, trying to leader the hilariously named Rancho Carne High School to a national championship. The film became a cult classic and spawned six straight-to-video sequels. 

No. 23: “Johnny Be Good” (1988) — Young Johnny Walker (Michael Anthony Hall) is the top high school quarterback in the nation. Every college wants him, and everybody in his life has an opinion as to where he should go. The all-star cast includes Robert Downey Jr. (and Senior), Uma Thurman, Jennifer Tilly, Paul Gleason, Seymour Cassel, with cameos by former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon and sportscaster Howard Cosell (Google him, kids).

No. 22: “Lucas” (1986) — Nerdy Lucas Blye (Cory Haim) joins the high school football team to impress Maggie (Kerri Green), and he’s protected from the inevitable bullies by star player Cappie Rowe (Charlie Sheen). You don’t have to be Fellini to figure out that Lucas gets his heart stomped when Maggie and Cappie fall for each other.

No. 21: “Bend it Like Beckham” (2002) — Gains entrance on this list via a technicality. Two high-school aged girls (Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley) play soccer — beg your pardon, football — for a club team in London and dream of careers as professional footballers despite their parents’ protestations. I don’t pretend to understand the education system in the U.K., but it’s a movie about teenagers and soccer. It’s in.

Varsity Blues

No. 20: “Varsity Blues” (1999) — James Van Der Beek (whatever happened to that guy?) is an academically gifted student tabbed to start at quarterback for a Texas high school team when the starter is injured. Oscar-winner Jon Voigt plays the win-at-all-costs coach. Personalities clash. Things get ugly.

No. 19: “Wildcats” (1986) — The petite and preternaturally perky Goldie Hawn plays a football coach at a tough Chicago high school. Keep in mind that this movie was made nearly 40 years ago, when the thought of a female football coach was unheard of. Young Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and LL Cool J highlight an all-star cast.

No. 18: “Coach Carter” (2005) — Based on a true story, Samuel L. Jackson plays Richmond High basketball coach Ken Carter, who halted his team’s 1999 undefeated season — the Oilers forfeited seven games — due to the players’ poor performance in the classroom. This angered parents and the school board … but you don’t mess with Samuel L.

No. 17: “The Blind Side” (2009) — The real-life story of Michael Oher, a homeless teen who was taken in by the Tuohy family and earned a football scholarship to the University of Mississippi. Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy. Odd fact: I almost co-starred with Bullock in “The Net” (1995) when I stumbled into a scene being shot inside San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

No. 16: “The Best of Times” (1986) — Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) was the star quarterback at Taft High School. Jack Dundee (Robin Williams) was the poor soul who dropped the perfectly thrown pass that would’ve won the big game against rival Bakersfield. A dozen years later, a rematch is arranged. Will glory again elude the nebbish Dundee? It’s Hollywood … of course not.

No. 15: “When the Game Stands Tall” (2014) — Tells the story of the De La Salle football program, which won a national record 151 consecutive games from 1992 to 2003 under legendary coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel). I was there the night that streak started … in Concord against Merced High School. 

He Got Game

No. 14: “He Got Game” (1998) — Spike Lee’s depiction of the frenzy that surrounds high school basketball recruitment. Merced native Ray Allen plays Jesus Shuttlesworth, the top high school player in the nation whose father (Oscar-winner Denzel Washington) is in prison for accidentally killing Jesus’ mother. If Jesus chooses to play at “Big State,” the governor (a Big State alum) will grant his father an early release from the slammer. Allen, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, makes the basketball scenes sizzle.

No. 13: “Teen Wolf” (1985) — A surprise hit at the box office, Michael J. Fox stars as Scott Howard, an average kid who becomes the star of his high school basketball team when he discovers he’s a werewolf. I know what you’re thinking: “How can anybody rate this basketball movie higher than ‘He Got Game?’” What can I say? I like watching werewolves fly through the air and crammin’ on fools.

No. 12: “Rudy” (1993) — Once again, I know what you’re thinking: “This is a movie about college football.” Really, though, for most of the film, Daniel “Rudy” Reuttiger is merely attempting to become a college football player at Notre Dame. His days at Joliet (Ill.) Catholic High School are the pinnacle of his athletic achievement. Besides, it’s “Rudy” — it’s gotta make the list.

No. 11: “The Karate Kid” (1984) — Like “Rudy” and “Beckham,” this one gets in on a technicality. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is the new kid in school who has trouble fitting in. When the school bullies take things a step too far, unassuming apartment superintendent Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) comes to the rescue. He later teaches Daniel-san the art of karate (“Show me ‘sand the floor!’”), and gives him a sweet 1947 Ford Super Deluxe Convertible, to boot.

No. 10: “School Ties” (1992) — Oscar-winner Brandon Fraser portrays David Greene, an elite athlete who joins the football program at a WASPy prep school in 1950s New England. Because of prejudices, Greene decides to hide his Jewish faith from his teachers and teammates, played by Oscar-winner Matt Damon, Oscar-winner Ben Affleck, Chris O’Donnell, Cole Hauser and Anthony Rapp — before they hit the big time.

No. 9: “Trouble with the Curve” (2012) — Another technicality. Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams star as father-daughter professional baseball scouts. However, they are chasing a prized high school recruit. Close enough for me.

No. 8: “All the Right Moves” (1983) — Tom Cruise, before “Top Gun” mega-stardom, portrays a teenager looking to trade football for an education and escape life in a dying steel town. My favorite moment: Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) tells his assistant that he’s been up half the night designing a defensive scheme for the big game. His plan? To play a goal-line defense the entire contest. Really, Coach? It took you all night to come up with that? 

No. 7: “Finding Forrester” (2000) — Sean Connery stars as reclusive writer William Forrester (think J.D. Salinger), who befriends an inner-city basketball star with a gift for writing. I probably put this one higher than most because I like writers. So, sue me.

No. 6: “Remember the Titans” (2000) — Based on the true story of coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) and his attempts to integrate T.C. Williams High School in 1971 Alexandria, Va. Make sure you have a box of tissues handy. This one’s a tearjerker.

No. 5: “Friday Night Lights” (2006) — While I firmly believe the football talent in California is superior to any state in the union, “Friday Night Lights” follows the 1988 Permian High Panthers and proves that Texas reigns supreme when it comes to sheer fanaticism.

McFarland USA

No. 4: “McFarland, USA” (2015) — Jim White (Kevin Costner) takes a teaching job in the Central Valley town of McFarland. He’s also asked to coach the cross-country team, even though he knows next to nothing about distance running. Spoiler alert: McFarland won nine state championships and 23 Central Section titles between 1987 and 2013.

No. 3: “Vision Quest” (1985) — Wrestler Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) wants to make his senior season memorable and decides to drop two weight classes so he can take on 168-pound state champion (and classic teen-movie bad guy) Brian Shute. One problem: in his haste to drop weight, he begins suffering severe nosebleeds, which could get him disqualified. Oh, and there’s a love story, too. Best scene: Swain warming up to Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe” will make you want to wrestle somebody!

No. 2: “Hoop Dreams” (1994) — The only documentary to make the list. It’s a fascinating tale that follows basketball stars William Gates and Arthur Agee through their four years in Chicagoland high schools. Gates shines brightest at the start of the film, while Agee flounders. By the conclusion, their fortunes are reversed. The documentarians couldn’t have written a better story arc. Shame on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for not recognizing this film with an Oscar nomination.

No. 1: “Hoosiers” (1986) — A David vs. Goliath tale that follows the fortunes of Hickory High school (based on the true story of tiny Milan High School, which won the 1954 Indiana state championship over Muncie Central, a school 10 times its size).

With the title on the line, coach Norman Dale (portrayed by Oscar winner Gene Hackman) opts to use sharpshooter Jimmy Chitwood as a decoy. Chitwood, realizing this is a lousy idea, stares into his coach’s soul and calmly declares, “I’ll make it.” For my money, it’s one of the best moments in all of moviedom.

Full disclosure: Even if I wanted to rank “Hoosiers” lower on the list (I didn’t), I couldn’t have. My editor, Kristina Hacker, is an Indiana native. Have you ever met a real-life Hoosier? They’re fanatical … about being Hoosiers. No matter where I placed “Hoosiers,” she undoubtedly would’ve made the edit and slid it into the top spot.

Happy New Year … and happy viewing.