Sonora's Evan Bearden is a American Chevrolet Athlete of the Week for games played on Sept. 14 after scoring two touchdowns in a victory over West, including an interception return for the team's first points. (James Burns)

Despite its struggles, Sonora still king in MLL because of this monster in middle

James Burns

SONORA — After elective ankle surgery, Sonora two-way star Evan Bearden is playing his way back into shape and that’s bad news for the Mother Lode League.

Bearden hit top speed in last week’s 36-21 victory over West, the Wildcats’ first of the season. Ravaged by injury, Sonora began the season with four consecutive losses, falling outside the small-school top-10 ranking.

The Wildcats (1-4) bounced back in a big way against the Wolf Pack.

Bearden, the Mother Lode League’s reigning defensive player of the year, set the tone with an interception return for a touchdown. The 6-foot-4 middle linebacker tracked the running back and tight end across the field, utilizing all of his height and speed to create the turnover.

“We scored first with that pick-six and that was good for us considering the way the season has been going,” Sonora coach Bryan Craig said. “… It’s a tough coverage for an inside linebacker, but he was in the right spot but needed all of 6-4 of his height to pick it. Then the return was sheer determination, because you don’t outrun the athlete on West’s offense.”

Bearden, who holds scholarship offers from Sacramento State, UC Davis and Utah State, scored a pair of touchdowns in the victory en route to this week’s American Chevrolet Small-School Athlete of the Week award. Bearden received 56 percent of the fan vote, which topped out at 21,482 in just 24 hours.

Sonora is on a bye this week, giving it two weeks to prepare for the MLL opener at Bret Harte on Sept. 28. The four-time defending league champions haven’t lost a league game in four years.

"We have been improving every week and getting better and better every game," Bearden said. "We need to fine-tune some things, all around, then we will have a great chance to defend the league title."

The Wildcats’ struggles this season have been mirrored by Bearden’s slow recovery from offseason surgery. He was born with an extra bone in his ankle and elected to have it surgically removed over the summer.

"I didn't really lose confidence," Bearden said, "but I did want to get the recovery process moving so I could be 100 percent and start playing more and more."

The procedure prohibited him from running and participating in drills, putting him behind schedule. He arrived on time against West.

Despite his slow start, Bearden leads the team in receptions (nine) and receiving yards (142), while averaging nearly 16 yards per catch. Defensively, he’s tied for second on the team with 29 tackles.

“It slowed him down in the beginning,” Craig said. “He couldn’t run, so he had to play himself into game shape. Every week, he looked better and better and more like himself. Evan changes the way defenses have to play us. … This year, everyone watches him warm up and realize what kind of athlete that he is.”

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