The Story Behind Cal-Hi Sports

The two most prominent players during Concord De La Salle’s national-record 151-game win streak were Maurice Jones-Drew (left) and D.J. Williams. Cal-Hi Sports’ state rankings were ahead of the curve in legitimizing De La Salle as more than just a NorCal power and interest in competing against the program and challenging their state ranking helped influence the creation of CIF state bowl games. Photo: Kirby Lee/Scott Kurtz

Most people know Cal-Hi Sports for its weekly state rankings, annual all-state teams and state record updates, but many California sports fans, CalHiSports.com subscribers and even some of the younger prep journalists around the state don’t know the back story of how it all began. We trace the organization’s roots and offer a peek of what we’ll be focusing on in the future. 

RELATED: State Football RecordsState Coaching Records | All-Time Final State Rankings | All-Time Honor SquadsMeet The Cal-Hi Sports Team | Cal-Hi Sports Endorsements | Become A Cal-Hi Sports Sponsor

Using his previous experience as a chemist, Nelson Tennis realized in the early 1970s he could apply the detail-oriented, research-driven concepts of science toward the collection of high school football data. When Nelson’s nephew, Mark, was himself attending high school in the Sacramento area in the mid-1970s, he would ask Mark to look up information for him at the state library.

Nelson’s initial interest in high school football centered on the success of his alma mater, Nevada Union High of Grass Valley. In order to compare the Miners to other top teams in Northern California, he began taking frequent trips to San Francisco and Sacramento libraries to look up as much information on high school football as he could. In 1974, Nelson sat at his desk and wrote up a list of the high schools in California history with the longest football winning streaks.

Nelson Tennis

Nelson Tennis spent much of his adult life at the California state library.

Nelson’s hobby soon spread to collecting information from other sports and then the entire state. He quickly realized that statewide coverage was almost non-existent. In 1975, he decided to write up a collection of state football rankings. He made up the name, “Cal-Hi Sports,” to go with those rankings.

With the aid of his nephew, a weekly newsletter was created in 1979 that continued to be mailed out to subscribers until the 2013-14 school year. Mark and Nelson worked to create the first Cal-Hi Sports state football record book in 1981. It was during this time that Mark also was completing his journalism degree work at San Jose State.

In the 1980s, Mark and Nelson continued to operate the weekly newsletter and published several more record books. At this time, Mark continued to pursue a sportswriting career with free-lance work and a two-year stint as sports editor of the Tracy Press.

One of Mark’s primary free-lance writing opportunities in those years was with California Football Magazine and California Basketball Magazine, which was published in Redondo Beach, Calif. This led to a partnership that began in 1989 with California Football Magazine publisher Andy Bark.

Soon after that, Cal-Hi Sports became successful on many other levels. With Bark as publisher, Mark was able to concentrate on editorial operations while Nelson was able to concentrate more on record book updating. Four separate California state record books were published under Bark’s leadership and in 1991 Cal-Hi Sports Magazine was morphed into Student Sports Magazine.

The Cal-Hi Sports brand was later incorporated into two popular high school sports TV shows. The first was “Inside Cal-Hi Sports” that ran on Fox Sports Net in the Southern California market for several years. The second was “Cal-Hi Sports Bay Area,” which is currently airing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Student Sports, meanwhile, became the longest-running national high school sports magazine ever with an 11-year run. Mark was executive editor during all of those years and became known for choosing cover subjects before anyone else, including LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Kerri Walsh and many others.

Just before the 2003-04 school year, Cal-Hi Sports and Student Sports were purchased by SPARQ. More of a training element was emphasized in the coverage and the on-line content platform was switched to Rivals.com.

Nelson never got to see the fruition of those efforts. He began suffering from the complications of bladder cancer later during that school year and on May 23, 2004 in Sacramento he died. Nelson was 67 years old.

After four years with Rivals.com (in which CalHiSports.com rose to No. 2 on the network in subscriptions sold among all high school sites), the assets of Student Sports and Cal-Hi Sports were purchased by ESPN.

From 2008 to 2012, Cal-Hi Sports and the domain name “CalHiSports.com” were part of the vast ESPN network. The high school initiative at ESPN, however, was discontinued in September of 2012.

It’s been a long road and for the last seven years Mark and managing editor Ronnie Flores created, designed and published CalHiSports.com as its own web site and not as part of a larger company or recruiting network. They’ve added many features and published nearly all of the all-time final state rankings and honor squads, including Grid-Hoop all-state teams and preseason all-state football teams, which we will publish for the 34th consecutive season after the completion of our annual preseason football all-section teams in the coming weeks.

We have also began publishing our vast California State Record Book online, beginning with football records. We’ll add some of the boys basketball categories that we’ve updated in recent years and eventually add the five sports that we cover on a weekly basis, including girls basketball, baseball and softball. Check out the links at the top of this post and the top bar navigation menu to check out the all-time final state rankings, all-state squads and the online state record book.

Our next initiative to support the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book is to create profiles for our record breakers, all-state players and other prominent athletes who appear in our Cal-Hi Sports Hot 100s and other lists. You’ll be able search the profiles by individual athlete and all the content associated with each athlete will be linked to the profile on CalHiSportsProfiles.com for easy viewing of honors and evaluations. You’ll hear more details about the CalHiSportsProfiles.com initiative in the coming months.


Note: A Gold Club Membership is required to view many of our state record book entries and archived honor squads and state rankings. You can’t get exclusive all-state teams, state rankings and our own one-of-a-kind outlook on California’s top teams and athletes on any other web site or from any other media source.

LevelMembership PriceDuration
Gold Club Monthly$3.991 MonthSelect
Gold Club Quarterly$9.993 MonthsSelect
Gold Club Yearly$24.991 YearSelect

Placing all the California state records Nelson looked up and creating the profiles for those athletes online is our biggest initiative, but also enjoyable and fruitful for everyone involved. That’s because Nelson’s life was dominated by compiling California high school sports record lists. He did much more than that, such as found Cal-Hi Sports, which eventually became Student Sports, which was eventually bought by ESPN. But it was our state record book that was his true pride and joy. It was the major impact of his 67 years of life.

During the first 10 to 15 years he worked on the lists you can find here on CalHiSports.com, believe it or not, Nelson was not paid a cent for his efforts. It was clearly never about money for him. He even went homeless in the streets of San Francisco for six months in the early 1980s. In those months, though, he still went to the city library to do research.

Nelson’s California state high school record book, published for the first time in 1986, is one the best of its kind in the nation. There’s several reasons for this:

Carson Palmer of Santa Margarita is one of the talented QBs in our vast state passing lists that will never be cut on digital platforms. Photo: foxsports.com.

1. ATTENTION TO DETAIL
From the beginning, Nelson viewed himself as a collector of information and not someone who would necessarily edit that information. He felt interpretation of record lists was up to the public. This is why he always added as many details to a record list that he could find, such as number of games each athlete or team played. He’d list people with unknown totals in notes and sometimes would include estimated totals. And any talk of expunging someone from a record list because they did something wrong would be completely alien to Nelson. That’s not the job of a record book compiler. That’s for the public to evaluate and debate.

2. ADDING CATEGORIES
This isn’t just about including fumble recoveries in football or slugging percentages in baseball. Nelson was constantly looking for innovative, new categories, such as combo records for boys-girls basketball as well as baseball-softball. It’s also about a category such as “Most All of Team’s Points in a Game” for boys basketball. Did Nelson know for sure whether 39 is the record? No, but he was pretty confident, based on all of his experience as a record book compiler, so he added the category, knowing that if there was indeed a total higher that it would be sent in by someone.

3. DEEP, DEEP LISTS
Nelson always strived to compile lists that would go 20 or 30 players in depth. To him, just going with a top five or top 10 wasn’t enough. He knew that some of these totals represented in many cases the athletic highlight of that person’s life. Cutting that person’s name just wasn’t right.

Nelson also knew that, other than the CIF Southern Section and CIF San Diego Section, no section record books existed. By doing deep lists, it becomes possible in many cases for fans or prep sports journalists to figure out those types of section or regional records. A few years after starting this book, Nelson became good friends with two hobbyists, the late Bruce McIntosh and Bob Barnett of Fresno. Bob has gone to to publish several sports-specific CIF Central Section books.

As we were putting together the third edition of this book in 1993, Nelson did want to begin to pare down some of the lists, as they were growing to 40 or 50 entries. Publisher Bark disagreed, saying that every name was a potential customer, a person with whom Cal-Hi Sports could connect with. No name has ever been cut completely from the book.

Today, of course, with the proliferation of the spread offense in football, some of our passing lists are indeed getting almost comically long. We will eventually have to cut from the published version, but here online right on this website, we’ll continue our policy of never cutting out a name once it makes the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book.

Become a Gold Club Member now and getting state record updates as they happen will be part of your exclusive membership. We also are working on getting all of the state record files eventually added and we’ll have more details on CalHiSportsProfiles.com in the coming months.

LevelMembership PriceDuration
Gold Club Monthly$3.991 MonthSelect
Gold Club Quarterly$9.993 MonthsSelect
Gold Club Yearly$24.991 YearSelect

If you enjoyed this article, find out how you can get exclusive content, one-of-a-kind California high school sports content from the Cal-Hi Sports Gold Club.

2 Comments

  1. Wilbur Jordan
    Posted July 1, 2019 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I an understand why Nelson’s record book is the best. I bought many years ago and just was so impressed with the detail. Brought back a lot of memories with the mention of players I payed with and against and many coaches that I played for or knew through coaching clinics.

  2. FBAddict
    Posted July 7, 2019 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    My bad, I always thought Mark was Nelson’s son, not nephew. Quite a legacy!.

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