The 2009-10 school year is over, and it was filled with some great stories – and a few sad ones that left bitter heartbreak. Here's a review of some of the memorable storylines from the Southland as we recall the good, the bad and the ugly.
Athlete of the Year – Robert Woods, Serra (Gardena, Calif.): Woods was an extraordinary talent on the football field where his speed and moves wowed fans and left defenders grasping at air.
In its much-hyped rematch with unbeaten Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, Calif.) in the Southern Section Northwestern Division championship game, Serra (15-0) avenged its 61-29 loss from a year earlier by scoring a 42-41 overtime victory in which Woods ran for one touchdown, caught a pass for the game-tying score in regulation, and had an interception in the end zone. A week later, Woods was otherworldly with eight receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-20 victory over Marin Catholic (Kentfield, Calif.) in the Division III Bowl championship.
He then joined his basketball team and was part of that effort that won a state title. Woods wasn't a starter, but anyone will tell you that the guys who push the starters every day in practice play a valuable role.
With two state titles in hand, Woods tried to become the first three-sport state champion during the track and field season, but he finished second to Josh Mance of Don Lugo (Chino, Calif.) in the 400 meters (45.90 to 46.21), and third to Covina's (Calif.) Remontay McClain and Miller's (Fontana, Calif.) Davonte Stewart in the 200 meters (20.85, 29.99, 21.11).
Coach of the Year – Joe Hay, Garden Grove (Calif.) football: On the first night of their season, Sept. 11, Garden Grove fullback and linebacker Kevin Telles collapsed on the field at Westminster (Calif.) while looking for someone to block in the final minutes of the game. He died later that night.
Devastated, the school rallied behind the Telles tragedy and Hay kept it all together, nurturing emotions and talent. What resulted was an undefeated regular season and Garden Grove's first trip to a Southern Section championship game since winning the 1946 title. The Argonauts bolted to a 21-7 lead, but gave up 42 consecutive points after quarterback Sean Young went to the hospital after a horsecollar tackle
Team of the Year – Servite (Anaheim, Calif.) football: Statistically, only two teams in the nation played a more difficult schedule, St. Xavier (Cincinnati, Ohio) (9-3) and Elder (Cincinnati, Ohio) (10-3), but despite the Friars' strength of schedule, Coach Troy Thomas' team won 14 of 15 games and avenged its only defeat – to national No. 1 Edison (Huntington Beach, Calif.).
In all, Servite beat five opponents who were ranked in the state's final top 11. Behind a solid defense led by Matt Inman and Jacob Slemmer, and a dual-threat quarterback in Cody Fajardo, Servite ended a 20-year winless streak against Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), became the first outright winner of the Trinity League, defeated a revitalized Long Beach Poly (Calif.) in the Pac-5 quarterfinals and finished the season with successive victories over unbeaten teams Mission Viejo (Calif.) (12-0), Edison (13-0) and Rocklin (Calif.) (14-0). The latter came on Nick Echeverry's field goal as time expired in the Division II State Bowl Championship.
Nick Hurtado's pitch. His season over before it ever began because of cancer in his knee, Santiago (Corona, Calif.) coach Ty de Trinidad asked Hurtado to throw the first pitch of the season. He did, a strike against Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). He walked off the field to cheers, and the team went on to beat the Monarchs, 17-2. Mater Dei went on to win the Southern Section Division I championship, and Hurtado's recovery from chemotherapy has been better than expected.
Serra wins in memory of Vaughn Autry's father. The night before the Southern Section announced its pairings for the 2009-10 boys basketball playoffs, Stephen Autry passed away from congestive heart failure related to leukemia. Top-seeded Serra dedicated its postseason run to Autry's memory and never looked back. His son, Vaughn Autry, made a free throw in the final seconds that gave the Keith Shamburger-led Cavaliers (34-2) a decisive 63-59 overtime victory over Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.) in the Division III state finals.
The National Classic goes all wood. In the wake of a fractured skull to Marin Catholic (Kentfield, Calif.) pitcher Gunner Sandberg who was hit in the head by a batted ball, the 21st Diamond Sports National Classic absolved itself of aluminum bats and went natural. The result was a terrifically entertaining tournament that got back to basics, with pitchers duels and hits that were earned. Fifteen of the 32 games were decided by one run, including the finale, Crespi's (Encino, Calif.) 2-1, nine-inning win over host El Dorado (Placentia, Calif.).
A silver medal worth its weight in gold. When apparent second-place finisher Mariel Mendoza of JW North (Riverside, Calif.) was disqualified in the girls' 1,600 meters at the Riverside City Track and Field Championships, Carrie Soholt of King (Riverside, Calif.) insisted Mendoza take the silver medal she was handed by default.
El Segundo wins for the coach. The state's winningest baseball coach, John Stevenson of El Segundo (Calif.), died of an apparent heart attack less than a month before his 51st season with the Eagles. After a shaky start under Craig Cousins – who had been an assistant for 37 seasons – El Segundo closed with a flourish.
Junior Nigel Nootbaar – the player of the year by the Torrance Daily Breeze – was cited for his leadership, pitching (8-0, 0.98) and hitting (.425, 9 HR) on a team that won its first league title since 2005 and reached the Division IV semifinals. Injured early in the season, Nootbar's improving health coincided with a 21-5 run to close the season at 24-10.
A rival in need. After the call went out that Jordan's (Long Beach, Calif.) baseball team needed money just to meet the program's basic needs – such as bats and balls – its rival in the Moore League, Long Beach Poly (Calif.), raised more than $5,000 in funds and donations.
Bri Matthews commits suicide. It happened just 10 days before Mater Dei's (Santa Ana, Calif.) softball season was to begin. The 16-year old sophomore hung herself even though she apparently had so much to live for.
She was popular with her classmates, carried a 4.0 grade-point average, was the team's best pitcher and one of its two best hitters, and the program was almost certainly going to have a great season.
No answers have yet been published as to why Matthews took her life, but the incident had a profound effect on the girls basketball team – Matthews was friends with some of its best players, including Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis – which was deep into the second half of its season. The squad dropped its petty concerns and played with previously unseen perspective, avenging its only loss to Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.) with a victory in the Southern California Regional, and won the state title.
The softball team, despite Matthews' absence, was regarded among the nation's best – and was ranked No. 2 in one poll at the time it beat No. 1 before a subsequent loss prevented it from moving to the top – behind second and third pitchers Miranda Tamayo and Carly Wade. They were upset in the second round of the Southern Section playoffs, but had delivered a great effort in memory of their teammate.
Crenshaw chosen as the Open Division representative. This wasn't inherently bad, it just wasn't inherently good because the selection was so flawed. It might have been OK if someone from the CIF had actually said that Crenshaw (Los Angeles, Calif.) was considered the best football team in the South and that's why it was chosen for the Open Division State Bowl. No one did.
The best argument on the program's behalf came from president Marie Ishida who said, “Crenshaw played a difficult schedule outside its division.”
Wow, what a whopping endorsement. Its two most notable victories were against Lakewood (Calif.) (28-27) and Norco (Calif.) (47-44). The fact is that Crenshaw and Westlake (Westlake Village, Calif.) both had 14-0 records and Westlake's overall schedule was – statistically speaking – more difficult. And Servite (Anaheim, Calif.), which played one of the toughest schedules in the nation, avenged its only loss against the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, Edison (Huntington Beach, Calif.) (which happened to beat Lakewood, 37-29, in the Pac-5 semifinals).
The selection committee seemed more attuned to the rhetoric of Crenshaw representing the poor old under-appreciated City Section – an argument spun masterfully by Crenshaw coach Robert Garrett. He told his players they would not be selected, and then made a point of telling the media that he told his players they would not be selected.
The resulting decision established an unfortunate precedent; next season, does the South name a Central Section school its representative just because it has never been chosen?
As for the game itself, Crenshaw scored two first quarter touchdowns against De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) but lost, 28-14. De La Salle finished the season ranked No. 5 in the state's Freeman Ratings, Crenshaw No. 13 -- hardly the kind of Open Bowl statement one would expect.
The non-friendship games. The situation was pretty straightforward. Robin Laird of South Pasadena (Calif.), in the last event of the day, had a chance to win the pole vault with a final jump. If she did, South Pasadena would win its dual meet against Monrovia (Calif.) and give her team the Rio Hondo League title. If she failed, Monrovia would win its first league title.
After a false start, Laird approached the bar and went up and over for victory. Her teammates erupted in cheers, her opponents sighed groans of disappointment.
However, alert Monrovia coach Mike Knowles pointed out to officials that Laird was wearing a friendship bracelet on her wrist which should warrant disqualification: No jewelry allowed. He was right. Laird was disqualified and Monrovia won the league title instead.
But at what price? Knowles was vilified for his role, the story even reaching the pages of Sports Illustrated. Even though both schools released a statement after the story went national that the correct result played out, the CIF's motto, “Pursuing Victory with Honor,” took a hit.
“It's unfortunate, that's all I can say,” Knowles said. “But you've got to teach the kids that rules are rules.”
The only honor, everyone agreed, belonged to Laird, who was remarkably gracious in light of what happened. Nevertheless, she ripped off the friendship bracelet and quit wearing it.
“As of right now,” she said in the aftermath, “I am not wearing one although I do still have a tan line on my wrist. That's my scarlet letter.”
Marmonte hangs 10. Instead of placing Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, Calif.) and St. Bonaventure (Ventura, Calif.) in the smaller Mission or Serra leagues where they belong, the powers that be agreed to place both private schools into the Marmonte League. It creates some intriguing football matchups, but there's much to be desired from a 10-team league in which its members play only one non-league game.
Jerry Stone charged for attempted murder. He was only the wheelman, and no one was injured, but that didn't prevent the Lakewood (Calif.) football star from being charged – as an adult – with two counts of attempted murder and two counts of using an assault weapon in a gang-related attack.
It stemmed from a drive-by shooting attempt in Compton on Aug. 21, two weeks before Lakewood played its first game of the season against Crenshaw (Los Angeles, Calif.).
Stone, 17, had helped Lakewood reach the Southern Section Pac-5 semifinals as a junior by scoring 18 touchdowns in nine games and averaging 161 yards. Had he been with Lakewood in his senior season instead of a Los Angeles County jail cell, and made sure his academics were up to par, Stone might have taken the Lancers to the promised land, earned an athletic scholarship and positioned himself for a far more prosperous life.
Without him, Lakewood (11-2) was beaten in the semifinals by Edison (Huntington Beach, Calif.), 37-29.
Tyler Shreve assaults his coach (allegedly). Coach James Cordes had already decided that Shreve was no longer going to be a member of the Redlands East Valley (Redlands, Calif.) baseball team. Shreve was a star in both football and baseball. He and his family were summoned to a meeting on campus with school administrators where Cordes told Shreve, 18, he was being dismissed from the team. Shreve attacked his coach and was charged with misdemeanor assault on a school employee, and expelled from school.
Among Shreve's comments at the time: “If you were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars you wouldn't be too happy either.”
Without Shreve, REV baseball had a successful season and was seeded third in the Southern Section Division II playoffs. Upset in the second round, REV finished 24-6.
Shreve, the quarterback who passed for 22 touchdowns and led his team to an 11-1 record, had his scholarship to Utah indefnitely suspended in May. A shortstop and pitcher who had batted .405 as a junior, Shreve was selected in the 10th round of Major League Baseball's amateur draft by Toronto in June.
Russell Otis recognized as a sex offender. In November, the former boys basketball coach at Dominguez (Compton, Calif.) was convicted of misdemeanor child molestation stemming from hundreds of text messages sent to one of his players. He was also charged with a felony count of meeting for a lewd purpose, but the jury was deadlocked after 10 days of deliberation, 10-2, in favor of of a guilty verdict. He was acquitted of a felony grand theft and forgery charge.
All in all, it could have been a lot worse for Otis, 46, but it was bad enough: He will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life and his days as a youth coach are legally over. Hardly the way the man who built Dominguez into a national power and won six state titles from 1987-2008 would want to be remembered.
Martin Henderson began covering Southland preps in 1993 for the Los Angeles Times. He contributes to the Orange County Register, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and San Bernardino Sun, and offers up motorsports opinions at Racescribe.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.