I was covering a game last week in Burbank and decided to make an unscheduled stop.
I wanted to go by Bellarmine-Jefferson High to take one last look and, in my own way, say my good-byes.
In October, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles sent out a press release that the school would close at the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year. With the commencement ceremony scheduled for June 2, students from the final Bell-Jeff graduating class will flip their tassels and head into the world.
That will end the tenure of a school that has served students and student-athletes for 74 years.
Founded in 1944, Bell-Jeff, a private Roman Catholic school, survived a world war, several recessions, cultural shifts and endured numerous educational changes. Unfortunately, the school couldn’t ultimately survive low enrollment, which proved to be its death knell.
I parked my car on Orange Grove Ave. at the back of Bell-Jeff, across from Keating Memorial Gymnasium, to take one last gander at the school. I know the school grounds itself aren’t going anywhere, as a new school is scheduled to open on the site in 2019. But what is going away is the soul of Bell-Jeff, which is truly a sad thing.
For more than 26 years I have reported on athletic activities at Bell-Jeff. I have had the pleasure of covering and getting to know many special athletes and coaches at a small school that experienced its share of success.
When I started with the Burbank Leader on Nov. 4, 1991, our office was at the corner of Orange Grove and Glenoaks Blvd., just across the street and steps away from the Bell-Jeff campus.
The very first story I covered for the paper was a Guards girls’ volleyball playoff game at Bell-Jeff. The team was under the direction of venerable coach Hal Krug, who was just recently inducted into the Bellarmine-Jefferson Hall of Fame. In many postgame interviews with Krug over the years, he would often stop in mid-quote and tell me, “You know what I’m trying to say Jeff, just put down some nice quotes and don’t make me sound stupid.” And every time I would have to remind the coach that I couldn’t make up quotes for him.
Krug was just one of the coaches at Bell-Jeff who made my job easier, and a lot more interesting.
Amazingly, one coach who was around when I first started is still coaching and will ultimately go down with the Bell-Jeff ship. That coach is Jim Couch, who has headed the Guards’ track and field, cross-country and girls’ basketball programs, as well as serving as athletic director over the years.
Couch has dedicated a large portion of his life to Bell-Jeff with 45 years of service. He also founded and ran the Bellarmine-Jefferson/Griffith Park Cross-Country Invitational.
Couch and Krug are two of many Bell-Jeff coaches who made a profound difference in the lives of countless young athletes over the years. Some of the former coaches who made lasting impressions on me include Bryan Camacho, Russ Johnson, Eli Essa, Hector Perez, Claudia Villa, Fred Martinez, Miguel Segura, Rolando Aguirre, Doug Woodleaf, Mike Morgan, Jaclyn Johnson, Jess Rodriguez, David Machuca and Julian Andrade.
Bell-Jeff has also produced its share of talented and successful athletes. However, there are two in particular who stand out above all the rest.
One is Ruben Douglas, who played boys’ basketball for the Guards. When he finished his tenure with Bell-Jeff in the 1990s, Douglas was among the top 10 scorers in California history. He went on to play at the University of Arizona and the University of New Mexico, winning the NCAA scoring title in 2003. He also played professionally overseas.
The other was Jaclyn Johnson, who starred in girls’ basketball and volleyball for the Guards in the 90s. Although she was All-CIF in volleyball, it was in basketball that she enjoyed the most success. Johnson played at the University of Kansas, where she set her share of records. In 2001, she played in the WNBA for the Orlando Miracle. Johnson returned to Bell-Jeff to serve as athletic director and girls’ basketball coach.
Douglas and Johnson were also inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
Bell-Jeff has won four CIF Southern Section titles and one state championship during my tenure.
The 1997 girls' basketball team, under the direction of Couch, defeated Cerritos Valley Christian, 47-45, to win the Division IV-A crown at the Pyramid in Long Beach. Johnson hit a 15-foot jump-shot with one second left to lift Bell-Jeff to the school’s first crown.
In 2009, the Guards, coached by Camacho, captured the Division V-A girls’ basketball championship with a 61-31 victory against Santa Clara at Mater Dei High. That same season, led by Shelley Gupilan, Margeaux Gupilan, Rishonda Napier and Elizabeth Hawthorne, Bell-Jeff defeated Pinewood, 55-47, in the CIF State Basketball Division V Championship at Arco Arena in Sacramento. It is the only state team title in any sport among all the city’s schools.
The Guards softball program got into the CIF title mix in 2013 when Bell-Jeff downed Mary Star of the Sea, 8-4, in the Division VI championship at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine. Leading the way was senior shortstop Monique Landini, who was named the Division VI Player of the Year. The Guards were able to win a title after losing the Division VII championship game the previous two years.
The last Bell-Jeff championship was in 2017 when the Guards captured the Southern Section Division V-A girls’ basketball title, defeating Chadwick, 56-39. The Guards went deep into the Division V CIF State Tournament, losing in the Southern California Regional Final against Rolling Hills Prep, 68-56. The team, coached by Villa, was paced by division player of the year Cosette Balmy, as well as Claire Borot, Caitlyn Couch and Dalila Rincan.
Recounting the accomplishments of the Bell-Jeff sports teams over the last two-plus decades only scratches the surface of what the athletes, coaches and teams have been able to enjoy for more than 70 years. And being able to reminisce about some of that history leaves me with some wonderful memories. But at the same time, I am also left with sadness and a feeling of loss that Bell-Jeff will cease to exist. That is an unfortunate sense of reality that is heartbreaking on so many levels.
I didn’t attend Bell-Jeff and no one from my family graduated from the school. But dealing with the school over the years, I was welcomed into the Bell-Jeff community and feel fortunate to have experienced the true sense of family that the school provided.