The top-five high school coaches from the 2011-12 season were voted on by the Glendale News-Press sports department.
1 Grant Clark, Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer — Taking the reins of a star-studded team on the doorstep of realizing its championship potential may seem like a cushy situation for any coach, but Grant Clark admits that more than a bit of apprehension came along with assuming control of the Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer team in the fall of 2011.
"I knew what their expectations were and they felt like they fell short of what they could have achieved the year before," said Clark, who was the Falcons junior varsity coach at the time of Kiel McClung's resignation on the heels of a season in which the varsity squad won a second straight Pacific League title and made a program-best run to the CIF Southern Section Division IV quarterfinals. "It was a very overwhelming feeling and there were a lot of nights before the season started when I wondered if I was going to be able to make the right moves and create the right kind of atmosphere for those kind of expectations to be fulfilled."
Clark likely didn't breathe a sigh of relief until the day the Falcons hoisted the Division IV championship plaque after beating El Rancho, 3-0, at Warren High on March 2, culminating a marvelous run that contained plenty of white-knuckle moments, but never a defeat in 26 matches.
The Falcons' season was extended by a week with an invitation to the CIF Southern California Regional Division I playoffs, where the team came within one win of capturing a de facto state crown before finally suffering its only loss of the season to Paramount on March 10 at Warren.
Clark said that because of his experience with the program coming in, there was no feeling out period that a new coach might normally require. He knew his roster, the level of skill it possessed and exactly what was expected of it. The first task was getting all that talent, as well a personalities to mesh.
"One of the things that concerned me at the beginning of the year was if people felt like they should have been in the starting lineup and weren't," Clark said. "Early in the year I had them sit down and make up their own starting 11 and said, 'OK, if you're not on your own list, how are you going to get there?'
"I think that helped a lot of people realize what kind of group we had, but also to help everybody understand their place and role on the team. We had [reserves] on our team that could have started on other Pacific League teams and other teams that made CIF, but it was being able to use everybody at the right time and the right pieces in the right places that made our season what it was."
The team also went 12-0-2 in league for a third straight title and Clark was named All-Area Boys' Soccer Coach of the Year.
2 Kevin Witt, Hoover boys', girls' water polo; boys' girls' swimming — Before Witt took over the program in the summer of 2011, the Tornadoes boys' water polo team was primarily known for having the best player in the area.
They still did, as Hakop Kaplanyan was as magnificent as ever in his senior campaign, but by the end of the season, Hoover had grown into one of the best teams in the Southern Section.
Once a star player in his own right at the Tornadoes' crosstown rival Glendale, Witt fashioned Hoover into the only serious challenger to the area supremacy the deeper Nitros were projected by many to enjoy going into the season. And while Glendale did hold off Hoover to win the Pacific League title, the Tornadoes were the last local team standing in the CIF Division IV playoffs as they made a program-best run all the way to the semifinals.
Witt showed his leadership and vision in structuring the team around a fine balance between Kaplanyan's potential for individual dominance and his willingness to facilitate for others. He also proved to be a shrewd game manager and quick thinker in the pressure situations of the CIF playoffs.
With 30.13 seconds left and the Tornadoes down by a goal in the CIF quarterfinals on Nov. 12 at Burbank High, Palm Desert ran out the clock and looked to have won the game, but Witt immediately argued that there should still be .13 seconds left on the clock. He was not only successful in arguing the game wasn't over, but also got the officials to order a replay of the entire 30.13.
After an ill-advised Palm Desert shot attempt, Kaplanyan saved the Tornadoes' season with a game-tying score, but it was Witt who made it possible by keeping the game going.
3 Pete Loporchio, Crescenta Valley girls' water polo; girls' swimming — Like the Falcons boys' soccer team, the Crescenta Valley girls' water polo team followed up a breakout 2011 campaign with a program-best effort in 2012 and didn't suffer a loss until its final game of the season.
But, whereas the soccer team was recognized as a preseason favorite with a roster loaded with returning talent, Loporchio's group was all but written off as a legitimate CIF contender after graduating its top scorer and losing all but one starter.
But that one starter was Sabrina Hatzer, who would earn All-Area Player of the Year honors, and it soon became clear Loporchio had effectively groomed his former second string for a smooth transition to the starting lineup.
Loporchio kept his team calm an focused in crunch time and it was on display in the Falcons' two signature wins of the season — a 13-12 regular-season win over La Serna on Feb. 2 that saw CV rally from a two-goal deficit with 30 seconds left in regulation before winning in overtime, and a 14-13 overtime win over host Los Altos on Feb. 18 that propelled the team to its second CIF Division V semifinal berth in as many years.
Loporchio was voted All-Area Girls' Water Polo Coach of the Year after leading the Falcons to a 31-1 mark and a third straight Pacific League title.
In girls' swimming, the Falcons captured their fifth straight league crown outright and sent a small contingent to the CIF Division II finals.
4 Shawn Zargarian, Crescenta Valley boys' basketball — Several considerable milestones were reached by the Falcons under Zargarian's watch this season, including a 61-60 Pacific League win over perennial league champion Pasadena on Feb. 3 and advancement to the semifinal round of the CIF Division I-A playoffs and the state playoffs for the first time since 1994.
Zargarian rallied his team from back-to-back league losses in mid-January to win seven of its final eight to close out the regular season and set the stage for a three-game playoff win streak capped by a 61-49 home win over El Toro on Feb. 24 in the quarterfinals.
The Falcons got their money's worth in a brief appearance at the state championship tournament, where they were matched up with juggernaut Mater Dei, but held a second-half lead and hung in for more than three quarters before fading down the stretch.
Zargarian was voted All-Area Boys' Basketball Coach of the Year.
5 Jan Sakonju, Crescenta Valley boys' water polo, boys' swimming — After falling short of a CIF swimming title in 2011, the Falcons returned with a renewed hunger in 2012, in part a testament to Sakonju's own motivational prowess.
Crescenta Valley made good on its considerable talent and depth by capturing the CIF Division II championship with a narrow 301-293 win over runner-up Damien on May 12 at Riverside Aquatics Center for the program's first title since 2000.
Sakonju wasn't afraid to take some gambles in the heat of the moment, such as replacing traditional 400-yard freestyle anchor Louis Wojciechowski with Young Tae Seo at CIF finals so the latter could get a few extra seconds of rest after competing in the 100 breaststroke. But that tactic ultimately worked — with Seo holding off the field to clinch the team title — as did most of Sakonju's strategies during a season that saw CV win a 20th straight Pacific League title through an unbeaten dual meet record and domination of the league final meet.
While in a down cycle from past years in which league titles and deep playoff runs were a foregone conclusion, the boys' water polo team still finished fourth in league and won a wild-card match in the CIF Division IV playoffs.