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Column: Memories from a high school sports season that almost didn’t take place

The enthusiasm of Mira Costa soccer players was contagious and led to a CIF championship.
(Nick Koza)

It feels like summer has officially arrived in the high school sports world. Scorching temperatures. Seven-on-seven passing competitions. Football camps. Baseball showcases. Club softball games. AAU basketball events. Trips to Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina.

So how come there’s an alternative universe with 18- and 19-year-old graduates still playing for their high school teams?

Welcome to the final week of the strangest sports season ever, 2020-21, when COVID-19 almost drove athletic directors into exhaustion trying to figure out schedules, COVID-19 safety protocols and how to use facilities when 19 sports were being played at the same time.

“I told my superintendent I’m throwing my phone into the deep end of the pool and don’t bother to contact me,” Corona Centennial athletic director Bill Gunn said.

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This week’s attempt to hold the inaugural Southern California championships in baseball and softball will bring to close a season that was hardly perfect but at least gave a large number of athletes a chance to create a moment to savor in a time of uncertainty.

There will be second-guessing and lots of questions. Why did girls volleyball in the Southern Section have no season? Why couldn’t football be extended to April 30 to permit a bowl game? Why did Los Angeles Unified School District basketball teams have to wait until May 7 to play games? Why wasn’t Dodger Stadium reserved for the City Section final? Why couldn’t fans not related to parents attend events in LAUSD?

Months of being locked down at home from March 2020 until January 2021 caused coaches to reevaluate their priorities.

Retirements and resignations have come fast and furious. Some great coaches have called it quits. In baseball, so long to the likes of Dan Henley at Glendora, Steve Gewecke at Alhambra, Chris Ashbach at Mission Viejo and Casey Burrill at Valencia West Ranch. Westchester basketball coach Ed Azzam stepped down after 42 years as head coach. Athletic directors are also retiring, and who can blame them? It’s been a tough year of nonstop negotiations and compromises.

Jan Hethcock, who has been either coaching or running athletic programs for 47 years, is transitioning into a consultant’s role at Westlake Village Oaks Christian.

“I was glad I was here,” Hethcock said of the challenges he faced. “I would not have wished this on any new athletic director.”

From my perspective, inspiration is drawn from players and teams overcoming adversity and obstacles.

The Manhattan Beach Mira Costa soccer team comes to mind. Players who’ve known each other since they played AYSO together as 5-year-olds somehow, someway emerged as Southern Section Division 1 and Southern California Regional champions. It was a Hollywood-like ending, with the seniors heading off to the school prom after winning their final game against unbeaten Lake Balboa Birmingham in overtime.

Jack Crawford played with a knee injury and said afterward: “I’ve known these guys for my whole life. Public schools don’t really win these things because we don’t recruit. We all play for each other and that’s what won us this.”

There were so many magical moments of athletic excellence. In football, it was marveling at sophomore Matayo Uiagalelei of Bellflower St. John Bosco making touchdown catches that deserved comparisons to NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski. In basketball, it was seeing Amari Bailey of Chatsworth Sierra Canyon floating through the air like an eagle. In baseball, it was watching freshman Bryce Rainer of Studio City Harvard-Westlake go 9-0 on the mound with two playoff victories.

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In soccer, it was seeing sophomore Alyssa Thompson of Harvard-Westlake use her speed and skills to score 48 goals for a 19-0 team and be named Gatorade national player of the year. In track, it was appreciating those football players becoming much in demand from college recruiters by proving how fast they were instead of worrying about seven-on-seven competitions.

In the end, the high ground belongs to those coaches, parents and athletes who stuck it out and found a way to enjoy their sports experience this school year. There were many ups and downs on the way to just playing a game. They could have easily given up hope. Congratulations for staying the course on a bumpy road that has been repaired and is ready for a complete reopening.


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