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Whittier High’s top sports teams of the year

WHITTIER – Consider the 22 sports that are in competition at Whittier High School.

Each year, a few of them rise to the top and this past season was no exception. With the coronavirus pandemic putting a damper on spring sports, that leaves 13 fall and winter sports that were completed.

“Whittier sadly ended the year prematurely, yet the 2019-20 Cardinals provided some of the most competitive athletics in years as the smallest school in a very tough Del Rio League,” Whittier Athletic Director Jim Maeilley said.

Four teams, in no particular order, rose to the top this past year: boys water polo, boys basketball, girls volleyball and girls tennis.

Perhaps the CIF-Southern Section second-round appearances by the water polo and volleyball teams, the deep playoff run into the quarterfinals by the basketball team, or the first CIF appearance in six years for the tennis team were the reasons why they were chosen.

 

Boys Water Polo

The water polo team, led by senior Jaime Albarran, came within a whisker of advancing to the quarterfinals, only to lose to Los Altos by a goal in the second round of Division 6 action.

With 1:50 left in the fourth quarter and the score tied 10-10, Whittier’s Dominic Somilleda appeared to score the go-ahead goal. However, the goal was called off and it led directly to a Los Altos goal and the 11-10 lead.

“Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough gas left at that point and lost, 12-10,” Whittier coach Allen Johnson said. “Dominic stepped up big time in CIF, averaging four goals per game.

“The whole team worked hard through swim season to get faster and hit the weight room before afternoon practices throughout the summer,” added Johnson, who is a Whittier graduate. “Several players (Christian Lopez, Ian Reyes, Fernando Guzman, and Kaloni Cabreana) made the commitment to double practices, playing club in the evenings after swim practice in the spring afternoon workouts throughout the summer.

“Jaime always lead the way both offensively and defensively (led the team in goals scored and steals), but as season went on Dominic (Somilleda) began to step up as an attacker and secondary scorer, junior Brian Garcia, stepped up as our primary center, and Lopez stepped up as a center defender on defense, playmaker on offense and team leader.”

Johnson also said of the team as the season progressed: “As a coach, I felt this team continued to improve and gel throughout the season. Early in the season, teams would quickly identify our MVP (Albarran) and send double teams his way quickly such as in our early season 9-10 loss to Warren HS. We talked about that Junior group needing to step up if we were going to beat better teams and bit by bit they did.”

Senior Reyes said it best of his coach: “Without Johnson’s coaching we wouldn’t be the team we are. He helped us all improve as water polo players, with all of us becoming noticeably better.”

Albarran added: “Coach Johnson knew what he was doing and is very detailed. It was pretty exhilarating to get to the playoffs and try and compete for a championship. 

“The team has a young core of guys and as long as they stay together, they will be a pretty talented group. Christian and Dominic will be the leaders of the team.”

For their efforts, Albarran was named to the All-CIF 1st team, Somilleda, 2nd team and Lopez and Guzman, 3rd team.

After a three-win season in 2018, the team began to come together early in the 2019 season.

Lopez: “Jaime inspired us to strive for a better season than last year (2018) and we all tried hard because we knew it was going to be his last season.”

Junior Brian Garcia added: “Before the season we weren’t close, besides water polo, but over the summer our bond strengthened which directly affected how we all played as a team.”

The team finished the preseason with a 7-5 record, with several wins against division opponents.

“That earned us a spot at No. 9 in (CIF) Division 6,” added Johnson, who is stepping down as coach to be with his family. “That was the first time we cracked the top 10 in my time as coach at Whittier.”

Albarran and Lopez were awarded All-Del Rio League 1st Team, while Somilleda and Guzman were voted to the 2nd Team. Garcia and Cabreana were awarded Honorable Mention.

Whittier would finish the season at 11-8 and rise up to No. 5 in the division.

 

Girls Volleyball

Not to be outdone was the girls varsity volleyball team, also advancing to the second round of the CIF-SS playoffs.

The Cardinals finished the season with a 22-10 overall record and were 5-3 in the DRL finishing in second place behind La Serna.

The season started with two consecutive losses, but they turned it around quickly and went on a 14-2 run and advanced to the second round for the second consecutive year.

“Once we went on that run our hitting was better and the team started to believe in themselves more,” Whittier girls volleyball coach Michael Ledford said. “We also finished fourth out of 32 teams at our Whittier Cardinal Classic.”

They came within a couple of wins of advancing to the championship match of that tournament.

“It’s been great to have a bunch of kids, who are not only great volleyball players, but great students,” Ledford added. “I’ve always said to be proud that you’re a Cardinal – a lot of tradition.”

Ledford especially praised two of his senior leaders – Celeste Vasquez and Jaylene Ross.

“It’s been awesome the last few years with the leadership of Celeste. I’m happy to make a difference in their lives.”

 

5-6-20-Volleyball

Senior Whittier volleyball player Celeste Vasquez hugs her team photo while staying at home in Whittier on Tuesday May 6, 2020. (Photo by Keith Durflinger)

 

Vasquez was a four-year starter at the libero position, in addition to a captain all four years. She was named to the All-DRL 2nd Team and All-Area Team in her freshman year and All-DRL 1st Team her last three years.

“Coach Mike’s program is teaching you about life and he had close bonds with the team,” Vasquez said. “I really did well and learned a lot about life.

Vasquez was supposed to go on a recruiting trip to Central College in Pella, Iowa, but never got the chance because of the shutdown. She will now attend Whittier College and concentrate on her studies, eventually majoring in math.

“We were grateful to play our season, but were looking forward to graduation,” Vasquez added. She mentioned that they were looking forward to honoring Whittier football player Andrew Ortega at this years’ graduation. He passed away last year. 

“Andrew was always at the volleyball games,” she said. His sister, Joleen Zabala, was a freshman volleyball player this past season.

Vasquez said that the stretch of wins this past season was “…The best stretch of my four years.

“Once we started winning, it was something special. This year, like last year, we had a close bond.”

Vasquez mentioned that the use of HUDL technology for reviewing games helped tremendously. 

Ledford, along with his first assistant Jacob Marrero, would have the games broken down by HUDL in detail for each player. “We watched films of previous games and it worked better,” Vasquez added.

Ross, who also played varsity softball and goes by Jay, is a close friend of Vasquez and will attend Texas Southern University on a softball scholarship.

“Celeste is a perfect role model and I never met somebody that could take that responsibility (of the team leadership), especially as a freshman.”

Ross was a three-year starter as a middle blocker and outside hitter and was voted captain this past season. She was All-DRL 1st Team this year and 2nd Team in 2018.

“After our 0-2 start, we realized we had to change something and we just took it game-by-game,” Ross said. “It was really cool to end it that way winning those games. We wanted to go further in the playoffs.”

Ross also echoed Vasquez’ take on Ledfords coaching saying, “…he taught us there is more to life and I think (volleyball) was one of the best programs at the school.”  

Other senior volleyball players included: Rose Alvarez, defensive specialist; Avery Boyer, OH; Bryanne Viramontes, OH; Kaitlyn Suarez, DS; Haedee Estrella, setter and Stephanie Serrano, S. Suarez will be attending Occidental College and will play softball.

 

Boys Basketball 

The biggest run of the winter teams came from the boys basketball team, as they advanced to the quarterfinals in CIF.

After finishing in third place in the DRL with a 4-4 record (16-12 overall), the Cardinals made the deep run, to the surprise of many. And they made a lot of noise, defeating Nogales (66-49) in the first round, which had won nine of its last 10 games and smashed South Pasadena, 61-35, before a big home supportive crowd, 

“The team was coming off a bad season in 2018-19 with only one league win and from my coaching staff down to the players, it really clicked,” said first-year coach Ralph Rivera, who was previously the JV coach for three years. “The (playoff) run was awesome and every game we had a good game plan and were mentally and physically ready.”

One reason why the Cardinals thrived this season was the play of three-year varsity player Danny Calvillo.

“He was great on and off the floor and motivated them,” Rivera added. “The team fed off of his energy and some of the younger kids looked up to him.

“We felt that we put Whittier back on the map.”

On the reaction of the campus during their postseason run, Rivera said, “it was really uplifting.”

The marque game of the season turned out to be the last regular season DRL game against rival Santa Fe. It was a winner-take-all contest, getting the automatic third-place CIF berth. Whittier came away with the one-point, 63-62 victory.

Calvillo, who will attend Rio Hondo and hopes to make the basketball team, also realized how important that playoff run was for the school.

“After that second-round win everyone came up to us and said that we helped put Whittier (basketball) back on the map,” Calvillo said. “It was something I’ll always remember.”

Calvillo, who is deciding to either go into nursing, be a fireman or a surgeon, was sick during most of the playoffs.

“That day I had no energy and had an option to miss the game and go to a CT scan for my stomach or play in the game,” Calvillo said. “Even though we lost, I felt my leadership helped push me to play one of my best games of the season.” 

Calvillo was also a victim of the shutdown, as he ran track in the 200, 400, 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 events.

“I also feel bad for the softball and baseball players,” he said. “But it was a great run this year.”

 

Girls Tennis

“This is by far the smartest team I ever coached,” beamed girls tennis coach and athletic director Jim Marilley.

Sure they did well on the courts, but he was privileged to have his “magnificent seven seniors”, as he refers to them, with very high GPA’s. 

Leading the way was valedictorian Julie Casas currently with a 4.6, followed by Sarah Ramirez (4.4), Alexandria Robles (4.2), Mina Patino (4.2), Andrea Rodriguez (4.1), Natalie Ramirez (3.9) and Maria Rodriguez (3.5).

Add to that junior Breanna Padilla with a 3.4. The rest of the team is all above 3.5.

“The 2018 team graduated nine seniors and with only four returning varsity players, the season looked challenging last June,” Marilley said.    

The challenge came down to the last regular season match in DRL action, as the Cardinals faced Santa Fe. The Chiefs defeated Whittier, 12-6, in the first round and the seniors had never defeated Santa Fe in their four years and were skeptical of Marilley’s feelings of a win.

“I was insistent and it was going to be their senior day and I renewed my belief in them, Marilley said. 

They went on to beat Santa Fe by the same score, 12-6, and qualified for CIF for the first time since 2014.

“It was a great day and exciting end of the regular season,” Marilley said. “And girls tennis seems revitalized with an increased interest on campus.”

Seniors to be Padilla, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Vanessa Melano and Marissa Quintero have started the process of continuing the momentum of this years’ seniors for next year.

“It even has led to an increased interest in male athletes trying out for tennis,” Marilley said. The season ended abruptly with the shutdown with a promising 7-0-1 record.

Team player highlights:

Captain Casas, who is bound for Harvard told coach Marilley she would be spending last summer at MIT. Casas finished the season with a 17-4 record and was named All-DRL in singles. She missed the match against La Serna, as she went on a weekend visit to Columbia University.

With summer, a major conditioning and practice session, co-captain and returning singles player Nataly Ramirez took the reins without Casas and stepped up to a new leadership role.

“She is very shy and found her voice and helped run 6:00 am summer practices with an inexperienced team,” Marilley said.

With Ramirez suffering an apparent season-ending injury in the third match of the year, things looked bleak for the team.

The doubles team of Patino/Sarah Ramirez were All-DRL doubles with a 20-4 record and went on to play in the CIF individual doubles.

With Nataly Ramirez still unavailable to play, Casas and Maria Rodriguez became two of the better DRL singles players. 

After the first round, Whittier was an even 2-2 in league.

An additional surprise was Andrea Rodriguez joining Alexandria Rodriguez as #2 doubles. They were a big part in 12-6 and 11-7 wins over El Rancho. Whittier edged Cal, 10-8 in the first round.

Whittier wrapped up third place after Nataly Ramirez returned and the Cardinals defeated Cal, 14-4.

“Whittier tennis was definitely a bright spot for Whittier athletics in the 2019-2020 year,” added Marilley.

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