As 2023 approaches, we turn out thoughts to the past year to reflect how much local teams and athletes entertained us. There were plenty of highs and lows, giving the Sentinel sports staff plenty to think about when deciding which program made the biggest splash.
After much mental wrangling, the Sentinel has declared Soquel High’s girls water polo team and Watsonville’s boys soccer team as the Sports Newsmakers of the Year. Both teams won Central Coast Section titles in the highest division and reached CIF NorCal Regional finals.
Soquel (29-3, 8-0) suffered just three losses in the pool all season, two in nonleague and the other in the NorCal final. All three came at the hands of the same team, unbeaten Miramonte (28-0) of Orinda, ranked No. 1 in the nation by maxpreps.com for teams who compete in the fall. The Knights finished ranked No. 1 in the CCS and No. 2 in the nation.
The Knights, led by Stanford University committed Quinn Healy and Indiana-committed senior Olivia Harris, featured a perfect mix of experience and youth, and offense and defense. United in ambitions, the Knights benefitted from their chemistry in and out of the water.
They outscored opponents 469 to 187 on the season and secured the program’s 12th straight league title and second straight CCS Open Division crown over rival Sacred Heart Prep. A year after scraping by the Gators for their first Open crown, the Knights left no doubt in their rematch, and prevailed 18-5.
“We were all looking forward to this,” Harris said after the win. “We were looking to defend our title. It turned out how we wanted it. We came in with a game plan and played with confidence. We all trust in each other and we communicated well.”
Healy was named Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League MVP and CCS Player of the Year.
Watsonville’s soccer team (18-5-3, 8-1-1) was no less impressive. The Wildcatz won the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s Gabilan Division title and survived three CCS thrillers to earn the school’s 12th section crown. Seeded No. 2, the Wildcatz knocked off No. 7 Lincoln of San Jose 2-0 in overtime in the quarterfinals, No. 3 Saint Francis of Mountain View 1-0 in the semifinals, and No. 1 Branham of San Jose 2-1 in the final.
“These kids were tremendous this year, the way they’ve come back,” said Wildcatz coach Roland Hedgpeth. “They’re a second-half team. We can’t doubt that. And they’ve come back over and over and over again.”
The Wildcatz earned two more postseason wins in CIF NorCal Division I play. After beating Modesto 2-0 in the quarterfinals, they finished regulation and overtime deadlocked at 2-all against De La Salle of Concord in the semifinals and advanced on a marathon, penalty-kick shootout. They did so with backup goalie Mateo Arias making a key stop as the Wildcatz won in nine rounds of kicks.
Watsonville lost to top-seeded Whitney 3-1 in the NorCal final. Still, the Wildcatz were a celebrated bunch. They were honored during halftime of a San Jose Earthquakes game for winning a section title.
Arias, a senior midfielder, was named the Gabilan Division’s Offensive Player of the Year and senior defender Isaak Vargas was named Defensive POY.
Other athletes and teams considered for Sports Newsmaker of the Year include:
MVC caps perfect postseason with historic CCS, NorCal Regional baseball titles: Nine days after winning the school’s first CCS baseball title, MVC (24-8-1) made good of its No. 1 seed and home-field advantage to become Santa Cruz County’s first program to win the inaugural NorCal tournament.
The Mustangs, who tied for third place in the PCAL’s Mission Division, went 6-0 in the postseason. They beat Gunn 5-2 for the CCS Division VI title on May 26 and routed Berean Christian of Walnut Creek 12-2 in the CIF NorCal Division V Regional Championship on June 4.
Santa Cruz native Luke Rockhold, 37, retires after bloody, entertaining loss to Brazil’s Paulo Costa in UFC 278: Rockhold suffered a broken nose early and was done no favors fighting at elevation in Salt Lake City against a younger, more fit opponent. But Rockhold made it plenty entertaining. He smeared his bloody face all over his opponent’s face, neck and chest in the waning seconds of the third round of their middleweight bout, a move that pretty much broke Twitter. After retiring from the octagon, Rockhold appeared on several podcasts in the days following his fight and said he’ll never fully close the door to fighting.
Youth-laden Cabrillo showcases future in return from two-year suspension: It was a long season for Cabrillo, but the Seahawks learned throughout their 2-8 campaign. All but two players on their roster were freshmen.
The Seahawks blasted Yuba 48-14 in their third game of the season, which gave Justin Hansen his first win as head coach, and knocked off Gavilan 28-21 in overtime of the teams’ conference game.
The Lane treats surfers as Cold Water Classic returns after seven-year hiatus: With hundreds of fans lined rows deep on the cliff overlooking iconic surf break Steamer Lane, Kolohe Andino, a 28-year-old San Clemente native who competes on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, rallied for the win over Taro Watanabe on Nov. 18.
Zoe Benedetto, who hails from Palm City, Florida, jumped out to an early lead and held on to defeat San Clemente’s Bella Kenworthy, 14.83-12.74, for the women’s title in her Steamer Lane debut.
Santa Cruz native Tom Urbani, 54, a former MLB pitcher who coached youth baseball, dies: Former MLB pitcher Thomas Urbani, a loving husband and father, avid fisherman, and baseball man through and through, died Sept. 28 at the age of 54. He was a former standout at Harbor High, Cabrillo College and Long Beach State University, and coached at several programs throughout the county.
Aptos celebrates late basketball coaching legend Bill Warmerdam: Friends, family and former pupils from up and down the state showed up at Aptos High on June 4 to pay tribute to Bill Warmerdam, who is said to be as good a person and teacher as he was a legendary high school basketball coach. Warmerdam died at the age of 82 on May 18, two days after celebrating his 62nd wedding anniversary with his wife, Patricia.
Cabrillo hosts Celebration of Life for iconic football coach Joe Marvin: Marvin, inducted into Cabrillo’s Athletic Hall of Fame on Jan. 23, 2016, had an impact on players and coaches throughout the greater Bay Area. He died on Feb. 23 at the age of 93.
Cherished stories, jokes and “Marvinisms” were told and relished as a limited crowd celebrated the life of iconic football coach at the Sesnon House at Cabrillo College on May 14. Libations were raised in his honor long into the night.
Scotts Valley High hosts memorial service for late football star Carlton Keegan: A memorial service for Scotts Valley High senior Carlton Keegan, 18, was held on the school’s football field on April 16. Keegan, a talented two-way lineman on the Falcons’ league-champion football team, was killed as a passenger in a solo car crash March 30.
Stellar football seasons for Aptos, Soquel and St. Francis: Aptos (9-3, 5-1) stunned previously unbeaten Salinas to stay perfect in Gabilan Division on Oct. 14, and wound up sharing the division title with the Cowboys and Palma. It was the Mariners’ first Gabilan title.
Soquel (10-2, 6-0) completed a perfect run through Mission Division and celebrated its first league title since 2009. The Knights earned a promotion to the Gabilan, the top tier of the PCAL, with their title. The Knights also beat rival Santa Cruz to regain The Stump trophy on Sept. 9.
St. Francis (9-2, 5-1) suffered an overtime loss at Soledad that prevented the Sharks from a perfect regular season and a second league title in as many years. Still, the Sharks took second and qualified for the CCS playoffs.
Santa Cruz legend Peter Mel inducted into Surfers’ Hall of Fame: Santa Cruz big wave surfer Peter Mel, 52, was inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach on Aug. 5.
Among his many accomplishments, he was barreled by 40- to 45-foot giant at Mavericks on Jan. 8, 2021, and was awarded the 2021 Red Bull Big Wave Ride of the Year.
Surrounded by family at Huntington Surf and Sport, Mel was part of a 2022 induction class that included surf explorer Martin Daly and Sugar Shack Cafe owner Michele Turner.
Santa Cruz native Natalia Grossman climbs to another gold, season title: Santa Cruz native Natalia Grossman, 20, won gold in the women’s boulder competition at the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup in Innsbruck, Austria, on June 24.
Her fifth straight boulder gold helped her secure the overall 2022 IFSC Boulder World Cup title with 5,000 points.
“It hasn’t even sunk in really. I’m speechless!” said Grossman, after taking the season title.
Aptos alum Jared Koenig makes MLB debut against defending World Series champs: Oakland A’s rookie pitcher Jared Koenig, a 28-year-old Aptos High alum, enjoyed nearly every second of his MLB debut at Truist Park in Atlanta on June 8 — even when he was yanked.
And why not? Even though he and the A’s were on the wrong end of a 13-2 loss to the defending World Series champion Braves, Koenig worked his whole life to get a taste of the bigs.
“The dream was fulfilled for sure,” Koenig said.
Santa Cruz surfer Nat Young stays on Championship Tour: Santa Cruz surfer Nat Young survived the midseason cut and finished ranked No. 17 on the World Surf League’s 10-event Championship Tour season with 25,335 points. His showing helped him remain on the CT for the 2023 season.
Scotts Valley’s Jeremy Kain breezes to second at CIF State Track and Field Championships: Heralded distance runner Kain lost his voice ahead of the 102nd CIF State Track and Field Championships. But, thank goodness, he didn’t lose his speed, strength or stamina after graduating from Scotts Valley High on May 26.
Kain took second in the boys’ 1,600-meter race in front of a near-capacity crowd at Buchanan High’s Veterans Memorial Stadium on a windy May 28 evening that quickly went from warm to cold as the sun set.
He finished in 4 minutes, 11.40 seconds, a little more than three seconds off his school-record mark of 4:07.77, set earlier in the season.
The Duke University committed runner added his name next to four other individual school records in track and field last spring, setting or breaking his previous marks in the 800 (1:51.32), 1,500 (3:52.04), mile (4:09.34), and 3,200 (9:11.97).
He won CCS titles in both the 800 and 1,600 in the spring.
Tsunami forces cancellation of surf events: A tsunami, the result of an undersea volcano eruption in the Pacific Ocean near Tonga early Jan. 16, forced the cancellation of Day 1 of the USA Surfing Prime Steamer Lane.
Surfers were in the water for a Santa Cruz Scholastic Surf League event at Pleasure Point when one of the surges hit, creating havoc as they successfully emerged from the water. The event was later canceled.
Scotts Valley’s Kaitlin Imai drains CCS record 13 3-pointers: Scotts Valley High senior Kaitlin Imai put on an electrifying, record-setting shooting display in the Falcons’ 72-56 loss to Santa Cruz on Jan. 21. It will not be forgotten anytime soon. The Cardinals, the defending SCCAL and CCS D-III champion, may have won the league game, but Imai was the talk of the town at game’s end. Imai buried a CCS single-game record 13 3-pointers and finished with a school-record 44 points.