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Tolog triumph gets top spot

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Between the championship exploits of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy soccer and Flintridge Prep boys' basketball, the ascent to state heights by a host of Glendale Community College teams and several local names popping up on the national level, 2011 had plenty of stories worthy of top-10 consideration.

The final voting recognized the Tologs' first-ever CIF Southern Section Division triumph as the tops among them all, but there were many worthy contenders that made the cut and plenty more that didn't. The following is a recap of the sports stories that stood out most and inspired the greatest public interest in the year past.

1 Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy wins CIF Division I soccer title: It was the one piece of the championship puzzle that the Tologs couldn't fit into their landmark 2009-10 campaign, in which they won a first-ever CIF Regional crown, making the CIF Southern Section Division I championship the primary goal when most of the same talented roster regrouped to make another run in 2010-11.

The Tologs would win the ultra-competitive Mission League for a second time and come one win away from repeating as regional champs, but the defining stretch of what stands as the finest season in the program's history was contained in their two-week journey through the sectional playoffs, a story line which commanded front-page attention like none other this year.

The gauntlet began with a 5-1 win over Foothill on Feb. 17 and continued with wins over Aliso Niguel on penalty kicks and a 3-1 triumph over Tesoro. As things tightened up in the semifinals and finals, so did Sacred Heart's defense, which didn't allow a goal the rest of the way. Goals were just as hard for the Tologs to come by as well, making 1-0 game-winners by Alyssa Conti in overtime against Esperanza on March 1 and Krista Meaglia three days later in the finals against San Clemente all the more magical.

The last in a series of playoff road matches deep in Orange County, the title-clinching win over the Tritons contained a little of everything that defined the Tologs' championship run — confidence in the clutch, jaw-dropping defensive plays and sound coaching, both in preparation and making changes on the fly — and saw the undersized school leave a slew of slain giants in its wake to capture its first-ever CIF title.

By the end of the school year, the Tologs' march to the title had garnered nearly every News-Press award and accolade, including Team of the Year, Coach of the Year for Pace and Kathy Desmond and News-Press Female Athlete of the Year and All-Area Girls' Soccer Player of the Year for defender Natalie Zeenni. The team's semifinal win over Esperanza earned the News-Press Game of the Year honor and goalkeeper Lindsey Espe's clutch performance in the playoffs against Aliso Niguel — stopping three penalty kicks in a shootout — was recognized as the top individual performance in a team setting.

2 Glendale Community College baseball rides roller coaster all the way to state tournament: As its season stretched into uncharted territory, the GCC baseball team continually defined itself as a group that thrived on the brink of elimination.

During a run that saw the Vaqueros win their first Western State Conference South Division title since 2002 before clearing the regional round at Stengel Field with a walk-off hit and advancing past the super regional at Rio Hondo College to clinch the program's first state berth under the tournament's current format, thrilling last-inning heroics and lights-out pitching and fielding performances electrified the college and the community at large.

Nothing ever came without suspense, as the conference crown and subsequent playoff berth weren't clinched until the final day of the regular season in an 8-2 win over Bakersfield on April 28. Then, on May 8, the Vaqueros overcame a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning on a two-run double by Chris Stroh to beat Cypress, 9-8, and advance to the Super Regional Tournament.

In the Super Regionals on May 14, Glendale was down once again heading into the ninth inning against top-seeded Rio Hondo, and once again a clutch walk-off hit, this time a two-run homer from Erik Suarez, propelled the Vaqueros to the championship game, which they won, 11-5, the next day to advance to state.

"We're destined — this is destiny," Suarez said. "We should have been out of this tournament last week, easily."

The Vaqueros then came within one win of playing for a state championship in the three-day, four-team state tournament at Bakersfield.

"You get good people and players into a program and you can do some special things," Vaqueros Coach Chris Cicuto said. "It was a great season."

3 Hakop Kaplanyan leads Hoover High water polo to greatest season in school history: The prologue to the third-biggest story of the year was written in the offseason, when Kaplanyan, the area's best player throughout his first three years as a Tornado, confirmed his intention to transfer to archrival Glendale for his senior season. The CIF office did its due diligence on the proposed move, eventually disallowed it on the grounds that it was athletically motivated and the rest is Hoover history.

Under new Coach Kevin Witt, Kaplanyan rededicated himself to the purple and white and put the Tornadoes on his back all the way to the CIF Southern Section Division V semifinals, the furthest the Tornadoes had ever advanced in the playoffs. Kaplanyan enjoyed the best postseason performances of his illustrious career, hitting a game-winner just before the buzzer to lift Hoover to a 14-13 win over Walnut in the opening round before scoring to send the quarterfinal match against Palm Desert to overtime, then sealing the 16-15 win with three more overtime tallies.

"We went to quarterfinals [my sophomore] year and I said to myself I'm not going out in the quarterfinals, I need to get to the semifinals," Kaplanyan said. "[Regulation] last minute, overtime last minute, I'm just there for my team every time."

Unfortunately for the Tornadoes, Kaplanyan would never get a chance to one up himself in the semis, as he was hit with an exclusion in the first quarter of Hoover's loss to Pasadena Poly providing a disappointing ending to an otherwise exhilarating campaign.

4 Crescenta Valley High softball program architect Dan Berry passes away: After building the Falcons softball program from the ground up in 1983 and successfully piloting it to 20 Pacific League titles and a CIF championship in 1986, Berry was as recognizable and revered a coaching icon as any in the area at the time of his death at age 65 on October 26.

The events leading up to Berry's passing — the pair of seizures he suffered in the school's athletic office on Oct. 11 and a subsequent span of several days spent in Verdugo Hills Hospital on a ventilator before finally being transferred to the hospice wing there for his final hours — took the area by surprise and left many clamoring for updates on his condition and prognosis.

On Nov. 19, Berry's life and accomplishments were honored and celebrated at CV by an assembly of friends, colleagues and some of the many former players he coached at CV.

"Coach Berry was one of the most caring people," said Lauren Strangis, a former Falcons player and assistant coach under Berry. "Whether you were still on the team or you had graduated, he'd come out to the games and he was always somebody who was there if needed.

"He had such a vast knowledge for softball and he loved sports in general. He always said that if you put in the effort and continued to learn that you can accomplish anything."

5 Former Vaq Hue Jackson takes over Oakland Raiders: Following his days as a standout quarterback with GCC in the mid-1980s, Jackson spent the ensuing years building a career in coaching — first in the college ranks with USC and other Pac-10 schools as a running backs coach, then as an assistant with several NFL teams before landing the Raiders offensive coordinator position in 2010.

After filling that capacity for one season under Coach Tom Cable, Jackson finally got the call for his first head coaching position after Cable was dismissed following the 2010 season. On Jan. 18, Jackson was announced as the sixth Raiders coach since their 2002 Super Bowl season, the last time the team finished with a winning record or made the playoffs.

"We're going to build a bully here," Jackson said at a Bay Area news conference introducing him as the coach. "This is the Raiders. We know exactly where we're headed and what we want to do. I think our players today are very excited about where they are going."

Jackson's first year leading the Raiders certainly has had its ups and downs, from the passing of longtime team owner and icon Al Davis to the addition of Carson Palmer midseason to replace the injured Jason Campbell at quarterback, not to mention the swings of momentum that saw Oakland leading the division midseason only to fall behind the surging Denver Broncos after a three-game skid. As of press time, the ultimate verdict was still out on the Raiders' season, as they enter the regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday still battling for the AFC West championship and a playoff spot.

6 Flintridge Prep boys' basketball wins first-ever CIF title: With standout center Kenyatta Smith in top form and surrounded by a cast of capable slashers and shooters, the Rebels appeared set up for success in 2011 and didn't disappoint.

An impressive regular season highlighted by a share of its ninth Prep League title in the last 10 years was just the prelude to a deep and dominant playoff run that began with wins over St. Paul, Whitney, Blair and Mission Prep. The Rebels matched up with Muir in the Division V-AA finals on March 5 in what would fittingly prove to be the toughest hurdle in the race for a title.

Smith led the way with 15 points, 17 rebounds and six blocks in a game that saw the Rebels start slow, but rally to claim a 47-44 win at the end of a roller-coaster fourth quarter.

7 Alex Sarkissian turns in epic season to lead GCC men's tennis: The Vaqueros sophomore standout proved himself unbeatable right up until the final match of the season — a 6-2, 6-1 win over College of the Desert's Rodrigo Schaefer to clinch the 2011 California Community College Athletic Assn. state singles championship on May 14.

That victory capped Sarkissian's season singles match record at an amazing 35-0 with a flawless 70-0 set record. He also achieved the rare distinction of winning a singles title at the 2011 California Community College Athletic Assn. Southern California Regional Championships on May 7 and the Ojai Valley Tournament community college singles title on May 1 in addition to the state crown.

Sarkissian and his doubles partner Trevor Campbell were also a force to be reckoned with, as they teamed to win the doubles title at Ojai and were a finalist at state and semifinalist in SoCal.

8 Andy Reid's position at helm of Dream Team quickly turns to season-long hot seat: Leading up to the 2011 NFL season, Reid himself issued more than one public caution against buying into the massive hype surrounding his reloaded Philadelphia Eagles, but few, if any, seemed to heed the former GCC lineman's advice.

Many pundits and fans alike considered the Eagles a surefire contender in the NFC after a string of high profile additions via free agency and trades, but the team never really jelled until the final month of the season, by which point it had been eliminated form playoff contention on Dec. 24.

Having sneaked back into the NFC East title race in December and now having a chance to at least salvage an 8-8 final record with a win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday, Reid may have earned a reprieve from the chorus of calls for his job that mounted with each surprising loss during the team's 4-8 midseason stretch that grabbed national and local headlines on a weekly basis.

9 St. Francis alum Gregg Zaun retires after 16 years in the Major Leagues: Constantly resurfacing, and often finding success, with new teams over the course of his long career, it became hard to picture the day when the rugged veteran catcher would stop playing.

But it finally came when Zaun, amid a comeback attempt from a major shoulder injury suffered in the 2010 season, announced his retirement on March 6 after catching a Spring Training game with the San Diego Padres, which would have been his 10th Major League team.

Zaun broke in with the Baltimore Orioles in 1995 and went on to help the Florida Marlins win the 1997 World Series before enjoying his most productive stretch as a starter with the Toronto Blue Jays from 2003-08.

10 Ronda Rousey takes women's MMA by storm: After making her name as a member of the United States Olympic bronze medalist in women's judo in 2008, Rousey took her skills to the world of women's mixed martial arts in 2011 and has quickly become its biggest story line.

Training out of the Glendale Fighting Club with Edmond Tarverdyan, Rousey has amassed a 4-0 record since making her pro debut in a 25-second win over Ediane Gomez on March 27, winning all of her fights since then in under 50 seconds and all with her signature arm bar.

She made the jump to Strikeforce, the leading women's promotion in the sport, on Aug. 12 and improved to 2-0 there with a 39-second win over Julia Budd on Nov. 18. A showdown with Strikeforce 145-pound champion Christiane "Cyborg" Santos or 135-pound champion Miesha Tate may be in the near future.

With an impressive and devastating skill set coupled with a sharp tongue and good looks, she has quickly become one of the biggest names in the sport's women's division in less than a year's time.

Honorable mention: GCC men's golf team advances to the state tournament for first time; GCC women's golf team reaches the state tournament for first time and loses by one stroke on the final hole; Hoover and Glendale football teams play against each other twice, in the first and last week of the season; Hobbled by injuries and low numbers, the Flintridge Prep football team is forced to cancel two games; GCC women's cross-country team wins the state championship for third time since 2007; Crescenta Valley girls' water polo team reaches CIF semifinals before losing to eventual champion; GCC distance runner Karen Rosas wins three individual state titles in track and field and cross country; Glendale native and former Olympian boxer Hector Lopez dies of drug overdose; California Collegiate League's Glendale Angelenos play inaugural season; Crescenta Valley's Young Tae Seo wins a handful of Masters and CIF swimming titles.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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