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STATE OF NORWALK HIGH ATHLETICS: Norwalk hoping most of its athletic programs can stay near the top of revamped league

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter • June 17, 2020

This is the fifth in a series of stories on the athletic programs of the area high schools from the past 15-20 years and the immediate future of most of those sports. Each story will have comments from that school’s athletic director, or one of the co-athletic directors on most, if not, all the sports that school competes in.

Next up is Norwalk High, a school whose athletic program across the board has taken a hit the past two years since the Suburban League was dismantled. Even with the defection of Artesia High, Cerritos High and John Glenn High following the 2017-2018 school year, the Lancers have found it’s a big tougher to get an automatic berth to the postseason in a lot of the sports, given that La Mirada High and Mayfair High figure to be the top two in almost every sport.

Still, the athletic program can breathe some type of relief as Firebaugh High has joined the league in just about every sport, thus making the top three in a five-member league advancing to the playoffs instead of the top two in a four-team league. Jim Webster, who was an assistant athletic director during the 2001-2002 school year, took over the full duties beginning with the 2002-2003 school year. Recently, he started his second stint in that position, but as a co-athletic director alongside David Snyder.

“Overall, I think it’s sport by sport as far as Norwalk success,” Webster said of the revamped Suburban League. “But as far as overall for the league, it may have helped John Glenn and Artesia by leaving to be more successful. It did affect us, I think, more than maybe we were going to realize. I wasn’t involved in the athletic department back then when the decisions were made.

“I know those schools wanted to leave, but I just wished we would have had a backup plan to have maybe more schools so [there would have been] a deeper league, which would benefit us,” he continued.

FOOTBALL

Beginning with 1999, the Lancers missed the playoffs eight straight years while going through four head coaches. One of them was Dean Gray, who was committed to only three years, wanting to get the numbers up and simplify everything, according to Webster. He wanted to establish a running program rather than being a passing team. In the third of those three years, he took Norwalk the playoffs, which began a streak of 11 consecutive seasons of going to the playoffs.

“It seems like we’ve always had some pretty big linemen to use up front,” Webster said. “So, I think using that as an advantage for us and control the ball [and] not too much pressure on the defense kind of have been the philosophies for those coaches, and I think it works for Norwalk High School.”

The highlight of those 11 seasons was a trip to the CIF-Southern Section finals in 2013 under former head coach Jesse Ceniceros. He would compile a record of 58-28 in his seven years at Norwalk, along with two trips to the semifinals and two more to the quarterfinals. Since then, the program has won 22 games in the past five years.

Webster believes one of the reasons for the 0-10 season of 2018, the lone winless campaign in over 20 years, was because the numbers were decreasing at the lower levels and it was beginning to catch up to former head coach Otis Harrison.

“We’re trying to get the numbers up, and if you have the numbers up, you have more to choose from and [there’s] more competition and players are going to get better,” Webster said. “I had the same thing in basketball where you have a freshmen team and then by the end the season, you have nine kids. Then as they go through, you have two of them remaining. In football, you can’t function like that at all because you need the numbers.”

Webster is hopeful that there will be football this season, but isn’t sure what the turnout will be because of the COVID-19 situation. Gray is in his second stint as the head coach and went 3-7 last season, including going winless in three league games. The school recently got a report that said the new football stadium is about 30 percent done. A lot of the foundation as far as the ground level is already done.

“As for the new stadium, we’re extremely looking forward to it,” Webster said. “Even without the virus, we probably weren’t going to play in it this year. It’s probably going to be done by the end of November or December, hopefully.”

GIRLS VOLLEYBALL

The program has averaged a coach for every two years since 2000 and has made the playoffs nine times, never getting past the first round except for 2013 and 2015 under former head coach Jessie Gonzalez, who went 43-38 in four seasons. But the program did go 57-46 from 2014-2017, the best four-year record in the past 20 years. In fact, the program has had double digit victories six times since 2005.

“I think the major challenge for our girls volleyball, and many of our sports, is that probably nine out of 10 girls who are going to play for Norwalk don’t play club,” Webster said. “In volleyball, to be competitive quickly, that would be a major improvement if we had more of our incoming kids already having experience at that level; if they were able to play for even two years, would be extremely beneficial. I’ve seen our tryouts; we have a lot of girls trying out. It’s definitely not a numbers problem. But it’s definitely a quality of experience problem where we’re just behind the 8-ball as far as the number of girl athletes playing club volleyball and stepping right in and being able to compete with some of the local schools.”

Current head coach Eric Lorn has been at that position for three years and has won 28 matches with one trip to the playoffs. No other former head coach has more than 14 victories during their time with the Lady Lancers except for Gonzalez. In fact, the program had seen two winning seasons (2001, 2005) in the past 20 seasons before Gonzalez took over.

GIRLS TENNIS

When the Suburban League was at seven members, everyone except Cerritos, which had won 16 straight league titles, was aiming towards second place. Norwalk, which shared the 2014 crown with Cerritos, claimed second place the year before and the year after. In the past 18 seasons, the program has won 112 league matches and lost 96. A lot of that can be credited from the teaching of former head coach Jesus De La Torre.

“Probably one of the best hires I ever made was hiring coach De La Torre to take over tennis,” Webster said. “Obviously, he’s a great motivator and organizer of students and he undoubtedly puts the time in with those kids. We went on a great run with the boys and the girls in making the playoffs, moving up the ladder a little bit. I think we established ourselves as the predominant second place team behind Cerritos.”

Since De La Torre retired, the program has struggled a bit with the hiring of several young coaches. The numbers are a little bit better with the girls than they are with the boys.

CROSS COUNTRY

Webster calls this probably the most consistent program at Norwalk besides boys soccer and says that across the board, this is one of the main sports where all the kids come in equal across the league.

“If you can put in the time and the dedication to become a great runner, we have the coaches,” Webster said. “When I first got there, we had Carl Van Gorden, all the way to coach James Maynard and now coach [Ralph] Casas with the girls…he’s turned them around. We’ve had some great success with those kids in cross country as well as track. Usually if you have success in cross country, you’re probably going to have success in track in the distance events.”

Van Gorden coached the boys in the early 2000s while Steve Salcedo was with the girls. Casas became the head coach in 2013. Under Maynard, the boys program won the Suburban League in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. The girls won three straight league titles from 2015-2017 with one of the top moments coming when Misty Diaz became the first female runner in school history to advance to the CIF State Championships. She would earn a medal by coming in sixth place

BOYS BASKETBALL

The program has seen three head coaches since 2000 and nobody knows the program more than Webster, who was the head coach from the 2002-2003 season to the 2015-2016 campaign. During that time, he took seven teams to the playoffs, but advanced to the second round once. He had four winning seasons, three straight in one stretch, and finished as high as second place. In the previous three seasons before he took over for former head coach Jim Dion, the Lancers had gone 13-62.

“When I came over with coach Dion; he brought me over, I was going to be an assistant for a year and then take over the program,” Webster remembers. “I didn’t know it was going to be that hard. I had come from Montebello and played at Montebello and we had just won league, [and] we won a playoff game, I was an assistant coach there and we were always competitive. When I came over to the Suburban League, and I saw the competition, even before I took the job, [I knew] this was a place where you could make a name for yourself. There’s so much talent in the league.”

Even though the program has gone 207-330 since 2000, Webster calls this another popular sport on campus with a handful of the students coming in already having experience. He says the program isn’t too far behind, but what could slow the Lancers down would be the numbers.

“Obviously, we’re limited in size most years,” he said. “This [past] year, we had one player over six feet and he hardly played. He’s a junior, so some of those things are hard to overcome sometimes when you’re playing bigger, faster guys.”

Replacing Webster following the 2015-2016 was current head coach Brent Campanelli, who had won at least 11 games in three non-playoff seasons before this past season when Norwalk went 18-12 and advanced to the quarterfinals. But again, with La Mirada and Mayfair favored to take the top two spots, there is little wiggle room for the program to reach the playoffs on a consistent basis.

“Whether we can make the top two and automatically qualify is tough,” Webster said. “We’ve competed with those teams and at the end of the game, they end up just being a little bit better. I think we’ll have a winning record. I think we’re at the point where we can have a winning season.”

Webster says if the program can have consistency with its lower level teams, then the varsity teams can maintain the run that it’s on and keep backing it up as you go along.

GIRLS BASKETBALL

Just like the boys program, the beginning of the 2000s began with an ominous start as former head coach Babita Singh took over and promptly went 1-25. Seven years later, the dean of the Suburban League at the time, Richard Drake, who had also coached at John Glenn, took over and would turn the program around, winning at least 12 games in each of the six seasons he was the head coach, getting to the playoffs each time and claiming a share of the league title in 2013, his last season at Norwalk.

“Their trajectory is very similar to the boys program, obviously culminating with that league championship,” Webster said. “One thing I can say about the girls program [is it’s] one of the hardest working programs in the school. And, from Babita as coach to Ashley now, they’ve all kind of piggybacked each other.”

There have been two head coaches since Drake, including current head coach Ashley Baclaan, who has taken three straight teams to the playoffs, never getting out of the first round. With 223 wins in the past 20 years, this is the third winningest program on campus.

Webster added that a lot of the girls who come in don’t have much travel experience, but maybe have played recreation ball or in middle school. Because of that, there is a tremendous amount of offseason training to get the girls up to par, as he puts it, to compete in the league.

“Mayfair is solid, and I’ve watched a lot of those games because they play before us,” Webster said. “But between Bellflower and La Mirada and us, we definitely compete for that second spot. In that respect, the league is a little bit easier than their [overall] schedule. I’m not sure how they’re doing at the lower levels this year. But again, it’s about they’re really putting in the time to develop those freshmen and sophomores so they can be ready as juniors and seniors to compete.”

BOYS SOCCER

This is by far the most successful program at Norwalk, one that has seen only two head coaches, won 271 games in 20 years, claimed nine league titles, and finished in second place five times. The program has had three losing seasons from 2004 and has missed the playoffs twice.

The architect of the program since the 2003-2004 season has been head coach Vinson Pluma, who has taken four teams to the quarterfinals and the 2016-2017 squad to the semifinals.

“Again, one of the hardest working programs,” Webster said. “The season ends, and you can wait a few weeks and they’ll be out there kicking the ball around, getting loose and just doing the little things to get better. But on the other hand, the kids come in with a lot of talent. You see the freshmen team, the sophomores and junior varsity teams are dominant as well. So, we have a lot of talent across the board and coach Pluma takes them to that next level to try to get that elusive CIF championship.”

The only two times Norwalk was not in the playoffs, it finished in last place in league. Since then, the program has been above fourth place 11 times in the past 15 years. Even though Norwalk won the league title this past season, it went 6-2, meaning that there will be stiff competition in the league even though Norwalk may be considered the cream of the crop.

GIRLS SOCCER

Of the major programs at Norwalk, this is the only one not to have a winning season in over 20 years yet has advanced to the postseason twice. In 2009, Norwalk finished 11-11-3 and played in its first ever playoff game. Five years later, the program advanced to the playoffs again but ended that season at 9-11-3.

“It’s hard to say if we’re stuck in the mud,” Webster said. “Again, it’s a program where a limited number of our girls play before they come to high school. When you’re trying to compete at that level with Mayfair and La Mirada where there’s so much experience in their freshman year, it’s a lot to catch up. I know [our girls] are working hard and whichever girls show up…they’re trying to improve [the program].”

The program has seen seven head coaches in 20 years, but current head coach Augustin Ojeda seems to be what the program has been looking for. He will be entering his sixth season later this winter, more than any of the previous six coaches, and has won 29 games, three fewer than former head coach Wendy DeVries did in her five seasons from 2005-2006 to 2009-2010.

Webster believes the program is on the right track. He has talked to Ojeda who tells Webster the program is getting closer and closer. Sometimes, the program is not having that one player who can score a lot.

WRESTLING

According to Webster, this has been a roller coaster program over the past 20 years, and he added that this is another sport where there has been some experience with the incoming freshmen. Francisco Soto, who had been the head coach up until the 2014-2015 season, returned about a year and a half ago to help turn the program around. The current head coach is Gary Osburn.

“Coach Soto is a great coach, but he needs the numbers,” Webster said. “And it’s a numbers game with him. Even as successful as he has been and even when we’ve won league championships, he’s always trying to get numbers; trying to get players to come out. It’s a tough, grueling sport.”

BASEBALL

The program has been somewhat up and down, especially in the past five years because the Lancers have been unable to field a freshmen team. Webster says that some of the incoming freshmen who have been playing recreational ball for the city should be playing on a freshmen team instead of junior varsity. But because the numbers have been inconsistent, the school doesn’t have a freshmen team.

“We’re hoping with the new baseball field, lights…that’s the other thing with practice the last 20 years, we’ve had one field,” Webster said. “Our freshman team was at Excelsior [High School] for a number of years, then at Holifield [Park]. So, it’s been difficult for that program to be successful. But I think with the baseball field coming in with lights, you can run three practices if you needed to for three programs separately, or combo in some way.”

Before the pandemic shut everything down, the Lancers were 4-4 and had already equaled the win output of last season. Head coach William Wenrick was in his sixth season and has lasted longer than the previous seven coaches before him since 2000.

Webster said even with the new baseball field, it still might take a few more years before the program can get back to the playoffs. But Wenrick played at Norwalk and was successful at the school and won a CIF championship. He also coached the freshman team for several years and was successful there.

The program hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2013 and hasn’t had a winning mark since that same season. In addition, this is one of three major programs not to have won a league title since 2000. From 2009-2013, the program went a combined 61-66 with four straight trips to the playoffs.

“I just think overall, how many kids are playing baseball, how many kids in the area are playing baseball…we’re not getting that depth in the freshmen class every year to really build up a quality program,” Webster said. “There are a lot of times we’re rushing the kids through…you have to play varsity as a sophomore. You may not be ready, but we need you. It’s hard to develop kids like that. But if we can get a couple of consecutive deep freshmen classes, I think we’ll be on our way.”

SOFTBALL

With 246 victories since 2000, this is the school’s second winningest program. Half a dozen coaches have overseen the program and 12 teams have advanced to the playoffs with the 2016 and 2018 teams getting to the quarterfinals.

“If you look at all the developmental leagues in Norwalk, softball is one of the best,” Webster said. “When I was the assistant coach in 2015 and 2016, I was like, ‘wow, these girls are tough; these girls are good’. I’ve seen them at a lot of games, but when you see them at practices every day and you see what they can do, and you see how athletic they are and how tough they are…you realize how dedicated they are to the game.”

All six coaches, including current head coach David Gonzalez, have put a team into the playoffs and the 2001 team under Amy Day and the 2007 and 2009 teams under Paulette Gasporra all won 19 games in that respective season. The program, though, has been up and down recently going from 15-10 to 7-17 to 13-11 to 2-12 to 6-3 over the past five years.

BOYS VOLLEYBALL/BOYS TENNIS

Both programs have had some success over the past 18 seasons with volleyball winning league championships in 2010 and 2019 as well as finishing in every spot above seventh place at least once in the other seasons.

“It’s about getting the kids out,” Webster said. “I think we’ve only been playing volleyball for [18] years. So, you get, what we’ve done, some basketball players out there; we’ve gotten some soccer players out there after their seasons and anyone else. If you can get some athletes out there that can learn the basics of volleyball, we can be successful.”

While boys tennis has yet to claim a league title since 2003, the program has gone 107-89 in league competition with third place being the most popular landing spot with eight finishes. Overall, Webster says the program is a little bit down than girls tennis in terms of the numbers right now.

TRACK AND FIELD

Webster says this is one of the most difficult programs to run and practice every day because any kind of weather will ruin your track.

“You can’t run effectively on a track where there were footprints,” he said. “So, that’s one of the main problems, and getting enough coaches out there to help whoever the head coach is, because you need so many coaches for sprints, throwers and jumps. Not every year that’s possible. But I think with the new stadium; the new track [surface] a lot of that will become easier.”

In addition, Webster said the program also needs to get athletes from other sports to come out and perform in track and field and have a good time.

Norwalk does not have a water polo or swimming program, but if it did, Webster says he would have been the head coach.

“As a former water polo player and swimmer in high school, I would love to see that,” Webster said. “I don’t know how many years ago, it might have been 12 or 13 years ago, we came very close to trying to get a swim team out of the city. It was in discussion, but it was going to be hard. So, it never happened. But, it’s tough to tell as far as the interest. I do hear kids, because I teach [physical education], ‘oh, I wish we had a pool because I would swim’. But it’s hard to tell what the numbers would be like. It would be a slow growth if we ever did it.”

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