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LOREN KOPFF CELEBRATES 25 YEARS AT LOS CERRITOS COMMUNITY NEWS: Late 1990s, Early 2000s Dominated by Area Basketball Teams as Champions Were Crowned

 

June 30, 2022

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series looking back at the past 25 years as a member of Los Cerritos Community News

It’s funny how one random walk through the communications building at California State University, Fullerton in November of 1997 landed me a job at a weekly newspaper in Cerritos. But that’s what happened as I am in the final five months of my 25th year as the sports editor, originally a sportswriter, of the Los Cerritos Community News, which is now the HMG-Community News

Those who know me very well know that I am not from this area. I did not know any of the area high schools, star athletes or youth teams around here. I grew up in San Diego and got my first newspaper job at the La Jolla Light in between stops at Kansas State University and the University of Oklahoma. But one night, while walking through the Communications building at CSUF, I noticed a job opening on the bulletin board for a sportswriter for the Los Cerritos Community News. At the time, the publisher and editor-in-chief was Elizabeth Kamano, who founded the newspaper, and the staff was much larger than it is today. There was an art director, Richard Bartoletti, a receptionist and around 10 staff writers.

My first story, which was in the Nov. 13, 1997 issue was on the Valley Christian High football team defeating Whittier Christian High 21-6 to win its fourth Olympic League title in the 1990s. The next week, I had my first front-page story: the ABC Unified School District receiving an “A+” rating on its bonds from the Standard and Poor’s Credit Wire.

While I would do several non-sports stories in the upcoming months, covering school board and City of Cerritos board meetings, I was settling in with my new territory, the history of the schools I cover and the personnel and of course, the CIF-Southern Section.

I covered Artesia, Cerritos, Gahr, V.C. and Whitney high schools in my first year. The next year, I began covering John Glenn High and Norwalk High and added La Mirada High to my list.

One of my early top sports stories was on the V.C. girls volleyball team, which swept St. Bonaventure High to win the Division IV-A title. Weeks later, the Crusaders, as they were known back in those days, won the program’s first state championship. Also in December of 1997, I was invited by Whitney’s principal at the time, John Vieira, and Ju Yon Kim, the co-editor of the school’s newspaper, as they took me on a tour of the school and it’s new gymnasium during a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The winter season was just getting started and I was quickly introduced to the Artesia boys basketball team, nationally known in the late 1990s. During my first three years covering the program, the Pioneers went 94-8, did not lose a Suburban League game and won a pair of Division 1-AA titles followed by a I-A championship. The team had star players in Jason Kapono, Jack Martinez and Jon Stefansson, among others, and were scoring over 90 points against league opponents 23 times from 1998-2000, including a 144-53 win against Cerritos High on Feb. 11, 2000 that still irks many associated with the Cerritos program.

The last couple of years of the 1990s and the first three of the 2000s weren’t always about the Artesia boys basketball program. The V.C. girls basketball program was also enjoying the spotlight, going to The Pyramid on the campus of California State University, Long Beach for a trio of divisional championship games. The Crusaders lost in the IV-A and IV-AA title games before winning the 1999-2000 IV-AA crown. The program was coached by one of the most respected individuals in the state, and one who I have ever met, Eleanor Dykstra, whose last season coaching the program was the 2005-2006 campaign.

My first feature in the final weeks of that fall was on Jennifer Fopma and Stacy Rouwenhorst, the tall middle blockers from the V.C. girls volleyball team who would later play on the Association of Volleyball Professionals beach circuit. My next feature was for the Feb. 5, 1998 issue and was on Heidi Bork, who broke the Cerritos girls soccer single season scoring record at that time with her 30th tally in a Jan. 20 game against Bellflower High.

After trying for a league title in my first year, the Cerritos girls soccer team would hold down third place in the Suburban League for the next eight seasons and would not get past the first round of the playoffs until 2019.

My first spring season would come and immediately, I had a close bond with the Cerritos softball program and its parents as the Dons went to the Division II championship game, falling to Quartz Hill High 5-2 to finish the season at 25-6. It would be the first of seven seasons a Cerritos softball team would win at least 20 games during my time covering the program. That team was loaded with talent such as Julie Hoshizaki, Lauren Johnson, Jamie O’Neal, Brandi Stuart, Jessica van der Linden, Sara Winters, among others.

A few times during the spring and even more in the summer, I did some stories on several youth teams and clubs throughout the City of Cerritos and a feature on Charles O’Bannon, who at the time was playing for the Detroit Pistons. Again, not being from the area, I did not know he had played high school hoops at Artesia until months after I was with the LCCN.

The most iconic youth team in the late 1990s and into the 2000s would be a soccer team that began playing in the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), coached by Joul Farah. He later formed what would be known as The Dream Team and would be a dominant team for many years. The team would go through several name changes, but for the most part, the players were the same. I was also introduced to the Cerritos Girls Softball Association, where many of its all-stars went to the high schools I cover.

To say that I covered a wide variety of sports within my first year is an understatement. Also, during the summer, I did a few stories on synchronized swimming as American Cup VIII made its way to the Cerritos Olympic Swim Center. I did a feature on swimmer Melissa Wong, who was an eighth-grade student but won a gold medal at the Goodwill Games in the 50-meter freestyle. And my last feature of the summer was on the City of Norwalk’s boxing program.

My first full fall season was here, and I had the Norwalk and V.C. football team advance to the playoffs with Gahr the only other team finishing with a .500 record. I would cover my first water polo event as Whitney edged Cerritos 13-12 in overtime. I would cover my first Mayor’s Cup football game between Glenn and Norwalk and to this day, have not missed the city rivalry tussle regardless of what their records are. The nationally-ranked V.C. girls volleyball team was charging to an unprecedented season for any area team as it finished 33-0 and would be USA Today’s National Champion. And all this happened in my first year with the LCCN.

I was beginning to get into my comfort zone, learning more and more about the schools, the athletic directors, parents, players, community and other personnel. I often called the City of Cerritos my second home as I was living in Long Beach at the time. The 1998-1999 basketball team would be dominated by both Artesia teams, the Cerritos girls, which tied for first place in their inaugural season as a Suburban League member, the Gahr boys, which fell in the Division II-AA finals in Kurt Ruth’s first season with the program and both V.C. squads.

That also meant I was busy at the Arrowhead Pond in March, now known as the Honda Center, as Artesia knocked off Long Beach Poly High while Gahr fell to San Gabriel Valley League nemesis Dominguez High in divisional championship games. For added measure, the previous night was the V.C. girls basketball division IV-AA title game against Morro Bay High.

The 1998-1999 winter season would mark the debut of my All-Area Teams which is completely based on my viewings through an entire season as opposed to league games only. That comes out once the playoffs from each season have been completed. I also covered the announcement of Kapono choosing UCLA as his college during a ceremony at Legend’s in Belmont Shire with other local media on hand.

The story of the 1999 spring season would be the Cerritos softball team, which won the first of back to back Division II championships, Gahr softball going 20-8-1, its baseball team capping off an impressive 24-6 season and a trip to the quarterfinals and Whitney softball winning a Delphic League championship and going to the quarterfinals during a 21-8 season.

The summer of 1999 would be my first covering the Artesia Punishers travel softball team and, at the time, they were part of the Amateur Softball Association. It was also my first time covering the 605 All-Star Football Classic, summer league basketball games and the girls volleyball Prep Nationals.

Cerritos football would have a breakthrough 1999 season, going 6-4 while in cross country, Norwalk boys and Cerritos girls were continuing to dominate the Suburban League. One of my more polarizing features late in the fall season was on Sally Witt, a junior outside hitter for V.C.’s volleyball team who was born without a left hand but playing as if it was no big deal.

That volleyball season also saw a thriller of an end of the season match between Glenn and Mayfair High with the Suburban League title on the line. Mayfair would prevail in five sets, 15-12, 13-15, 18-20, 15-12, 15-5. At that time, it was Mayfair’s 47th straight league win. That streak would later be another of my top stories.

The end of 1999 saw the Artesia boys basketball team fall to Dominguez in the Best in the West Invitational at The Gold Mine on the CSULB campus, just three days after it was ranked first in the nation by USA Today. Later in that winter season, the up and coming Artesia girls soccer team edged Cerritos 2-1 in overtime. While the Pioneers would have to wait until 2009 to get the school’s first playoff berth, they finished tied for third place in Suburban League.

In girls basketball, a game-winning shot from Lindsey Thomas with eight seconds remaining gave Artesia a 55-54 win over Cerritos, leaving the two as co-champions of the Suburban League. Division champions were crowned for the Artesia boys and V.C. girls basketball teams. But there would be a storm brewing for the Artesia boys basketball program.

The Mar. 23, 2000 issue would have my story on the ABCUSD selecting a three-person panel to investigate the eligibility of Martinez, who is from the Dominican Republic, and Stefansson, who hails from Finland. Later, Artesia’s back to back to back CIF titles were stripped, and the Pioneers were forced to forfeit those 94 victories as the school was found to be in several CIF violations, including undue influence. That would soon be followed by a cleaning of the house from several of the school’s personnel.

Cerritos softball won its second straight division title while the Gahr boys volleyball team, seeking the program’s first divisional championship, fell to Mater Dei High in five sets to wrap up the spring season. The Artesia basketball scandal was taking a different turn as the school was now looking beyond the investigation and a new system for incoming students was to be implemented.

I would have my busiest summer in my brief time with the LCCN as I covered the Los Angeles Watts summer games, American Legion baseball and went to St. Ann, MO for the USA/ASA Gold Nationals in which numerous area softball players were with their respective teams. I did features on Cerritos quarterback Glenn DeBerg, the nephew of former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg, former Gahr girls volleyball coach Sonny Okamoto and his Cal Juniors club team and Heath Sims, a Cerritos College wrestler finally going to the Olympics.

On Aug.15, Artesia officially hired Scott Pera to replace Wayne Merino as its boys basketball coach and shortly after that I had my first long interview with him. Later in the year, I did my first of several features over these past 25 years on Cerritos resident Jon Nielsen, who at the time was playing for the Birmingham Bolts of the XFL.

Despite the distractions surrounding the Artesia boys basketball program, the 2000-2001 team advanced to the quarterfinals while the girls had its first unbeaten league mark as the Fast Ladies, as they were known, won the Division II-A championship.

Highlights from the 2001 spring season were the Cerritos boys swimming team claiming the Division IV crown, its first in school history, a dozen area track and field athletes advancing to the state finals in Sacramento, the V.C. baseball team winning the Division V championship with a 6-1 win over Olympic League rival Whittier Christian and the Norwalk softball team finishing in second place in the Suburban League and advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

During the summer of 2001, the V.C. community lost former girls volleyball head coach Gladys Rouwenhorst, who lost her battle with colon cancer. I did a feature on Gahr track and field star Angel Perkins who set a world record in the 200 meter dash with a time of 23.07 and was part of the 4×100 medley team that included Olympian Allyson Felix that posted a world record time of 2:03.93.

The fall season of 2001 would see the cancellation of several sporting events after the attacks from Sept. 11. One of those would have been the Sept. 14 football game between Artesia and Gahr. That was also the last season Gahr football was in the SGVL before going to freelance status for the next four seasons. That football season would also see Cerritos upset La Mirada, the top team in Division VI, 28-17. The Dons, led by running back Jermaine Whiten, finished tied for first place in the Suburban League.

As I was entering my fifth year with the LCCN, the Artesia girls basketball team was becoming one of the nation’s best, playing several top teams like Long Beach Poly and Narbonne High. That experience would help the Pioneers to a 26-6 record and a Division III-AA championship, the second of three titles for the program.

The 2001-2002 Cerritos boys basketball season would be the final one for Ian Desborough, who left with 450 victories in nearly 40 years of coaching. He was the school’s first boys basketball head coach.

The May 16, 2002 issue would have a story on another Artesia athletic program under scrutiny as this time, it was former baseball head coach Scott Luke, who was placed on administrative leave following allegations of impropriety. The Cerritos boys swimming team won the Division IV championship and Nathan Adkins made history as the first Cerritos track and field athlete to win a state championship. He did that in the triple jump with a mark of 49’ 7 ¾”. Perkins and V.C.’s Justin Grasmeyer also medaled in the state championships.

I did a feature in the June 6, 2002 issue on former Cerritos soccer star Eddie Lewis and one week later, a feature on Gahr softball player Salina Weaver, who was involved in a horrible car accident four months earlier on the 605 Freeway, had to be removed by the “Jaws of Life” and was in the HealthBridge Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital for months.

Despite all that, she was able to graduate with her friends.

The rest of the summer continued with more coverage of the Artesia Punishers and other area players with their travel softball teams, the CGSA, Norwalk Pony All-Stars, summer basketball and Cerritos club soccer.

The highlight of the 2002 football season would be former V.C. head coach Mike Wunderley winning his 200th game, a 75-28 victory against St. Bernard High.

Then there was the girls volleyball playoffs and the infamous “Team Nancy” second round match between Gahr and Mayfair High. Gahr had entered Mayfair’s gymnasium to see a banner that read “Welcome Team Nancy” referring to Gahr’s Nancy Marin, who had 43 kills against La Serna High in the previous playoff match.

The Gladiators would upset Mayfair, a team filled with club players, 5-15, 16-14, 15-7, 13-15, 15-10 as Marin posted another 42 kills.

The fall season would end with the Cerritos College football team, which I had covered a few times within my first five years, hosting Saddleback College in the Strawberry Bowl.

It was the fifth straight season the Falcons have hosted the postseason event.

And all of this, plus more in my first five years as the sportswriter, then sports editor of the LCCN.

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