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LOREN KOPFF CELEBRATES 25 YEARS AT LOS CERRITOS COMMUNITY NEWS-PROGRAMS RISE WHILE OTHERS TAKE A FEW STEPS BACK DURING THE MIDDLE YEARS PROGRAMS RISE WHILE OTHERS TAKE A FEW STEPS BACK DURING THE MIDDLE YEARS

By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

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

Throughout the middle years of my 25 years at the Los Cerritos Community News, I covered several athletic programs making waves to become respectable while those who were on top of their leagues, or even the CIF-SS, would find that it’s not easy being the favorites.

The last of December 2007 saw both the Gahr High and V.C. High girls basketball teams take part in the Gahr Xmas Classic. While V.C. would win three straight games to claim the consolation championship, the Gladiators lost to Dominguez High in the third place game; 60 fouls called, a combined 90 trips to the free throw line and seven players fouling out. Gahr converted 38 of 60 free throws in a 67-63 loss.

Weeks later, Norwalk High’s girls basketball team defeated city rival John Glenn High 61-35. The significance of that victory was it was the first win over the Eagles in five years and gave the Lancers, with first-year head coach Richard Drake, who once coached at Glenn, a step up in what would be the first of eight straight trips to the CIF-Southern Section divisional playoffs. Eventually, the Lancers would end up with the program’s first winning season since the 1994-1995 campaign.

Staying with the City of Norwalk theme, the Glenn girls soccer team edged Norwalk 2-1 for the consolation championship of its own tournament. The game was decided on penalty kicks (5-4) and was one of 13 wins on the season for Glenn, which would get to the playoffs for the second straight season. Tough times would haunt the program after the 2007-2008 season as it has not been back to the playoffs and has won a combined 23 games in the past 14 seasons.

That season, I did a small article on current Artesia High girls basketball head coach Mollie Williams signing her letter of intent to play at the University of Washington. Three games after making the announcement, Williams scored 22 points to help the Pioneers snap a nine-game winning streak by Cerritos High in a 55-45 win.

The V.C. boys basketball team would win the Alpha League of the Gold Coast Conference, the program’s first league title since 1991, and would advance to the Division IV-A championship game where it would knock off Twentynine Palms High 60-45. The Crusaders, under head coach Bryan Branderhorst, who was in his second of 12 seasons at the helm, completed the season with a 27-4 mark.

One of the highlights of the spring came from Glenn where the baseball team finished with a 15-11 record and advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Gahr’s softball team would lose to Trabuco Hills High in the quarterfinals of the prestigious Woodbridge Tournament. The Gladiators would later win their second straight San Gabriel Valley League title and advance to the quarterfinals.

The Cerritos boys tennis team would be the top seed for the Division IV playoffs and defeated Rowland High 10-8 in the final match for head coach Jim Chapel, who had been at Cerritos for 18 seasons. Meanwhile, both Cerritos swimming teams would finish in second place in the CIF-SS Division III finals while the Cerritos College softball team claimed its second state championship defeating Mt. San Antonio College 5-1.

At the CIF State Track and Field Championships, Gahr’s Aaron Bradley finished in a tie for second place in the long jump with a mark of 23’ 1 ¼ “, which he accomplished on his sixth and final jump. He was trying to become the school’s fourth state champion.

In June, the Cerritos Girls Softball Association’s 10-Under All-Stars won the Amateur Softball Association’s Los Angeles/South Bay District ‘B’ Tournament and eventually advanced to the Western Nationals while that team and 14-Under All-Stars advanced to the State Championships, which were held in San Diego in conjunction with the 20th Annual California State Games. The Artesia Punishers 18-Under travel softball team would compete in the ASA Nationals in Moline, IL while the 16-Under team was heading to the Western Nationals in Portland and the 14-Under team going to Clovis for the Western Nationals.

Vince LaRosa would be Artesia football’s head coach for one season in the fall, but guided the Pioneers to a 7-4 record, a second place finish in the Suburban League and the program’s fourth trip to the playoffs in five seasons. Gahr was heading to the postseason for the second straight season, and that wasn’t the big news coming from the Gladiators.

Quarterback Corey Nielsen was climbing up the Nielsen Ratings, no pun attended, and would be an Old Spice Red Zone Player of the Year. Nielsen passed for 3,032 yards, good for fourth most in the state for the 2008 season, and 30 touchdowns.

The Gladiators even defeated longtime SGVL favorite Dominguez 42-35 for the program’s first win over the Dons since 1993. While the numbers were piling up for the Gahr program, the same was being done at Norwalk under first-year head coach Jesse Ceniceros, who guided the team to an 8-5 mark and a trip to the semifinals with his double wing offensive running attack.

The biggest news in volleyball was longtime Gahr head coach and legend Sonny Okamoto missed the playoffs for the first time in 23 seasons. Gahr had a 13-14 season and tied for third place in the SGVL.

The Cerritos boys water polo team would win the program’s third CIF-SS divisional title after taking care of Malibu High 13-6 in Division IV action.

The boys basketball season would begin with Cerritos slamming Gahr 90-67 in the annual December city tilt. From 1999 to 2008, neither team had won by more than 12 points or scored 90 points.

The 2008-2009 season would also see Gahr tie for third place in the SGVL but make it to the Division III-A finals where it would lose to Harvard-Westlake High 87-75. Two games into the state playoffs, the teams would meet again where Gahr lost to the Wolverines again, this time 97-77.

In girls basketball, Norwalk was slowly showing that it can compete with the big targets of the Suburban League and in early January, the Lancers stunned the defending champions, Cerritos 45-42 for the program’s first win over the Dons. Cerritos would avoid the season-sweep a few weeks later and finish in second place while Norwalk clinched fourth place.

The biggest story coming out of girls soccer was Artesia, which went to the playoffs for the first time in school history after finishing 10-10-2 overall and 6-6 in league. The Pioneers would fall to Laguna Beach High 2-1 in overtime but would mark the beginning of eight straight trips to the postseason. Also in girls soccer, V.C. went back to the finals for the third time in five seasons but this time, fell to South Torrance High.

The Punishers and the CGSA would host the Calgary Diamond Devils for a two-day event at Artesia Park that was set up by Bob Medina, president of the Punishers, and Dave George of the San Diego Power Surge. In girls water polo, Cerritos earned the program’s first CIF-SS divisional crown when the Dons defeated Warren High 10-9.

As the winter season ended, I would do one last feature on former Cerritos three-sport athlete Lauren Kamiyama, who left Chapman University as the school’s all-time leader in assists (424) and steals (242), which still stands, and three-pointers (174), which is currently third best. She played in 106 games, which is currently tied for the fourth most by any Panther player.

Gahr’s attempt for a third straight league crown in softball would come to an end as the Gladiators stumbled to an 11-16 record, third place and a wild card playoff loss. In contrast, Norwalk sent shockwaves through the Suburban League and shared a piece of the Suburban League title as part of a 19-9 overall record. The only blemish to Norwalk’s perfect league mark would be a 7-0 loss to La Mirada High, which at that time, was the recipient of a ninth straight league title. It wouldn’t be until this past spring that the program would eclipse that win total by one.

Also in the spring of 2009, Whitney High failed to put together a softball team, the first time it happened to the program in my tenure at the LCCN. In track and field, Bradley would make a return visit to the state preliminaries and would be joined by Artesia’s Aaron Craver, Gahr’s Shaan Johnson and both Artesia 4 x 400 relay teams.

At the end of the spring season, I did a feature on V.C.’s Eleanor Dykstra, who was retiring as the school’s longtime athletic director, something she had done for nearly 40 years. On July 1, former Mayfair High athletic director Zac Chan would take over.

Later in the summer, I interviewed another former area baseball player who was in the Major’s. First it was Kirk Saarloos (V.C./Oakland A’s). This time, it was Kris Medlen, ex of Gahr and the Atlanta Braves. I would catch up with Medlen when the Braves were facing the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.

The football season was here and three games in, a coaching change was made at Artesia where Joe Veach took over as Aaron Craver was forced to resigned after not letting one of his assistants do the play calling at the request of principal Sergio Garcia. Veach would be the program’s head coach for the next seven full seasons.

Gahr would capture the Silver Milk Barrel with wins over Artesia and Cerritos and get to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. The Gladiators, though, would not see the playoffs again until 2016. Norwalk would post the most wins the program would have (11) but fell in the semifinals for the second straight season. This time, Garden Grove High ended Norwalk’s dream in a 35-23 decision.

Off the gridiron, Artesia would make changes to William J. Atkins Stadium as the dirt track would be replaced with the more common all-weather surface. The wood-splintered bleachers were replaced with the current metal bleachers and a vertical fence now stands where a chained fence once stood prior to the 2010 season.

In girls volleyball, Cerritos played to a remarkable 25-4 season, a perfect league mark and a trip to the Division III-A finals under head coach Khanh Vo. The Dons would lose to Mayfield High in four sets.

The 2009-2010 winter season would see an improving Norwalk boys program, under the tutelage of head coach Jim Webster, who was in his eighth season, but was about to post 16 wins, the most for the program up to that point and a number that held until the 2019-2020 season. Among the highlights of that season were the Lancers going to the semifinals of the Leon Davis Holiday Classic at Whittier Christian High and finishing in a tie for second place in league.

The Gahr boys team began the season with 14 straight wins on its way to a 27-6 campaign and a trip to the semifinals in the playoffs. In a rare feat, the Gladiators swept the season series from Dominguez.

When Glenn visited Norwalk late in the season, it was one of the worst offensive performances from Glenn, the Eagles connected on five field goals but still held on for a 41-38 victory thanks in part to shooting 30 of 47 from the free throw line and Norwalk turning the ball over 40 times.

The V.C. girls made a return trip to the finals for the first time since 2004 but lost to Serra High 66-47 and in boys soccer action, Norwalk lost a quarterfinal game for the second time in five seasons despite its second straight league crown.

In the pool, the Cerritos girls water polo team made it two championships in a row with a 10-9 win over La Quinta High.

Towards the end of the baseball season, Norwalk’s attempt of a rare season sweep over La Mirada was foiled when Kyle Harper tossed a complete game four-hitter in an 8-0 win. Also in baseball, Gahr wrapped up a 20-11 season by going to the semifinals.

Gahr softball was clinging to third place and a trip to the playoffs but had to forfeit four league games because of the use of an ineligible player and would up 5-20, the program’s worst record in over 25 seasons.

And in track and field, only the Gahr boys 4 x 400 relay team of Jereme Hicklen, Delshawn McClellon, Josh Perkins and Dwayne Washington advanced to the Masters Meet.

The summer of 2010 would mark the first and only time that the USA/ASA 18-U ‘A” Nationals were held in SoCal. The destination for the Artesia Punishers would be Hemet and the newly opened Diamond Valley Lake Community Park.

The biggest news from the fall season was the Artesia girls volleyball team finishing with a 10-14 overall record, and 6-6 in league, good enough for the program’s first trip to the playoffs since 1996. To this point, the 10 wins are the most by any Artesia girls volleyball team in my time covering the program and the Pioneers would not reach the playoffs again until 2021. Only three area volleyball teams would get to the playoffs, none getting out of the second round, and only the La Mirada and Norwalk football teams advanced to the postseason.

Early in the girls basketball season, Glenn won the consolation championship of its own co-hosted tournament with Norwalk while in the V.C. Tournament, Gahr and the host Crusaders met in the final pool play game for the right to play in the championship game. Gahr would win the battle of Artesia Blvd., then fall to North Torrance High in the finals.

The Suburban League would get a change in its scheduling format for its basketball games as the customary girls/boys varsity doubleheader was replaced with the girls at one site and the boys at the other site. The move was partly made for financial reasons and partly to give varsity coaches to watch their lower level teams more.

In boys basketball, it was Richard Roper’s first season as Gahr’s head coach and all he did was take the Gladiators to the Division II-A championship game where his team defeated Mayfair 63-48 for the school’s first title. Gahr would end that season with a 26-8 record and the program would not record another season of at least 20 wins until four years later.

The Artesia girls soccer team was enjoying its best league season in school history and when it was all said and done, the Pioneers had won a school record 10 league contests and finished in second place. However, the team would get bounced out in the first round of the playoffs.

In softball, Cerritos prepared for its home and home series with La Mirada by having Kaylani Minami, then a sophomore, and Rachel Fitterer, then a freshman, combine on a no-hitter in a 12-0 win against Bellflower High. The Dons would end the season as co-champions of the league as they beat La Mirada 2-0 for their first win over the Matadores since May 5, 2000.

A month before school ended, I interviewed another V.C. coaching legend as longtime football head coach Mike Wunderley, who last coached the Crusaders in 2002, was retiring as an administrator of the school.

The V.C. boys volleyball team would get the program’s second CIF-SS divisional title in defeating Burroughs High in four sets while Cerritos’ Neehar Thakor and V.C.’s Jesse Boom advanced to the Masters Meet in the pole vault and high jump respectively.

In the summer, history was made with a pair of CGSA All-Star teams as the 10-Under “Swag” and 14-Under “Impact” teams qualified for the ASA ‘B’ State Championships, marking the first time that two CGSA All-Star teams had advanced that far. Rachel Barajas, Haley Lamb and Justina Peko became the first CGSA All-Stars to have played in two ASA ‘B’ Western Nationals.

And the summer wrapped up with the inaugural Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championships with the Artesia Punishers 16-Under team as one of the original participants.

The 2011 football season was upon us and two days before its season opener against Gabrielino High, Chad Reed resigned as Cerritos’ head coach. Shonyta Pouncey would take over for one season.

Norwalk would have its worst season in the Ceniceros era as the Lancers went 3-8, but still went to the playoffs. Among those eight losses was a 70-14 setback to Los Alamitos High in the season opener. Gahr would win its third straight Milk Barrel and would reign supreme again in the ABC School District while in girls volleyball, Cerritos won its third straight league title. During that stretch, the Dons went 58-21 overall and 34-2 in league.

In cross country, the Cerritos girls finally snapped La Mirada’s 10-year league dominance and captured a league title for the first time since 1998. The Cerritos girls tennis team, enjoying its best season in school history, would fall to Buckley High 10-8 in the Division IV finals.

The girls basketball season would begin with Norwalk winning the program’s second preseason tournament as the Lancers crushed Paramount High 64-33 in the finals of the Pioneer Tournament while in the 35th annual V.C. tournament, Gahr defeated North Torrance 63-38 in the championship game.

As the calendar turned to 2012, the Glenn boys basketball team was one quarter away from pulling off probably its biggest upset in school history. The Eagles led Artesia 65-63 but were outscored 10-4 in the final stanza to end any hopes of the surprise win. Glenn finished the season with three wins while Artesia made another trip to the playoffs in Greg Taylor’s final season as head coach.

January also saw Okomoto step down as the Gahr girls volleyball head coach. He was replaced by one of his former players, Iris Murray, now Iris Najera. Okomoto had been with the Gahr volleyball program for 32 years, all but five at the varsity level, and compiled a 355-225 record, winning a CIF-SS divisional championship in 1986 and in 1988.

For the third time in the last 12 seasons, the Artesia boys soccer team went through league play without a loss, going 11-0-1 on its way to a second straight visit to the quarterfinals.

In girls soccer, Artesia hosted a playoff game for the first time and fell to Pacifica High 2-1 under the lights. Also making history was the Norwalk girls basketball team, which won the program’s first playoff game in a 56-38 win over Beverly Hills High.

On to the softball season where an influx of freshmen began their stellar careers at Cerritos and it began with the Dons winning the consolation championship of the Brea Olinda Tournament, scoring 34 runs and pounding out 50 hits in four games. Weeks later, the school christened its new softball digs as a permanent outfield fence along with all new netting was put in.

And later in the season, I would do a team and starting lineup comparison on the potential of the Dons winning their first league outright title in 12 years. At the time, Cerritos was 9-1 in league but would end the season with two straight losses and finished in a tie for second place. But, through 10 league contests, the 2012 team was putting up far better offensive numbers than the 2000 team that went 31-2 overall and 12-0 in league. The 2000 team, though, would have better pitching numbers.

In early April, V.C. girls basketball shotting sensation Kari Korver participated in American Family Insurance High School Slam Dunk and 3-point Championships in New Orleans. She would win the event, defeating Shilpa Tummala 19-11 in the final round.

The spring season ended with the Whitney boys tennis team went back to the CIF-SS divisional finals where it fell to Valencia High 10-8.

The summer would see the CGSA not host a tournament at the Cerritos Sports Complex for the first time. The previous season, only 15 teams signed up to play in the tournament, but with the emergence of travel ball, more players were choosing that over recreational ball. Still, a pair of CGSA All-Star teams advanced to the state tournament.

The Norwalk Girls Softball Association’s 18-U All-Stars became that organization’s first team to win a state championship and the Artesia Punishers 18 Gold team went to Colorado where it claimed the championship of the prestigious Triple Crown Sports Colorado Sparkler Tournament, defeating the (Sugarland, TX) Stealth Gold 6-0.

My 15th year at the LCCN would conclude with little going on with the area football or girls volleyball teams in terms of success. La Mirada and Norwalk went to the playoffs with the latter tying for second place in league and getting as far as the quarterfinals. When Norwalk faced Glenn for the Mayor’s Cup, Rashaad Penny broke the school record for most touchdowns in a season, which reached 24 at that point.

In girls volleyball, Vo ended his six-year tenure as the head coach for Cerritos girls volleyball, finishing in fourth place while Murray guided Gahr to a 12-10 record and a second place finish in the SGVL. But the Gladiators were ousted in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth of what would be seven straight seasons.

The biggest football story came out of Cerritos on Sept. 19 where the varsity program cancelled all six league games and moved to junior varsity status for the rest of the season, citing dwindling numbers within the program. In the first four games of the season, the Dons were outscored 234-0 and numerous players were getting injured, some serious.

The Cerritos girls tennis team went back to the CIF-SS Division IV finals where it destroyed Redlands High 14-4 for the program’s first title, capping off a 25-0 season and as the fall season was coming to an end, I did a feature on Artesia girls soccer goalkeeper Itzel Gonzalez, who was selected to the Under 20 Mexico National Team where it competed in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup a few months earlier in Japan.

The basketball season would begin with the Gahr boys routing Cerritos 95-59 for its fifth win in six games of the season. Later in December, Cerritos would begin its Staples Center rivalry with Downey High in a 64-49 loss. In girls action, Whitney took home the consolation championship of the Glenn/Norwalk Tournament while Norwalk lost in the third place game. Whitney would then win third place in the V.C. Tournament.

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