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.