Even without spring sports for the last two and a half months of the school year, it was still possible to choose a track and field athlete plus a swimmer among the best from California for 2019-20. We also have the best from soccer, two multi-sport athletes for Division 3 and Division 5 and two from the same basketball team at La Jolla Country Day that was No. 1 in the state and nation.
For announcement of the Cal-Hi Sports Girls State Athlete of the Year for 2019-20, CLICK HERE.
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Congratulations to the following girls for being selected as a 2019-20 Cal-Hi Sports State Athlete of the Year:
Sarah Willis (Norco) Basketball, Softball
It’s been awhile since there was a junior who was the overall Athlete of the Year honoree for the girls. That was Kyla Ross, an Olympic gymnast from Aliso Niguel of Aliso Viejo for 2014. Willis also breaks a streak of three years in which the senior and overall Athlete of the Year has gone to a single-sport performer.
Paige Sommers (Westlake, Westlake Village) Track & Field
For the fourth time in eight years, we have a state junior athlete of the year from Ventura County as Sommers, the current pole vaulting sensation, follows in the steps of Simone Overbeck of Newbury Park (2018), Tara Davis of Agoura (2016) and Sarah Baxter of Simi Valley (2013)
Sommers entered the year with a personal-best of 13 feet, 6 inches (4.11m) in the pole vault, establishing her as one of the leading contenders to challenge reigning state champion and fellow junior Ashley Callahan of Rancho Bernardo for the individual title. Although that matchup didn’t materialize in May at the state finals at Buchanan High’s Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis, as a result of CIF officials deciding in April to shut down all spring activities and championships, Sommers did more than enough before the season was halted to secure her place in California track and field history.
Sommers eclipsed both state and national junior class records with a 14-6 (4.41m) clearance Feb. 22 at the Thousand Oaks Invitational, elevating her to the No. 5 all-time U.S. prep outdoor performer and No. 12 among all vaulters in the world this year. Despite more than three months in between meets due to stay-at-home orders related to the Coronavirus pandemic, Sommers returned to competition June 6 with a 14-foot clearance (4.27m) at the Vaulter Club Vaulter Magazine Big Red Barn event in Menifee and took three more attempts at the national high school record 14-8.50 (4.48m). She also tried to break the national record on the day after this year’s athletes of the year were announced but was unsuccessful.
This selection also was made on the same day Paige was chosen as the Gatorade State Girls Track Athlete of the Year, an honor that includes seniors.
More Junior Athletes of Honor:
Brandy Atuatasi (West Hills, Santee) Rugby, Track
Jessie Blain (San Clemente) Basketball, Softball
Cheyenne Bowman (Rowland, Rowland Heights) Wrestling
Caroline Canales (Calabasas) Golf
Noelle Elkinton (Del Norte, San Diego) Volleyball, Track
Allison Ha (Royal, Simi Valley) Basketball, Softball
Kiki Iriafen (Harvard-Westlake, Studio City) Basketball
Harper McClain (St. Helena) Cross Country, Track
Kami Miner (Inglewood) Volleyball
Sara Pettinger (Mission Viejo) Soccer, Track
Alannah Scott (San Ramon Valley, Danville) Lacrosse, Tennis
Nicole Struss (Laguna Beach) Water Polo
Honnie Vandeweghe-O’Shea (Santa Margarita, Rancho SM) Water Polo
Justina Kozan (Walnut) Swimming
It’s a phenomenal group of sophomore girl swimmers in the state these days and we’re going with Kozan slightly above the other top two in that group — Claire Tuggle from Clovis North of Fresno and Katie Crom from Tesoro of Las Flores. Kozan is actually slightly behind Tuggle as a member of the USA Swimming Junior National Team in the 200 free. But Kozan is the clear leader in the 400 IM. Her best time in the 400 IM also already has her ranked 22nd in the world. At this point, you may think why a swimmer when there has been no spring sports for high schools this year? While that’s true for Kozan being able to swim for the Walnut High team, she has been in several competitions during the 2019-20 school year. Justina swept to impressive wins in December at the Speedo Winter Junior Championships and she has been in the TYF Pro Swim Series. Kozan also is considered a member of the USA Swimming Junior National Team in the 200 fly. She burst out on the international scene last summer with a 7th-place finish in the 200 IM at the FINA Junior World Championships (remember this was after her freshman year of high school) and also was on the USA’s gold-medal winning team in the 800-meter freestyle relay. According to a recent story by Fred Robledo of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Kozan was looking forward to go for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo (now postponed to 2021). She’s been creative with physical training at home in recent months, but hopes to get back into the pool soon. The last State Sophomore Athlete of the Year from the San Gabriel Valley is shown as swimmer Jill Sterkel from Los Altos of Hacienda Heights (1975-76). The last in any category has been Kori Carter of Claremont for juniors for 2008-09.
More Sophomore Athletes of Honor
Amit Elor (College Park, Pleasant Hill) Wrestling
Isumeh “Ice” Brady (Cathedral Catholic, San Diego) Basketball
Riley Chamberlain (Del Oro, Loomis) Cross Country, Track
Brianna Figueroa (Sunny Hills, Fullerton) Soccer
Megan Grant (Aragon, San Mateo) Basketball, Softball
Caelyn Harris (Upland) Track
Naomi Johnson (Roosevelt, Eastvale) Track
Alexandra Klos (Vista del Lago, Folsom) Cross Country, Soccer
Sharon Nejad (Menlo School, Atherton) Volleyball, Basketball
Elia Rubin (Marymount, Los Angeles) Volleyball
Jennifer Soto (Orland) Wrestling
Claire Tuggle (Clovis North, Fresno) Swimming
Breya Cunningham (La Jolla Country Day) Basketball
Both Breya and fellow California phenom Juju Watkins of Los Angeles Windward were among the very best freshman girls basketball players in the nation and this selection simply mirrors the very difficult call we had to make at the end of the 2020 season.
Cunningham averaged a double-double 17.3 points and 11.8 rebounds with 3.3 blocks per game, and did this on a Cal-Hi Sports No. 1 ranked team at La Jolla Country Day where Ms. Basketball Te-hina Paopao had the ball in her hands a lot of the time. Unlike a lot of freshmen that have a hard time converting in the paint Cunningham was smooth after the catch and shot 61 percent from the field.
In 33 games, she had 26 double-doubles, including 19 points and 11 rebounds in a 44-43 victory over Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) in the title game of the top division of the Nike TOC. In the previous game, Cunningham had 20 points and 11 rebounds in a 62-54 semi win against CIF NorCal Open champion Archbishop Mitty of San Jose.
Cunningham is not the only member of the national No. 1 Torreys’ basketball team to gain a state athlete of the year honor. Read below for D4.
Breya also joins a list of several others from La Jolla Country Day who’ve been a state athlete of the year. This includes 2003-04 State Athlete of the Year Candice Wiggins (who also played volleyball at a very high level in high school) and 2011-12 D4 State Athlete of the Year Maya Hood (another multi-sport star).
More Frosh Athletes of Honor
Johanna Forman (Upland) Wrestling
Claire Little (Vista Murrieta, Murrieta) Volleyball
Juju Watkins (Windward, Los Angeles) Basketball
Sarah Willis (Norco) Basketball, Softball
Three years ago in D1 the Norco softball program had the D1 winner in pitcher/hitter Taylor Dockins. That was after Dockins’ senior year when she captivated so many and inspired so many by what she did for the Cougars after being diagnosed with cancer the previous summer. Dockins was the Ms. Softball State Player of the Year and was National Player of the Year. After she graduated, Willis checked in as a transfer sophomore for the following season in 2018.
More D1 Athletes of Honor (Seniors Only)
Heather Ayerza (Clovis North, Fresno) Volleyball, Softball
Zoe Campos (West Ranch, Valencia) Golf
Karly Diehl (Torrey Pines, San Diego) Volleyball
Carlie Dorostkar (Canyon Crest, San Diego) Cross Country, Track
Xolani Hodel (Huntington Beach) Track, Volleyball, Basketball, Soccer
Nicole May (Foothill, Pleasanton) Softball
Alyssa Orr (Clovis North, Fresno) Track, Softball
Corie Smith (Buchanan, Clovis) Cross Country, Track
Grace Watkins (Mira Costa, Manhattan Beach) Soccer
It was only last week when Grace was selected as the Gatorade Girls Soccer State Player of the Year. Just as importantly for us, the talented midfielder also received rave reviews from our go-to soccer analyst and former longtime colleague, Sheldon Shealer of TopDrawerSoccer.com.
Watkins also joins a strong fraternity of athletes of the year from Mira Costa. This includes 2006-07 State Athlete of the Year Alex Klineman (volleyball) plus 2015-16 D2 State Athlete of the Year Andrea Lee (golf).
In earning the Gatorade state honor, the Duke-bound Watkins led the Mustangs to the CIF Southern Section D2 title with 28 goals and 11 assists. Those totals came despite missing two weeks of the season while playing for the U.S. U-18 national team at the Tricontinental Cup in Florida. Mira Costa then played in the CIF SoCal D1 playoffs (moving up due to competitive equity) and lost in its second game to JSerra of San Juan Capistrano.
For her two-year varsity career at Costa (she only played club before that), Grace poured in 45 goals and contributed 38 assists. She was the CIFSS D2 player of the year as a senior and Daily Breeze Player of the Year as a junior and senior.
Away from the pitch, Watkins is known for her high academics (4.13 GPA), her participation in the Mira Costa Symphony Orchestra and for her work with charitable groups.
More D2 Athletes of Honor (Seniors Only)
Meera Burghardt (Harvard-Westlake, Studio City) Water Polo
Nalani Iosia (Redondo Union, Redondo Beach) Volleyball
Libbie McMahon (Saugus) Basketball, Softball
Natalia Ackerman (Aptos) Volleyball, Basketball
Santa Cruz County was represented last year in our State Athlete of the Year awards by San Jose Mitty’s Haley Jones, the overall winner for the girls who grew up in the area.
It’s more of a direct connection with Ackerman, who adds the state athlete of the year designation for D3 after getting the D3 player of the year selection for basketball. She’s the first state athlete honoree from Santa Cruz County since the 1993-94 school year when the winner for medium schools was Soquel’s Desirae Knipfer (softball).
Ackerman, who will play next at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, helped the Mariners reach the NorCal D3 regional semifinals in basketball where they fell to Woodside Priory of Portola Valley. She had 18 points and 13 rebounds in that game.
In leading Aptos to a 27-5 record, Natalia also hit for 19.1 points per game with 10.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 3.1 steals and 2.2 blocks. She also became her school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,782 points and had more than 1,100 career rebounds.
Some of our athletes of the year only played one sport, but that definitely wasn’t the case for Ackerman. She was second on the girls volleyball team in kills and was a key member of a group that defeated Nordhoff of Ojai 3-1 to win the CIF Division 4 state title. Ackerman had 471 kills and 94 blocks in the last two seasons.
The last multi-sport athlete to be named in the D3 girls category also was from the CIF Central Coast Section. That was overall winner and D3 winner Elena Bruckner from Valley Christian of San Jose for the 2015-16 school year.
More D3 Athletes of Honor(Seniors Only)
Alexis Bishop (San Marin, Novato) Basketball, Softball
Bailey Doherty (Atascadero) Softball, Rodeo
Brianna Navarrosa (Mater Dei Catholic, Chula Vista) Golf
Kaylee Pond (Acalanes, Lafayette) Basketball, Softball
Te-hina Paopao (La Jolla Country Day) Basketball
As mentioned in writing up our girls winner among ninth graders above, there are actually two players who were on La Jolla Country Day’s No. 1 in the nation team that have been selected as state athletes of the year.
Paopao obviously was the other one. She was our Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and almost was our overall State Athlete of the Year. While La Jolla Country Day was in the Open Division for the CIF SoCal playoffs and was scheduled to play for the Open Division state title, we have put Paopao into the D4 category for athletes of the year. That is the same division in which we named the program’s last athlete of the year, Maya Hood, for the 2011-12 school year.
In what was basically her only season of high school to be competing at full strength (due to two knee injuries), Paopao was spectacular in leading the 32-1 Torreys. She averaged 22.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game. She also shot 37 percent on three-pointers and 88 percent on free throws (89 of 101).
Headed for the University of Oregon where she’ll be counted on to help ease the graduation loss of WNBA No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu, Te-hina had some great games against the top teams in the nation, including 30 points with seven rebounds and four assists in a 59-48 win vs. Windward of Los Angeles in the CIF Southern Regional Open Division championship.
More D4 Athletes of Honor (Seniors Only)
Grace Bliss (Colfax) Volleyball, Basketball
Daylee Dunn (Salesian, Richmond) Basketball, Track
Tiare Jennings (St. Anthony, Long Beach) Volleyball, Softball
Celeste Lewis (Sierra Pacific, Hanford) Basketball
McKayla Williams (Windward, Los Angeles) Volleyball, Basketball
Tehya Bird (Cloverdale) Softball, Basketball, Volleyball
Since Bird won this honor as a junior and Cloverdale still squarely sits as a D5 school by enrollment and competitive equity, she’s become one of those rare two-time winners. The last one for D5 was Michelle Miller of Pasadena Poly for 2011 and 2012. Bird, who is going to Oregon on a softball scholarship, didn’t get to play in a single game as a senior for the Eagles this season. Last year, she batted .754 with 60 runs, 48 RBI and 13 homers. She also went 23-1 in the circle with a 0.88 ERA. Teyha did get to play volleyball as a senior last fall and was all-league once again. She also played basketball in the winner, averaged more than 25 ppg and went over 2,000 career points. Bird also led Cloverdale to the CIF North Coast Section D5 title, but the team got bumped to D4 for the regionals and didn’t last long in that bracket. After last year, Tehya became the first girl to be D5 State Athlete of the Year from the Redwood Empire since basketball player Erin Buescher of Rincon Valley Christian for 1996-97. Cloverdale also had the D4 State Boys Athlete of the Year for 2009-10 when Robbie Rowland averaged nearly 27 ppg in basketball and was No. 88 overall pick in the MLB Draft.
More D5 Athletes of Honor (Seniors Only)
Jenna Holmes (Ontario Christian) Volleyball
Ella Thompson (Mammoth, Mammoth Lakes) Volleyball, Basketball
Megan Weinrich (Willows) Volleyball, Basketball
Erik Boal contributed to this article. He is currently the editor for DyeStat.com and RunnerSpace.com, which focus on track and field, cross country and road racing, but has been a regular attendee at major Southern California high school sports events since the early 2000s.