State Athlete of Year: Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis receives gifts after her recent graduation from Norco High School. She can add another parting gift: State Girls Athlete of the Year. Photo: Rhonda Willis / Twitter.com.

Even though her senior season in softball was cut way short by the Coronavirus pandemic, Norco’s Sarah Willis did more than enough in her two sports of softball and basketball to earn overall girls state athlete of the year honors. She’s the first from the Inland Empire to be named in nearly 30 years and joins an all-time state list of former winners that goes back more than 100 years.

For the rundown on the other 2019-20 State Girls Athletes of the Year, CLICK HERE.

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There were no all-state teams or state player of the year honors that could be done for this season in softball, but for all sports combined there was plenty of CIF state championships and more elite competition completed to make it possible to choose overall athletes of the year.

Even with softball being one of the sports that had to be shut down in March with the outbreak of COVID-19, a primary softball player has indeed captured one of California’s most prestigious prep honors as recent Norco High grad Sarah Willis has today been chosen as the Cal-Hi Sports State Girls Athlete of the Year.

MVPs Sarah Willis and Kinzie Hansen were major contributors when Norco won the title in the 2019 Michelle Carew Classic. Photo: @NorcoHSSoftball / Twitter.com.

The all-time state list of athletes of the year also has now been updated with Sarah’s name at the top. The last time someone from the Inland Empire area of Southern California was the winner was 1980-81 with legendary basketball player Cheryl Miller of Riverside Poly.

Whenever talking to people close to softball who evaluate players for the next level, Willis was just about universally hailed as “the best athlete” in the nation’s Class of 2020. That isn’t based just on her abilities on the diamond, but also as an athlete outside of softball, which in her case was shown in basketball.

For primary spring sports athletes for state athlete of the year consideration, taking a look at what they did prior to this year was of course part of the criteria and that’s where we’ll begin with Sarah.

After being recognized as State Sophomore of the Year in 2018 for softball, Willis was almost the Ms. Softball State Player of the Year for 2019 (finishing just behind teammate Kinzie Hansen, a senior) and she was almost the State Junior of the Year in softball (falling just short to Pleasanton Foothill’s Nicole May). Willis did get State Junior Athlete of the Year honors for the same reasons she has gotten the bigger honor after her senior year.

The University of Washington commit helped Norco (31-1 last season) capture back-to-back CIF Southern Section Division 1 titles, pitching a three-hitter with eight strikeouts in a 2-0 win over Great Oak of Temecula in last year’s championship game. Willis also became the first pitcher in program history not to allow an earned run in the playoffs, throwing three shutouts and allowing a pair of unearned runs in a 9-2 semifinal victory over Huntington Beach. She also became the first pitcher to earn the win in consecutive CIFSS Division 1 finals since Huntington Beach Marina’s Marcy Crouch in 1994-95. The all-state first-team selection finished 22-1 with a 0.82 ERA, amassing 196 strikeouts in 153 innings, in addition to hitting .350 with four home runs and 20 runs batted in.

Norco had begun the 2020 season at No. 1 in the state and once again near the top of the nation. The Cougars and Willis had dropped one game to Mater Dei (Santa Ana), but earlier had a win over the Monarchs and were sitting at No. 2 in the state behind unbeaten Los Alamitos when the season was halted. In six reported games, Willis was batting .421 with two homers and 10 RBI plus she was 4-0 with a 2.42 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 17 innings. Sure, she maybe didn’t start as strongly as expected but as she’s shown her best work has always been at the end of a season, not the beginning.

“I really wish we could have seen what Sarah and her teammates could have done this year,” said Norco head coach Rick Robinson when told that Willis had earned the statewide honor. “She is a great competitor and always seems to step up at the biggest moments. She was starting to hit her stride the last couple of games she pitched before the shutdown. It always takes a couple of weeks to make the transition from basketball to softball. She won’t have that transition time in college being only a softball player. I am excited to see what she will do in college. She definitely left her mark on the Norco Softball program. She continued the legacy of quality pitchers at Norco and set the bar very high for future pitchers and players to strive for. I really enjoyed catching her and will really miss seeing her everyday.”

The difference for Willis jumping ahead of some other single-sport athletes in the consideration for this honor (including Te-hina Paopao of La Jolla Country Day basketball) was how she did in basketball.

The Riverside Press-Enterprise Girls Athlete of the Year for 2018-19 was first team all-league twice in the Big VIII League, which is not exactly terrible competition. Far from it. That’s the same league as state-ranked powerhouses Corona Centennial and M.L. King of Riverside. Norco didn’t make the playoffs and was 13-13, but Willis averaged 12.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 3.2 steals per game.

Some of Sarah’s top outings in basketball included 27 points, nine rebounds and three steals vs. California of Whittier; 14 points and 10 rebounds vs. Corona Centennial; 11 points and eight rebounds vs. M.L. King; 10 points and 16 rebounds vs. Chaparral of Temecula; 21 points, eight rebounds and eight steals vs. Corona; and 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists vs. Carter of Rialto.

On top of all that, Willis also has been recognized as one of the top scholar athletes in the CIF Southern Section. She’ll be taking quite a bit of success to Washington, and one of those feathers in her cap will be as the California girls athlete of the year.

ALL-TIME CAL-HI SPORTS
STATE GIRLS ATHLETES OF THE YEAR

(Selected by Cal-Hi Sports)

Haley Jones combined international success with what she did in high school. Photo: usab.com.


2019-20 – Sarah Willis, Norco (basketball, softball)
2018-19 – Haley Jones, San Jose Archbishop Mitty (basketball)
2017-18 – Gracie Figueroa, Selma (wrestling)
2016-17 – Tara Davis, Agoura Hills Agoura (track)
2015-16 – Elena Bruckner, San Jose Valley Christian (track, volleyball)
2014-15 – Abbey Weitzeil, Saugus (swimming)
2013-14 – Kyla Ross, Aliso Viejo Aliso Niguel (gymnastics)
2012-13 – Chelsea Chenault, Concord Carondelet (swimming)
2011-12 – Kyla Ross, Aliso Viejo Aliso Niguel (gymnastics)
2010-11 – Maggie Steffens, Danville Monte Vista (water polo)
2009-10 – Ashton Purvis, Oakland St. Elizabeth (track)
2008-09 – Jordan Hasay, San Luis Obispo Mission Prep (track)
2007-08 – Jordan Hasay, San Luis Obispo Mission Prep (track) Jr.
2006-07 – Alix Klineman, Manhattan Beach Mira Costa (volleyball)
2005-06 – Jayne Appel, Concord Carondelet (water polo, basketball)
2004-05 – Jessica Hardy, Long Beach Wilson (swimming)
2003-04 – Candice Wiggins, La Jolla Country Day (volleyball, basketball)
2002-03 – Alyson Felix, North Hills L.A. Baptist (track)
2001-02 – Julia Pitts, Torrance North (volleyball, basketball, track)
2000-01 – Lashinda Demus, Long Beach Wilson (track)
1999-00 – Monique Henderson, San Diego Morse (track) Jr.
1998-99 – Rometra Craig, San Jose Mitty (basketball, tae kwon do, track) Jr.
1997-98 – Amanda Freed, Garden Grove Pacifica (volleyball, soccer, baseball)
1996-97 – Tayyiba Haneef, Laguna Hills (volleyball, basketball, track)
1995-96 – Kerri Walsh, San Jose Mitty (volleyball, basketball)
1994-95 – Marcy Crouch, Huntington Beach Marina (soccer, softball)
1993-94 – Suzy Powell, Modesto Downey (basketball, track)
1992-93 – Marion Jones, Thousand Oaks (basketball, track)
1991-92 – Marion Jones, Thousand Oaks (basketball, track) Jr.
1990-91 – Marion Jones, Oxnard Rio Mesa (basketball, track) Soph.
1989-90 – Lisa Leslie, Inglewood Morningside (basketball, track)
1988-89 – Janet Evans, Placentia El Dorado (swimming)
1987-88 – Janet Evans, Placentia El Dorado (swimming) Jr.
1986-87 – Michele Granger, Placentia Valencia (softball)
1985-86 – Terri Mann, San Diego Point Loma (basketball, track)
1984-85 – Elaina Oden, Irvine (volleyball, track)
1983-84 – Wendy Brown, Woodside (basketball, track)
1982-83 – Wendy Wyland, Mission Viejo (diving)
1981-82 – Denean Howard, Granada Hills Kennedy (track)
1980-81 – Cheryl Miller, Riverside Polytechnic (basketball)
1979-80 – Sherri Howard, Granada Hills Kennedy (track)
1978-79 – Cynthia Woodhead, Riverside Polytechnic (swimming)
1977-78 – Tracy Austin, Rolling Hills (tennis)
1976-77 – Linda Fratianne, Van Nuys Valley Professional (figure skating)
1975-76 – Jill Sterkel, Hacienda Heights Wilson (swimming)
1974-75 – Barbara Reinalda, Cerritos Valley Christian (basketball, softball)
1973-74 – Mary Decker, Orange (track)
1972-73 – Keena Rothhammer, Santa Clara (swimming)
1971-72 – Mable Fergerson, Pomona Ganesha (track)
1970-71 – Laura Baugh, Long Beach Wilson (golf)
1969-70 – Cathy Rigby, Los Alamitos (gymnastics)
1968-69 – Debbie Meyer, Sacramento Rio Americano (swimming)
1967-68 – Debbie Meyer, Sacramento Rio Americano (swimming)
1966-67 – Debbie Meyer, Sacramento Rio Americano (swimming)
1965-66 – Charlotte Cooke, Compton (track)
1964-65 – Peggy Fleming, Pasadena (figure skating)
1963-64 – Sharon Stouder, Glendora (swimming)
1962-63 – Donna de Varona, Santa Clara (swimming)
1961-62 – Carolyn House, Los Angeles Marshall (swimming)
1960-61 – Billie Jean King, Long Beach Poly (tennis)*
1959-60 – Chris von Saltza, Los Gatos (swimming)
1958-59 – Karen Hantze, San Diego Mission Bay (tennis)
1957-58 – Sylvia Ruuska, Berkeley (swimming)
1956-57 – Barbara Ann Roles, Arcadia (figure skating)
1955-56 – Mimi Arnold, Redwood City Sequoia (tennis)
1954-55 – Mimi Arnold, Redwood City Sequoia (tennis)
1953-54 – Carol Tait, Atherton Menlo-Atherton (swimming)
1952-53 – Barbara Stark, Lafayette Acalanes (swimming)
1951-52 – Paula Jean Myers, Covina (diving)
1950-51 – Maureen Connolly, San Diego Cathedral (tennis)
1949-50 – Maureen Connolly, San Diego Cathedral (tennis)
1948-49 – Marlene Bauer, L.A. unknown (golf)
1947-48 – Zoe Ann Olsen, Oakland (diving)
1946-47 – Zoe Ann Olsen, Oakland (diving)
1945-46 – Zoe Ann Olsen, Oakland (diving)
1944-45 – Nancy Chaffee, Ventura (tennis)
1943-44 – Jean Doyle, San Diego Point Loma (tennis)
1942-43 – Ann Curtis, S.F. Washington (swimming)
1941-42 – Ann Curtis, S.F. Washington (swimming)
1940-41 – Ann Curtis, S.F. Washington (swimming)
1939-40 – Margorie Gestring, Los Angeles (diving)
1938-39 – Esther Williams, L.A. Washington (swimming)
1937-38 – Margorie Gestring, Los Angeles (diving)
1936-37 – Margorie Gestring, Los Angeles (diving)
1935-36 – Peggy Graham, Beverly Hills (golf)
1934-35 – Margaret Osborne, S.F. Commerce (tennis)
1933-34 – Florence Chadwick, San Diego Hoover (rough water swimming)
1932-33 – Dorothy Poynton, L.A. Fairfax (diving)
1931-32 – Evelyn Furtsch, Tustin (track)
1930-31 – Alice Marble, S.F. Polytechnic (tennis)
1929-30 – Georgia Coleman, L.A. Polytechnic (diving)
1928-29 – Gloria Russell, Berkeley (track)
1927-28 – Georgia Coleman, L.A. Polytechnic (diving)
1926-27 – Georgia Coleman, L.A. Polytechnic (diving)
1925-26 – Helen Jacobs, Berkeley Miss Anna Head’s School (tennis)
1924-25 – Eleanor Garatti, San Rafael (swimming)
1923-24 – Helen Jacobs, Berkeley (tennis)
1922-23 – Helen Wills, Berkeley Miss Anna Head’s School (tennis)
1921-22 – Helen Wills, Berkeley unknown (tennis)
1920-21 – Helen Wills, Berkeley unknown (tennis)
1919-20 – Helen Wills, Berkeley unknown (tennis)
*Known as Billie Jean Moffitt while in high school.

Note: All selections prior to 1978-79 done retroactively through research by our founder, the late Nelson Tennis.

Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at markjtennis@gmail.com. Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports


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