This winter has been one for the record books, particularly for the Bishop Diego boys and girls basketball teams that had the opportunity to play in back-to-back CIF title games this past weekend.
And, although they were both invited to the state playoffs, that effectively ended the winter season in Santa Barbara — a few months that will stand out for both the good and the bad, with the latter helping you appreciate the former all that much more.
Here are my Top 5 takeaways from the winter . . .
- Adopting an angel: Alanna Watson stands out on a basketball court. Not because she is 4-foot nothing. Not because she is eight years old. Not because she wears a pink helmet. But because her personality lights up the room like no other. Her smile is infectious. Her spirit is magnetic, with the UCSB women’s basketball team inspired by the young cancer survivor. The Gaucho women adopted the youngster as part of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation — the second youngster to be impacted by the organization, as Elijah Vargas is now attached to the Santa Barbara High baseball team for life. The marriage of Alanna’s story and the Gauchos quest to connect closer to the community is a match made in heaven, even though the youngster has been too sick to play any contact sports. The athletic ability doesn’t matter, it’s about the “community of big sisters” that Alanna has now inherited. Prior to the start of the basketball season at UCSB, there was a concerted effort by the men’s team to adopt the “We are Santa Barbara” mantra — but it’s the women’s team that has gone beyond a box score or a win-loss record to truly connect to the community. That a hero’s effort.
- Magical moment: The Santa Barbara High boys basketball team was in the middle of controversy this season, particularly in the CIF playoffs that saw a near brawl in the first round and a horrendous call by the officials in the second round. Add in some questionable behavior by fans surrounding this season’s two Big Games, and it’d be easier to chalk up the season as a lost one. But, not so fast. That’d be ignoring the most exciting moment of the high school season — Jasper Johnson’s game-winning bucket as time ran out in the Dons win over the Royals on Jan. 10. In a bruising game that featured plenty of defense, it was a brilliant play call on an inbounds that left Johnson fending off a dog pile courtesy of overzealous fans and teammates. It’s the way this rivalry is meant to be — it should require that the game has to be moved to a college campus because of overflow crowds. Next up, the Thunderdome?
- Legendary foot: Upon returning to Santa Barbara in early 2019, my first sports assignment was to cover the Santa Barbara High boys soccer team. On that night, my ears were introduced to the sound of Juan Carlos Torres’ powerful foot. And while the Dons would be ousted in the opening round of the CIF playoffs that year, all of us were interested in what JCT would do in his senior year. And he definitely saved his best for last, as he battled through a leg injury to keep the Dons from the same outcome in their CIF opener this year, scoring with less than two minutes to go with a powerful strike. He’d add another early in overtime to help Santa Barbara advance. The ball sounds different coming off Torres’ foot — it sounds like he is punishing the soccer ball for being in his presence. The biggest shocker? That no Div. 1 collegiate program has taken notice. Regardless of what’s next, there should be a monument erected at San Marcos — the site of the Dons’ home games for three seasons now — in honor of his legendary performance.
- Milestone men: Both humble, both Jeff Burich and Mark Walsh will never boast about their individual accomplishments — which is why they are so successful. But, we won’t be as humble here. Burich, the Bishop Diego girls basketball coach, picked up win No. 200 this season — with his Cardinals losing in the CIF title game on Saturday. His squad was invited to the state playoffs on Sunday, extending their season to Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at Madison. Meanwhile, Walsh has seemingly been around forever, but success has found him every step of the way, surpassing 1,000 career wins. His boys water polo team won the CIF title in the fall, and his girls water polo squad advanced to the second round of the CIF playoffs this winter. Great coaches get great results, which leads us to . . .
- Hey, you are No. 1! At the end of each season, every athlete and coach looks forward to pointing their index finger to the sky, a move that means you’ve won a title of some sort. In this case, there’s nothing to be proud of, there’s nothing to celebrate. Maybe astonished is the right term — for the third time in seven seasons, the ol’ No. 1 is the final number in the win column for the SBCC men’s basketball team. In 2013-14? 1-22. In 2017-18? 1-22. This season? 1-25. Let’s add some injury to insult — this is the sixth time in eight seasons that the team failed to win a game in the Western State Conference. Meanwhile, the largest crowd of the season at the Sports Pavilion came via both Big Games — pitting Santa Barbara against San Marcos. Unfortunately, those Dons and Royals seniors won’t likely ever see that floor again, unless they are visiting as an opponent. Of course, unless there is a change at the top — but that ball is squarely in the court of the brass at SBCC. Accept mediocrity, or demand change — the community will be watching.