In his 1972 book “Semi-Tough,” Dan Jenkins, who was undoubtedly one of the best three or four sportswriters ever, said, “The hunt’s over. It’s time to put out the fire and call in the dogs.” After 22 years of writing ‘Nado Natterings’ this is my final sports column as I head into retirement. In next week’s issue of the Coronado Eagle & Journal, my final city-side column will run and contains details of my career and future plans. But this week I’m going to write about some of the athletes and teams which stood out over the last two decades, plus some anecdotes you might enjoy. Keep in mind these are athletes and teams I have covered in person, post 1995.
Derivation of the Column Title Nado Natterings – I was a political science and history major in college and when I was attempting to come up with an alliterative column title, the phrase former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew used to describe journalists in 1970, “Nattering nabobs of negativism,” came to mind. The ‘Nado’ part is obvious and more than one nattering per column would have to be Natterings, so there you go.
Events that Shaped this Column’s Philosophy – When I first started writing this column I believed then, as now, that high school sports are the last bastion of amateur athletics. Kids play sports for a variety of reasons including love of the game, for something to do or perhaps because their parents want them to stay active. If an athlete made a poor play, threw a bad pass, or missed a shot to cost the team a game, they were never mentioned by name, which was sometimes hard to accomplish.
My wife Sharon Axelson and I were fortunate to raise two fine athletes, Kristen Axelson (CHS ’99) and Mike Axelson (CHS ’02). Kristen graduated with nine varsity letters including four in basketball, three in volleyball and two in track and field. Mike earned four varsity letters in tennis, two in basketball and one in volleyball for a total of seven. Even with the individual accolades they achieved, along with team successes, there were peaks and valleys throughout the seven consecutive years they combined to play varsity high school sports. One of the lowlights was when the Girls volleyball coach at the time demoted Kristen from starting middle blocker on the varsity to the JV without explanation. I went ballistic, but the cooler heads of Sharon and Kristen prevailed. That was my personal parent vs. coach blowout moment, which I tried very hard not to replicate.
My second defining experience came when I coached Coronado Middle School Boys Basketball teams for three seasons. I had a really good time overall, and enjoyed working with the kids, but seeing the commitment required to be successful at that level was eye-opening. Basically, there was an hour of prep time for each hour of practice, plus games. Coaching is hard to begin with and it’s getting harder, with increased expectations as time passes. Having seen all sides of the issue, being heavily involved in sports helped develop and positively impact both of our kids, while making me a more nuanced sportswriter.
Best Girl Multi-Sport Athlete – Jamie Klages Lamorandier (CHS ’05) There’s a subtle distinction between this section and the next. Both Klages and Alysah Hickey were top notch competitors in more than one sport, but Klages played more sports at the varsity level than Hickey did, but this is really a coin toss in the realm of overall athleticism. Klages played Volleyball quite well, was an outstanding Soccer goalie and was a national-level high jumper in track. I also saw her play Varsity Basketball, where she would have been an outstanding power forward except for the conflict with her soccer commitments. Klages made one of the best saves I have ever seen in soccer, leaping diagonally from one post, to the upper corner of the opposite side of the net during a playoff game. I also saw her score at least two goals from literally midfield on free kicks when the opposing goalie was out of her net. Klages high jumped 5-10 and held the school record in that event before Hickey broke it 14 years later. As an example of her versatility, Klages was also a member of the 4x400 Relay Team (Beth Wittry, Nila Heurtelou and Katherine Wingert) who still hold the school record in that event set in 2003. Klages played soccer and competed in track collegiately at the University of Nebraska and then the University of Wisconsin while earning a BA degree in Art History.
Best Girl Single-Sport Athlete – Alysah Hickey (CHS ’19) Hickey holds the Coronado High School records in the 100 and 200 meter dash, the high jump, the long jump and as the anchor of the 4x100 Relay along with Ruthie Grant-Williams, Madison Shanks, and Abigail Whittemore. But the overriding Hickey fun fact is she won the California State High Jump title in 2018 and then won the California State Long Jump title in 2019. Her senior year, Hickey was the only female athlete in the country to produce a wind-legal 100 yard-dash time under 12 seconds; while clearing 5 feet, 10 inches in the high jump; and long jumping 20 feet. When you’ve achieved ‘Only Person in the Country’ status, you’re a gifted athlete. Hickey is now attending the University of Oregon, where she has already posted the sixth best long jump in Oregon track history.
Best Boy Multi-Sport Athlete – Thomas Hopkins (CHS ’02) In a time when multi-sport athletes were in abundance, Hopkins stood out. He earned 13 varsity athletic letters including four each in water polo, soccer, and tennis, plus one in swimming. Hopkins was a member of four CIF Champion Water Polo teams, defeating The Bishop’s School four straight years in the Division II Finals, where the strength of Boys Water Polo was in those days. Hopkins converted on a high arching game-winning shot from the mid-pool area in 2001 giving Coronado the title. He was also named Water Polo Player of the Year in 2001. Hopkins was an outstanding forward on the Islander Soccer Team and combined with his older brother Johnathan Hopkins to win the CIF Tennis Doubles title in 2001. Thomas could also have earned multiple varsity letters in basketball and baseball if his other athletic pursuits hadn’t taken precedent. He also went on to win an NCAA Water Polo title at Stanford and play the sport professionally in Hungary. He was truly an exceptional athlete.
Best Boy Single-Sport Athlete – Jesse Smith (CHS ’01) On his way to his fifth Olympics, hopefully in 2021, Jesse Smith was the San Diego Section Water Polo Player of the Year in 1999 and 2000. He was also the most dominant force on the best team Coronado High School has ever produced, the 2000 Islander Boys Water Polo Team. My lasting memory of Smith in high school was when he led the Islanders to a 12-6 win in the NorCal Invitational in 2000 over a very good Corona Del Mar Team. Smith scored six goals and just dominated CDM. At that time, the NorCal was considered to be the unofficial California State Championship event. Smith played collegiately at Pepperdine and has played professional water polo all over the world. He was widely acknowledged as one of the best two center defenders in the world at the height of his career. Smith won the Silver Medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and currently serves as Captain of the Men’s Senior National Team.
Best Team(s) to Represent Coronado High School – As noted above, the 2000 Islander Boys Water Polo Team was the most dominant team I have seen represent Coronado High School. Two deep at every position, the Islanders had seven players on the team who would later be Captains of their College Teams. And in second place was the 2001 Islander Boys Water Polo Team, which was essentially the same as the 2000 team, without standouts Jesse Smith and Johnathan Hopkins, who had graduated and were both well on their way to becoming College All-Americans. Neither team took any prisoners in the pool and they were fun to watch.
Favorite Head Coach – Bill Cass from Girls Basketball – One of the nicest men I have met and one with an incredible competitive streak when it comes to coaching or playing basketball, Cass coached my daughter for two seasons. I could coach my daughter Kristen and make a suggestion which would be largely ignored. Coach Cass could make the same point and it was as if it had arrived on tablets from the Mount. Cass is also the last basketball coach to win a CIF title at CHS.
Accused of Journalistically Over-Reaching But I Really Didn’t – When I was new to the sports writing thing, I went Sunset Park to watch a Girls Lacrosse practice, with the intention of introducing myself to Head Coach Jessica Battle-Morris. I was standing on the sideline opposite Battle-Morris when a jet fighter landed at NAS North Island. I could still hear her yelling instructions to her team over the sounds of the jet making its final approach and landing. I mentioned that concept in my next column and received a letter of complaint from the mother of one of the players saying I shouldn’t make fun of Battle-Morris because she was such a great coach. I framed the letter and kept it over my computer for several years as a reminder to not overreach in the column. I told this story to Battle-Morris years later and she just laughed.
Great Mental Hustle Award – At a Boys Basketball post-season banquet one season, a member of the coaching staff, while trying to say something positive about one of his players, congratulated the player for his great mental hustle. I served as master of ceremonies for several Islander Boys Basketball banquets and I got at least a decade worth of comic material from that single statement.
Value of Senior Leadership – Every season Alex Cade coached the Islander Boys Lacrosse Team, he talked about the Senior Leadership on his team and who provided that leadership. It may be true at the prep sports level, more than any other, that for a team to be really good, having a couple of seniors to lead the team makes an enormous difference.
She Improved Our Sports Section Single-Handedly – For several years, Nado Natterings was largely unaccompanied by photos to go with the text I wrote. Photographer Kel Casey joined the party about 10 years ago and quite simply, she made the overall product better. Kel would typically supply five or six photos a week to accompany Natterings which helped provide the look and feel of a mini-sports section for the paper.
CHS Athletic Directors – During the length of the run of Nado Natterings, Coronado High School has had two athletic directors, the late Sandy Ferguson and Robin Nixon. Both cared about their athletes and provided leadership. The teams were always well out-fitted, well-coached, and consistently earned academic as well as athletic accolades for their play. And trust me, it’s not an easy job.
Wrestling Shoes on the Mat – I always admired the tradition that when a wrestler retires, they simply leave their shoes on the corner of the mat to signify their career has concluded. While trying to come up with a comparable tradition for a retiring sportswriter, I contemplated placing my laptop in the intersection of Tenth Street and Orange Avenue and letting the rush hour traffic symbolically destroy the tool of my trade. But then I remembered my laptop is only six months old and symbolism only goes so far. So instead, when I hit the send button for the final time with this story, I’m going to have a shot of Writer’s Tears, a really good Irish Whiskey I enjoy and salute the coaches, athletes, parents, and readers who made this column possible for more than two decades.