Sunday, May 28, 2017 | 2:01 a.m.
For the second consecutive year, the Sun Standout Awards honored the best and brightest high school athletes, teams, coaches and administrators in the Las Vegas Valley.
This year’s ceremony was last Wednesday at South Point, capping the school year by recognizing some of the most memorable moments and figures in local athletics. Nominations for the awards opened in January, with a selection committee tasked with paring them down to a list of finalists and crowning a winner.
Read on for the story behind all the Sun Standout winners.
Sun Standout Award: Centennial Girls' Basketball
Last year, the Centennial girls’ basketball team went 30-2 to win its second consecutive state championship and was named the Sun Standout Awards’ “Team of the Year.” This year, it was even better.
The Bulldogs ran through one of the toughest schedules in the country as if it were tissue paper stretched across a finish line.
Centennial outscored its opponents by an average 37 points per game, beat ESPN.com’s national champion Clovis West High from California, 70-46, and won the state title game against Bishop Manogue, 97-52.
With 12 out-of-state opponents from eight states, the Bulldogs proved they were the best team in the country and were named the runners-up by ESPN.
“We knew from the beginning of the season that was what we wanted to do,” said senior Sam Thomas, who was named the Gatorade Nevada Player of the Year. “Our coach put us in the schedule to accomplish it, and it feels great.”
Thomas will play at the University of Arizona, but there’s little doubt the Bulldogs will keep rolling under 16-year coach Karen Weitz, one of five finalists nationally for the Naismith High School Girls’ Coach of the Year.
“It’s the structure,” Thomas said. “We put the program ahead of ourselves individually, so we know that we do everything for Centennial.”
— Jesse Granger
Game of the Year: Bishop Gorman vs. Clark basketball series
Muhammad Ali needed Joe Frazier, Magic Johnson needed Larry Bird and Bishop Gorman needed Clark basketball.
For years, Bishop Gorman’s basketball team has reigned over Southern Nevada with relative ease. The Gaels won their fifth consecutive state title last season with a 20-point blowout against Coronado. They had won 75 games in a row against NIAA opponents.
Then on Jan. 31, it came to an end. Bishop Gorman lost in its own gym, falling 68-62 to a Clark team playing in its first season in the 4A league.
“It was awesome,” Clark junior James Bridges said. “Being able to have the opportunity to play in that type of environment in that situation was really fun. We proved who we are as a school and what we could do.”
It was the second game of what would become an epic four-game series between the two schools. It culminated in an improbable comeback that gave Bishop Gorman another state title.
The Gaels trailed Clark by seven points with 90 seconds to play at the Cox Pavilion in the title game, but Chuck O’Bannon Jr. — who finished with 36 points — led them back to win.
“The other state titles were nice, but this one we thought we were going to lose,” Gorman’s Jamal Bey said. “This one was so much better.” — Jesse Granger
— Jesse Granger
Male Athlete of the Year: Troy Brown Jr.
Troy Brown Jr. did it all this year for the Centennial Bulldogs basketball team.
He averaged 22 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game to lead Centennial to a 23-5 record. For his efforts, he was named the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All-American, and played in the Jordan Brand Classic All Star Game.
“I did a lot of different things because that was something we needed this year,” Brown said. “I would say I improved my game the most scoring-wise, being able to score from all parts of the court. I improved my midrange scoring and especially my three-point shooting.”
The 6-foot-7 forward hit 33 percent of his shots from beyond the arc this season.
Brown is a consensus 5-star recruit and had offers from Duke, Kansas, Louisville and Arizona among others before committing to Oregon in November. ESPN ranks Brown as the No. 14 overall player in the class of 2017, and the No. 4 small forward.
“I feel like we had a good year at Centennial,” Brown said. “I know we didn’t accomplish the ultimate goal of winning state, but I felt like overall what we did in Las Vegas was good, and we played well against nationally ranked opponents.”
• Jose Arreola, Sunrise Mountain soccer: Tallied 30 goals and 73 points in winning the region’s player of the year award and leading Miners to a league championship.
• Ben Gajardo, Desert Oasis tennis: Won both the state and regional titles in singles for the second consecutive year.
• Frank Harris, Basic track and football: Established the nation’s top high jump, 7 feet, in mid-March after scoring 15 touchdowns to make the all-state team as a wide receiver in the fall.
• Ty Smith, Virgin Valley wrestling: Went 54-1 and won his third consecutive state championship as a junior, a year after winning the Rising Star award.
— Jesse Granger
Female Athlete of the Year: Abby Richter
Richter tried a variety of sports growing up — volleyball, ballet and gymnastics, to name a few — but nothing seemed to stick until she got in the pool.
Now, she’s one of the nation’s most accomplished high school swimmers, and Nevada’s defending state champ in the 200m freestyle and 100m backstroke. Richter’s strategy is simple.
“I just try to focus in on my own race,” she said. “I’ll try to figure out how fast (my opponent) is, and then I’m going to pace off her until it all comes down to who wants it more in the end, when it’s neck-and-neck and you just have to put your head down and finish into the wall.”
Richter will swim at the University of Virginia next year.
• Abbie Barnum, Virgin Valley soccer: Finished sixth all-time in state history with 112 career goals after scoring 39 goals with five assists during her senior year.
• Alyssa Karpinski, Cimarron-Memorial flag football: Led the county with 172 receptions, 2,278 receiving yards and 33 touchdowns in a championship season.
• Trinity Valentine, Durango softball: Emerged as a double-threat with an earned run average of less than 1 on the pitching mound and a batting average higher than .500 at the plate.
— Mike Grimala
Coach of the Year: Tico Rodriguez
Coaches are judged by wins and losses, but what Tico Rodriguez accomplished with Desert Pines this year is bigger than his record.
On the field, the Jaguars went 12-1 and won the first football state championship in school history. Off the field, Rodriguez helped nine players earn full scholarships to Division I schools, and 10 others get into smaller college football programs.
“The reason why I coach is to help young men,” Rodriguez said. “Giving these kids an opportunity to better their life is so big for me and the other coaches.”
This was Rodriguez’s fourth season with Desert Pines, and the group of seniors that he started with as freshmen finally accomplished the ultimate goal they had previously just missed.
In 2014, the Jaguars blew a three-touchdown, fourth-quarter lead against Moapa Valley in the state championship game. The following season, Desert Pines fell by a point to Moapa Valley in the playoffs.
This year, the Jaguars stormed back to the title game and defeated Spring Creek by 33 points.
“This was a special season,” Rodriguez said. “Our team had built up so much resilience from the struggles of the previous years. If you coach long enough you, get a special group, and I just happened to get it my first four years, so I’m very fortunate.”
• Laura Allen, Foothill girls’ basketball: Reached the state tournament as a young head coach by leading the Falcons to an upset of Liberty in the Sunrise Regional championship game.
• James Howard, Arbor View soccer: Helped the team regroup after an upset loss to Palo Verde in the Sunset Regional championship game to come back and win a fifth state championship.
• Kenneth Michaud, Rancho tennis: Led the Rams to their first league title in 18 years as they racked up more match victories this season than in the past three years combined.
— Jesse Granger
Male Scholar Athlete of the Year: Darion Acohido
Liberty High’s Darion Acohido would have nearly every minute of his day planned during football season.
He’d wake up at 5:50 a.m. to make it to school on time, attend class all day and fit in some studying or academic meetings before going to practice where he was expected to motivate his teammates as a leader.
“Time management was huge in trying to keep up grades and athletics,” Acohido said. “It was tiring, but my parents taught me well.”
It all paid off, as Acohido emerged as one of the best receivers and returners in the state, with 17 total touchdowns his senior year while maintaining a 4.6 weighted grade-point average. He earned an academic scholarship to Columbia University, where he will major in biology with an eye toward getting into physical therapy while continuing to play football.
“A lot of athletes nowadays just focus on athletics and drawing in offers, but I wanted to do both and bring in schools for both academics and football,” Acohido said. “It was just a big plus to have my grades to help me out.”
— Case Keefer
Female Scholar Athlete of the Year: Kenadee Bailey
Kenadee Bailey played three sports for Boulder City High, and she was accomplished in each of them. She made first-team all-state in flag football, was second-team all-region in volleyball and qualified for state in multiple track events.
But those accomplishments pale in comparison to what’s she done in the classroom. Bailey has a 4.8 weighted grade-point average and is Boulder City’s valedictorian.
“I have never had a B in my life,” she said.
Bailey serves as Boulder City’s student body historian, the district’s representative on the Nevada Youth Legislature and was part of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee.
She was typically stretched for time, especially on nights when Boulder City had road games against league foes in Mesquite or Overton, and often wouldn’t arrive home until late at night.
“When I know my sports schedule, I am able to plan out my week,” she said. “The hardest part is going home, and instead of doing something like watching Netflix, having a plan (to do homework). I know, for instance if I have a track meet on Thursday at Virgin Valley, that I have to write a paper for one of my AP classes on another day.”
Bailey will attend BYU in the fall.
— Ray Brewer
Male Citizen of the Year: Ramiro Alvarado
Ramiro Alvarado wasn’t just a team captain for the Chaparral soccer squad, and he wasn’t just an All-Southern Section first-team selection. While he certainly deserved those honors, his big year extended beyond the field, as the senior may have made his biggest mark by planning and operating a successful canned food drive for a local mission.
“When I come down the street or the freeway and I see a homeless person or someone who needs help, it makes me want to do something about it,” he said. “I felt like with this project I could do something, so I was all in.”
Joshua Hunt, Spring Valley: Volunteered at a variety of events in the community while also playing multiple sports, and serving as an officer for the Model United Nations program and Mu Alpha Theta Math Club.
— Mike Grimala
Female Citizen of the Year: Makenzi Abelman
Makenzi Abelman had no access to running water or electricity. When it was time to wash off, she had to settle for a bucket and cold water.
Yet, the Durango High volleyball player calls her week in the Dominican Republic helping administer eye exams to the less fortunate last summer one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
“You learn to appreciate the basics,” she said. “I never thought I would be so excited to come back home and wash my hands in a faucet.”
Abelman’s church group at Faith Lutheran coordinated the trip. It required attending weekly classes to learn how to conduct vision tests. She already knew Spanish.
The group distributed more than 2,000 sets of eyeglasses.
“She says she loved being a part of something greater than herself,” Durango coach Amy Schlauder said. “I can’t think of many other high school students, especially successful student-athletes, who crave summers full of helping and serving others.”
It wasn’t the first time she traveled abroad to help others. Two summers ago, Abelman traveled to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with a school group on an environmental mission to cut down nonindigenous plants.
Abelman, a 6-foot-1 setter who was an all-conference selection, will play in college at Cal-State Fullerton.
“A lot of things in volleyball translate to the outside world,” she said. “Give your full effort, even if you are in the Dominican Republic for a week.”
— Ray Brewer
Inspirational Story of the Year: Michael Safbom
For the second consecutive year, Michael Safbom realized a childhood dream to cap this high school tennis season.
The Palo Verde sophomore won the state doubles championship with Brandon Sulzberg, whom he had played alongside since he was 6 years old. Only one thing didn’t match how Safbom envisioned it: His biggest fan and supporter wasn’t there. Debbie Safbom, Michael’s mother, died of cancer before the school year began. Michael said he tries not to think of her while he plays, but she creeps into his thoughts in moments like winning the championship.
“It would have made her proud,” he said.
Debbie coordinated everything for Michael when it came to tennis, and he struggled after her death to stay as organized or motivated. Despite defending his doubles title, Michael was disappointed with his progress and wanted to make a change.
“I decided two months ago that this is not what she would have wanted,” he said. “She’d be disgusted if she saw what I was doing. I really didn’t get back to making the most out of practices and matches until March.”
Since adopting the new mindset, Michael has worked on the speed of his serve and gotten up to as high as 140 miles per hour, which is what he calls, “the best thing I’ve ever done in tennis.”
— Case Keefer
Rising Star: Victoria Estrada
Victoria Estrada’s nerves nearly overwhelmed her when she arrived at Eagle Valley Golf Club in Carson City for the state golf championship.
The Coronado sophomore was playing against almost all older golfers with long résumés of previous success.
“I look up to them a lot, so it was such an honor to even get there in the first place,” Estrada said. “I just got out there and tried to keep my mind in place and not let it get to me.”
Estrada didn’t just beat the intimidating competition, she blew them out. She finished with a 2-over 146 for her two rounds, five strokes ahead of the second-place finisher to win both individual and team state championships.
And that wasn’t even her best performance of the postseason. Estrada shot a 4-under 68 in the Sunrise Regional Tournament at Chimera Golf Club, where she also overcame some early adversity.
“I bogeyed the first hole,” Estrada said. “But I tried to not let it discourage me. I was playing with some really great teammates, so it made me feel more positive. I tried to keep my head up and came out with a pretty good result.”
• Audrey Bach-Collins, Clark tennis: Won the 4A state singles tournament as a freshman.
• Tiarra Del Rosario, Cimarron-Memorial flag football: Won the championship and player of the year award after throwing for 5,044 yards and 66 touchdowns in his sophomore season.
• Steele Dias, Green Valley wrestling: Finished his sophomore season with a 45-3 record in the 106-pound division, winning the state championship match in 35 seconds.
• Julian Strawther, Liberty basketball: Drew scholarship offers from the likes of Florida State, USC, Washington and California after averaging 11 points and seven rebounds as a freshman.
— Case Keefer
Unsung Hero: Karen Carlos
Karen Carlos served as the team mom for the Basic Wolves football team while her three sons played in the program. Her youngest graduated from Basic in 2011.
Six years later, Carlos is still the team mom.
“I just kind of stayed on,” Carlos said. “I told (head coach Jeff Cahill) that I would be on as long as he wanted me. I’ve always felt it is really important to give back to the community.”
Carlos runs the concession stand for football games at all levels, and even helps the players run it during youth football games in the spring. She drives up with the team to Utah for its summer camp every year, and makes a lunch for every player on the team for all four days.
She spends hours the night before making sandwiches, packing drinks and snacks for each player, then hands them out as the players get onto the bus to head to practice.
“They’re all so great. It’s like having 50 kids,” Carlos said. “I enjoy it and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
• Eva Aguilar, Bonanza: Never missed a practice or match, and took statistics as the manager of the wrestling team.
• Ella Cardone, Sierra Vista: Ran the school’s social media accounts, served on the student council and supported her peers with unending school spirit.
— Jesse Granger
Greenspun Cup: Palo Verde High
Palo Verde will either need to clear some space or add another wing to its trophy case.
The Panthers won the state championship in six of eight spring sports this year — boys’ golf, softball, boys’ swimming, girls’ swimming and boys’ basketball — to run away with the Sun Standout Awards’ honor for combined athletic and academic excellence among all sports teams. Palo Verde also took titles in boys’ and girls’ tennis in the fall.
The Panthers weren’t as dominant in the classroom, but they were incredibly consistent. More than half of the school’s teams, 12 out of a total 23, posted a grade-point average of at least 3.4.
Palo Verde didn’t claim any academic state championships, but a handful of sports including boys’ golf and girls’ track fell just short. The Panthers’ performance in the classroom put them in contention for the award before their spring success on the field gave them an insurmountable lead to top a second-place finish in last year’s final standings.
— Case Keefer
Team of the Year: Green Valley Wrestling
In wrestling’s Sunrise Regional championships this winter, there was no question which team would win the title entering the final round of matches.
Green Valley had wrestlers in the finals of every weight class except one, easily capturing its seventh consecutive Sunrise title. The Gators won 10 regional championships and qualified wrestlers in 16 of 18 weight classes for the state tournament.
They capped the season by winning state for the sixth season in a row. Sophomore Steele Dias won state at 106 pounds and Robert Razo placed second at 195 pounds.
“Some of the younger guys hadn’t tasted an individual state championship or team state championship,” coach Jon Ferry said. “They wanted to make their own name. That really refocused us as coaches and athletes.”
The Gators went 24-0 in dual meets, won five of nine tournaments and placed a school-record nine wrestlers at state. They took second in a pair of out-of-state tournaments, narrowly coming up short against nationally known programs in California.
The Gators don’t plan to stop their dominance. Coaches aspire to break Eldorado’s record of eight consecutive state titles from 1986-93.
“It’s hard. It is real hard,” Ferry said. “It doesn’t get any easier year after year. The more success we have, the more pressure that brings. That standard has been set. These guys don’t want to be the guys who don’t win it.”
• Arbor View soccer: Won a fifth consecutive state championship, finishing with a 20-1-2 overall record.
• Cimarron-Memorial flag football: Outscored opponents 700-350 en route to winning the Clark County championship and compiling a 21-1 record.
• Desert Pines football: Broke through to win a state championship after the same core players fell just short in the two prior seasons.
— Ray Brewer