Year in review: Triumph, records, heartbreak, inspiration ­— 2018 had it all

The Aptos football team produced several exciting moments this fall, including their CCS Open Division III championship game win over Sacred Heart Prep in early December. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

For several local student-athletes, the last 12 months were filled with championship performances, inspirational efforts and unforgettable matchups. Some used their skills on the court, field, pool, track and trails to wow spectators, while others showcased their drive and attitude to inspire young and old.

Here are five of my favorite local sports stories of the year:

BOYS OF THE FALL

The first two-thirds of the 2018 football season was a bit of a drag — of course, I missed three weeks because I was across the globe enjoying wine, tapas and pasta — but the final third was an incredible thrill ride filled with ups and downs thanks to the Aptos football team.

The Mariners had three games that Hollywood directors would struggle to recreate. Their heartbreaking losses to Palma and Salinas were some of the most exciting football games — pro, college or high school — I’ve ever witnessed, and their 35-34 win over Sacred Heart Prep in the Central Coast Section Open Division III championship game was a drama-filled slugfest that surpassed the hype.

The games were great, the personalities of the players made for riveting stories and the amount of record-breaking performances and achievements — this year’s team broke nearly all of the program’s offensive records en route to the county’s first-ever state bowl game — was astonishing.

“Hell of a ride, hell of a ride,” said Aptos coach Randy Blankenship after the Mariners lost in the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal 4-A championship to McClymonds — the eventual state champ.

Indeed.

AT LAST

Aptos star distance runner Marea Zlatunich had a troubled history with the CCS Track and Field Championships. As a freshman, she missed the cut for the state meet by two hundredths of a second. The following year she again failed to qualify for state by taking fifth — two places away from a trip to Fresno. And as a junior she missed CCS entirely because of a late-season knee injury.

She saved her best performance for last.

Zlatunich stunned Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League rival Mari Friedman to win the CCS title in the 1,600-meter run last spring.

“This is so satisfying,” Zlatunich said after her big win. “This means so much.”

The victory capped off her stellar high school career. In cross country as a senior, she helped Aptos win its sixth straight SCCAL title, and seventh straight CCS Division III crown. She also earned a spot on the podium as an individual at the CIF state meet for the third consecutive season. She placed sixth in the D-III race after taking fourth in 2016 and 2015, which was also the year she powered the Mariners to their second state title.

Zlatunich this fall was one of top cross country runners for the NCAA Division I Cal Bears.

INSPIRATIONAL ATHLETES

Every year I meet several student-athletes in high school and college that inspire me with their courage and desire. In 2018, I met two who stood above the rest: Watsonville alumnus Carlos Vasquez and St. Francis alumna Chloe Deleissegues.

Vasquez broke down barriers by throwing the shot for the Wildcatz’s track and field team despite being wheelchair-bound because of his ataxic cerebral palsy — a condition that affects a person’s balance, coordination, and depth perception. And Deleissegues did the same by powering through her fight with Crohn’s disease at a young age to become a three-sport student-athlete with 4.55 grade point average who still managed to find time to volunteer at multiple organizations around the area.

Trying to recap either one of these stories in two or three paragraphs would not do them any justice, but here are two quotes that exemplified their character.

“I simply don’t want people’s sympathy,” Deleissegues said while talking about her condition. “I want to be judged like any other kid.”

Said Vasquez about his every day challenges: “I want people to never give up and always pursue your dreams no matter how unattainable they may seem. Like, throwing shot put seemed impossible for me, but here I am at my first competition. I’m never giving up, and people shouldn’t give up either. You only have one life and you need to make it count. No matter what your passions are, you can never give up and you need to keep going, even if the days get rough.”

Some stories write themselves. That was the case with both of these.

MOSQUEDA ENDS DROUGHT

A year after Abel Pena ended Watsonville’s CCS title drought on the boys’ side, Gianna Mosqueda did the same on the girls’ side.

Mosqueda completed her high school career with a CCS wrestling championship at 143 pounds to become Watsonville’s first female section champ since Emily Kalka in 2010.

She beat Gilroy’s Kelly Nebesnick, 5-3, for the title.

“I was determined to keep fighting to keep going — I didn’t want to give up,” Mosqueda said after the win. “I was really nervous, but I kept saying, ‘it’s my year, it’s my title.’ I’ve been wanting [this title] since freshman year…I’m very happy. It doesn’t feel real.”

Mosqueda finished fifth at CCS as a freshman, and took second as a sophomore and junior before finally reaching the top of the mountain. She is one of only four female wrestlers from Santa Cruz County to have won a section title.

HAWKS’ HEARTBREAK

It was bound to happen sooner or later. That did little to ease the pain.

The Cabrillo College women’s volleyball team’s loss to West Valley College in the California Community College Athletic Association NorCal playoffs was one of the most stunning defeats of the year.

The Seahawks had won 19 consecutive matches — including two over West Valley — before their agonizing five-set defeat, which denied the program its 10th straight trip to the elite eight.

Cabrillo, the No. 1 seed in the NorCal bracket, was up 2-1 in the match before West Valley stormed back to knock off the Seahawks, who had finished third in the state in 2017 and won the title in ‘13 and ‘15.

“I think in the fourth set we let West Valley get the momentum. It allowed them to get into a groove and we went back on our heels a little bit,” said Cabrillo first-year coach Kelsee Montagna. “From that point on, West Valley was out-hustling us.”

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