West Ranch Wildcats and Golden Valley Grizzlies Prep for SCV's Varsity Sports Scene
May, 2006 - Issue #19
For more than 10 years, varsity athletics in the Santa Clarita Valley's Foothill League has belonged to four local high schools. For the most part, Canyon, Hart, Valencia and Saugus have had the run of the SCV.

But not any more.

There's a new kid on the block. Two new kids, actually. Just don't call them the new kids. The West Ranch Wildcats and Golden Valley Grizzlies are already making inroads into the varsity sports scene. A pair of Golden Valley teams even made varsity playoff appearances in 2006.

With longtime Foothill League schools Burroughs and Burbank stepping aside to make room for the local arrivals in 2006-2007, you could say the Grizzlies and Wildcats are on their way.

In truth, they are already here.

In the race to see which of the new schools will rise to prominence first, Golden Valley benefited from the equivalent of a head start. When schools opened in 2004-2005, Golden Valley enrolled freshman and sophomores while West Ranch began as an all-freshman high school.

What that means is that this season, the Grizzlies have been competing with freshman, sophomores and juniors, while the Wildcats remain without any upperclassmen.

Depending on your perspective, the Grizzlies have either taken advantage of the opportunity or let the opportunity take advantage of them. They have enjoyed early successes in boys soccer and girls basketball - both teams made the CIF-Southern Section playoffs this year.

"We set up our schedule to build confidence," said girls basketball coach Troy Best, who led his team to a 14-13 varsity record this season. "We wanted our players to learn how to win at the varsity level. The most important thing was to improve as a team and gain confidence."

On the other hand, the football team struggled mightily in 2005, playing an ambitious schedule of varsity opponents and finishing at 2-8. Golden Valley hit its stride late in the season, winning its first varsity game on October 29, 21-14 over Salesian. Two weeks later, the Grizzlies beat St. Genevieve, 28-20.

A host of players transferred at season's end, however. Head coach and school Athletic Director Rob Swartz also left, raising questions about the Grizzlies' readiness to join the powerful Foothill League next year.

By contrast, the Wildcats have grown at a slower pace. But that's all by design. School Athletic Director Dody Garcia, who worked under Valencia Athletic Director Enrique Lopez before coming to West Ranch, believes she's following the right plan.

"As far as what's in my control, we're following Valencia's model," she said. "They've been very successful, and having the opportunity to work with Enrique Lopez has really helped."

Unlike Golden Valley, West Ranch fielded no varsity teams in its second year, except for the boys and girls swim teams. All bets are off next year, though. Ready or not, the Wildcats will join the Foothill League in every sport save football, which will play a freelance varsity schedule next year and join the league in 2008.

Garcia is convinced the Wildcats will be ready. In fact, she believes they may have some advantages.

"We hired varsity coaches from the beginning," she said. "They are moving up the levels with the players and that builds continuity. Our coaches will get to stay with a group of players for four years and that's going to pay off."

Golden Valley's advantage will be its experience. The Grizzlies will arrive in the Foothill League with varsity exposure in every sport.

"We had some jitters in the beginning," said Golden Valley varsity softball coach Courtney Carr of her team's first games this year. "We were very excited to get a taste of varsity."

The Wildcats, meanwhile, are still waiting.

"They can't wait to play varsity," said West Ranch softball coach Cassandra Perez. "The players come up to me and ask, 'Can we have these kind of uniforms when we're varsity?'"

The arrival of both schools at the varsity ranks begs one key question: How will it affect the success of the SCV athletics in general? This valley routinely sends teams to section championship games and even beyond. Can the high standard withstand the dilution of athletes that two new schools will surely bring?

Hart boys basketball coach Tom Kelly, who took his team to the CIF-SS title game in 2005, believes the benefits will outweigh the costs.

"It will divide the talent up a little bit, sure," he said. "But the biggest thing is that every game will be a rivalry."

The way the school districts look on a map, the two Foothill League incumbents most likely to feel the strongest impact are Valencia and Canyon.

West Ranch will draw from neighborhoods that used to feed into Valencia, and Golden Valley will do the same to Canyon.

On the other hand, many of those neighborhoods are brand new, so the talent pool won't be as diluted as it seems. There were similar concerns when Valencia began drawing from Hart's neighborhood in the early '90s. Today, both schools are among the athletic elite.

"We're not taking anyone lightly," said Dave Munroe, who coached Hart's girls basketball team to a CIF title last month. "Those guys will have their teams ready to play."

In the end, says Garcia, success for both schools will rise or fall on how well the new schools prepare their respective athletes for life beyond athletics.

Winning is an important goal, she admits. It's just not the only goal.

"We wanted to incorporate our school's mission statement into our athletic program," she said. "We want the experience to incorporate relationships, rigor and relevance. We want it to prepare (the athletes) for life after high school."

As for the wins and losses, coaches and administrators at both schools believe those will take care of themselves.

"We're going to be competitive," Best said. "People might overlook us because we're new. But we'll be ready."

Said Garcia: "We're just happy to be competitive. We may come in and do well. We may have a lesson handed to us... you never know what's going to happen."
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