By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Another exciting year of sports is coming to an end in Pacific Palisades and it is time to look back at some of the local athletes who inspired us with their perseverance and passion through COVID-19 in 2020…
Few athletes reach the pinnacle in their chosen sport, but former Palisades High football player Mitchell Schwartz did just on February 2 when his strong play at right tackle helped the Kansas City Chiefs rally to defeat the San Franciso 49ers, 31-20, in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. He was greeted on media day by his older brother Geoff, who played eight years in the NFL but never reached the big game.
“I know from experience having your brother being ahead of you and doing it, you have a better feel for what to expect and what not to expect,” Mitchell said. “You’re a little more comfortable having someone you can ask questions to.”
Mitchell, who signed with Kansas City in 2016 after four seasons with the Cleveland Browns, had never missed a play in his pro career until a knee injury forced him out of the Chiefs’ loss to Tennessee last season, ending his streak at 7,894 straight snaps—then the longest among active players. The Chiefs picked up where they left off last fall and are the favorites to defend their Super Bowl crown when the playoffs begin in January.
A 6-foot-5, 320-pounder, Mitchell had made 141 consecutive starts before sitting out the Chiefs’ 43-16 road victory over Denver in October with a back injury that had caused him to miss all but the first series at Buffalo a week before. Adding in college, he started a remarkable 192 games in a row.
The Schwartz brothers were too big to play Pop Warner and were too invested in bar mitzvah lessons but started playing as freshmen at Palisades High. Geoff, three years older, played football, basketball and baseball for the Dolphins and earned the PalisadianPost Cup Award as the school’s outstanding senior athlete in 2004. Mitchell followed suit on the gridiron and earned City Offensive Lineman of the Year honors as a senior, graduating in 2007. Both went on to successful collegiate careers at Pac-12 schools—Geoff at Oregon and Mitchell at Cal.
On the hardwood, Jane Nwaba wrapped up her Palisades High career in style, earningPlayer of the Year honors while leading the Dolphins to the City Open Division championship and the CIF SoCal Regional Division II title. Now a freshman up the road at Pepperdine (she tallied eight points and nine rebounds in her college debut December 5 against Westmont), she also won the Palisadian-Post Cup Award as one of three outstanding senior athletes at Pali High.
Nwaba averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds but it was her leadership as the Dolphins’ only senior that made the biggest impact on her team. The younger sister of NBA player David Nwaba, she knows a thing or two about “pressure” and living up to expectations. She was named Player of the Year in Division I last winter after leading Palisades to the City title and played a significant role in the Dolphins’ march to the Open Division final her freshman year. How valuable was she to the program? When she was sidelined with an injury midway through her sophomore year, Palisades did not win another game.
Fittingly, she ended her prep career with a victory despite the coronavirus outbreak denying her and her teammates a shot at the state title.
“This season meant a lot to me,” Nwaba said in March. “I really wanted to leave Pali on a good note. I’m glad we got to end the season with a win!”
Having won back-to-back City titles under Coach Adam Levine, the Dolphins are poised to make it three in a row (if the 2020-21 season is not canceled due to COVID-19) with All-City returners Sammie Arnold, Alexis Pettis and Demonnie Lagway.
While he was not the only senior on the boys team, Graham Alphson was the standout, leading the Dolphins in scoring in 20 of 29 games played in the 2019-20 season, averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks while pacing Palisades to the City Division I championship—the program’s first section title since 1969.
Alphson was voted Division I Co-Player of the Year along with University High’s David Cheatom—the only All-City picks not from Open Division teams—and the icing on the cake came in June when he received the Post Cup Award.
Sheldon Zanders made the Division I squad and sparked Palisades’ magical run to the SoCal Regional Division IV finals with fellow seniors Dylan Griffin, Caden Arnold, Anthony Spencer, Keyshawn Parks, Ryder Gianotti and Roman Hartwell. Zanders scored a game-high 18 points in the City final against Narbonne.
One of Nwaba’s former teammates at Pali High is a key contributor for Loyola Marymount University: Chelsey Gipson. A senior guard with the Lions, Gipson started in 25 games as a junior in 2019-20, was second on her team in scoring and earned West Coast Conference honorable mention. She has played in three of LMU’s first five games this season, totaling 14 points, six rebounds and five steals.
Pali High’s third Post Cup honoree was Syaire Riley, who excelled on the gridiron as a middle linebacker on defense and a tight end on offense, earning Western League Defensive Player of the Year accolades while captaining the Dolphins to nine straight wins and their first outright league title in 32 years. Along the way he paced the team with 118 tackles (17 for losses), one interception, four pass deflections and a fumble recovery.
Riley had a touchdown reception in the Charter Bowl against Granada Hills and intercepted a pass at the goal line that changed momentum in the Dolphins’ Sunset Showdown versus Brentwood. He won the Joe Spector Award as Team MVP for the second time and made the All-City Open Division First Team. In his three years on varsity, Palisades won 25 games.
Nobody appreciates the hard work, tenacity and attitude Riley brought to the Dolphins more than head coach Tim Hyde: “Sy has meant so much to the program. The last two years with him leading the way we’ve been the best scoring defense in the City. He’s earned the utmost respect as a leader from his teammates and his coaches. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of captains I’ve had the honor of coaching at Palisades.”
Many Palisadians were among the 27,000 entrants in the 35th L.A. Marathon on March 8 and 53-year-old Brian Temple clocked 2:48:37 to win his age group and finish 63rd overall. Jim Lubinski, 41, was ninth in his division and 78th overall in 2:51:22 and Sean Whitely, 44, was 21st in his age group and 208th overall in 3:01:02.
Ryan Woods had to play the waiting game at the LA City Wrestling Championships in February in Lake Balboa, but in the end it was all worth it for the Palisades High freshman, who showed wisdom beyond his years through a five-hour delay between his semifinal and final matches. After what seemed like an eternity he took the mat and took out San Pedro’s Tyler Donald on a pin with 44 seconds left in the second period to capture the 106-pound title and become the first ninth-grader in Dolphins history to be crowned City champion.
Woods won all four of his matches by fall in the two-day tournament and qualified for the state meet the following week at Mechanics Bank Arena in Bakersfield.
On the pitch, Ali Riley, who grew up in the Alphabet Streets, was looking forward to returning to the United States to play for the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League, having signed a one-year contract with the team in February. On June 22, however, six days before a warmup tournament, the organization withdrew from the NWSL after six players and several staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
Undeterred, the always upbeat Riley, who has captained the New Zealand women’s national team since 2017, returned to Malmo, Sweden in mid-July to begin training with FC Rosengård, where she played in 132 games from 2012-18.
Riley starred in multiple sports at St. Matthew’s and proved to be a clutch scorer on her Westside Breakers and SoCal United club teams before being an All-CIF performer at Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City. She played four years at Stanford before turning pro.
Eighth-grader Milla Klostermann scored all three of her team’s goals in the quarterfinals and both of its goals in the semifinals as the St. Matthew’s girls soccer team reached the Pacific Basin League championship game in February, aided by saves from goalie Sarah Finestone.
Paul Revere Middle School’s girls team capped a perfect season with a 2-0 triumph to win its first Junior Delphic League championship, led by goalie Jaya Babber and MVP Madeline Grover.
Brentwood School’s boys team went undefeated in the Gold Coast League and earned the No. 1 spot in the CIF Southern Section Division 6 rankings, led by buddies Zach Hausner and Campbell Collar, who had led the Eagles’ water polo squad to a Prep League title the previous fall. They traded in their caps and swim suits for cleats and jerseys and helped Brentwood surrender only five goals in its first 14 games, including 11 shutouts.
Hausner at right back and Collar at center back have been best friends since first grade at Palisades Elementary and played together in AYSO Region 69.
Two more homegrown Palisadians who made history at the top level this year were brothers Tyler and Scott Heineman. In August, they faced each other for the first time in their Major League baseball careers when Scott, an outfielder for the Texas Rangers, traveled with his team to the Bay Area to take on San Francisco, where Tyler was a catcher for the Giants.
Before the start of the second of the three-game series the brothers posed for a photo at home plate with the umpiring crew. Afterwards, they traded jerseys so their father Steve could have both to remember the occasion. Tyler and Scott both grew up in the Via Bluffs and made their major league debuts in 2019, becoming the 396th set of siblings to play in the majors.
On November 13, Tyler signed a minor league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Scott was traded to the Cincinnati Reds on Dec. 16.
Making the Post’s Athletes of the Year list for the sixth straight time is Jordan Wilimovsky. Raised near the Getty Villa in Sunset Mesa, he entered four events at the 2020 US Open Swim Meet in Irvine in November. He won the 800 freestyle, took second in the 400 freestyle and was fourth in the 1500 freestyle.
Wilimovsky, who was a Junior Lifeguard at Will Rogers State Beach, just missed medaling in the 1,500 at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, placing fourth in in 14:45.03. Three days later he swam fifth in the 10K marathon. He qualified for the 2021 Games by placing fifth in the 10K at the World Championships last year.
Perhaps no one enjoyed more success in the pool this year than Mardell Ramirez, who completed a stellar collegiate career at Cal Lutheran University, where she set a SCIAC record in swimming and led the water polo team to the SCIAC Tournament championship.
The Pali High graduate earned her B.A. in Psychology and Art and wants to pursue her M.A. in Marital and Family Therapy at Loyola Marymount. She refined her strokes swimming for the Palisades-Malibu YMCA and sharpened her shooting in water polo for Westside Aquatics.
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