Sy Riley, Jane Nwaba and Graham Alphson Are the Outstanding Senior Athletes at Pali High
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Leadership, winning and determination are what define Palisadian-Post Cup winners Syaire Riley, Jane Nwaba and Graham Alphson—this year’s outstanding senior athletes at Palisades High.
Riley excelled on the football field as a middle linebacker on defense and tight end on offense and whether it was in the locker room, along the sideline or in the huddle, he always knew what to say to get his teammates motivated.
“Winning the Post Cup Award is important to me because my teammate Jake Nadley received it last year and, in doing so, gave me added motivation to try and do the same thing,” says Riley, who lives across the street from The Forum in Inglewood and attended Frederick Douglas Academy Elementary and New West Charter Middle School prior to Palisades. “It was a back burner goal I had going into the season and the only way to achieve it was to help this program rise to new heights.”
That’s just what Riley did. He paced the team with 118 tackles, 17 for losses, with an interception, four pass deflections and a fumble recovery. He caught a touchdown pass in the Charter Bowl against Granada Hills and was the driving force behind the Dolphins’ nine-game winning streak—their longest since 1976—and their first outright league title in 32 years.
“Sy is such a good role model and I respect him so much because he did everything in his power to help the team win,” quarterback Forrest Brock says. “His actions spoke louder than his words.”
For the second straight season Riley was named Team Co-MVP, he was chosen Defensive Player of the Year in the Western League and he made the All-City Open Division First Team. In his three years on varsity the Dolphins won 25 of 34 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 and to me as a coach,” he said. “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 coaches. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of captains I’ve had the honor of coaching at Palisades.”
As a sophomore, Riley played with his older brother Syr, now an offensive lineman entering his junior year at Washington State. His younger brother Savyour was a freshman on Pali High’s JV team last fall and Sy’s sister Samaiya is in eighth grade and is on the dance team at New West Charter.
Riley signed with the University of New Mexico in February and he can’t wait to continue his gridiron career at the next level.
“When I considered UNM, I thought about two things: it’s offering a free education and it’s a place to help me with my Christian faith,” Riley says. “It has both so check and check! Many schools talked to me about coming to play football for them whether it was an Ivy League, Pac-12, Mountain West, NAIA, or lower division NCAA but I was offered by five so that narrowed the list. UNM was the only offer that wasn’t partial.”
Riley cites Spanish in 10th grade with Ms. Bacharach as his favorite class at Pali High because she made the lessons and activities “interactive and engaging.” And although former Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu is his favorite athete because he can relate to his personal style, the two most influential people in Riley’s life have been his dad James (who live streams Palisades’ games on Facebook) and his grandfather.
“A lot of black kids aren’t blessed to have both parents in the household, most notably fathers,” he says. “My grandpa and my dad are loving people who are highly respected and care about others. Another plus is that I share a lot of similarities with both. My dad understands all different kinds of sports just like me and my grandpa loves talking about the history of things just like me. I could have educated and historical discussions with both about many topics. As for a person as a whole it’s Jesus Christ because he’s who I try to model my life after.”
When asked to name his most memorable game, Riley thought back to his freshman year on JV: “We have a 3-0 lead with under two minutes left. It’s fourth down and they need two yards for a first down. They run a play, I go for the ball carrier and boom! We smack right into each other. I look for the chains and I know he’s short. I get up and run to our sideline, everyone is screaming, jumping up and down, but by the time I get to the sideline I see the Fairfax offense was still on the field. Long story short the referee, who was my family’s good friend, gave them a first down. That was the worst walk back to the huddle because I knew we’d already won. They go down and score with four seconds left and we ended up losing, 7-3. That’s when I learned never to let the refs determine the outcome of a game. I vowed to repay Fairfax and this year we beat them 21-7 to clinch the league championship!”
Riley not only plays with passion, he is passionate about watching other sports. He was a regular in the stands at soccer, volleyball, lacrosse and basketball games and got to know other athletes. In fact, two of his favorites are his fellow Post Cup winners: “So I’m pretty good at basketball too and I like to play Jane one-on-one a lot.”
Nwaba knows a thing or two about winning—that’s practically all she’s done since she stepped on campus. A four-year varsity player on the hardwood, she has powered the Dolphins to back-to-back City crowns (Division I last winter and the Open Division title this year) while earning back-to-back Player of the Year honors. Where does her latest trophy rank?
“The Post Cup means a lot to me,” she says with her ever-present smile. “Getting the chance to witness those who have won this award before me makes me feel very grateful to be selected.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of her Dolphins journey is how she wound up at Palisades in the first place. After all, she lives in Carson and all of her older siblings—Barbara, Alex, David, Victor and Precious—went to University High, which plays in the same league as Palisades.
“Precious told me to come to Pali because she played against [former Pali High guard and 2017 Post Cup Award winner] Chelsey Gipson and knew they were a real good team,” she recalls. “I knew coming to Pali that there is a proud history in athletics and academics, so I felt it would be a great school for me and it certainly has been.”
The athletic gene runs in the family. Barbara was a track and field standout at UC Santa Barbara and placed 12th in the heptathlon at the 2016 Summer Olympics. David has played for four NBA teams, made his league debut with the Lakers in 2017 and is currently a free agent. Victor, who is now a financial advisor, played basketball at Whittier College.
Jane matriculated through Brentwood Science Magnet and Paul Revere Middle School before contributing mightily to Palisades’ march to the City Open Division finals under coach Torino Johnson her freshman year. A dislocated finger forced her to miss half of her sophomore season and without their rising star the Dolphins, under new coach Danielle Foley, dropped their final nine games and were last in the Western League.
Nwaba returned to the lineup as a junior and keyed the team’s run to the SoCal Division III regional final under first-year coach Adam Levine. That made her goal simple this year: take the squad one step further. She averaged a team-best 12 points and 10 rebounds a game as Palisades conquered the City’s top division and made the Division II state final.
“The thing I’m most proud of is definitely winning the City and regional championships this year,” Nwaba says. “My teammates and I fought hard to get back to the position we were in last year and to win the regional this time made all the hard work worth it.”
Nwaba’s favorite class at Pali High was geometry her freshman year with Ms. Yook: “I built amazing bonds with some of my closest friends now. It was never a dull moment in that class! Ms. Yook was my favorite teacher. She was always really positive and humorful and made the class fun while also teaching me a great amount.”
The next chapter for Nwaba will be written not far up the road at Pepperdine, where she got a scholarship to play for the Waves.
“I was considering NYU and Cal State L.A. (where Johnson now coaches the women’s team). I chose Pepperdine because I felt it was the best fit. It’s close to home and it’s a place I can continue to grow not only academically and athletically, but also in my faith.”
Perhaps the toughest obstacle Nwaba had to overcome in high school was having three different head coaches in four years.
“It was tough since they all had very different styles,” she admits. “However, I’ve played with almost all of the same girls, so our bond on the court made it easier to adjust to any change.”
As the lone senior on this year’s roster, Nwaba was a source of wisdom and poise for a talented but still developing group of girls.
“It was amazing having Jane as our captain,” sophomore teammate Demonnie Lagway gushes. “She was like a mentor to me. I knew I could go to her for anything. Especially if I was nervous before a game she always helped me through that. She was always there for a good laugh and even a good serious talk.”
A source of strength in her life has been her parents: “They inspire me to work hard and push myself in everything I do. I admire my friends and teammates. They’ve been a very positive light in my life and never fail to make me smile. I also admire [Palisades assistant coach] Don Burke. He’s taught me a lot the last two years.”
Nwaba played tennis and ran track growing up, but ultimately she chose basketball since all of her siblings played and they had a hoop in their backyard. She even won the City frosh/soph high jump and triple jump as a 10th-grader after four weeks of practice. The game she’ll remember most is Senior Night because her family and friends were there supporting her.
Although getting her degree is her top priority she isn’t ruling out the WNBA one day.
“I plan on majoring in sports medicine… on track for pre-med,” Nwaba says. “I hope to become a pediatrician but getting the chance to play professionally has always been a dream!”
Graham Alphson could hardly have imagined he would be the Post Cup winner back in January after injuring his shoulder against LACES, but sheer determination and his indomitable spirit to fight through pain carried the boys basketball team to its first City crown in 51 years—and earned him the school’s highest athletic honor.
“I feel honored to even be thought of for this award and quite fortunate to have received it,” he admits. “My family was proud of me when they heard about it, so that made me very happy.”
Nothing made the 6-4 forward happier than beating University in the City Division I quarterfinals.
“I’ll probably remember that playoff game against Uni the most out of any high school game,” says Alphson, who grew up locally and went to Canyon Elementary and Lincoln Middle School. “Two of my worst games of my senior year were both against Uni and my worst game ever was against Uni my sophomore year. They were up big early and it looked like the ‘Uni Curse’ had fallen on me once again, but for some reason I knew we’d come back. I can still vividly remember the plays that sparked our comeback, especially Dylan Griffin’s hyped screaming after a few fastbreaks and the overall energy of our team. We barely won in a dramatic finish and I thought I played pretty good so everything just seemed to come together for us that night.”
Palisades rode that momentum all the way to the Division IV regional final, where the team’s Cinderella season ended one win short of the state finals.
After being the only Palisades representative on the All-City list his junior year, Alphson averaged nearly 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game as a senior and was voted City Division I Co-MVP. He was the Dolphins’ high scorer in 20 of the 29 games he played in—a testament to his consistency and durability.
“Graham is very special,” Pali High Coach Donzell Hayes says. “He has some intangibles that will carry him through life, but the tangibles are what everybody can see. He won’t let anyone outwork him on the court, ever! He’s what we call a ‘Humble Monster.’ He genuinely cares for his brothers. He deserves all of the good that comes his way.”
Like his Post Cup comrades, Alphson comes from an athletic family. He has four sisters and two brothers, all of whom are either in college or already graduated. Brother Ryan went to New Roads, brother Bennett went to Loyola, sister Kate preceded him at Palisades (she ran cross country and track), sister Quinn went to Harvard-Westlake where she was an All-CIF soccer standout and sisters Kristiane and Britt both attended Marymount High.
Never one to use an injury as an excuse for a subpar performance, Alphson learns from every setback and comes out sharper the next game. His mental toughness sets him apart from his peers.
“Not to be dramatic but I must admit my injury was difficult to play through,” he confesses. “Not only did it hurt frequently, but it also took a psychological toll on me in that I suddenly became a worse shooter and had to always be careful not to re-injure it. I saw a few doctors and got treatment for it sporadically during the year, but I never got a clear diagnosis.”
Alphson got accepted to UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego and decided rather quickly to become a Gaucho.
“I always thought that UCSB would be a great fit because of its
location, culture and academics, so it was a fairly easy decision,” he says. “I’ve talked to the coaches and believe I’m skilled enough to walk on but their roster is full.”
Alphson’s favorite class was AP Lang and his favorite teacher was Mrs. Schoellnast. He played football, soccer and tennis before basketball. In the summer before 10th grade JV coach Matt Jackson asked him to be on his Sole Brothers club team. After that, Alphson played with LA Rockfish.
“Graham is not the type to want to be captain but he was as much of a leader as anyone else,” senior teammate Roman Hartwell says. “Playing with him and playing against him in practice pushed me to be better. He plays with such intensity that we had to match his energy. He’s as fierce a competitor as anyone I’ve played with or against. I can remember our coaches saying he chased after the ball like he’d been deprived of it and needed it to survive.”
Not one for crowds, Alphson prefers hanging out with friends, playing video games, watching movies, finding new music, eating at Fiesta Feast, going to the beach, the Palisades Recreation Center, Rustic Canyon and the Highlands and, above all, shooting baskets.
“My mom (Pamela, who rarely misses a game) has had the biggest influence on me as a person because she’s always been there for me,” he says. “I admire a lot of people both within and outside my family, so it’s hard to name only a few. Nevertheless, I really admire my sister Quinn because she worked extremely hard in school and soccer, my teammate Ryder Gianotti’s dad Frank because he’s a fun family man who also works hard, and the legendary basketball player Moses Malone because he came from nothing and went on to dominate the NBA against all odds yet remained humble all the time. I haven’t picked a major yet and I honestly don’t know what I’ll do after college… I just hope I’m happy and proud of what I do when I grow up.”
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