ALL BALL Sports: Manhattan Beach Mira Costa champions, LA Title Town to Title-less Town

Dalia Frias led the Mira Costa to its first ever Cross Country State Championships. Mustang boys volleyball and soccer teams also won CIF titles. Photo by Ray Vidal

by Paul Teetor

Locally, Mira Costa became the championship capitol of the Beach Cities this year. The boys volleyball team, the boys soccer team, and the girls cross-country squad all won CIF titles, the first for their respective teams in a long, long time. So long, in fact for the girls cross country team, that it was their first CIF title ever.

Costa’s All-Everything runner Dalia Frias gets the nod as All Ball’s girls athlete of the year award, for her sustained domination in both track and cross-country. Runners up: Ella Parsley and Anna Chittenden. They finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the CIF championship race. Combined with Frias’ first place finish, that was enough to secure the Mustangs their first-ever CIF championship.

The boys Athlete of the Year award goes to Mira Costa’s Thomas Southey, who achieved a rare triple crown: he made the Bay League All Star first teams in football, soccer and lacrosse. That’s never been done before, according to the old-timers consulted by All Ball. 

So they took a semester off this fall after graduation but plans to enroll in Southern Methodist University next semester, where he will play on the football team as a wide receiver.

“I’m very pumped about it,” the 6-foot, 190 pounder tells All Ball. “Just knowing I will get back to playing football is a great feeling.”

Runners up: Costa football players Matthew Kraskouskas and Casey Pavlick. Kraskoukas’ emergence as a dominant running back helped turn the Mustangs season around and powered them deep into the playoffs. Costa quarterback Pavlick was rushed into action as a last-second replacement for Slingin’ Sam Whitney when Whitney suddenly transferred to an eastern prep school two years ago. He then had an even more outstanding senior season.

“He’s a great quarterback,” Southey said. “His footwork is fantastic, and he has great agility. When a play breaks down he can turn nothing into something with his feet or his arm.” 

LA: From Title Town to COVID Chaos

What a difference one year makes – in life and in sports.

With the 2020 world champions in both baseball and basketball hailing from Los Angeles, LA was known last year as Titletown, U.S.A. – and was feeling great about itself and its top spot in the sporting world.

Even better, the end of the pandemic appeared to be on the horizon, and good times for fans – as well as repeat title runs for both the Dodgers and Lakers – looked to be just around the corner.

But as 2021 comes to a close, LA is better known as Title-less Town, U.S.A. Both the Dodgers and Lakers gave up their championships without much of a fight this year, and have little chance of clawing back into championship contention any time soon.

Indeed, heading into the New Year, only the Rams and Chargers have any world championship hopes, and even those two are long shots to make it to their home field – SoFi Stadium – to compete in the Super Bowl on February 13.

Even worse, Covid-19 is back in a big way, launching a fifth wave that has totally disrupted the sporting world. Hundreds of players in the NBA and NFL have had to sit out games due to positive Covid-19 tests, dozens of games have been canceled or postponed, and players who had washed out of the NBA or retired years ago – hello, new Lakers Stanley Johnson and Darren Collison — have been rushed into action so teams can meet the NBA minimum of having eight players available to play.

Dodgers depleted 

The Dodgers are lucky that it is the off-season for baseball so they are not immediately affected by the revival of the virulent virus. Beyond that, there is a Major League Baseball work stoppage because the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners expired last month and there has been no movement by either side to resume negotiations on a new CBA. That battle is expected to heat up in early February, when pitchers and catchers are normally the first to report to spring training. 

While the labor impasse has kept the media spotlight off the Dodgers’ problems, the reality is that of their five major free agents this off-season – pitchers Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, and infielders Chris Taylor and Corey Seager – only Taylor has signed a new contract with the team. And while Taylor is a nice utility player capable of filling in at every position except pitcher and catcher – and who knows, he probably could catch a few innings if he had to – the other free agents were much more important to the Dodgers in their quest to resume winning the Western Division. They had won it for eight straight years but failed last season, losing out to the San Francisco Giants by a single game in a race that wasn’t decided until the last game of the regular season.

Of the five free agents, Seager was the youngest at 27 and the biggest talent. He is  just heading into his prime years. Thus it was a huge blow when he signed a 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers for $325 million, a figure the Dodgers easily could have matched or exceeded. But they chose not to jump into the bidding war and Seager, a home-grown star and the MVP of their 2020 World Series win, declined to give the Dodgers a hometown discount, and simply walked away.

Seager is now vowing to do everything he can to convince Kershaw to join him in Texas. While the work stoppage has given Kershaw more time to make his final decision – it’s clearly down to either staying in LA or signing with Texas – the smart money says it’s inevitable that the Dodger all-time great will spend his final few seasons in the Lone Star state, where he was born and raised and his family maintains its primary residence.

Of their other prime free agents, the 37-year-old Scherzer signed a 3-year, $130 million deal with the New York Mets. The average salary of $43 million a year is the highest in MLB history and represents a colossal gamble by the desperate-to-be-a-contender Mets. It’s totally understandable that the Dodgers declined to match the offer, especially considering that Scherzer let the team down when he begged out of starting game 6 of the National League Championship series against the Atlanta Braves. He claimed his arm was dead and he had nothing left to give the team unless, and until they got to a game 7.

They didn’t. 

For his part Jansen, who now lives up on the Hill after spending most of his long Dodgers career living in Redondo Beach, remains in contractual limbo, unsigned by the Dodgers or anyone else. While he had a good-to-great 2021 season when he returned to form as one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball, Jansen had a terrible two seasons prior to that and became so unreliable that he almost cost them the 2020 World Series.

Whether his 2021 comeback merits the kind of big-bucks other elite pitchers are getting on the open market is the question that the Dodgers will have to answer when they are finally free to negotiate after a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed.

Make that if a new CBA is ever signed. Baseball pundits far more knowledgeable than All Ball about the inner workings of the sport’s financial structure are warning that the entire 2022 season is in danger of being canceled while the players – millionaires all – battle with the owners – billionaires almost all – over how to divvy up the boatloads of money pouring in from fans, sponsors and cable TV.

It’s a sad spectacle that could grow old quickly for fans and turn them off forever, especially the younger fans who are not nearly as invested in the slow-paced game as their elders. The last time there was a labor stoppage – 1994 – the game didn’t recover fan interest until the summer of 1998, when the steroid-powered home run derby put on by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds proved terrific box office — until they were all exposed as cheaters in subsequent years.

Odds of that happening again: zero.

Lost Lakers            

While the Dodgers have future issues they need to resolve if they want to extend their incredible success over the last decade into the next decade, the Lakers are ending the year in a tailspin that is so extreme it threatens their entire future, short and long term.

Heading into their Christmas Day showdown with the Brooklyn Nets – scheduled because most pre-season “experts” predicted the Nets would win the Eastern Conference and the Lakers would win the Western Conference – the Lakers had a record of 16-17 and were on a four-game losing streak.

Make that a five-game losing streak after the short-handed Nets spanked them 122-115. The truly crazy part about this downward spiral: LeBron James is playing some of the best basketball of the entire 4-season Lakers part of his career. He’s averaging more than 30 points over the last five games, and he scored 39 with 14 rebounds and 10 assists against the Nets, who only had one superstar playing – James Harden – while the other two, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, were placed in the league’s health and safety protocols. That meant they either had tested positive for Covid-19 or were in “close contact” with someone who had tested positive. They either had to wait 10 days before coming back to play or test negative two days in a row.

But while LeBron is still playing great when he is healthy and on the court, he will turn 37 this week — on December 30 – and his body is starting to break down no matter how hard he trains in the summer. He has missed half the team’s games this season while out with injury, and it looks like a pattern has been established: play great for a while, get hurt, rehab for days or weeks or – God forbid – months, and then come back, rinse and repeat. Father Time is undefeated, and while LeBron is turning out to be the greatest challenger he has ever faced, he’s going to win this battle too.

Meanwhile, as great as LeBron has been on the court, that’s how bad he is as a shadow general manager. And make no mistake: Rob Pelinka holds the official title, but LeBron is the real GM. He brokered the disastrous trade for Russell Westbrook – currently leading the league in turnovers and bad shots – that cost the Lakers two of their best defenders – lock-down guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and undersized board beast Montrezl Harrell – and their best instant offense guy off the bench in Kyle Kuzma.

Watching the Chicago Bulls destroy the Lakers a couple of weeks ago, it was hard not to notice the damage being inflicted by shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Alex Caruso.

DeRozan, who is from Compton and played for USC, has let it be known that he wanted to come to the Lakers last summer but they declined to meet his price, instead opting to spend it on Westbrook and his $44 million salary. And Caruso, who worked himself up from an undrafted rookie to one of the Lakers best defenders and playmakers, said publicly that he pleaded with the Lakers to match the Bulls’ 4-year, $37 million offer but they refused.

As for the rest of the mis-matched pieces around LeBron, Westbrook and Anthony Davis – currently out for at least a month with yet another knee injury – these are the players that LeBron hand-picked and delivered for Pelinka to sign.

The grizzled vets – Trevor Ariza, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Carmelo Anthony – are just too grizzled. The kids – Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn (yet to play a minute), Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves – are nice players but none of them is a game-changer.

It’s hard for Lakers fans not to imagine the roster if only Pelinka hadn’t given into LeBron’s demands that he trade all the guys the Lakers had been patiently developing – All-Stars Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle and valuable role players Lonzo Ball, Jordan Clarkson and Josh Hart – for Davis and Westbrook.

All they have to show for it now is a bubble NBA title that no one cares about and a bleak future with all their first-round draft picks dealt away and no help on the way.

Yikes! 

Rams trending up, Chargers trending down

There are two kinds of losses in football: bad losses and painful losses.

A bad loss is when you lose to a team that you should have beaten, a team that everyone knows is no good, especially compared to your team.

A painful loss is a loss that has an outsized effect on your place in the standings and your possible participation in the post-season playoffs.

The Chargers 41-29 loss to the Houston Texans Sunday morning was both: a bad loss and a painful loss.

It was a bad loss because the Texans were – still are, for that matter – one of the worst teams in the league, right down there with the Detroit Lions, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars. They had no business beating the Chargers, who just last week took the Super Bowl runner up Kansas City Chiefs to overtime before losing 34-28.

Still, the Chargers came into this game with an 8-6 record and control of their own destiny: if they won their last three regular season games, they were in the playoffs. Period.

Now, with an 8-7 record, they have fallen back into the pack of contenders for a wild-card spot. Even if they win their last two games, they still need help from other teams to beat the other teams that are also in the wild-card hunt.

The playoff possibilities are so plentiful that there’s no sense gaming out all the scenarios. That can wait until next Sunday, after the Chargers either beat the Denver Broncos and raise their record to 9-7 and stay alive, or lose to Denver and fall to 8-8 with virtually no chance of making the playoffs.

So how could the Chargers possibly lose to the sad-sack Texans? Three words: poor run defense. Actually, make that porous run defense. The same problem that has plagued them all year. While Justin Herbert and the Chargers high-octane offense piled up the points – Herbie did it again Sunday with yet another passing game of more than 300 yards, setting another NFL record in the process – the defense turned the Texans’ Rex Burkhard, a veteran journeyman, into a superstar running back for a day.

Burkhead piled up a career-best 149 yards and simply could not be stopped every time Houston needed a crucial first down.

Meanwhile the Rams ran their record to 11-4 and captured first place atop the NFC West, thanks to their 4-game winning streak and the Arizona Cardinals 3-game losing streak. The Rams are now guaranteed a playoff spot. Their next target: overtaking the 12-3 Green Bay Packers for the top spot in the entire NFC. That would give them a first-round bye and home field throughout the playoffs – including the Super Bowl!

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor                    

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