No one thought it was right for a 'Small School' to check out of their own environment to play with the more established 'big girls'.
The reality is, Port Of Los Angeles High softball and coaches Melissa & Moses Espinoza needed to check out.
In four years time, the Polar Bears went from a team just happy to compete in Division III after not being able to compete in the playoffs at all in their first year of existence, to a team that was so good, they basically were too good to be in Division III, rolling to consecutive City titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013. So, POLA felt they needed to challenge themselves even more in Division I, and they nearly succeeded in winning another title.
POLA not only set a school record for wins in a season yet again, the Espinoza husband and wife tandem was able to get 30 victories for the first time ever, while leading the Polar Bears to the CIF-LACS Division I semifinals where they came painfully close to ending the reign of eventual two-time champion Carson.
"The mere bold move for the girls to want to move up and challenge themselves in D1 knowing how stiff the competition was, I tip my hat to them," says Melissa, who along with Moses repeat as the 2014 San Pedro News Pilot Coaches Of The Year. "They could have stayed where they are supposed to be and win (a fourth straight Division III title), but they stepped out of comfort zone and pushed themselves."
The year opened off in grand style as POLA defeated West Torrance, Downey, Mayfair of Lakewood and Warren of Downey to claim their first-ever regular season tournament championship, the Redondo Tournament crown. POLA also started slow in both the Torrance National & Las Vegas Spring Jamboree Tournaments, but they closed out both on a roll to claim the Bronze Division titles in both those tournaments.
Part of the criticism POLA gets in moving up to Division I stems from still competing in the small-school laden Crosstown League, a league POLA has won four years in a row without a loss, and with relative ease. Some of the heat was taken away when POLA's fiercest league competitor, Harbor Teacher Prep was able to win the Division III championship.
Yet, POLA was chosen as the No.3 seed of Division I and still was able to defeat fellow City Section Division I teams such as crosstown neighbor San Pedro (twice), Narbonne of Harbor City, Lincoln of Los Angeles and Polytechnic of Sun Valley before the season finally ended with a 2-0 loss in the semifinals to Carson on May 29.
The Polar Bears do lose to graduation Allison Bayer, Kelsea Short, Sarah Maldonado and Stephanie Ramirez, four players who all leave with ten combined championship rings, but everyone else returns, including three-time City Pitcher Of The Year Nicolle Miranda.
"We have a saying 'tradition never graduates' and (Allison, Kelsea, Sarah & Stephanie) stressed to these underclassmen to keep pushing work ethic, discipline and character," Bugarin-Espinoza says of the four seniors. "They embodied these things and I know the other girls have bought into it and will keep passing it on throughout program."
Bugarin-Espinoza, who now has a sterling record of 113-33-1 in five years, got her, and the softball team's 100th all-time victory when the Polar Bears defeated Fernley of Nevada, 8-2 to clinch the Bronze Division championship of the Las Vegas Spring Jamboree Tournament on April 19.
With a strong nucleus of returning players, including the reigning three-time City Pitcher Of The Year Nicolle Miranda, POLA and the Espinoza tag team will be primed to come back strong in 2015.
"Our girls compliment each other with their physicality along with their tenacity," says Bugarin-Espinoza, who along with Moses are flanked by assistants Miguel Valencia, Mark Miranda and Jesse Espinoza. "We did not shy away from anyone. As far as the label of being a small school, we are indeed but hopefully with the consistent banner seasons we have had will prove we are no longer the 'David'."
(Note: Photo by Vince Pirozzi)