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Memories That Help Define the Prep Sports Year

Deaths in the Family


I remember the first week of the football season all too clearly for all the wrong reasons. I was sitting at a La Quinta-Westminster football game, adding up my halftime statistics, when a colleague approached with a tip. He had heard a coach at El Dorado had died, a basketball coach, a young guy. That was all he knew. And that was all I needed to know. I got a dreadful feeling in my stomach.

I hustled to find someone with a cellular phone and called the office from underneath the goal post, let them know what I had heard and that they needed to confirm the information. And I gave them a name to check--Gary Raya.

My mind wasn't much in the game during the second half, and when I returned to the office to write my story, I asked another colleague in the lobby what he had heard.

"Whoever it was you said," my co-worker said, "it was him."

Gary Raya was 29, dead in his sleep.

Some people make a reporter's job a lot easier than others. Gary was one of them.

The funeral was spent fighting my emotions, and I did well until the end, when the long line of girls' basketball players filed out of the church, their cheeks stained with tears, facing something they shouldn't until they are at least out of their teens.

Yet, this was the year of dying young.

Two Katella water polo players--Jonothan Fabbro Curtis, 16, and Steve Bender, 18--and two of their friends, John Thornton, 18, and Anthony Fuentes Jr., 17, were killed in a one-car accident caused by excessive speed and alcohol.

They weren't the only ones. Two El Toro football players, past and present, also died. Jeff Stenstrom, 19, a 1994 graduate, died from meningococcal meningitis 10 months after graduation while at Cornell. Joe Leon, 17, died a few months before his senior season in a one-car accident in which the driver fell asleep. When El Toro won its section title, Charger players called timeout amid the jubilation and took a moment to remember Joe.

Costa Mesa's boys' basketball coach, Jason Ferguson, 24, publicly battled cancer for more than a year, a testament to courage that provided more growing up and maturation for his players than any could find playing for a championship.

And Michelle Carew, 18, who had finished her high school softball career 13 months ago at Canyon before becoming ill.

I wrote a story about Michelle's sister, Stephanie, two years ago detailing her high school success. I spent the days leading up to Michelle's death writing a chronology of her losing battle with leukemia.

I sat at my desk, scanning 55 stories that appeared in these pages, gleaning facts and fighting tears all the way.

I laugh at parents, coaches and athletes who just don't seem to get it--it's high school sports. Too often, they act like it's life and death.

It isn't.

That much is clear.

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