St. Francis High graduate Aaliysah Gomez, left, helped build a foundation for the Sharks girls’ flag football team during the program’s inaugural season in 2023. Salinas native Diego Estrada, right, raises his arms in victory after he won the 51st Wharf to Wharf Race on July 23. He finished the 6-mile course going from Santa Cruz to Capitola in 27 minutes, 14 seconds.

With the 2023-24 sports year officially in the books, it’s time to reflect on some of the best moments that took place throughout this past year. 

Watsonville native selected in MLB Draft

Watsonville native and Aptos High graduate Luke Keaschall, who recently played for Arizona State, was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the 2023 MLB Draft on July 11. (contributed)

A lifelong dream came true for Watsonville native Luke Keaschall, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft in June 2023.

The former Aptos High baseball star is currently playing for the Wichita Wind Surge—a Double-A affiliate of the Twins. 

Keaschall is batting a .324 average (85-for-262) with nine home runs, one triple, 19 doubles, 33 RBIs and 59 runs scored this season.

Locals shine at 51st Wharf to Wharf

Salinas native Diego Estrada got some redemption in July by capturing the 51st Wharf to Wharf in 27 minutes, 14 seconds, edging Kenyans Josphay Kipchirchir and Shadrack Keter who finished second and third, respectively. 

Estrada, a former standout at Alisal High School and Northern Arizona University, won $5,000 in prize money—$4,000 for first place and $1,000 bonus for the top American.

Watsonville native Julian Vargas, a former standout at St. Francis High School, took ninth in 22:29 and was the top local male.

Girls flag football kicks off inaugural season

Aaliysah Gomez Year in Sports 2023-24
St. Francis High graduate Aaliysah Gomez, No. 2, helped build a foundation for the Sharks girls’ flag football team during the program’s inaugural season in 2023. (Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian file photo)

Girls flag football was declared an official California Interscholastic Federation sport for the 2023-24 school year. And, naturally, schools in the area immediately adopted the game into the fall season. 

The inaugural season became an instant success as numerous girls showed up to play for Watsonville, Aptos and St. Francis high schools.

Dominic Pierini sets county record for passing yards

Dominic Pierini Monte Vista Christian football
Monte Vista Christian junior quarterback Dominic Pierini attempts a pass against visiting Rancho San Juan High during the teams’ non-league football game in Watsonville on Sept. 8. (Raul Ebio – The Pajaronian)

Monte Vista Christian incoming senior Dominic Pierini set the all-time Santa Cruz County record for most passing yards in a single season with 3,057 to go along with 32 touchdowns in 2023.  

He surpassed former Watsonville High quarterback Jerry Alvarez who originally set the county record with 2,727 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 2009. 

Pierini also set the county record for most passing yards in a single game with 486 against Watsonville High on Oct. 27, breaking a previous mark of 439 set by former MVC quarterback Josh Blanton in 2006.

On that night, Pierini also surpassed Blanton’s single-season school record of 2,570 passing yards, also set in 2006.

Randy Blankenship retires after 50 years of coaching football 

Randy Blankenship Year in Sports 2023-24
Aptos High football head coach Randy Blankenship waives farewell to the home crowd prior to coaching his final game on the sidelines against Soquel High on Nov. 3. The legendary coach is retiring after an illustrious 50-year coaching career. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

Former Aptos High football coach Randy Blankenship retired after an illustrious 50-year coaching career on the sidelines.

Blankenship won four Central Coast Section championships during his 14-year tenure at Aptos, including three straight titles from 2013-15, and most recently in 2018. He recorded 300-plus victories and is one of the winningest coaches in California history.

On top of his section title runs with Aptos, Blankenship won four section titles in his eight seasons with Clovis West and one during his two-year stint at Fallbrook. 

Soquel football captures county’s first-ever state title

Justice Grauel-Tebong_Soquel High football CIF NorCal football
Soquel High senior Justice Grauel-Tebong, No. 44, recorded three touchdowns for the Knights in their 42-14 win over Casa Roble High in the CIF NorCal Division 4-AA Championship Bowl Game on Dec. 1. (Mondo Morlos/special to The Pajaronian)

The Soquel High football team became the first-ever program to capture a California Interscholastic Federation State Championship title following a 28-7 victory over Jurupa Hills High in the D4AA Championship game in Pasadena on Dec. 8.

The Knights finished with a 13-2 overall record—the most wins in Santa Cruz County—and closed out the season on a 10-game winning streak by out-scoring opponents, 155-35, during that span.

Gina Castañeda returns after battle with cancer

Gina Castaneda Aptos girls soccer coach Year in Sports 2023-24
Aptos High girls soccer head coach Gina Castañeda, left, stands next to her husband and assistant coach Patricio Castañeda, who keep a close eye on the Mariners playing against Harbor High during the teams’ Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League match in Santa Cruz on Jan. 23. (Raul Ebio/The Pajaronian)

Nothing was going to keep Aptos High girls soccer head coach Gina Castañeda away from being on the sidelines this past winter season. Not even the grueling pain she suffered during her battle with kidney cancer.

Equipped with a wheelchair, Castañeda showed up to the first day of tryouts. She continued to coach the Mariners to a Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League crown and a trip to the Central Coast Section playoffs.

Scotts Valley’s Danica Kelley wins state wrestling title

Danica Kelley Scotts Valley High girls wrestling2024 CIF State Wrestling Championships
Scotts Valley High senior Danica Kelley raises her arm in victory after she won the 135-pound weight class title at the California Interscholastic Federation State Wrestling Championships at Mechanics Bank Arena in Bakersfield on Feb. 24. (Chris Mora/special to the Press Banner)

Scotts Valley High graduate Danica Kelley became the county’s first CIF State Wrestling champion since 2015 when former Falcons star Dom Parrish won back-to-back state titles in 2014-15. 

Kelley pinned Alex Maday of Whitney High to capture the 135-pound weight class championship, going 5-0 with four wins by fall in the three day tournament at Mechanics Bank Arena in Bakersfield in February.

Also making the trek to Bakersfield was Aptos graduate Janie Houser (125 pounds) and incoming senior Lucas Zuniga (285), and Watsonville graduate Joselyn Gutierrez (130)—who was escorted through downtown Watsonville by local police and first responder vehicles as she left for the state finals. 

St. Francis girls’ hoops goes unbeaten in league play

Maya Calfee St. Francis girls basketball Year in Sports 2023-24
St. Francis High freshman Maya Calfee drives to the basket during a league game against Pacific Collegiate School on Feb 13. The Sharks beat the Pumas, 62-45, to finish the season with a perfect 14-0 record in Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress Division play for the 2023-24 season. (Raul Ebio/The Pajaronian)

It was a historical season for the St. Francis High girls’ basketball team, which captured the Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress Division crown with an unblemished 14-0 record in league play. 

The Sharks were led by a solid core of seniors in Aaliysah Gomez, Nevaeh Litel and Emily Raich, along with incoming junior Peyton Orradre and sophomore Maya Calfee—the Cypress Division’s Most Valuable Player for the 2023-24 season. 

Watsonville softball goes from worst to first

Watsonville High softball wins Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division crownYear in Sports 2023-24
The Watsonville High softball team celebrates after capturing the Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division title following a 15-1 victory over Gonzales High in the teams’ regular season finale April 8. (Juan Reyes/ The Pajaronian)

In the span of one year, the Watsonville High softball team had one of the biggest turnarounds in the program’s history. They went from finishing winless in league play to capturing the PCAL Mission Division crown in 2024. 

It was the team’s seventh overall league title and first since winning the now defunct Monterey Bay League Gabilan Division in 2018. The ‘Catz finished with an 11-1 record in the Mission Division—the second highest tier within the PCAL—and earned a trip to the CCS playoffs.

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A Watsonville native who has a passion for local sports and loves his community. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Cabrillo College athletics, various youth sports in the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Juan is also a video game enthusiast, part-time chef (at home), explorer and a sports junkie. Coaches and athletic directors are encouraged to report scores HERE.


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