New Crusade for Former Falcons

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Photos by Dan HOLM Justin Tagawa (left) and Jon Sampang have found success coaching Village Christian after spending their childhoods in the Crescenta Valley Falcons program.

Photos by Dan HOLM
Justin Tagawa (left) and Jon Sampang have found success coaching Village Christian after spending their childhoods in the Crescenta Valley Falcons program.

By Brandon HENSLEY

One of Jon Sampang’s proudest moments in life came after a loss, surrounded by his Crescenta Valley teammates who were openly weeping in the locker room. For some, it was the end of a season. For the seniors, it was the end of their high school career.

Sampang was one of those seniors that day in 2003 but, as he was interviewed after the loss to Mission Viejo, a reporter noted he wasn’t one of the boys crying. There was nothing to cry about, Sampang told him. He had left everything on the court, and the Falcons had lost. But so what? That’s life.

Sampang had almost lost a part of himself that year, his only season on the varsity team. He wanted to quit at one point. The lessons Crescenta Valley basketball tried to impart on the young man fell on deaf ears. Put me in and I’ll score a basket, he thought, but don’t talk to me about becoming a better man down the road.

After some basketball soul searching, and a positive experience with his teammates in a Marin County tournament, Sampang understood a little better.

Avery O’Neal, a junior, is the only player left from the Crusaders team that made it to the CIF finals in 2013.

Avery O’Neal, a junior, is the only player left from the Crusaders team that made it to the CIF finals in 2013.

“It humbled me,” he said. “I knew what the coaches wanted out of me as a human being.”

One year earlier, the Falcons rode the hot hand of senior Justin Tagawa in a league game against Hoover High School. Tagawa hit seven 3-pointers that night. At one point, then-coach Adam Jacobsen drew up set plays for him, which wasn’t the norm. Tagawa’s father and grandmother were in the stands. Starting point guard Chris Tarne, whom Tagawa battled every day in practice for playing time, congratulated him. It was the proudest moment of his career.

It is more than a decade later, and the lessons on and off the court both men were given by their coaches at Crescenta Valley are the same they try to impart now at Village Christian School as leaders of the Crusaders girls’ high school team.

“That’s what coaching’s all about. Making sure you’re there for players that need the guidance,” said Sampang, whose coaching roster includes his sister Jayme, Vince DeGuzman and former WNBA player Kim Hudspeth.

He and Tagawa didn’t run in the same circles in high school, but had respect for one another on the court. Both had coaching gigs at other places as adults, and when Sampang nabbed the Village job in 2009, he brought Tagawa on board.

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“I thought I’d try it one year. Five years later here I am,” Tagawa said. “I’ve been given so much being a coach for this program and at this school.”

Their faith is what drives them to teach the girls how to become better people for the future, but they’ve also experienced winning during their tenure.

The Crusaders reached the CIF Division V championship game in 2013 before losing to Sierra Canyon. They played in two state playoff games after that, an experience everyone on the team soaked in as much as they could.

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“That was a rag-tag team,” recalled player Avery O’Neal. “We weren’t the best in league that year.”

After a ridiculously easy 60-8 win in the first round, Village was the favorite in every game after. Led by a roster heavy with seniors, the team made the finals. Tagawa said the motto for that season was “Destiny has no doubt.”

“Basically, by the end of the year, we were sisters,” O’Neal said of her teammates.

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O’Neal is currently a junior, and the only player left from that roster. The program lost eight seniors the next year, and four more after last season. The youth movement has been a tough transition, although it helps to have talent like freshman Micaela Cacho-Negrete, a former player at Rosemont Middle School who made the move to Village instead of CV. She’s a fan of Sampang’s communication skills.

“He’s always open to hear what you have to say,” said Cacho-Negrete, a team leader in points and rebounds. “He doesn’t shoot you down. I can have real conversations with him.”

As a coach, the line between being strict and personable can be thin. Shawn Zargarian, the current boys’ coach at CV, knows all about that. He was a varsity assistant for Sampang and Tagawa, and both said they felt closest to him when they played. After all, when the head coach is screaming his head off, players need someone else to ease their minds.

“As an assistant coach, it’s so much easier to be the good guy,” Zargarian said. “You put your arm around them, give ’em a hug, tell them it’s going to be okay.”

Tagawa was also a teachers’ assistant in Zargarian’s biology class, and was comfortable enough to ask for Zargarian’s Ford Expedition – replete with a new sound system – on prom night.

“We had that kind of relationship,” Tagawa said. “He trusted me.”

Zargarian recalled both as hard-nosed players, with chips on their shoulders. Maybe they were undersized, but they were out to prove something every time they stepped on the court.

O’Neal appreciates that aspect of them. She said players don’t walk all over Sampang because he knows when to lay down the law. At the same time, when the girls make mistakes, he isn’t hard on them. He’s someone the girls can easily embrace.

“I’m very proud to know that two of our guys are coaching and coaching together,” Zargarian said.

And they’re doing it their way, which is the Falcons way, which is now the Village way.

“It’s a blessing,” Sampang said, “to think how many games we’ve played and lessons we’ve learned along the way and how many relationships we’ve built.”

The Lady Crusaders finished this season 13-12 overall. They play at Calvary Chapel in Downey tonight at 7 p.m. in the first round of the CIF playoffs.

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