Early on during her high school career, Atwater High’s Kelsey Valencia didn’t like being labeled a shooter.
While many players would take it as a compliment when coaches or fans yell out “shooter,” when she touched the ball, Valencia felt she was being pigeonholed as player who could only do one thing.
“I didn’t like it,” Valencia said. “It was like I wasn’t expected to do anything else. There so much more to basketball.”
Valencia worked hard to improve other areas of her game. She knew eventually she’d have to become one of the primary ball handlers. She worked on attacking the basket and rebounding.
Valencia showed how far she’s come her senior year, averaging 16.7 points, 8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 4.8 steals per game to help lead the Falcons to their first Central California Conference championship since 1988. The CCC coaches named her the conference Most Valuable Player.
Valencia is the Merced Sun-Star Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“After her freshmen year we still had Jasmine (Xiong) and Alondra (Ponce), but we told Kelsey one day you’re going to have the keys to the Cadillac and all you can do is shoot,” said Atwater coach JR Davis. “She was like, ‘No, I can do other things.’ But that girl went out and worked on it.”
Davis hasn’t coached many other players who have taken the sport so seriously.
One of Davis’ favorite Kelsey Valencia stories is when Valencia somehow convinced her parents to let her miss her brother Gabe’s wedding so she could play in a basketball tournament with Atwater in Reno.
“She was starting as a freshman and she didn’t want to lose her spot,” Davis said. “She ended up losing her phone for a year because of it. I don’t know another kid who would do that.”
What made it worse was Valencia’s parents bought her twin sister Lexi a new phone.
“We had to call Lexi to get in touch with Kelsey,” Davis said.
Kelsey said her mom and brother were extremely upset with her decision. Now every time there is a wedding in the family the joke is will Kelsey go?
“Not having a phone for a year wasn’t as tough as you’d think,” Kelsey said. “I watched a lot more TV and I spent a lot of time outside playing basketball. If I ever needed a phone I just stole Lexi’s.”
Her twin sister is a big reason Kelsey has transformed into the player she’s become. They’ve been competing with each other their whole lives.
“We compete in literally everything,” Kelsey said. “Growing up, we’d get bored and we have a water drinking competition. We would see who could drink water the fastest. We’d set up obstacle courses. We competed in everything.”
Kelsey and Lexi, who was an all-CCC first-team selection herself after averaging 13.6 points per game, recently verbally committed to accept basketball scholarships to Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D.
Let’s hope there are no winter weddings in the Valencia family the next four years.
Anaya Shelton, El Capitan
El Capitan girls soccer coach Jose Duran didn’t need to watch freshman Anaya Shelton long before he knew had a special talent.
“I had heard people talk about her, but I hadn’t seen her play until she enrolled at El Capitan,” Duran said. “I could see right away how hard she played. She was fast and she could finish.”
Duran also quickly realized she was disciplined, she was coachable and she knew how to be a part of a program.
Shelton helped the Gauchos have their best season ever as they qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for the first time with an 8-2-2 finish in the Central California Conference.
All Shelton did as a freshman was score 31 goals in 16 games and was named the Offensive Player of the Year by the CCC coaches.
Shelton is the Merced Sun-Star Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
A pretty incredible season for a 14-year old playing against many 17 and 18-year old girls.
“It was very scary at first,” Shelton said. “I knew I was going to be playing against older girls who were bigger and stronger. As the season was coming up I prepared myself. I have played competitively against girls who are a year older so I had some experience. I’d say after the second game, I felt pretty good. I felt like I knew what I was doing.”
Shelton showed she knew what she was doing when she scored five goals and recorded an assist in her first game against Merced. She quickly built chemistry with sophomore Haley Espinoza and the two worked well together all season.
“A lot of her goals came on through balls that Haley Espinoza sent to her,” Duran said. “Both of them played well together and Haley is only a sophomore. El Capitan is going to be in good standing for the next couple years.”
Shelton ranked 10th in the section in scoring and she scored the 31 goals in just 16 games.
“My goal was to score at least 25 goals this season,” Shelton said. “I knew I would be able to do that. I know how hard I work and I know enough to get where I want to be.”
Shelton also has a track & field background that helps her in soccer. She won the 400-meter event at the last CCC center meet with a time of 1 minute and 0.27 seconds.
“I love track and it helps with stamina on the soccer field,” Shelton said. “It helps get me in condition for soccer so I don’t get tired making all those runs like some players. It puts me ahead of the game with intense training.”
Tagivale Vaifale is still relatively new to the sport of wrestling. The Pacheco High senior didn’t start wrestling until her sophomore year.
Vaifale followed in the footsteps of her older sister Geralene.
“We’ve always been competitive with each other,” Tagivale said. “I figured if she can do, I can do it too.”
Vaifale has come a long way in three years. She finished her career at Pacheco High with her second straight appearance at the CIF State Championship.
Vaifale came home with a third-place medal in the 235-pound division.
Vaifale is also the Merced Sun-Star Girls Wrestler of the Year.
“Honestly, finishing third at the state meet was one of my biggest accomplishments,” Vaifale said. “I’m really proud of myself.”
Vaifale finished fourth as a junior last year at the state meet. Vaifale pinned her first three opponents at the state meet to reach the semifinals where she lost to the eventual state champion Tavi Heidelberg from McClatchy in Sacramento.
Vaifale finished second to Heidelberg at the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Championship as well.
Standing on the podium at the state meet will be a lifelong memory for the Panthers senior.
“It was a really good feeling,” she said. “I didn’t place where I wanted to, but I did place higher than I did the year before.”
Wrestling has kind of grown on Vaifale.
“I didn’t like it at first,” she said. “I didn’t think I was that good. Eventually I like it.”
Winning will do that.
Winter All-Area Teams
Milea Appling, Mariposa
Annie Winton, Livingston
Amaya Ervin, El Capitan
Caly Curran, Buhach Colony
Khya Martin, Merced
Lexi Valencia, Atwater
Amelia Smith, Los Banos
Malaysia Lucero, Golden Valley
Kaitlynn Perez, Merced
Alexa Ultreras, Le Grand
Anissa Sanchez, Los Banos
Coach: Trace DeSandres, Mariposa
Jadyn Gong, Golden Valley
Eliza Barocio, Atwater
Stephanie Alvarez, Buhach Colony
Haley Espinoza, El Capitan
Kyla Yang, El Capitan
Fatima Lopez, Dos Palos
Haylee Heffner, Golden Valley
Melissa Molina, Golden Valley
Deanna Govez, Merced
Jessica Garcia, Los Banos
Yatzari Fregoso, Pacheco
Genavieve Fontes, Hilmar
Sabrina Cabrera, Dos Palos
Coach: Jose Duran, El Capitan
Monica Verduco, Atwater
Destiny Torres, Los Banos
Naomi Cortez, Delhi
Leonor Del Rio, Pacheco
Linda Pelayo, Los Banos
Alejandra Gonzalez, Buhach Colony
Coach: Nelson Medeiros, Atwater