Press Democrat's All-Empire athletes of the year celebrated
Dozens of the best prep athletes from Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties gathered Tuesday night for The Press Democrat's 25th annual All-Empire Awards ceremony at the Friedman Events Center in Santa Rosa.
With 36 schools submitting their nominees for Athlete of the Year and Scholar Athlete of the Year, the field was pared down to eight winners - boys and girls honorees in each of those two categories, with one set of winners for large schools and another for small schools.
More than 120 students and their families attended the annual event, with each student-athlete receiving a commemmorative All-Empire medal. Also, area track and cross country coaches Doug Courtemarche of Santa Rosa High and Danny Aldridge of Sonoma Academy were honored as co-Coach of the Year.
The eight winners each received a $500 cash scholarship and a plaque honoring them as the very best of the best athletes and scholar athletes in the area.
Here are the winners of the 2019 All-Empire Awards:
Large school boys athlete
CONNOR BARBATO, Rancho Cotate
Connor racked up a huge haul of individual awards for his performance as a three-sport athlete over all four years at Rancho Cotate, capping it all off with a big senior year. While playing for the Cougars' football team, which reached the NCS Division 2 semifinals with an 11-2 record, Connor was named the North Bay League-Oak Division Lineman of the Year on defense and was an all-league performer as a wide receiver with a 1,000-yard season. The school's all-time sacks leader, Connor lettered all four years in football, basketball and lacrosse, earning team MVP honors in basketball all four years. Connor is headed for UCLA, where he will be a preferred walk-on for the Bruins' football team and begin his studies in business.
Large school girls athlete
GABRIELLE PETERSON, Healdsburg
The top runner in the Empire, Gabby won a state title in cross country last fall, achieving a goal she had posted on her bathroom mirror for four years. What's more, she followed it up by finishing 23rd in the nation in the 5,000 meters at an elite race in San Diego a month later. She took first at the Stanford Invitational this spring in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters and is certainly looking forward to big things this track and field postseason. A four-year volunteer with Shared Ministries Homeless service in Healdsburg, she's an outstanding student, holds a black belt in kempo jiu-jitsu and enjoys writing, art and cooking. She's received a full-ride scholarship to run at Oregon State, where she plans to study sociology.
Small school boys athlete
JOSE FERNANDEZ, Upper Lake
Jose is a high-level performer on the football field and the wrestling mat - and he also owns his own show-cattle business. The 132-pound all-league and All-Empire wrestler placed fifth in the state this year, after winning North Central League II first-team all-league honors in football. His senior year was his best as a football player as well. He rushed for nearly 600 yards and was named to the first-team all-county team as a defensive tackle. Jose also worked nearly full-time while playing multiple sports, participating in Future Farmers of America and volunteering to help Lake County fire victims. He will attend Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo on a wrestling scholarship, and he plans to study ag business.
Small school girls athlete
TEHYA BIRD, Cloverdale
Only a junior, Tehya is in the unique position of having committed to a softball scholarship at the University or Oregon back in eighth grade. An all-league performer for each of her first three years, Tehya has accomplished a full career's worth of accolades as a three-sport star at Cloverdale. She says last year's NCS Division 5 championship game in which she scored the winning run on walk-off fashion is her most memorable moment in sports so far. She's the league MVP in softball for two years going on three, and a first-team selection in both volleyball and basketball. Tehya carries an unweighted 4.0 GPA as well, so she has the right stuff off the diamond and the courts as well. She intends to study sports medicine or business in college.
Large school boys scholar athlete
DAVID MERTZ, Santa Rosa
In addition to carrying a 3.97 unweighted grade point average, David is an elite swimmer who has racked up win after win in high school competition. He's been All-Empire first team every year of high school and holds the league record in the 500 freestyle. Outside of school meets, in 2017, he placed in the top 16 swimmers in the country in the 1,650 freestyle at USA Swimming's Junior Nationals. David is a leader on campus, having organized Santa Rosa High's Day of Tolerance, when speakers from wide-ranging backgrounds come to share their experiences with the student body. David will be attending the University of Southern California on a swimming scholarship. While there, he hopes to study mathematics or applied math.