What if?

Josh Stern, Staff Writer

If you ask basketball phenom E.J. Floreal (Laurence Dunbar ‘13) what he misses about Palo Alto, he’ll tell you about the Paly-Gunn crosstown rivalry: green and white versus red and black. The two schools exist in close proximity and relish clashing in a competitive environment. This kind of high-intensity rivalry game is something that Floreal holds close to his heart. Thinking he would finish his high school career as a Viking, Floreal learned at the end of his junior year that he would wear red and black for the entirety of his senior basketball season, not for Gunn but for his new school in Lexington, KY.
Floreal, along with many other Palo Alto natives, chose to leave the Palo Alto area to attend other schools over Paly. Of course, the impact these players may have made if they had chosen to become or remain Vikings is difficult to quantify. However, the most notable athletes that left Palo Alto’s sports programs went on to star at other schools in their respective sports. Many have now committed to play their sports at Division I and Division III colleges across the country, leaving the question as to how they could have benefited many of the teams at Paly.
His junior season, Floreal shone on the courts, averaging 14.3 points per game and helping the Vikings record a successful 21-5 season. Only losing four total seniors, the team looked like it would enjoy even more success the following year with a number of impact players, including Floreal, returning.
But just before the 2012-13 school year began, Floreal announced his plans to move to Paul Laurence Dunbar high school in Kentucky after his father, Edrick, accepted the head track and field coaching position at the University of Kentucky. Despite his new job, however, Edrick offered his son the chance to stay at Paly for his senior season but E.J. declined.
“I really didn’t want to do that because there are a lot of people that don’t have dads in their life anyway, and I’m blessed to have mine,” Floreal said. “I thought it would be easier to move with him rather than just see him every once in a while.”
Without its star player, the Paly basketball team faced the prospect of an uncertain season. The departure of the team’s star player left questions to whether or not his former team could fill the void left behind on both ends of the floor.
“I think that [the team] was shocked because they were all friends with him; they got along with him,” Palo Alto boys’ basketball head coach Adam Sax said. “But they had to move forward, and they knew as a group in November that it was going to be a challenge.”
Without question, Floreal’s move was tough for the basketball team. The squad had to figure out a way to replace its most dominant player and needed a new dynamic to manage the upcoming season.
“Every time you lose a guy who averages about 15 points a game and 11 rebounds [and who is also] the team’s top scorer, you lose a lot there,” Sax said.
Without its supposed strongest player, the basketball team still had an impressive 23-1 regular season record this year. After surprisingly topping an already impressive preceding season, the team improved by making large changes.
“[The team] adjusted and ended up sharing the ball, everyone had to play together as a unit, and to not rely on one guy like we had been doing, so it kind of gelled us too,” Sax said. “The chemistry was outstanding. We were willing to make the extra pass, and they knew that they had to do it as a collective group.”
The choices made by impact players of Floreal’s caliber to leave Paly, however, are generally more enigmatic than his. Paly has captured various titles in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) and Central Coast Section (CCS) and even earned a few California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) State Championships. Two years ago, the Paly football and volleyball teams each won Division I State Championships, while the Paly baseball team won the Division I CCS Championship.
Upon asking these athletes, a common thread emerged: It was generally not anything expressly negative about Paly that caused the athletes to transfer or enroll at other high schools. Rather, most can attribute the switch to educational reasons, personal connections with sports teams, recruiting and a variety of other factors.
Many of these athletes have made names not only for themselves, but also contributed greatly to their schools, which include Sacred Heart Preparatory, the Menlo School, St. Francis, Bellarmine, Archbishop Mitty and many others.
The differences between Paly and other Bay Area private schools proved to be very substantial for each of the athletes. Out of all the players interviewed, most athletes claimed to have thought of academics above all else, knowing that the chances of moving on playing and playing collegiate sports was very slim. However, the level of competitiveness drove them to look for schools that not only met their educational needs, but also that benefited them athletically. These differences, however, may have hampered some of Paly’s success in the past few years. Players who chose to move to schools that play Paly in the regular season, have not only helped their teams but they have directly hurt Paly.
One notable player whose motivations were unique relative to other athletes is Freddy Avis (Menlo ‘12), who chose to transfer to Menlo School as a sophomore due in part to frustration with the Paly athletic program’s handling of a decision to hire a new baseball coach.
In 2012, Avis, a member of the baseball team at Menlo, was elected Baseball Player of the Year by the San Mateo Daily Journal. A standout pitcher and effective hitter who recorded 76 strikeouts and a .469 batting average his senior year, Avis was one of the premier players in the country and earned a scholarship to play at Stanford University.
Avis had attended Paly as a freshman and made the varsity team under coach Donny Kadokawa, for whom he had played as a child.
During both Avis and Kadokawa’s first year at Paly, Kadokawa was called under question by the parents of an individual baseball player who had quit the team because of Kadokawa’s “inappropriate” coaching methods. The parents met with the Paly administration and suggested that Kadokawa be disciplined for violating school standards, according to Palo Alto Online.
After the season, Kadokawa was let go from the head coaching spot, despite many players coming to his defense. A more detailed account of the Kadokawa incident can be found in The Viking’s Volume II Issue VI feature “Finding the Strike Zone” by Peter Johnson.
Avis decided to play through his entire freshman year, but decided to leave Paly the next year, largely due to his firing.
“He’s a wonderful coach, probably one of the best baseball instructors in the area and I thought that Paly had a great opportunity in hiring Donny,” Avis said. “I was the only freshman on the team so I really couldn’t speak up against the administration. I was disappointed in the way that Donny was just kind of kicked out of the system without having been given a chance.”
During Avis’ time at Paly, the athletic administration had difficulty in obtaining a long term coach. Over the previous four years before Avis joined, four different coaches had managed the team and Paly had been unsuccessful in several of those seasons.
“Most of [the switching of coaches] was a matter of circumstances,” Paly athletic department director Earl Hansen said. “You don’t plan that. You don’t want that.”
Avis felt that the athletic administration had dealt with the coaching situation position poorly and believed a consistent coaching staff was needed in order to build momentum for the struggling program. To add to the predicament, several parents of various players had involved themselves in wanting to get rid of the past coaches.

“It’s really hard as a player to have a new coach every single year,” Avis said. “Also, the way the parents intervened in the decision to fire Donny was, I think was unjustified. In the end, you’re not going to find the perfect coach. The perfect coach doesn’t exist. It was very unfair, to the players and Donny, to fire the coach after one year.”
Upon hearing Avis’ reasons, Hansen thought it was a shame for any athlete at the high school level to be motivated to leave due to a problematic situation brought on by the athletic administration. One of the most sought-after pitchers in the state, Avis would have boosted what became a successful baseball program in Palo Alto.
While the athletic administration predicament was major enough to drive Avis away, Hansen disagrees with his overall motivation.
“I would never have my child leave a school that he was in because of the coaching situation when you have a top academic school in this area,” Hansen said. “I don’t know him but he probably would have been fine at either place because he’s a smart kid.”
Regardless, Avis was not the only athlete from Paly whose decision was partially brought on from difficulty with coaches.
Last year, the Vikings boys’ water polo team lost Nelson Perla-Ward (Sacred Heart ‘15), one of its starters and top scorers with 60 goals, his motivations partially arising from the water polo team’s 2011-2012 head coach, Giovanni Napolitano.
At the end of the season, Napolitano and the team separated as parents and coaches clashed. The players and parents disagreed with Napolitano’s coaching style and on his coaching methods and principles. The disgruntled complaints from the water polo community then resulted in the “departure” of Napolitano from Paly and into the arms of Menlo-Atherton High.
“Prior to me leaving, the entire water polo coaching staff got fired and the water polo program seemed to be going downhill,” Perla-Ward said. “It was like playing on a team that wasn’t as organized because the coaching and the players seemed like they needed a more structured practice.”
With a nebulous near future, the coachless water polo team brought in Matt and Brandon Johnson, two Gunn alumni who went on to play for the UC Irvine team. Under the brothers, the Vikings improved to a 19-8-0 record, advancing to the semifinals of the CCS playoffs. The team lost to Bellarmine Preparatory, a highly prestigious team. Had impact players such as Perla-Ward stayed, it is easy to imagine that the game may have had a different outcome.
Avis and Perla-Ward’s experiences were unlike many other potential Vikings, as they looked for a program that had more stability. Other athletes, including Perla-Ward, looked for programs that shine in their particular sport and who attract more recruiting attention than Paly.
This year, past Paly water polo starter Will Conner (Sacred Heart ‘15) accompanied Perla-Ward to Sacred Heart, looking for a better opportunity to get recruited for college. He and Perla-Ward, both impact players for the team, left for the competitive Sacred Heart program where they hoped to be trained and to grow into collegiate level players.
One of the most successful teams in CCS, Sacred Heart’s water polo team has stood out in its already successful athletic department and has helped shape the careers of a number of water polo players. In 2012 alone, four of the nine players on the Mercury News’ first team CCS water polo team were from Sacred Heart.
Perla-Ward switched schools in the winter, while Conner waited until he completed the school year. At Sacred Heart, Conner chose to repeat his sophomore year, giving him an extra year at the school. His choice to switch schools was mostly based off of the success of the team and the advantages that Sacred Heart offered “recruiting-wise.”
In an attempt to get recruited by some of the top Division I schools in the country, players such as Perla-Ward and Conner looked for tougher practice environments. Looking back and comparing both teams, both Conner and Perla-Ward felt that their move to Sacred Heart was in fact vastly different from Paly.
“At Sacred Heart, it’s a lot more serious while at Paly it’s a lot more fun and more enjoyable,” Conner said. “At Sacred Heart, we have a lot more conditioning and weights, while at Paly it was just more laid back.”
Perla-Ward agrees and attests that some of the hardest practices at Paly do not compare to an ordinary day with the Sacred Heart team.
“The team is a pretty big commitment,” Perla-Ward agreed. “The first practice I went to at Sacred Heart was harder than any of the hell week practices I had at Paly, putting that into perspective.”
With Conner and Perla-Wards’ departures, some of the members of the team felt their team had been greatly affected. Two of their biggest impact players had not only left Paly, but had gone to a school that had dominated boys’ water polo for several years. Both leading scorers at Paly in the last few years and some of the most veteran players on the team, Perla-Ward and Conner faced a choice that took a toll on the offensive scheme of the water polo team.
Although the team faced various hardships, both players had been students in the PAUSD throughout their childhood, and their friendships and life in Palo Alto made the decision extremely difficult. Both looking to the future, Conner and Perla-Ward felt that colleges would have an easier time seeing them if they played for a prestigious team such as Sacred Heart.
“It was an overall decision with my parents but it seemed like a better decision looking at the [ability to grow as a player]” Perla-Ward said. “It just seemed like the better option concerning the college factor and that going to Sacred Heart would just probably develop my skills and work habits. I guess I would say that if Sacred Heart didn’t have a water polo team, I probably would not have transferred.”
Paly teammates, like Kian McHugh (‘14), felt as if the team had been stripped of some of its best players, as their departure mixed with four graduating seniors from the team as well.
“[What was hardest about seeing them go was] just knowing that we could have been the best team in the league and could have easily won CCS, possibly even further had we had Will and Nelson on their team,” McHugh said.

“That was probably the hardest part and just how much they took away from our season; we could have been back to back CCS champions for sure. It kind of killed our chances because they were two of our starters and best players. I respect their decision but it was definitely hard on us.”
Putting the athletic department’s difficulties and the recruiting process aside, motivations to leave for other schools for many of the athletes are solely based on academics.
As a public school, Paly felt overwhelming for some. Smaller private schools with smaller classes that surround the Silicon Valley such as the Menlo School, St. Francis and Sacred Heart attracted student athletes with their smaller student bodies.
One of only two freshmen from the 2010-2011 varsity girls’ water polo team, Camille Zelinger (Sacred Heart ‘14) left Paly for Sacred Heart, attributing her leave entirely to academic purposes.
“I came from Castilleja which is very small academically, and so I was used to a more intimate setting in classes,” Zelinger said. “I kind of got lost in a lot of the bigger classes [at Paly]. I didn’t have as good of a grasp on the subjects like I did at Castilleja because I wasn’t as connected. It was harder because there were a lot of students in each class.”
Eager to find a fitting environment that matched her middle school, Zelinger looked to Sacred Heart. The small Atherton institution with six consecutive CCS championship titles in girls’ water polo most attracted Zelinger.
“Sacred Heart offered that smaller community setting in my classes,” Zelinger said. “Water polo became a bonus because when they heard I wanted to transfer, the team became interested and I think that helped me a little bit.”
Upon her visit to shadow at Sacred Heart, Zelinger looked more into the program and met with the head water polo coach.
“Once I showed interest in the school, I was introduced by a friend at Sacred Heart to the water polo coach and had a meeting with him,” Zelinger said. “He said he was interested in having me on his team.”
Like Zelinger, St. Francis basketball player Khalid Johnson (St. Francis ‘13), who was enrolled in the PAUSD until high school, chose his high school due to his family’s belief that it was a better fit and would benefit his overall future. Although he regarded education as his main motivation to switch schools, the Lancers’ team also happened to be a good fit for Johnson and his twin brother Khalil.
“[In basketball,] I developed a great relationship with the coaches,” said Khalid. “The education [between Paly and St. Francis] is probably different. Basketball-wise I dont know if I would have liked or had the same relationship with the coaches at Paly like I do at St. Francis. I just don’t know if they’d be the same.”
Choosing to leave Paly for Junipero Serra High School, a Catholic private school, Eric Redwood (Serra ‘13), who helped lead his team to a 52-35 blowout over Paly this season in CCS, would have been instrumental in Hansen’s run heavy west coast offense.
“I had a feeling that Serra would be better off for me, not only is it a Catholic school but the resources there were going to be all around better for me,” Redwood said. “I just felt like it was a better fit.”
A Palo Alto native, Redwood played with many of the current members of the Viking football team as a youth member of the Palo Alto Knights. Redwood’s close personal friend and Paly linebacker Erik Anderson thought that Paly could have used Redwood very successfully had he chosen to be a Viking.
“If Redwood would have gone to Paly he would have helped tremendously,” Anderson said. “He could have helped add depth to our team which lacked depth this year. Eric and Tolbert would be an awesome pair of running backs to watch.”
Redwood’s motivations for leaving Paly were more personal than those of other athletes, as he had family ties to Serra. He and his family thought that the move would be best for his academic and athletic career.
“I knew people that went to Serra too,” Redwood said. “My dad went there for a couple years as well, so he knew a few people that worked there from his class. The sense of brotherhood at Serra is really good.”
However, the program that would benefit Redwood at Serra actually affected the Vikings’ playoff drive back in Palo Alto. Serra’s capture of impact players such as Redwood assisted the Padres in important wins over the Vikings.
Take the CCS Open Division football playoffs this year. After a successful 8-3 season, the Vikings went into the postseason to face Serra, a team they had never played before.. After an even battle throughout the first half, one of the major problems Paly had was containing the Padres’ run game, led by none other than Eric Redwood.
A Palo Alto native like many of the others who left Paly, Redwood and old friends such as Anderson’s experiences playing against each other was more intense than against other teams.
“It was tough playing him in CCS; we talked beforehand and mentioned that it was a bad situation because neither of us wanted to put each other out of their senior football season,” Anderson said. “But also neither of us wanted to lose. It was weird that it was the first time ever playing him and it was my last game of football in Palo Alto.”
Now, it’s impossible to say how the game would have gone had Redwood been wearing green and white that night. It’s certainly acceptable to admit however, that Redwood’s 288 yards on 31 carries and four total touchdowns contributed to the big win against the Vikings, knocking them out of the playoffs and ending their hopes at recording another championship. It’s also probable that Redwood could have helped Paly’s run game over the past few years, as he drew up over 3,000 rushing yards in his last two years at Serra, recording 37 touchdowns according to MaxPreps.com.
This can be applicable to many of the star players that chose to forgo attending Palo Alto High School. For example, if Floreal had stayed at Paly, the boys’ basketball team’s postseason trouble could have been diminished.
If the Paly baseball team had Avis on the mound last year, the Vikes might have enjoyed even more success and quite possibly have beaten Valley Christian in the CCS semifinals, where Paly’s season ended. Maybe if Redwood had been on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Paly football team could have captured another CCS championship.
Yet just as other schools have received noteworthy talent from the Palo Alto area, Paly itself has obtained a number of talented new athletes from other schools. One such athlete is Paly’s starting quarterback Keller Chryst (‘14), who moved to Palo Alto from North Carolina last year.
Just one year after winning a State Championship in 2010, the Viking football team gained Chryst and Tolbert from out of state after losing numerous starters from the championship team. Making their treks from Weddington, North Carolina and Saline, Mich., the Vikings obtained two major contributors that would help lead them to CCS twice in the subsequent two years.
In the end, there will always be those who will wonder what could have been had players like Redwood attended Paly. Yet it seems likely that the additions of players like Chryst and Tolbert balance out the losses. Either way, all the Vikings can do is pick themselves up, adjusting accordingly.