The Northern Santa Barbara County Athletic Round Table took on a more emotional tone Monday inside Giavanni’s Pizzeria in Orcutt.
Tears and memories filled the restaurant – as coaches, athletic directors and emcee Charles Sommer shared memories of Joni Gray, who died last week at the age of 75. Monday’s NSBCART marked the first luncheon without Gray in attendance.
Gray collapsed in court Nov. 20 after suffering an aortic aneurysm and was rushed to the intensive care unit at Marian Regional Medical Center, according to friends close to Gray's family. She had been slowly recovering at the hospital before she died Nov. 22.
Gray was considered the rock that kept Round Table together as the main organizer and devoted her time and energy to highlight the Northern Santa Barbara County athletes every Monday during the sports season. Almost everyone who grabbed the microphone – from Sommer, to Hancock College men’s basketball head coach Tyson Aye all the way to former Lompoc High varsity football coach Dick Barrett – expressed the impact Gray had on the Round Table.
Sommer, who was appointed the emcee of the event by Gray herself more than a year ago, struggled to keep his composure once it was time to kick off the weekly event. He began with a moment of silence for Gray.
Round Table treasurer Yvonne Biely then shared her memories of Gray with a piece of paper in hand – filled with quotes from Gray herself back in 2013.
“I love to work with the athletes,” Biely read, quoting Gray. “The reason why I got involved with this was I was doing radio and I wanted to cover more high school stuff. We are not in a big metropolitan area – so we’ve got to market our kids.
“I just want to help people succeed,” Biely continued, reading from Gray's notes. “Athletes go 110 percent because they have to succeed in academics in order to play athletics. I’m drawn to people who want to succeed – and I guess that’s the cheerleader in me.”
Biely’s last message was this: “It’s not going to be the same today with her not being here. But I hope everyone in here remembers that it’s important to be very sensitive to people around you – because you just don’t know if that’s going to be the last time you’ll see them. And two weeks ago was the last time we saw Joni.”
Because Round Table didn’t meet last week due to a holiday, the committee honored Hancock men’s basketball player Shane Carney as the Male Athlete of the Week for Nov. 20, after averaging 21 points per game at the Home Motors Tournament.
“It’s definitely an honor. It’s my first time being here, so it’s a good experience,” Carney said.
This week’s top athletes were Santa Maria High quarterback Blake Truhitte, who had 350 total yards of offense and six tackles on defense for the Saints last Friday, and fellow Saint athlete Sandra Villapando, who won the Central Coast Girls Wrestling Tournament with four pins on Saturday.
“I still can’t believe I won on Saturday,” Villapando exuberantly said. “I just stepped on the mat and as I heard the ref say ‘Go,’ I just kind of went for it. It was go time.”
Aye admitted that he wasn’t aware Gray had passed until 15 minutes before the luncheon started.
“I was looking for her when I walked in,” Aye said. “I just wanted to publicly say how much I appreciate her for not only her support of Hancock, but our young people in the area.”
Aye then gave thanks to the media before introducing his player Carney, who additionally mentioned how his guard is a walking miracle.
“His life was in danger. He was in a car accident,” Aye said. “This time last year, he was told that his basketball season was over and possibly his career. He suffered a blood clot from his accident. But he’s come a long way. He’s grown up and I’m proud of him.”
The Bulldogs’ women’s basketball team was also on hand, as head coach Cary Nerelli had players Hannah Walls and Annamarie Fruge sitting with him.
Valley Christian Academy
Girls basketball head coach Randy Stanford expressed his shock about Gray’s death, saying “She’s been a friend of my family’s for many, many years.”
Lion players Dominique Navarette and Mayley DeBernardi were on hand for VCA.
The Knights had a player and coach lineup at Giavanni’s, as cross country coach Matt Wuchner and his athlete Joseph Domingues were in attendance.
Wuchner shared his sympathy for Gray’s loss, saying “It’s not the greatest thing to hear about the Round Table’s loss. So I’m sorry to hear that.”
Assistant football coach Matt Andree brought out his front five on the offensive line for the Saints: Gabriel Bravo, Jesus Zul, Mario Carreno, David Ruiz and Jesus Joaquin.
Andree spoke on behalf of head coach Dan Ellington, who attended a CIF press conference for the Saturday Division 12 title game against Big Bear. Villapando also sat with the team.
Athletic director Greg Lanthier is already in basketball mode with this joke.
“Fall sports have been over for quite awhile at Pioneer Valley. We’re looking forward to the winter season – it’s always been a much better season for us,” Lanthier said, drawing some laughs.
His basketball players D.J. Martinez, Mat Garcia and Taylor Burns joined Lanthier at the Round Table.
Anthony Rodriguez spoke on behalf of the Warriors’ boys basketball team, stating his enthusiasm for this year’s squad.
He introduced teammates Weston Hammell and Jacob Solano. Their head coach Jeremiah Rivas and athletic director Kevin Barbarick were also in attendance.
Barrett went solo for LHS, as he delivered this message to the crowd.
“All I can say is, let’s keep this thing going the way she would like it to keep it going,” Barrett said. “Athletes, you’re here to be recognized. So be thankful that you’re getting recognized.”
Cabrillo, Santa Ynez and Orcutt Academy were not in attendance.