Voter turnout has reached impressive heights around the country. Apparently that includes the Central Coast.
Voters, particularly readers of the Santa Maria Times, Lompoc Record and Santa Ynez Valley News, spent the last week casting their ballots to determine the winner of one of the highest honors in the land: The Player of the Decade.
And after counting approximately 9,000 votes, a winner has been declared.
Tatiana Dunlap, the former St. Joseph High state champion and 2013 All-Area MVP, has been crowned Player of the Decade.
In one of the most hotly-contested races to this point, Dunlap came out victorious over former teammate Kaitlyn Flowers. Dunlap ended up with an 877-vote advantage as 9,139 votes were cast over the last week, with the polls closing at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Dunlap had 4,958 votes and Flowers finished with 4,181.
There were over 20,000 votes cast throughout the contest, which started in October with 16 nominees. Dunlap topped them all, beating a close friend and former teammate in the final.
When informed she was the winner of the contest, Dunlap said the honor "means more than people would understand. Basketball has always been a huge part of who I am as a person. It made me the person I am today.
"It taught me to always work hard, push myself to my limits and be the best human I can be," Dunlap said. "Winning this means all the blood, sweat and tears I put into it were all worth it. There were definitely some ups and downs in my career, but being Player of the Decade would not only prove to others, but it’ll prove to myself that all the years I put into it were worth it. My hard work was worth it. My dedication and passion for the sport means something."
Dunlap first played basketball as a 5-year-old growing up in Lompoc at the rec center in town. She credits Pamela Coffey with getting her into the game.
"She gave me the tools at a very young age not only for basketball, but also the tools to believe in myself," Dunlap said of Coffey. "She was a huge influence for me and I'm grateful to her. I'm grateful to every coach I've had, good or bad."
Dunlap spent her first year of high school at Cabrillo and then transferred to local powerhouse St. Joseph for her final three years. During her three seasons at St. Joseph, Dunlap scored over 1,300 points and the 5-foot-8 guard averaged 23.7 points, 3.0 assists, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game as a senior to earn the All-Area MVP award in 2013.
"I really want to thank my mom, Meagan Dunlap, for always believing in me and cheering louder than anyone in the stadium," Tatiana said. "My Nona, Bonnie Dunlap, who never missed a game. My grandfather, Gary Dunlap, who always pushed me to be better, and last but not least, my fiancée, Jazzmyn Davis, who put so much work into getting people to vote for me in this contest. I couldn’t have done it without them. I wish I could name everyone in my village who helped me in this basketball journey, but you know who you are. I love you guys."
Dunlap also was grateful to make the final to face a good friend and former teammate in Flowers, another Lompoc native who played at St. Joseph.
"I have known Kait for a very long time," Dunlap said. "We played sports together even when we were little. She really was like a sister to me, and I appreciate her pushing me to be a better player."
Dunlap earned the Player of the Decade title after she beat Santa Ynez grad Hailey King in the first round 422-76 and Righetti grad Mariah Cooks 351-260 in the quarterfinals. She then narrowly defeated Ashlyn Herlihy of Arroyo Grande in the semifinals, 1,089 to 876.
Flowers made the final after she defeated Lompoc grad Danielle Morgan 446-187 in the first round and Cabrillo High grad Erin Jenkins 520-88 in the quarterfinals before defeating Heather Madrigal, who played at both St. Joseph High and Arroyo Grande with Flowers and Dunlap, in the semifinals, 1,443 to 1,023.
A 2014 St. Joseph graduate, Flowers scored over 1,400 points during her Knight career. As a senior in the 2013-14 season, she averaged 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 4.8 steals per game.
The Times polled current and former coaches to develop its list of nominees for Player of the Decade.