LITTLE KERI NISHIMOTO TOOK OVER FOR A ‘BEACH’ LEGEND

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Misty May, who became a household name along with Olympic beach volleyball companion Kerri Walsh, was part of a Long Beach State legacy so strong that it defied imagination as to the person that would follow her as the school’s setter.

Imagine Garry Maddox taking over center field from Willie Mays in San Francisco.

Or Gene Bartow replacing John Wooden as UCLA basketball coach.

Can anyone remember Phil Bengston? That was the chap that took over as Green Bay Packers’ football coach when Vince Lombardi stepped aside.

May’s replacement in Long Beach?

Long a major collegiate powerhouse, it was the 49ers’ turn in the limelight back in 1997. What must have been running through coach Brian Gimmillaro’s mind, however, was how to replace Misty in his lineup one season later.

He reached out to Redlands High School product Keri Nishimoto, the backup to May on that 1997 squad.

Keri Nishimoto at The Beach
Redlands’ Keri Nishimoto took over as Long Beach State’s high-profile setter and helped lead the 49ers to an NCAA title matchup against Stanford (photo by Long Beach State).

Say what you want about college sports, whether it’s college football or basketball, the sensational play of baseball and softball players, plus track & field, volleyball may well rest among the most exciting of all women’s sports.

It might get lost in the shuffle throughout the USA.

May, who was considered a catalyst for Beach’s 1998 NCAA championship triumph, captured the Honda-Broderick Cup as well as Collegiate Women Athlete of the Year title. May captured more awards and titles than any other collegiate volleyball player. She wound up a USA Olympian – a much-decorated, multiple gold medal winner on the beach.

The Beach’s heir apparent to May, originally, was Brittany Hochevar. They tried to replicate their May experiment with Hochevar. It didn’t seem to go right.

THE ULTIMATE TEAM PLAY

Nishimoto, summoned from Redlands High on a full-ride academic scholarship – she turned down Beach’s offer of an athletic scholarship – was the catalyst in leading Redlands High to a Southern Section Division 3 volleyball title.

In her high school setting, Redlands knocked off area powerhouse Rim of the World from mountainous Lake Arrowhead. The finals were played at Cypress College on a Saturday, which wasn’t all that far from Beach.

Except for Rim of the World, there had been very little prep volleyball success from the so-called Inland Empire area.

Nishimoto, surrounded by college-level talent like Lindsey O’Reilly (Brigham Young University), Gretchen Levander (Hofstra), plus a few other significant cogs in the lineup, namely middle blocker Janiece Memmott and outside hitter Jackie Ostler in addition to a strong defender, Jamie Hackleman.

That lineup turned volleyball around in the I.E. Nishimoto had long since been noticed, but more at the club-playing level than while wearing Lady Terrier colors.

The CIF-Southern Section Division 3 Player of the Year at Redlands, it was Nishimoto who quarterbacked the Lady Terriers to an unforgettable championship performance over powerhouse Rim of the World at Cypress College in 1995.

One year earlier, Nishimoto actually split time with another player. Redlands coach Gene Melcher had co-setters at Redlands.

At The Beach, Nishimoto’s on-court performance seemed to add chemistry. She was small, but dangerous. Mostly a bench-warmer and defensive specialist during the May era, Nishimoto eventually emerged as Beach setter.

Nishimoto already contributed to Beach’s chemistry. Taking that academic scholarship instead of an athletic one allowed Gimmillaro to use that additional athletic stipend to stockpile even more talent. It was, perhaps, the ultimate team play.

In 1999, Nishimoto set a record for assists (14.58), having moved back to a defensive position in 2000 for the Hochevar experiment. Once “little Keri” was moved back to the setter role, the 16th-ranked Lady 49ers began rolling even more.

Over a period of time, there were six All-American setters at Beach.

PART OF A BEACH ARRAY OF SETTERS

The year after Nishimoto’s career concluded, Hochevar shined in 2002 – part of the school’s six All-American setters, which includes Nishimoto in 2001, May in 1997 and ’98, Joy McKienzie in 1993, Sabrina Hernandez in 1991 and ’92, plus Sheri Sanders in 1989.

Misty May
Misty May, a multiple Olympic gold medal beach volleyball champion, preceded Redlands’ Keri Nishimoto as Long Beach State setter in the late 1990s (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

May was selected as the AVCA Player of the Year for Division I in 1997 and 1998, becoming the first player in NCAA and AVCA history to win the award outright in back-to-back campaigns.

Sanders and McKienzie both quarterbacked the 49ers to national championships. Hernandez took The Beach to back-to-back Final Fours (1991-1992).

May led the 49ers to the 1997 Final Four and captained the 1998 squad to a perfect 36-0 mark and a NCAA national championship. Nishimoto mostly rode the bench was celebrating the team title.

Along the way, the list of teams that Nishimoto and The Beach had been beating were among the nation’s richest and glowing programs – Brigham Young, Pittsburgh, UCLA, Arizona, you name it. She totaled 53 assists, 15 digs and three blocks against BYU to lead The Beach to an undefeated regular season record.

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In action: Long Beach State’s Keri Nishimoto ran the 49ers’ attack on a 33-match winning streak into the 2001 finals against Stanford (photo by Long Beach State).

Nishimoto, a national player of the week in Nov. 2001, was named second-team All-American in 2001. The Beach went 33-1 and reached the NCAA title match – losing only in the championship to Stanford.

On December 15, 2001 in San Diego, Stanford All-American and USA Olympian Logan Tom led the Cardinal to a three-game sweep.

Check out these scores from Cox Arena in San Diego: 31-29, 30-28, 30-25. A Beach team led by Nishimoto’s 34 assists and a team-high nine digs fell after winning 33 straight.

It was Nishimoto’s final collegiate match.

 

PART 2 – ROYAL, REGAL AND REDLANDS CONNECTIONS

To get the full story, read Part 1 here. 

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

A year or so after that volleyball banquet, I wrote an article about Redlands High’s boys soccer team. At the time, the Terriers were among the most successful soccer side in Southern California. Even on their own campus, they were more significant than any other team.

It was no contest.

Back-to-back CIF championships, five trips to the CIF semifinals and a record run of 23 straight seasons of playoff appearances had left a high standard unmatched by any other program on that campus, before or since.

Every kid that made varsity soccer teams at Redlands during that era was cutting edge. Cream of the crop. Best this city had to offer. Kids cut from those teams would have made teams at other schools very strong.

That’s how strong Redlands was in those years.

LUDIKHUIZE’S FIST PUMP SIGNALS

TERRIER GREATNESS

My by-line appeared about a soccer playoff preview for their match in Orange County. Among other facts listed were the team’s top three scoring attackers. Jeannie Ludikhuize, mother of Chris Ludikhuize, read that day’s edition and called my publisher to lobby a complaint.

She was peeved that her son’s name had been left out. He was fourth in scoring. It must have been intentional, she felt. Or maybe it was that the team’s coach, Tony Murtaugh, failed to report this information. Neither of which was accurate.

Toebe Bush, our publisher, asked me to call Jeannie.

“Jeannie,” I asked her, “what grade is your son in right now?”

Chris was a senior. Time was running out on his high school career. In fact, this would be his final match. Jeannie was, apparently, not enjoying those moments as fully as she could have.

“All I know,” I told her, “is that if I had a son on a team like this, I’d take my lawn chair, plant it in some good location, watch the game and watch every move my son made – and enjoy everything. Maybe even take some pictures.

“Savor each moment,” I said.

No one was leaving Chris out intentionally. “Forget what’s written in the newspaper, or what’s not written. Just enjoy your son.”

Jeannie, in fact, did calm down and recognized that her son didn’t necessarily need media recognition. Parents want their children’s achievements recorded. You know, for their scrapbook. For the scholarship opportunities. Good press never hurts. Her son was a good player, regardless.

By the way, in Chris’ final high school match, he couldn’t have played better. He saved a remarkable scoring attack by Anaheim Esperanza High, taking a shot that whizzed past a drawn-out Redlands goalkeeper, clearing the ball just off the line, saving a sure-fire goal. In the rain. Chris shot a triumphant fist into the air in jubilation.

That fist pump, to me, signifies that Redlands has long made its mark in all sports, at every level, creating A Redlands Connection that can never be stripped away. One of Chris’ teammates, by the way, was Landon Donovan.

Redlands ended up losing that semifinals match.

Chris represents hundreds of Redlands sports products that will not be in any of these blog posts – good but not good enough. These blog posts are, in a sense, dedicated to them. Thanks to Chris’ mom, Jeannie, it’s a reflection of a splendid athlete, pushy parent, a professional writer and limited newspaper space.

REDLANDS CONNECTION ROUNDUP

There are at least three Redlands products that share a total of four Super Bowl rings.

A three-time Indianapolis 500 champion actually learned to drive in Redlands.

Soccer’s World Cup has connections to Redlands in both men’s and women’s lore.

There’s a World Series ring in there, 1984.

The man who personally thwarted Arnold Palmer’s chance to complete golf’s Grand Slam in 1970 later moved back to the area, thus connecting Redlands to the sport’s royalty.

Olympic gold medalist Misty May, a superstar at Long Beach State and eventual beach volleyball megastar, led her college to a national volleyball championship. The legendary setter graduated, replaced by Redlands’ Keri Nishimoto, who had a few notable achievements on her own athletic ledger.

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Redlands setter Keri Nishimoto took over for legendary Misty May at Long Beach State. Photo credit: Cara Garcia

Those are the people we’re after.

This is a bond between Redlands and the major sports world beyond. And what a world it has been! And what bonds they have built up!

Redlands has been connected to the likes of coaching and managing legends such as Lombardi, Landry, Jerry Tarkanian, Tony LaRussa, John McKay, George “Papa Bear” Halas, Abe Saperstein, Tommy Lasorda, very nearly John Wooden and Knute Rockne and, quite possibly, Connie Mack.

For instance, did John Wooden recruit Redlands’ Danny Wolthers to play at UCLA in 1961?

That’s a breathless collection in this connection.

JOHN WOODEN UCLA
Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden may have tried to recruit Redlands’ Danny Wolthers to play in Westwood in 1961. Whatever the story, Wolthers chose to play at Cal-Berkeley. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/ALLSPORT

Redlanders were teammates of Bart Starr, Carlton Fisk, Gaylord Perry, Misty May, Joe Namath, Orel Hershiser, Kristine Lilly, Darrell Waltrip, Fernando Valenzuela, Jennie Finch, Mark Spitz, Charles Paddock, race car dynamo Jimmie Johnson, David Beckham, Cy Young Award winners, baseball Rookies of the Year, Heisman Trophy winners, World Cup heroes, No. 1 draft choices and various Hall of Famers from different sports.

Jennie_Finch_vs._China
Jennie Finch, a teammate of Redlands East Valley’s Ally Von Liechtenstein at Arizona State, is shown pitching against China in 2008. Photo by C5813

(Photo source.)

It’s a connection to sports’ very best.

Strong and historical opposition to Redlands connections has come from the likes of Bobby Jones, Amanda Beard, Ronnie Lott, Richard Petty, George Allen, Spitz, Arnold Palmer, Carl Lewis, Jack Nicklaus, plus an endless supply of baseball, basketball and football all-stars, golf and tennis legends.

In some cases, Redlanders came out on top. In many cases, they lost out to the greats.

For over a decade, Redlands caught an up-close glance of football All-Pros, NFL Hall of Fame players, MVP types, Super Bowl and NFL championships and legendary football players, coaches and executives when the Los Angeles Rams trained at the local university.

Beginning in 1985, the Redlands Bicycle Classic began a connection to a sport that led to the appearance of national and international champions, Tour de France competitors and a link to a world that continues to connect.

Redlands has been connected to Super Bowls, World Cups, World Series, Olympics, Indianapolis 500s, Kentucky Derbys, baseball division winners, NFC championship contenders, Daytona, national collegiate championships, college bowl games, NASCAR at Daytona and Talladega, major tennis and golf championships, not to mention one of the world’s greatest showtime basketball teams, the Harlem Globetrotters – and the World Series.

Bill Buster owned a five-point share in Captain Bodgit, the colt that ran a close second to Silver Charm in the 1997 Kentucky Derby.

Those are the people these blogs are about. Connections from Redlands to the outside world of sports success at the highest possible level. It doesn’t make sense that such a smallish community has become so prominent in virtually every major sport in the USA – and beyond.

It, thus, becomes A Redlands Connection.