By Claire Cornelius
For The Signal
Many William S. Hart Union High School District alumni return to Santa Clarita to give back to their former sports programs, where their collegiate and professional journeys started.
West Ranch alumnus JC Cloney, now a pitcher for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, a Class-AA affiliate for the Kansas City Royals, takes time out of his offseason to offer advice to and throw with active West Ranch baseball players.
“It seems fitting to kind of help some of the guys and, I mean, if they can take one thing that I said, and if that helps them out, that’s a lot better than I would expect, but, you know, I’m just trying to help make it a little easier for them.” he said.
Cloney offers advice to these young players alongside Jake Bird, also a West Ranch alumnus, who pitches for the Asheville Tourists, a Class-A affiliate for the Colorado Rockies.
“Of course, I don’t know everything, I’m still learning, but it’s just kind of a cool opportunity to kind of tell the players that these guys (their coaches) know what they’re talking about and maybe tell them a little extra something that I picked up during my time in pro ball or at UCLA,” Bird said.
When players like Cloney and Bird, who have been extremely successful in their athletic careers thus far, come back to their former high schools, current players’ aspirations are put into perspective.
“It definitely was inspiring because, you know, you see all the things he has accomplished and then he comes out and talks to us like, wow, he is just a normal person, just like me,” West Ranch catcher Nick Perez said. “So it was one of those things, like that’s an achievable thing.”
Trust coaches’ methods
A common message these professional athletes have for high school players is to have trust in their coaches’ methods.
“I really think it’s having trust in your coach. I think that what he (coach Rene Paragas) teaches you and the messages that he gives you can really be applied throughout life,” said Amber Murakami, former Saugus High and UCLA cross country runner. “So you should trust him wholeheartedly, trust what he’s teaching you and trust that he has your best interests in mind.”
Murakami graduated from Saugus High School in 2010, but has returned multiple times to run with Paragas’ team. She has also given back to her former high school through donations to fund “Hill-Running Machine” T-shirts that she and her teammates received when they first made it to the top of “the beast,” an extremely challenging 5-mile uphill trail run.
“Coach Paragas had mentioned to my sister and me that he was kind of bummed that they weren’t gonna be able to do hill-running machine shirts this year because they just didn’t have enough funding in the budget,” Murakami said. “So we were a little bummed out because that had been such an amazing experience for us and for our teammates, so we wanted to make a donation to the Saugus program.”
Manuel White, former Valencia High School running back who went on to play for UCLA and briefly for the Washington Redskins, has returned to Santa Clarita to be a firefighter and raise his children.
White has attended the Playmakers Football Camp put on by Valencia alumni Brock and Shane Vereen in past years, and even had his kids participate.
“Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, you know they’re seeing professional athletes out there. Actually my sons went to his camp and they still talk about it. It was a long time ago so that shows you the impact that it had on them,” White said.
Staying local has allowed White to educate people on the quality of the Valencia High School athletic and academic programs, which he said prepared him for the rigor at UCLA.
“You know, those are my roots forever. Forever having a place in my heart. So, I want to see them do well,” White said. “I want them to carry on, you know, what we established back in the day, so that’s why it’s important for me to keep my hand in the program, whatever capacity that is.”