Georan Meendering showed his stuff with a comeback victory that helped him earn a scholarship.
Riley Cooks was dropped off late for her shining moment and shrugged it off like no big deal. Cuesta College’s 2013-14 Athletes of the Year have at least two things in common.
The spirit that helped earn them the distinction emerged during the highest levels of competition. And they each blossomed in sports that began as afterthoughts.
For men’s swimmer Meendering, his triumph came in the form of a dramatic showdown at the state meet. For women’s track and field star Cooks, who completes her junior college career at the state meet this weekend, it came after a reading error at last year’s state championships.
Both were crowned Tuesday in the college’s annual athletics awards banquet.
Meendering is headed to Stockton to swim at Pacific next season, and the first time the Tigers’ coaches saw him in the pool came at the state championships in Los Angeles in early May.
The Visalia Golden West High product had a duel to remember with College of San Mateo backstroker Kawei Tan.
Though Meendering was slightly favored to win the state title in the 100-yard backstroke, Tan beat him by nearly a second and a half — a mile in the pool.
On the meet’s second day, also Meendering’s 20th birthday, the Cuesta swimmer turned the tables on Tan, upsetting the favorite in the 200 backstroke by 1.08 seconds in a school-record 1 minute, 49.73 seconds.
Meendering trailed going into the race’s final turn but looked up at the timing board to see the split and summoned the energy for the victory.
“I could see from the corner of my eye in my goggles that he was right there,” Meendering said. “The UOP coaches were right there, so, I knew I had to come home. I came home as fast as I could, and it was awesome.”
Tan “shook my hand,” Meendering said, “and he goes, ‘Dude, that was an amazing race. Nice job.’ ”
Meendering also holds Cougars program records in the 100 backstroke (50.84 seconds) and 200 individual medley (1:53.85).
Though he held a backstroke record at Golden West, Meendering was never a year-round swimmer growing up. Much of his development came at Cuesta, where he enrolled as a freshman mainly to play for a celebrated water polo program that has never missed the postseason.
Meendering led the conference-champion Cougars men’s water polo team with 73 goals this past season, becoming an all-state selection in the process before becoming an even bigger standout in swimming.
It’s a similar story with Cooks.
Cooks, a two-year standout performer on the Cougars’ volleyball team, was also awarded the George Silveira Student-Athlete Career Award.
“I’m very competitive,” said Cooks, a product of Oakhurst Yosemite High. “So, I was definitely wanting to win. I was nominated last year and didn’t win. I wasn’t disappointed, but I knew I had a good chance of winning this year.”
Cooks received stiff competition from several others, including aquatics counterpart Rachel Gruetzmacher, who placed in the top five in three races at this year’s state championships and also earned all-state second-team honors in water polo.
Softball’s Bre Ojala was the Western State Conference Player of the year, leading Cuesta in batting average, runs, hits, runs, doubles, RBI and triples, setting the program record with eight this year.
Basketball’s Miriam Zabinski led her team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and field-goal and free-throw percentage while also setting two Cougars career scoring records.
As an outside hitter in volleyball, Cooks led the team with 278 kills, a mark that ranks fifth all-time in school history, and ranks second in program history with 505 kills and third with 50 service aces.
On the track, the highlight of Cooks’ career so far is a second-place finish in the heptathlon at last year’s state meet, which becomes even more impressive considering she almost missed an event.
With Cooks in third place going into the second day of the seven-discipline event, the Cougars showed up just minutes before the start of the long jump after the 10 a.m. start time was mistaken for 11.
“There wasn’t anything you could do at that point other than just warm up,” Cooks said. She did and held off her competitors.
Now, Cooks is headed to Long Beach State on a track scholarship, and she leaves with several distinguished marks.
Her 4,808 points in the heptathlon and her 15.68-second mark in the 100-meter hurdles are program records at Cuesta. She also owns the No. 2 marks in the long jump at 18 feet, 4 inches and the 200 in 24.76. Her 124-6 javelin personal record is third, and her 38-51⁄2 shot put is fourth.
And as she revealed Tuesday, all those track and field exploits almost never happened. Prior to coming to Cuesta, Cooks had not run track since her sophomore year in high school. She originally came to San Luis Obispo to play volleyball.
Though a long way off from her hometown of Coarsegold, Cooks’ parents originally hail from Atascadero, and the Central Coast has long been a home away from home.
When her first volleyball season ended, Cooks’ parents told her to run track or get a job.
“My sister used to tell me you could train for four hours a day or you could work for eight hours a day,” Cooks said. “And so I was like, ‘Hey, if I do track, I could potentially get a scholarship and it would be totally worth it.’ ”