Small in numbers, big in heart, Herons rise to the challenge

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By Ray Hamill — They may be small in numbers, but the Herons are happy to be competing in the H-DNL.

With less than 70 full-time students at the school, Northcoast Prep is now competing on several sports fronts and is coming off a busy fall in volleyball, cross country and girls tennis.

A total of 27 student athletes at the school competed in fall sports, including four boys who will make the short trek to the Arcata Marsh on Saturday for the H-DNL cross country championships.

The Arcata-based public charter school was founded in 2000 and has fielded one of the top boys and girls tennis programs in the H-DNL for several years.

The Herons also field small rosters in cross country and track and field and more recently have added varsity girls volleyball and boys and girls basketball programs.

Their success on the tennis courts has been particularly impressive, and, according to the school representative Heather Quarles, that success is founded on the student athletes’ eagerness to rise to the challenge.

“I think it comes down to the support and foundation we have,” she said. “And the students’ willingness to just go for it.

“And we have great coaches and great programs.”

The school’s approach to competition has not gone unnoticed.

Last year, the Herons were the inaugural recipients of the H-DNL’s sportsmanship fall award for the manner in which their athletes and fans conducted themselves in competition.

“We’re really proud of our students for having good sportsmanship,” Quarles said. “We appreciate that about our students. There’s more beyond wins and losses.”

Four NPA boys will compete at the weekend league cross country championships and after that the school’s athletes will turn their attention to the upcoming boys and girls basketball seasons.

This year’s girls tennis team pushed dominating champions Arcata all the way in league play and once again competed well against the rest of the league.

“This is the strongest NPA team I’ve gotten to work with yet, and this year it’s been pure good spirit and good progress,” head coach Gabe Cook said of the team, which was led by impressive senior Emma Bazemore, who is the Herons’ captain, and her younger sister Lily Bazemore, a sophomore.

The school has been competing in tennis since it was founded and has enjoyed plenty of success against the far larger schools in the H-DNL.

NPA has won two H-DNL team championships, as well as several singles and doubles titles.

But the success of the team goes well beyond that.

“We started the tennis program as a way to promote life sports and because we believe tennis is an activity that develops character, personal responsibility, and enhances problem-solving and life skills off the court,” said Cook, who added “By far the greatest benefit has been the personal and life skills that the pursuit of tennis has given to our students. 

“It has been rewarding to watch our tennis athletes make a successful transition to college and their chosen careers.”

They’ve also succeeded while playing all of their matches on opponents’ courts.

The NPA volleyball team, meanwhile, is the most recent addition to the school’s athletic program and began competition last year.

The Herons, who play their home games at the Arcata Community Center, had competed in the sport at the middle school level before COVID and head coach Amanda Fisher initiated the varsity team after seeing such a positive response from the younger players.

“There was a ton of enthusiasm for the sport, and as a lifelong member of the volleyball community myself, I wasn’t going to let that go to waste,” Fisher said. “My favorite thing about this season is seeing all of the growth that has taken place since the beginning of the season.

“My team is no longer hesitant to take risks and be aggressive. They have grown in so many ways.”

The school’s cross country team, meanwhile, was eager to take advantage of the multiple trails in the Arcata area and hosts its races at the Arcata Sports Complex.

“I think of cross country as a mental activity disguised as a physical one,” head coach Bodhi Waller said. “Competitive running requires athletes to develop mental toughness, self-discipline, and body-awareness. Here in Arcata we are especially lucky to have access to great running trails in the community forest and the marsh.”

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