The average enrollment among Desert Valley League schools is more than 2,000 students — on some campuses, there’s 1,000 more.
Then, there’s Xavier Prep.
With a student body stretching to make 580, the Saints are not only the smallest school, but in some sports the Saints barely field a full squad. So what Xavier has accomplished this fall is even more remarkable.
The Saints dominated the cross country scene, winning the Desert Valley League title in boys’ and knocking Indio from its stranglehold at the top of the heap. The girls’ team was runner-up to La Quinta.
In the pool, the water polo team made history with first-time victories against the last two CIF champs, Palm Desert (2013) and La Quinta (2012). The Saints then proceeded to race all the way to the top of the standings to capture the school’s first league water polo championship.
In tennis, the growing squad finished second behind league team champ Palm Desert, but it was Tiani Jadulang who copped individual honors as the DVL singles’ champion. The Saints sophomore won an epic battle to claim Xavier’s first title in tennis.
The volleyball team gained momentum along the way and came into DVL season on a mission. The Saints made it a race to the end and finished in second place at 9-3 behind perennial power Palm Springs.
For golf, the Saints were a balanced squad, finished third in the DVL and advanced two players to the postseason.
And who doesn’t know now about the football team?
As first-time full-fledged members of the DVL, the Saints not only won their first game in league competition, then added another but grabbed headlines in a final game, storybook overtime victory against Palm Desert. However, that historic victory was washed away when a league tiebreaker knocked the Saints from what would have been another on their list of first-time accomplishments — a trip to the CIF playoffs.
“It’s all about the big picture,” said tennis coach Jeff Welsh. “We always want more but it can’t happen right away. One of the reasons you see so much success is they’re big enough to have a lot of talent, but small enough that everyone pays attention to everyone. Everyone knows what everybody is doing and there’s an enthusiasm through that school that grabs you.”
Athletic director Mark Campbell noted that Xavier students exceeded expectations, but not necessarily those in house.
“We were poised to have a wonderful fall,” he said. “The only shock (about the success) came from the outside. We have some talented kids that are flying under the radar.”
And many of the student-athletes are crossovers, often participating in multiple sports in lieu of “specializing.”
“This is just the beginning and it’s contagious,” said Campbell, who pointed out the only team sport not offered is wrestling. “The kids want to wear that ‘X’ proudly and the fall was just the start.”
Cross country coach Aron Lyons added this: “Across the board, it starts at the top with the leadership, dedicated coaches and a small — and dedicated — student population. It’s all part of the dynamic of the school.”
Boys’ and girls’ cross country
Lyons is a distance-running guru and molded teams into winners despite the small numbers.
“One of my first goals was to prove that we could compete and we’ve worked hard to eradicate the sentiment that we can’t,” he said. “Now, it’s more about if we aren’t already competing, we will be pretty soon.”
Each year the expectations are high for the Saints. They’ve not only won DVL (girls in 2011, boys in 2014), but have been a force in CIF. (Cross country postseason is based on enrollment). This season, both teams qualified for the CIF finals — the only desert school to do so. The boys won the Division V title for the second straight year, and both squads advanced to this Saturday’s state finals in Fresno.
“We hit the ground running,” said runner Joe Janssen. “There’s a lot of consistency. We’re winning league titles and building a legacy.
“Everyone supports each other. A lot of us were at the league finals for water polo. Coach Valovic coordinated their practices around our meets. There’s the commitment to your sport and it shows.”
Another first for the gym wall is the 2014 water polo banner. And the Saints did it up big, first knocking off La Quinta and then Palm Desert — both first-time wins for the program against the two polo powers. And, the Saints did it with balance and a veteran group of seniors who often reflect on the 20-goal losses endured as freshmen.
“We didn’t have a dominant team like La Quinta and Palm Desert before,” said senior Nathan Salmon whose team finished in the CIF quarterfinals at 21-8 overall, unbeaten in DVL. “We were never at that level. We’re well-rounded, with a lot of good players who worked really hard.”
Last spring, Salmon pointed to the runner-up finish by the swim team that stands to improve both polo and swim with its two-fold success.
“A lot of people compare school size, but no matter, it’s still 7 on 7,” he said. “Everyone knows how hard we were working. I don’t think they expect us to win or lose. They expect us to play a good game, show everyone that Xavier is here.”
Xavier is no stranger to the top of the standings in volleyball. The Saints won the DVL title in 2012, made the playoffs last season and were back battling for the title again this season. Xavier finished second behind perennial power Palm Springs with a majority of underclassmen.
“We had a lot of new varsity players and we started with a new thought process during our retreat,” said senior Cassidy LaSalle. “We wanted to prove ourselves. We knew we could do more.”
And following a slow start, the Saints gained momentum with every outing, weaving their way through the DVL and finished at 9-3.
“We got used to each other pretty quickly,” LaSalle added. “We came back out every game and did really well.”
Expect the Saints to make another run as only three graduate — LaSalle, Michelle Cullen and Miranda Dickenson.
Coach Jeff Welsh boasts 14 girls on his squad, but he noted that the way Xavier approached the season was to play as a team.
“We took an individual sport, made it a team sport, and all 14 girls know they’re equally important whether you play 2, 3 or 4,” he said. “That’s why our program has taken off.”
Four-year varsity player Caroline Hammer said beating La Quinta twice was something she never thought possible.
“We got into CIF on a coin flip when I was a freshman, then we earned it with third places, but this year made my high school experience,” she said. “Everyone in school was talking about what we did for fall sports with firsts or seconds in DVL with limited amount of kids. It’s made me really proud.”
The golf team continues to grow and two underclassmen made huge strides this season representing Xavier in the CIF Individuals — Malia Ebersberger and Elle Otten were the qualifiers, two of eight from the DVL, and will return for another run next season.
A 3-3 DVL record would often be good enough to advance to the postseason, but since two others also posted that mark, the Saints found themselves on the outside looking in thanks to a league tiebreaker ruling. However, Xavier went out with a bang.
After winning their first-ever DVL game against Indio, then topping Coachella Valley, Xavier’s season finale was an overtime thriller against Palm Desert, 41-35. Overall, the Saints were 5-5, carried the smallest roster at 36, but posted three players among the top DVL stat leaders — Daniel Stabile, Sava Voyne and Ryan Rover.