You can probably still smell the chlorine from the Sonora High pool when Jack Conte, Nathin Dean and Luke Wheeler arrive at tennis practice in the springtime, the water still in their hair and on their skin.
The trio train in the pool with the swim team as long as they can without risking lateness for their next practice, then toweling off and rushing to the courts in Columbia.
Forget training; just the travel routine sounds exhausting. But it’s become typical for the 17-year-old Sonora natives — and it has been paying off.
This year, they earned their varsity letters in water polo, soccer, tennis and swim for Sonora High — a remarkable four sports over three seasons. Even more impressively, all four teams the trio competed for won Mother Lode League titles, with Sonora High’s tennis team winning its first section title in school history, and Conte and Wheeler winning a CIF Sac-Joaquin section doubles title as well.
Conte, Dean and Wheeler all were selected for the Mother Lode League All-League team for tennis, making up three of the seven available spots. In water polo, Dean was named first team all-league, while Conte and Wheeler had second-team all-league selections. Conte received the league’s character award in soccer.
Now, with trophies and accolades piling up ahead of their final year of high school, Conte, Dean and Wheeler show no signs of slowing down.
“My personal life has just become sports — that’s why all my closest friends are my teammates,” Wheeler said. “My freshman year, I always joke about it, I remember hanging out with friends twice.”
Sonora High head soccer coach Josh Kurz said the three boys were a big part of the team’s success this year, helping Sonora win its second-ever league title. Wheeler solidified the team’s defense, Conte was a brick wall as the team’s goalie, notching three straight shutouts this year, and Dean’s speed and athleticism helped win many matchups.
But while Kurz is supportive of the boys’ athletic interests spanning nearly a third of the sports offered at Sonora High, it also presented some challenges. Conte broke his arm snowboarding (yes, another sport) while on a string of shut-out performances in goal, and the team lost him for the rest of the season.
Conte was selected by graduating senior captain Kai Perez to serve as captain next year.
“Jack Conte could play anywhere in the field, but we needed him as our keeper this year,” Kurz said. “His play really infused confidence into the others and solidified the strength of this team from the onset.”
As for Dean, Kurz said despite not having a background in soccer, he outperformed much more seasoned players due to his speed and effort while on the field.
“Selfishly, I kind of want him, Luke and Jack to commit to soccer full-time, because you just know that with their work ethic and athleticism that they’d master the sport and take it to another level,” Kurz said.
Kurz said Wheeler’s leadership was essential for Sonora High’s defense this season, helping lock down that side of the ball.
“Luke Wheeler is a natural vocal leader with a highly developed sense of positional roles and responsibilities,” Kurz said. “His leadership really was the glue to a constantly changing and evolving defensive rotation.”
Wheeler was selected to be a captain on next year’s soccer team by graduating senior captain and league most-valuable player Edwin Casillas.
But apart from his role as Sonora High’s soccer coach, Kurz said he is impressed by the boys' commitment to excelling in all the sports they enjoy — helping to boost the performance of so many programs at the school.
“It’s unique and inspiring to see them master the jack-of-all-trades role and elevate so many sports at the same time,” Kurz said.
The constant demands of training for the group’s many sports is arduous, the boys say, especially when transitioning between sports from season to season. Wheeler, who deals with weakness in one of his knees, says the beginning of the soccer season brings nagging pain along with it — especially after the lower-impact water polo season.
Transitioning between sports is also just plain difficult, Dean added, because of the different muscles and types of training required for each sport.
“Swim and water polo — it’s brutal in the beginning but we get it faster, conditioning-wise and ability, because we do it more,” Dean said. “But when it comes to soccer, it’s a whole new conditioning. The first two, three weeks, we’re the most tired out of everybody.”
According to Dean, the boys knew each other through sports before high school, but weren’t all that close until they became teammates. Now, they’re inseparable.
That bond is important, Wheeler says. Despite the group’s impressive athletic achievements this year, the boys’ participation in sports is about more than their successes in the record book. Having been homeschooled growing up, Wheeler said sports were a way for him to interact with other kids where he otherwise wouldn’t have.
“I’m a pretty outgoing guy; I need to talk to people or else I kind of go crazy,” Wheeler said. “So, I always did sports as an outlet, especially when I was homeschooled for a long time. I had to use sports to get to know people.”
A memory Wheeler said stuck with him was getting to travel and stay overnight at a hotel for a tournament in Roseville. Conte, Dean and Wheeler stayed in a room together with another friend and had a blast.
“Friendships within the team are important,” Wheeler said. “That’s what I think is important in high school — to have these memories.”
Dean said he played water polo with Conte and Wheeler before, and decided to give soccer and tennis a try because his friends were doing it. Since taking up two new sports, Dean said he has enjoyed getting to compete head-to-head with his friends in individual sports.
“Going into tennis and also swim, it was way different because, at that point, I was able to compete with them,” Dean said. “We always get a laugh out of it, even though sometimes we get mad at each other, at the end of the day it’s fun.”
That sentiment was shared by Sonora High tennis coach Sam Segerstrom, who played for the Wildcats when he was in high school — winning league titles in 2005 and 2006 — and became a coach in 2015.
Segerstrom said the competitive drive the trio showed going up against each other in practice helped motivate the rest of the team to aim high.
“They’re leaders by example,” Segerstrom said. “In practice, they did so much for our team in the fact that they were competitive with each other and challenged each other. They all wanted to be number one singles player — and they all were at some point in the season.”
This was particularly impressive from Dean, Segerstrom said, who quickly vied for position as the best player in the program in only his first year playing tennis.
“It’s very impressive that he picked it up that quickly,” Segerstrom said. “He’s a raw athlete to be able to do that.”
Segerstrom said the boys’ ability to play so many different sports throughout the year without a break speaks to their fitness, which he said is hugely helpful for spending valuable practice time on technique.
“Not having to spend too much time on conditioning is great,” Segerstrom said.
Playing multiple sports in high school, rather than specializing early, has been shown to be beneficial for preventing injury and burnout within a specific sport.
While readjusting to each sport can be difficult, according to Conte, the techniques and conditioning always come back to you, like riding a bike.
“Even though we’re playing polo and switching over to tennis, and they’re two drastically different sports, you commit fully and then you get it back,” Conte said. “When you devote your time enough, you get it back pretty quick.”
Conte said his favorite of the four sports he plays is tennis, but that he enjoys the differences between the individual and team sports the boys play — each offering fulfillment in different ways.
“I love individual sports because you rely on yourself, and if you mess up, it’s you. But then something about team sports is super cool, like bonding with your teammates and working off each other,” Conte said. “It’s like a mood — it changes all the time.”
Wheeler said his family members told him to savor high school as much as he could, especially sports, because before you know it, they’re over. He took that to heart and has tried to make as many memories as he could through high school sports.
“I have uncles who always tell me how much they regret not playing sports as much, so I just tried to do as much as I possibly could,” Wheeler said.
The boys say that while they don’t feel they have had to sacrifice too much to make their participation in all four sports possible, there are some drawbacks, like less social time and increased pressure in school.
“I enjoy sports, so I consider that (to be) hanging out. I didn’t feel like I sacrificed a whole lot,” Conte said. “The social aspect was still there, because you’re friends with these guys so it was a good balance.”
“Sometimes you have to stay up until 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock in the morning trying to get an assignment done,” Dean added. “In the beginning it’s hard, but over time you start getting the hang of stuff, and you start getting a routine.”
Wheeler says his knee is threatening to keep him out of soccer this year, but regardless all three boys hope to be four-sport athletes again this coming school year, intent on finishing their high school sports careers on a high note.
“There are some decisions you have to make,” Wheeler said. “It’s just a matter of what you choose.”
Contact Dominic Massimino at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4526. Follow him on Twitter at @DominicUDSports