Inside the CIF-SS

A weekly feature on the CIF-SS

Norco’s Lavalle is moved by the spirit
By Martin Henderson

He never got a fair shake in high school. Not when his father died from cancer after his freshman year. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be for 15-year-olds. It’s certainly a short straw for a kid who loved playing sports, particularly baseball and basketball.

He could have bagged it. Others have. But Joseph Lavalle wouldn’t. You find out what you’re made of in times of adversity? So be it. Lavalle faced adversity head on and kicked its backside.

He is now a senior with a 4.4 grade-point average. He immersed himself in sports. He participated in community events. He volunteered at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church. And he showed some leadership skills along the way.

He was named captain of the varsity basketball team, and he averaged 20.9 points and 6.1 rebounds this past season. Lavalle is the school’s all-time leader in scoring, assists and steals. The Cougars went 13-15, and though his team had a losing record, Lavalle is no loser. Not when you’ve been through his gantlet.

He was the only Southern Californian among four who were selected Spirit of Sport Award winners for the Winter/Spring seasons by the California Interscholastic Federation. The award includes a $500 scholarship and recognizes student-athletes who have demonstrated the 16 principles of Pursuing Victory with Honor. One of the two Fall sports winners was also from the Southern Section, Tyler Polasek of Crean Lutheran South. They will receive their awards at the year-end Federated Council meeting on May 7 in Sacramento.

“The award seeks to recognize student-athletes who have demonstrated great sportsmanship, the purest form of competition,” said Marie Ishida, executive director of the CIF. “These recipients understand that a positive attitude and teamwork should exist throughout sports, and they realize that winning at all costs is not really winning. The same spirit they show in athletics carries over into all aspects of their lives.”

Donald Lavalle was 48 when he died, unexpectedly, from lymphoma in the summer of 2007. He and his son were close. Joe’s world could have fallen apart, but he only became more resilient. His mother, Kristin, had to go to work to support Joe and his sister, Marissa, who was 18 at the time.

“It opened my eyes to the important stuff,” Lavalle said. “It’s an experience that a lot of people don’t have. It changed my values and my outlook, showed me how important family is, and that you never know when your time is going to be.”

Having lost a parent, Lavalle knows what a gift life is. That’s why he has been able to persevere and excel. Being alive is its own reward. Make the most of it. But also keep everything in perspective.

“I focused more on family and cherished that time,” he said. “(The death) was really hard. I tried to keep my grades up and keep my mind off it by playing sports

“At the end of the day, it’s just a game.”

Lavalle, a three-year starter on the basketball team, has shown his versatility on the baseball team. He was a shortstop as a sophomore, a center fielder as a junior, and this year is the team’s best pitcher even though it’s the first time he has thrown since he was 13.

At 6 feet 2 inches, he may have more potential in baseball. His coach, Gary Parcell, says he has a lot of upside as a project. Right now, he is considering Air Force to play basketball, Cal Poly Pomona to play baseball. He hopes to become an engineer.

“He’s a gangly, skinny kid, really athletic, runs really well, he just needs more experience in baseball, especially pitching,” Parcell said. “I’ve had kids who lost parents before, but sometimes they try to use that to get them through things. He has never used it as any kind of excuse.

“Character-wise, he’s a great kid.”

That character extends beyond the athletic field. In addition to serving as a volunteer at his church, Lavalle also participated in the Norco Relay for Life by selling raffle tickets, and in the Corona Relay for Life preparing luminaries. Funds raised from these worthwhile walks go to cancer research.

The basketball coach, Jon Cabrera, said students such as Lavalle “do not come along very often” and embodies the award he will receive.

“He’s a quality kid, quiet and reserved, very humble, doesn’t really brag about himself,” Cabrera said. “He’s got a unique story. A lot of kids would get sidetracked with that and not be able to focus. He’s a special kid and a good athlete.

“It was a privilege watching him grow and develop into the person that he has become. I do not think I have met another student in my 15 years of teaching who is as deserving as he is.”