By Brian Reed-Baiotto, Sports Editor
In the early 2000’s, this writer was working for a newspaper in the San Gabriel Valley as a freelancer, and for the most part, football, baseball, basketball and girls volleyball were the most sought after assignments by almost everyone.
When my boss (at the time) asked me to cover a wrestling tournament in the Inland Empire, and on a Saturday, I immaturely jumped to the conclusion that it was punishment for one of the many mistakes I made back then.
I drove out that afternoon for the second of a two-day tournament with no clue who to talk to, how to judge what was going on and what to look for or write about.
Within 20 minutes of getting there, I asked a tournament official what SGV area coaches I should talk to, so I could get an idea of what was going on.
Luckily, they pointed me in the right direction, and I met Northview coaching legends David Ochoa and Bobby Bellamy.
And despite having 14 competitors spread throughout that gym, they showed me how to decipher a bracket and filled me in on how kids from each of the SGV area programs were doing that day.
I asked if there was anyone else I should talk to and they introduced me to Donnie and Shirley Stephens, who served as the husband-wife duo that led the West Covina High School wrestling program from 1994-2012.
At first glance, Donnie looked like he hadn’t eaten a meal in a couple months and his facial expressions and thick goatee intimidated me, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to him.
I was worried that if I asked a stupid question, he might go Greg Popovich, Bill Belichick or Bobby Knight on me.
But what I learned shortly thereafter was that Donnie was a very loving husband, dad, coach and friend.
The reason for his outward appearance was a result of giving everything he had to his athletes and the sport he loves, and he’s someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Within weeks of meeting them, Ochoa, Bellamy and the duo of Donnie and Shirley had this writer informed and hooked on their sport.
I was able to learn and appreciate through them what kind of discipline and dedication it takes to be successful in that sport, but it was just as much the life-changing impact that coaches have on their athletes that made a deep and lasting impression.
As I’ve said in other pieces, wrestling helps turn boys and girls into young men and women, and from young men and young women into leaders.
It’s because of all they go through, all they are forced to endure and their growth as both athletes and people that make most wrestling lifers terrific husbands, wives, parents and people.
You can not be lazy, disrespectful or selfish and succeed long term in this sport.
It’s been said that swimming, water polo and football are among the most demanding of sports, and they are, but here is why I truly believe that wrestling requires the highest level of discipline to persevere.
A swimmer can compete all day and in multiple events at a meet, a water polo team can play several games in a tournament setting and a football game can take everything out of an athlete after a long and physical game on a Friday night.
But all of those athletes can go out that night to their favorite burger joint, fast food restaurant or pizza place and enjoy a meal without counting calories.
In comparison, after a Friday that starts at 5 a.m. to get ready for a two-day tournament, elite wrestlers spend all day and night on the mat before heading home dinged up and exhausted.
Instead of getting a meal of their choice and having the luxury of getting some rest after an all-day event, however, wrestlers have to put on their sweats and go jogging just to make weight for the next day.
And it’s that kind of discipline that Donnie and Shirley instilled in their wrestlers that allowed the program to have so much success, both individually and collectively.
The Bulldogs won 11 league (team) titles, had six CIF-SS team championships, six individual champions, and six CIF-SS state placers, among their long list of accolades.
George Munoz (sixth) and AJ Guardado (seventh) were the highest WCHS state placers and Taylor Louie was a national runner-up.
In the same remarkable season (2007) where Munoz and Guardado placed at state, Chris Armendariz handed eventual state champion, Thomas Williams of South Hills, his only loss of the year.
It came in the semifinal round at the CIF-SS individuals.
Armendariz would follow that enormous victory one match later by claiming the 112-pound title.
When asked early Friday morning, Donnie and Shirley Stephens said from Kentucky that their fondest moment as a program was a day in 2011 that both the boys and girls programs won CIF team titles.
“It was a great night,” Donnie said. “I remember getting back to the school on the bus and we arrived at nearly the same time. The boys and girls programs both congratulated each other in the parking lot with all the parents on hand. It was like a scene out of a Disney movie.”
What kind of an impact did Donnie and Shirley have on their wrestlers careers and lives?
It was, without a doubt, the life lessons taught, an unwavering work ethic, the way to handle both success and failure and the 100-percent commitment needed to their teammates, coaches and themselves to be part of that program.
They cared far more about the maturation process for their athletes and the preparation for life going forward before anything that happened in a singlet.
Staying focused on their grades was also a huge priority.
The genuine love, and at times, tough love, was something WCHS wrestlers needed and embraced.
Donnie and Shirley could play the role of both good cop and bad cop, but surprisingly, when a kid needed a kick in the (butt), Shirley was more times than not the badass that had to tell an athlete what he or she needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
To a boy or girl, though, they knew it was coming from a place of love.
I have a couple of anecdotes to share, which will back up how discipline paid off in the lives of Bulldogs’ wrestlers.
Alex Carrico, who won a CIF-SS individual championship in 2007 for West Covina, was forced to leap some difficult hurdles early in his personal life.
Carrico recalls being 12 and sitting in a car with his three siblings outside a motel and watching his mom cry in his stepfather’s arms.
They didn’t have enough money for a hotel room or anywhere to sleep.
Fast forward to current day, and Alex Carrico is a college graduate, a husband, a teacher, a nurse, and because of all the hard work and financial discipline, Alex was recently able to buy his mother and siblings a home of their own.
In an emotional voicemail to Shirley Stephens, Carrico said that he had changed his family for a generation, and that his success was made possible because of that tough love and guidance from Donnie and Shirley Stephens, and the sport of wrestling.
In another example, AJ Guardado, who earned a CIF-SS individual championship and a freestyle state title, suffered a tragic loss at a very young age.
Back on November 10th of 2003, Mike Guardado, his beloved father passed away.
As fate would have it, Donnie and Shirley welcomed their son, Donnie, into the world on the same day and at the exact hospital that Mr. Guardado took his last breath.
Both the Stephens and Guardado’s would shuffle from floor to floor to check on each other.
Donnie felt a duty to look after AJ, and because of the love and work ethic he got from home, and the support from Donnie, Shirley and his West Covina HS family, AJ not only thrived, he attended, competed for and graduated from Duke University.
In the quotable section below, you can read AJ’s personal thoughts on the impact that both Donnie and Shirley had on his life.
And in an accompanying photo gallery, there are pictures of Shirley dancing with both AJ and his wife Taylor at their wedding.
How did this all start?
Shirley and Donnie met back in 1988 at WCHS when both were 16.
They earned their degrees two years later and became husband and wife in 2000.
Both were already invested into the wrestling world, and Donnie competed for WCHS and at Cal State Bakersfield.
Part of their success is being able to fill in whatever role was needed for each individual wrestler.
In 2003, they had a female wrestler named Norine Cruz, who sort of broke the glass ceiling and after proving her toughness, Donnie and Shirley were early proponents of girls wrestling.
“Coaching wrestling is our life and has been for the longest time,” both said. “We don’t know any other way. We look at it as our ministry and we’re able to help people prepare for and persevere in life by working hard, taking some bumps and showing both discipline and love at the same time. You can’t really put into words how rewarding it is to see kids who were once troublemakers turn into great athletes, students and people.”
Where are they now?
After leaving West Covina, they spent nearly a year in Colorado before Donnie got a call that would change their lives.
“A (U.S.) national team coach said a couple colleges needed people,” Donnie said. “I applied at Waldorf without much interest from them, but right away we felt wanted and found a home at University of the Cumberlands.”
Since taking over in Williamsburg, Kentucky, in 2013, the Patriots women’s program has a record of 68-45-1.
Stephens has coached 24 WCWA all-Americans, including one WCWA national champion. He has also coached seven NAIA all-Americans, including 13 NAIA national champions and the winningest wrestler in program history (Sarah Allen, 132 wins, 2013-17).
The Cumberlands team also logged 1,208 hours of community service last year, as Christian services are a very big part of what that school is all about.
They also claimed a Mid-South conference championship and have boasted seven top-five finishes at the national duals.
One of his best wrestlers?
His 19-year old daughter, Jaine.
Jaine Stephens finished second at state at Whitley County High School and became an NAIA all-American for her dad at University of the Cumberlands.
Donnie, or as he’s called, ‘boy,’ is a sophomore in high school, and while he wrestles and plays soccer, Donnie and Shirley’s 16-year old son is the brains of the family, or as Shirley put it, “our beach house plan.”
Lastly, we asked Donnie and Shirley why they have so much passion for this sport, and what’s in it for them since it’s obviously not the money.
Said Donnie and Shirley Stephens: “It’s never been about the money. It’s about making a difference in someone’s life and giving them a chance to be both happy and successful through hard work. We all fail in life, but it’s how you react to failure that can either make or break you. We feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to play a significant role in the lives of so many young people and we’ll never take that for granted. People ask why we do this and how come we spend so much time in a wrestling room or at tournaments and our answer is that we get to do what we love for a living. We feel fortunate to be in this position.”
This country and world would be a better place if more people cared about other people’s children like Donnie and Shirley Stephens do and have done for the past 30 years.
Hall of Fame Northview coach, David Ochoa: “Donnie Stephens is one of the best coaches I have ever worked with. He and his wife Shirley developed a top wrestling program at West Covina HS from the ground up. West Covina has to be one of the few programs that could celebrate winning CIF Championships with both the boys and girls teams in the same year. I do not believe any high school has more girls wrestling state titles than West Covina. It all came from the hard work and dedication of Donnie and Shirley Stephens.
Currently, the Stephens are working hard at the University of the Cumberlands. Northview is fortunate enough to have grads Alexis Medina and Isela Mendez competing for Coach Stephens. Ismileyena (Izzy) Valles serves as a grad assistant coach under Coach Stephens. I am grateful for the time we had to complete. Coach Stephens made me a better coach. He made a major impact on Northview’s commitment to our girls wrestling program. The only way we were going to compete with West Covina was to go all in. He continues to provide great opportunities for young female athletes.”
Three-time CIF champion & WCHS football coach, Mike Maggiore: “They both graduated from WC and took so much pride in building our program to the highest level. They were a team in leading the program and complimented each other in a harmonious way. They expected toughness and a never back down attitude, but I saw them both, numerous times, with their arm around a kid, giving support as well. Coaching is a balance and they seemed to just work. They were both passionate about the sport along with knowledgeable on what needed to be done to get the most out of every athlete. The thing I admired the most about both of them was their ability to connect with the kids in their program and make it a family type atmosphere. They really were more than just a team and you could tell by how they supported one another. They taught much more than wresting and as a parent and a coach, that’s really what you want as an experience for the kids in any athletic program. The athletes that have had the opportunity to wrestle on one of their teams are fortunate.”
WCHS wrestling coach, Matt Johnson: “I met Donnie and Shirley when I was a pudgy little butterball in middle school. Donnie was working on campus and held a meeting for anyone interested in wrestling. With Shirley working at Edgewood (right down the road), they formed the West Covina Wolverines- a youth wrestling club. Little did I know that by walking into that room I would be meeting a man that would impact my life in a way that I still feel to this day. He and Shirley truly treated us like we were their children. They demanded excellence and accepted nothing but the very best effort that we had to give. Donnie was the first person to hold you accountable and tell you what you did wrong and then show you how to fix it. He was also the first person to hug you, with tears in his eyes, and tell you how proud he was of you. Shirley was always the glue that held everything together. She was the voice of reason. She had the unique ability to always say the words that needed to be heard. She was, and still is, the Mother Duck. They taught us how to work hard and love doing it. I love them. I love their children. That family has poured more into me than I have ever been able to give back. Everything that I am today, in a lot of ways, is because of the lasting impact that Donnie and Shirley made on my life.”
Former WCHS baseball coach, Drew Lorenger: “The Stephens were an institution at West Covina High School. Their teams were ultra competitive and took on the persona of their coaches. Grit, passion, and family are a few words that come to mind when I think of their wrestlers. Donnie and Shirley worked together to mentor hundreds of kids. Our community is a better place because of their efforts.”
Former South Hills/current Bonita wrestling coach, Rob Froh: “I have known Donnie and Shirley for a long time. I have always been impressed with the way they run their programs and the impact that they have on their athletes. They created such a family atmosphere when they were at West Covina. Kids felt loved and included in something special. They wanted not only to be a part of that, they wanted to do their absolute best for their coaches and team. Donnie and Shirley coached some pretty great wrestlers, but what made them such a good program during their time there, were the kids that maybe were not one of the best wrestlers on the team, but they were coached up well and wanted to perform for their ‘family.’
We had some epic battles over the years. It made both programs better. Sometimes it did put a strain on our friendship, but I have always considered them to be good friends, and regardless of how our teams did against one another, I have always known that if I needed anything, they would be there. I think that is the secret of their success. The kids in their programs knew that their coaches would do anything and everything to help them. West Covina, and our area in general, lost a couple of good ones when they left, but if you have had a chance to follow them, they are continuing to impact the wrestling community and the kids that cross their paths everywhere they go.”
Cerritos College coach, Donny Garriott: “We competed against them a bunch back then. Everyone always talks about their teams being a family. Watching Donnie and Shirley and their West Covina teams, you saw this in person, as they and their teams truly were a family. They epitomized commitment to their kids and the kids responded by giving their all for Donnie and Shirley.”
Former WCHS & Duke wrestler, AJ Guardado: “It’s hard to put into words what Donnie and Shirley mean to me. From when I first started wrestling when I was 10, Shirley has been my coach. She is tough, fair, and above all, the embodiment of maternal love. She would do anything for any of her kids, and probably has at some point. Donnie is an absolute maniac. He is obsessed, in love and insane about wrestling. He would lose several pounds every season because he wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t sleep. He would just drink coffee and obsess about every facet of our lineup and how he could make everyone the best version of themselves, and how he could make sure everyone was staying out of trouble, on weight, and in the books, while also staying sane. And Shirley would have the task of roping all of us in and working (sometimes barely) as a family. Together they are the perfect team. Shirley would open her class to kids at any time of the day, even if it was just to come in and vent about how frustrating your day was. She would give advice and hugs in abundance, and tough love when you needed it. Donnie would keep you focused, hungry and happy about having to make weight week in and week out, and grinding out wins, while also going to class and navigating life as a teenager. He would lock us in a dark room before dual meets and tell us to get into whatever mindset we needed to win. Then the next day, he would be throwing plastic army men with parachutes into the air at practice and doing Irish jigs when we hit the “move of the week.” I always preferred to have Shirley in my corner because coaches were never more caught off guard than when a mother of two (who would occasionally have her infant son strapped to her chest) was in my corner screaming at me with different strategies to brutalize an individual. They made the long and brutal seasons fun, and kids from all areas of life feel like family, many of whom I still keep contact with today.
Even when I lost my father, which was the single most difficult event I’ve gone through in my life, they were there for me in every way possible. In a cruel twist of irony, Donnie and Shirley’s younger child was born in the same hospital that my father passed away in, and on the same day. While there to visit my father shortly before he passed, my brother and I went to congratulate them. Donnie, exhausted and celebrating the birth of his son, took time to speak with and console us about what our family was going through. After my father was gone, Donnie stepped into a father figure role without being asked to, and without looking for anything in return. I would often come to him for advice, guidance, and comfort in tough times and he never hesitated to help however he could.
Even moving forward past high school, Donnie and Shirley helped life move forward. They encouraged me to hand my academic information to the head coach at Duke University while competing at the senior national tournament in Virginia Beach, and I ended up being picked up by their program. Once I was picked up, Donnie, Shirley and my mother scrambled to help find ways to assist in my financial aid for school. And this is only one person’s story. They have helped, loved and mentored countless other individuals, including both of my brothers. They were an institution of Southern California wrestling for years, and have gone on to do the same now at the college level, where Donnie coaches at the University of the Cumberlands. My life has been immeasurably changed by their efforts and I still hold onto lessons they gave me to this day, as I start a family of my own with my wife, Taylor.”
Former WCHS CIF champion, Chris Armendariz: “Donnie and Shirley have impacted me on and off the mat. They didn’t just teach discipline and intensive training, they taught me composure and honor. I remember no matter how bad someone beat me on the mat, that I was taught to go over and shake the opponent’s and coach’s hand. Both of them taught me to be respectful to our rivals and their property (gyms get pretty dirty after a wrestling meet but our team was always cleaning after ourselves). They built trust that is so strong that you can compare only to your parents. That is how they built not just a team but a family.
They were always watching out for our best interest, even when we didn’t know it. My junior year, I remember getting letters from recruiters out of West Point and Boise that were mailed to my coach. I realized years later that Donnie and Shirley must have contacted those schools to let them know who I was. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about college. Both of them were doing more than just coaching us on the mat, but were setting up stepping blocks to a life after high school. With the help of Donnie and Shirley, I ended up going to UC Davis to wrestle. The one thing that many of us graduates leave with after being mentored by Donnie and Shirley, is that if you put your mind to something and believe in yourself, that you can accomplish anything. Our motto in 2007 was “Believe”. I still believe in myself whenever I have a goal to complete.”
Former WCHS CIF champion, Alex Carrico: “I had my dad and sister over this past weekend and I was explaining to them how the hardest thing I’ve ever done is wrestle for Donnie and Shirley. It literally made me the man I am today. The stories in the dark, reading the excerpts from the 300 book, standing shoulder to shoulder behind that curtain, in my eyes, I was going to battle with my brothers. There is no other time I’d rather go back to and live again. I wouldn’t change a thing, but I’d love to live it a second time. I changed a generation of my family and how life is supposed to be, and all of that is attributed to wrestling for Donnie and Shirley.”
Four-time WCHS state champion, Samantha Lopez: “Donnie and Shirley became more than coaches, they became family. A second pair of parents. I can’t count how many times they were there for me and not only just for wrestling. I can definitely say they helped shape me into the strong, disciplined person I am today. They were always in my corner and always believed in me, even when I doubted myself at times. I cant say that I was the only one behind those four state titles. It definitely took a village. They were there to encourage and push me no matter what. Donnie once told me something that has stuck with me till this day. “You aren’t always going to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and sometimes your going to have to get down and crawl.” No matter what life has thrown my way, I’ve always strived to be better and do better, and a lot of the discipline came from them. I’ll forever love them, and be grateful that wrestling brought them into my life.”
Former South Hills state champion, Thomas Williams: “Even though I was from their biggest rival, they treated me like I was part of their family. I don’t know many people if any that can say that about coaches of the rival school. After a tough loss, they would give me words of encouragement, and after a big win, they would always be there to give me a big hug. They are truly first class in the sport of wrestling. They had a huge impact on the sport in the area and their kids lives as well. I think they might have had the most kids or at least close to the most wrestlers in the area go on to wrestle at a four year college between my junior and senior years. They built that program into a powerhouse of tough kids that wrestled hard as hell and would fight you for every point. They were great at making tweaks and adjustments to their wrestlers’ strategy, which made my life a lot harder. Every time I stepped on the mat against someone from West Covina, I knew I was going to be in a dog fight.”
Longtime sports writer, Steve Ramirez: “During my time covering wrestling for the Tribune, there were basically four top programs in the area – Northview, West Covina, South Hills and Bishop Amat. West Covina’s strength was built on the culture that the Stephens’ established. Watching their wrestlers compete, you could tell they were not just good coaches from a technique point, but also giving their wrestlers the inner edge they needed to compete at elite levels. In all sports, it’s what separates the good from the great and the Stephens definitely brought that to their program. No matter who they lost to graduation, you knew each year they would be in the running for league and dual championships as a team and they’d have their fair share of individual CIF-SS division and masters champions and state qualifiers. They built that type of program.”
Former Northview CIF champion & CIF State placer, Steven De La Fuente: “They treated everyone like their own athletes, and in many ways, like family. Every time I saw them, they would greet me with a hug and say nothing but good things. I enjoyed watching them coach together. Shirley knew how to light a fire under her wrestlers and she reminded me of Coach Ochoa in the way they both yell and demand the attention of their program. They were always gracious in victory and defeat. They expected a lot out of their teams, but knew when a kid needed a hug after a tough loss. I think that’s what made them such a special group. To this day, when I come across past West Covina wrestlers, they talk about Donnie and Shirley like they are their parents, and that says everything you need to know about the commitment they made to their athletes.”
Former Covina coach & long time wrestling referee, Marc Haygood: “Donnie and Shirley were not only great coaches, but they were amazing second parents to the West Covina wrestlers. They would fight tooth and nail for not only their wrestlers, but really for all wrestlers. They were strict with their principles but the wrestlers always knew that there was true love behind the strictness. They have the ability to scold and then hug. They are wonderful coaches, parents and to me, long time friends.”
Two-sport WCHS star, Nick Field: “Donnie & Shirley created a family at WCHS. They created a winning culture, as well as an atmosphere of deep relationships that actually mattered, relationships that are still kept to this day.”
To view the photo gallery of Donnie & Shirley Stephens, click on the Facebook link here: (1) Facebook
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