By Linda Charlton
Early in 1993, editors of the very last yearbook for the very last year of existence for Clermont High School declared “they saved the best for last.” Could be they saved the best for the next generation, to look closely at an up and coming Central Florida athlete, and you might just find a Clermont Highlander in his or her family tree.
Clermont alum Jeff McLean connected the dots recently while on a trip back to Clermont. McLean himself is a Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee and is currently the athletic director at Merritt Island High. He points out that Drew Mendoza, 3rd Round draft pick this year by the Washington Nationals baseball team, and Mason Denaburg,1st round pick last year by the same major league team, are both sons of former stand-out Clermont High athletes. Drew is a 2016 graduate of Lake Minneola High and his mom is Rebecca Stokes Mendoza. Mason is a 2018 graduate of Merrit Island High, and his mom is Connie Schwartz Denaburg. Drew and Mason are both currently playing on minor league teams (in Hagerstown and Palm Beach, respectively)) under the Washington Nationals umbrella.
“Looks like the bloodline of Clermont High is supplying the future of the Nationals,” McLean quipped.
But it’s not just baseball. Taking a broader view, it does seem like the athletes of the old Clermont High are in a particularly strong position to raise fine athletes of their own. The old grads talk of a sense of community, a sense of team, and a very strong tradition of multi-sport participation.
Drew was a 2-sport star in baseball and basketball. Mason was a 2-sport star in football and baseball. Both moms report that recruiters were very pleased with the sons’ multi-sport experience, basically because it makes them better-rounded athletes.
Speaking of his mom’s influence, Drew says “she played a huge role in getting me involved with a lot of different sports when I was younger. She also played a lot of those sports with me growing up.”
Mason writes “my mom and dad have really helped me grow and just always have fun playing whatever sport I wanted. They always encouraged me to play multiple sports. My mom was very athletic when she was younger, so that’s where I credit my athleticism. I’m so thankful for all the love and support they give me, and all the guidance.”
Rebecca Mendoza’s sports in high school were volleyball, basketball, track and tennis. She points out that with a small school like Clermont, if the athletes all specialized, there’d be very few teams.
Ed Barton was a basketball coach at Clermont in the ’60s and ’70s, and gives some insight to the multi-sport cross-training world that was at the school.
“We were into physical fitness before the time of physical fitness,” Barton says. “It was ‘a mile a day keeps the doctor away.”
Barton credits athletic director/track coach Tom Perrin with building a dynamic track program, and also for fully embracing the JFK physical fitness challenge.
“Students were tested on it,” Barton recalls.
When Rebecca Mendoza looks back on her experiences at Clermont, what she remembers most is a strong sense of community. What she figures her children athletes got from her is a sense of “team.” (And by the way, Drew is not the only young athlete in the Mendoza family. Daughter Alexandra played volleyball in college and has been certified in sports yoga.)
“My dad graduated from Clermont High School in 1943,” Mendoza says. “I graduated in 1983. I live in the house my dad was born in. His college roommate became my high school tennis coach. At football games in Clermont, everybody you knew and your parents and your parents’ friends were there. If you were a bench warmer or a starter, it didn’t matter. If you won a big game, you were congratulated for a month. If you won a district championship at a high school level, those are memories you have your whole life. It’s a feeling of joy. It all comes down to a sense of community and playing a sport because you like it. Clermont, for a little school, had a lot of good athletes. People were pulling for you. No sniping, no jealousy factor. It was always “yay.”
Connie Schwartz Denaburg transferred to Clermont in her sophomore year, after moving down from Illinois. All four of her children are athletic. Most recently, daughter Lexi has gone off to UCLA on a beach volleyball scholarship.
Reflecting on her time at Clermont, Denaburg says “It was so welcoming. I never felt like an outsider.”
Like Mendoza, Denaburg’s high school sports were track, tennis, volleyball and basketball, but she does not consider herself a natural.
“I had to work really hard,” she says. “My kids are way better than I was.”
What she figures son Mason got from her is “the importance of family to support one another no matter what you play.”
Chanda Brodus Bush is a 1994 graduate of South Lake High, but she considers herself a Clermont Highlander. She was there at the end when it closed its doors forever in 1993. Her high school sports were basketball, volleyball and track. Son Robert Bush III is a sophomore at Lake Minneola, where he plays basketball and football. In him, she sees the excitement for sports that she routinely saw at Clermont. While she says she has to occasionally push him on the academics, she also says he will “definitely” go on to play in college.
“My family – it’s a no-excuse zone,” she says.
Bush’s high school experience was unusual for the time. She started out at the old Groveland High, where she played on the basketball team for a few months as a freshman. The girls’ basketball program folded when one of the five remaining members of the team was injured during a game. She was then recruited by the basketball coach at Clermont. She transferred over, and the Clermont coach would pick her up every day to get her to school.
“I loved Clermont,” Bush says. “Clermont was the best thing that happened to me in high school. It was a family. I was very nervous when I got there. I didn’t know anybody. It was a family. Back then we wanted to play, so we did whatever it took to do it. The teachers, they worked with us. We packed the gym. We were just that good and so excited.”
Clermont High and Groveland High were both shut down at the end of the 1992-93 school year, and students were transferred to the then-brand-new South Lake High School. The former Clermont High campus is now the site of Clermont Middle. The former Groveland High campus is now the site of Cecil B. Gray Middle.