High School Sports
Column

Are overbearing parents ruining the Westlake baseball program?

Eric Sondheimer
Contact ReporterVarsity Times Insider

In Westlake Village, where the median home price is $930,400, there has been a saga taking place at the local high school that has lasted seemingly as long as some TV soap operas. It keeps producing story lines that make outsiders cringe in disbelief and laugh in amusement.

It was 1985 when Mike McCurdy resigned after one season as baseball coach at Westlake High. He says administrative disagreement was a primary reason to seek employment elsewhere. Since then, there have been 11 head baseball coaches at Westlake who have either resigned or were fired, the latest last week when Rocco Cascione, hired last summer, was dismissed before even coaching in his first varsity game.

Through the years, one coach resigned after being attacked by a parent. Another coach was fired after parents discovered his resume had inaccurate information. Another resigned seven games into the season, citing "personal health reasons." A principal memo obtained under the California Public Records Act later revealed the coach had been sending inappropriate text messages to a player. Another coach resigned after a parent alleged financial improprieties.

Last summer, Billy Ashley, a former Dodgers outfielder, stepped down after three seasons, saying he had lost his passion because of conflicts with parents and his failure to change the program's culture.

"A lot of parents can't let go," Ashley said this week. "They believe their sons are going to be the next major star in baseball."

Ashley left for Malibu High, where he said his players are "more coachable."

"Let us do our job," Ashley said.

As if dealing with the baseball program isn't enough of a distraction, first-year Westlake Principal Jason Branham announced this week that basketball coach Rob Bloom had been dismissed. Bloom is the coach who filed a $1-million libel suit in 2014 against a former player's parent. The suit was dismissed last year by a judge who ruled emails criticizing the coach were protected free speech.

It seems pretty clear that Westlake parents are not inclined to sit quietly on the sideline when they feel something is wrong.

Jeff Davis, who spent seven years as director of secondary schools for the Conejo Valley Unified School District, said, "The amount of parental phone calls we got regarding athletics were more from Westlake than the other two high schools [Newbury Park and Thousand Oaks]."

In an interview on Tuesday in his office, Branham insisted that Westlake parents were no more likely to have disputes with coaches than anywhere else.

"Our parents have always been and continue to be supportive of our athletic programs," Branham said.

Lisa Magorien, an assistant principal at West Hills Chaminade, spent the 2001-02 school year as athletic director at Westlake.

"I remember saying, 'This is going to be great, I'm a former athlete, I'm going to be cheering for the kids,'" she said. "I didn't realize most of my time was going to be [spent] dealing with upset parents and coaches. 'Why is my child not playing? Why is he not on varsity? Why is the coach doing that?' It was putting out fires."

Andrew Yellen, a Northridge-based sports psychologist, said coaches need to develop effective ways of communicating with parents.

"There's an old African saying, 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,''' he said. "If they are an integral part of the team and involved, they're going to be more open and receptive to alternatives."

Westlake has never won a Southern Section baseball title since it opened in 1978, but it has sent numerous players to college programs and the pros, including the likes of Mike Lieberthal and Christian Yelich. It lost in championship games in 1998 and 2001 when Chuck Berrington was coach. Berrington was the school's longest serving baseball coach — seven years. He abruptly resigned in 2002.

"I got attacked by a parent, they did nothing about it and I left," he said.

There's always a balancing act among coaches, parents and administrators. Coaches want to lead, parents want their children to succeed and administrators want both sides to get along. When conflicts arise, sides are taken. In this era of year-round training, constant fundraising and increasing numbers of walk-on coaches, the pressure, scrutiny and expectations keep rising.

Branham said there were protocols in place for parents to express themselves.

"We're not going to release a coach because of a parent complaint," he said.

But the long history of conflicts involving parents and coaches at Westlake indicates something needs to be fixed.

John Burtzloff, a former Westlake assistant, was hired this week to be the interim baseball coach and the 13th coach to run the program since 1985.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSondheimer

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 26, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Overbearing parents could be ruining Westlake athletics" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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