Rainer Wulf, boys’ basketball coach at Trabuco Hills High School, had played the game for so long that he never thought about coaching it. This was a game he played, not one he analyzed.
He spent hours as a youngster shooting in a tiny recreation gym in Monterey Park, often staying until the lights were finally turned out at 10 p.m.
He traveled throughout Southern California playing for a youth all-star team, winning 162 games in three seasons.
He earned All-Southern Section honors at Bishop Amat High School, was a two-year starter at Citrus College and was among Bill Mulligan’s first recruiting class at UC Irvine in 1980-81. He was Irvine’s captain the next season.
Once his college career was over, Wulf played professionally in Australia for a season.
“I played for so long, it was all I ever did,” Wulf said. “Heck, I never thought about coaching. I never thought about skiing or anything else except playing basketball.”
Well, Wulf, 29, is now coaching with equal success the game he played so well. Wulf will lead Trabuco Hills into the state Division III boys’ championship game against Central Valley at 12:45 p.m. Saturday at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
Although Wulf was unable to foresee his transition from player to coach, many of those who have followed his career figured all along that he was destined for the seat at the end of the bench.
Mike Bokosky saw the signs during Wulf’s two seasons at UC Irvine. Bokosky and Wulf arrived at Irvine the same season, Bokosky as Mulligan’s top assistant and Wulf among six junior college transfers recruited by Mulligan.
The two became best friends and lived together for seven years until Wulf recently bought a condominium in Mission Viejo.
“He was always so well organized and very diligent,” Bokosky said. “Whether he realized it or not at the time, he was exposed to some great coaches like Boyd Grant and Jerry Tarkanian. Rainer was very well-rounded when he graduated from here.”
Russ Boenker, one of Wulf’s first coaches and now one of his assistants at Trabuco Hills, first saw him and his friend, Alex Acosta, in elementary school. He invited them to play for his traveling team, the Monterey Park Monarchs.
“Those two played football, basketball and baseball and never lost,” Boenker said. “They always played a grade or two up. When they were in the third grade, they were playing on fifth-grade teams.
“I always knew Rainer was going to be successful at anything he did. He has a great family background and is an intelligent guy who has the ability to use his smarts.”
But Boenker, who owns a dry cleaners and delicatessen in Tustin, says he never imagined the current coaching scenario.
“That’s one I never saw down the road,” he said. “I always envisioned Rainer as a college player and someday a coach, but I never thought I would be assisting him.”
Wulf’s introduction to coaching came as a graduate assistant under Mulligan in 1983. He said it was at that time that he started thinking about a coaching career. He spend a second season with Mulligan, then signed on as an assistant to Steve Scoggins at University High for the 1984-85 season.
But he wasn’t quite ready to call it a career as a player. Wulf signed with a team in Lithgon, Australia, for $1,500 a month and developed into one of the league’s top players, averaging 29 points and 13 rebounds per game.
“It was a great situation with one season ending and the other starting,” Wulf said. “I had a lot of fun and the people were great to me in Australia.”
But after a season in Australia, Wulf knew he wanted to coach. He applied for the varsity position at San Clemente in June of ’86 but ended up the second choice. The same thing happened at Irvine in May of ’87.
“I wasn’t discouraged,” he said. “The interviews were a learning process. The second one at Irvine was a piece of cake. . . . Everything went great, but they were really impressed with Steve Keith.”
Undaunted, Wulf went to a coaching clinic in Las Vegas. When he returned a few days later, he learned of an opening at Trabuco Hills.
“The timing was almost perfect,” he said. “It was my job.”
Wulf inherited a program in its third season on a campus with three permanent buildings--administration, science and gymnasium. Wulf and Trabuco Hills would quietly grow together.
No one envisioned a school in only its fourth year of existence with a second-year coach qualifying for a state championship game. At one point last December, Wulf had his doubts after consecutive losses in the Canyon tournament.
“It was the low point of the season,” he said. “We had a team meeting, and I told the players we have a guy (center Rick Swanwick) shooting 60% and taking only 12 shots. We’ve got others shooting under 45% taking as many shots.
“I had to convince the guards that if they threw the ball inside to Rick more, they would score more. Rick had become a victim of his previous seasons. It took the others a while to believe that Rick had really improved, that he was a player.”
Wulf said during the course of the meeting that he flashed back to his playing days at UC Irvine and a similar team meeting under Mulligan.
“Mulligan told us to get the ball to (center Kevin) Magee or we would sit,” Wulf said. “I told my team basically the same thing, although I didn’t use the exact same language.”
Trabuco Hills responded by winning 21 of its past 22 games, and Wulf is now being heralded as one of the top young coaches in Southern California.
Boenker credits Wulf’s organizational skills and preparation in Trabuco Hills’ championship season. Bokosky says Wulf’s ability to get the maximum from his players and their trademark of playing hard with intelligence has been impressive.
Acosta, his longtime friend for 24 years and now coaching at Bishop Amat, looks back at his youthful days with Wulf and never doubted they would be successful.
“I always knew we would be OK,” he said. “I got the greatest feeling watching Russ and him in the Sports Arena. He came to all my playoff games last year, and I know he felt the same way.”