Big Shoes To Fill : New Ladycat Coach Feels Pressure, but Dynasty Not Likely to Fall
Jeff Sink had been on the job fewer than three months--basketball practice hadn’t even begun--and his three words already spoke volumes about what it is to be the girls’ basketball coach at Brea Olinda High School.
He was asked when he first felt the pressure of taking over the program.
He replied, “The first day.”
You walk into the gymnasium and see the five State championship banners hanging on the wall above the retired jerseys. There’s one banner for five of the past six years, including the last four. You can’t miss them, nor can you miss the inherent expectations.
Your office is underneath the banners. And every time you go inside, you are reminded of the tradition that comes with Ladycat basketball at Brea Olinda because there are five State championship plaques above your desk.
Before you arrived at Brea as its coach, you saw last year’s unbeaten team play. It finished ranked No. 1 in the nation. You are reminded of this. Often.
The pressure--real or imagined--is always there.
Sink is in his office, returning a reporter’s phone call. Practice doesn’t start until Monday, but the subject of his success at Fairbanks (Alaska) Lathrop comes up. While winning two state titles and reaching the final four the last seven seasons, he compiled a record of 172-73 in 14 seasons.
“But it isn’t Southern California basketball,” he said. “In my mind, I haven’t done anything yet.”
Sink is no dummy. Over the same 14-season span, Brea was 387-45.
Sink is Brea’s third coach in three years, and other area coaches concede that the Ladycat program might be the only one in the county that could survive such turnover.
Mark Trakh is the one credited with developing the Ladycats into a national power. Under his direction, the feeder program, the Polcats, was established. And under his direction from 1980-93, Brea won its first four State titles.
Trakh made the jump from high school to college, leaving for Pepperdine last year. Longtime assistant John Hattrup took over. After enduring immense pressure to win the State title--all five starters returned from the previous year--Hattrup resigned at season’s end, having coached Brea to a 33-0 record and the No. 1 national ranking; he left saying he had done all there is to do at the high school level.
Now comes Sink, an outsider.
Said junior Kiyoko Miller, who has played for all three: “I think there’s pressure on the coaches, especially when they’re new. They have to live up to what Coach Trakh did and what Coach Hattrup did, and that’s not fair. . . . What Coach Hattrup and Coach Trakh did has nothing to do with how Coach Sink does things.”
Sink’s style at practice is more relaxed than his predecessors’. He laughs. He wants the girls to laugh. He is not a taskmaster. As one player put it, “Basketball isn’t a job.” Then again, this team winning a State title is not a given, an all-or-nothing proposition.
Then again, this isn’t just any other team or any other program. Sink’s inheritance was a cupboard that wasn’t bare, but wasn’t filled with the fine china, either.
Although Brea wasn’t expected to reach the final of the prestigious Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, its only loss came in the championship game; the Ladycats were expected to be good--even very good by county standards--but few expected them to be this good.
“I like the game to be fun, for them to play the game with joyful countenance,” Sink said, sounding more the preacher than the coach. “Sometimes I get frustrated too easily because we accomplish so much and then don’t feel as good about it as I think we should.”
Brea already has accomplished plenty under Sink. The Ladycats (15-1) are underdogs to win another section title--much less a State title--this season, written off because of youth, but they are ranked third in the overall state rankings by Cal-Hi Sports.
“It is a good year to be a transition coach,” said Sink, a Southern California native. “They have good young talent back, they have the tradition, and most important, Bill Lentini and John Joslin (who coach the feeder program, the Polcats do such a great job of identifying and preparing talent.
“As I applaud their efforts, I am overwhelmed with the finesse and style and vision of Mark Trakh. He put all these elements in place, and that’s why this program is studied as a way to build a championship-level program; allthese elements work together. My role is fairly insignificant.”
Maybe not that insignificant. It would be a crime for this program to go into the tank; the Ladycats are practically an institution, and Sink was given charge of it.
“I need to be so thorough,” he said. “Before the Woodbridge game, Tony (Matson, the assistant coach) and I probably spent seven hours thinking about the game. Apparently, it didn’t do us any good.”
Few schools have such grandiose expectations. It’s not enough to win, but how well you play in doing so. Brea’s recent lackluster 41-33 victory over El Dorado is a perfect example.
“The pressure has a life of its own,” Sink said. “I’m not Mr. Popularity after the way we played El Dorado; we won, we improved to 13-1, and we all went away feeling miserable. It’s not a good feeling at Brea when you don’t play up to expectations, given the talent and the history of the program. It’s always tough; you’ve got to play well.”
He has dealt with the typical coaching brush-fires, second-guessing by parents who believe their daughters should be stars or playing more often, and boosters who offer plenty of free advice--some of it even good, Sink concedes. But Sink said the perception that the strong booster program is meddlesome is inaccurate.
“In a program that stresses excellence, everyone wants to be involved, whether it’s a booster, parent or casual bystander,” he said. “Everyone has an opinion.
“Boosters who don’t have kids in the program have a very grounded, very positive outlook on things and they’ve been very supportive . . . (and they’ve) been a buffer. There’s probably more second-guessing going on than I know about, but there’s a support group that keeps that in check.”
But they can’t keep the internal pressure in check. Even if the boosters aren’t applying the pressure, Sink is, simply because of what’s at stake.
“There’s more commitment here (than in Alaska) on the part of the parent, the booster and the kid,” he said. "(As a parent) you showcase your youngster, you send them to AAU games in Kentucky and to camp for five or six weeks--you have big dollars invested. Consequently, their expectations are quite high. There is lots of pressure; the boosters and parents are vocal, and the community support is just mind-boggling to me--you get 400 fans traveling to an away game to watch us in Santa Barbara.
“They’re demanding and they want to know what you’re doing, but they’ve been very supportive of me and they’ve been very fair.”
But admittedly, it can be threatening to an outsider trying to prove he belongs.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “when you hire a person from Alaska, there’s a credibility issue.”
But he has at least one supporter whose opinion should probably count for something.
“I’m really sold on this guy,” said Trakh, who met Sink about a year ago. “I’m sincere--he’s a great coach, a great teacher. He’s very diplomatic. I think the program is in very good hands and it’s going to continue. He’s going to lose a couple of games this year, but next year they’ll be good.”
As in, even better.
The Ladycats lost three starters off their 1994 championship team, including state player of the year Nicole Erickson. Brea hasn’t lost a game to an Orange County team since March 3, 1987, in overtime, against Katella, 59-56, in the Southern Section semifinals. Brea’s first game of the 1994-95 season is still a week away.
Reporter: “If somebody’s going to beat you, this is the year to do it.”
Sink: “They better strike while the iron is hot.”
Sink dresses as if he’s got a court appearance, looks more like Robert Shapiro than Red Auerbach, and gives every indication the game is as much cerebral as it is physical, a chess match with pawns and Nikes.
On Dec. 23 in the title game of the Tournament of Champions, Sink decided to forgo the full-court press against Woodbridge because he suspected Woodbridge expected it. He wanted to find out what would happen if the undersized Ladycats let Woodbridge play its half-court game, which appeared to be courting suicide.
It was. Brea’s county-record 65-game winning streak ended that night, 51-33, after posting victories on consecutive nights over Atherton Sacred Heart and Fresno Clovis West--ranked sixth and seventh, nationally.
The new guy lost, but Sink was unfazed, knowing the Ladycats will probably get another shot at Woodbridge in the State Division II playoffs and won’t be emotionally drained from playing two of the nation’s best teams the previous two nights.
“Here at Brea,” he says, “I think you play for CIF and State titles and everything else is just preparation.”
Sink, 43, plays up the “new guy” persona, the country hick who doesn’t know a lick. Maybe it’s part of his charm. But he’s plenty competitive, and exerts an athlete’s confidence without crossing over into arrogance.
He’s a distance runner, not a basketball player (“There are 10 girls in this program who could take me to the basket every time”) who has a definite game face that belies his honors history teacher demeanor; he emphasized the need to press a full 32 minutes against El Dorado by telling his team, “We need to take them by their throat and rip it out early,” with all the calm of explaining the Louisiana Purchase.
He grew up in La Canada, attended USC and took a massive pay cut to return to Southern California so he and his wife of 19 years, Cathy, and son Ian, 13, could be closer to relatives.
“It’s been a stressful move,” he said. “You come a long way (and) uproot your family--I had grown quite comfortable. That’s been the hardest thing--the comfort zone has been changed; I was a fat cat in Alaska. People knew what to expect, knew what kind of program I ran, and the parents that didn’t like it didn’t send their kids there. You get that way after several years of performance. Now it’s like getting hit with something and you wake up and you realize that you’re starting over.
“I hope this is the last place I coach. Like I told (the hiring committee) at the interview, ‘When I die, I hope they stuff me and throw me into the trophy case.’ ”
Brea will have three starters back next season, Miller, Jennifer Saari and Marissa Bradley; according to Sink, the sophomore class “is phenomenal” and the freshman class is “very good"--the junior varsity won its 102nd consecutive game on Thursday. There’s also a “seventh-grade class I can’t believe” at Brea Junior High.
Sink wants to attend the national tournaments that will continue to gain Brea national attention.
“Win or lose,” he said, “that’s where it’s at.
“I can’t see myself making any radical changes. I think kids that play at this level should be showcased (and) I think they should be culturally enriched. . . . But for the most part, your goal is to be successful and produce well-rounded young people and get as many into a college program as possible.”
Sink stands on the baseline after practice. Half the Ladycats are engaged in a shoot-around, half are giggling, trying to play a joke on an assistant coach.
“You gain credibility as the years go by,” Sink says. “I’ll probably never be as comfortable here because of the pressure, the schedule and the demands of the program. But look at these kids--they play hard and with such intensity, yet they laugh and have a good time. Who wouldn’t want to coach here?”