Local prep coaches miss players, find silver linings from COVID-19

LCC football coach Sean Sovacool
(Ken Grosse)

High school coaches come in all shapes, sizes and styles. But when probing a group of nine area prep mentors about the personal and professional impact of COVID-19 and the shutdown of all campuses, including sports activities, it is apparent that they all have at least one thing in common—they love their teams. Since motivation is a key component in any coaching arsenal, it should probably come as no surprise they possessed the nearly universal point of view that plenty of positive that can be drawn locally from the predicament currently creating havoc worldwide.

But, first things first. The premise of the conversation with the coaching cluster was seeking reasons for optimism in the face of adversity. Yet unprompted first reactions inevitably focused on their teams, regardless of whether those questioned were veteran coaches, young to the profession, male, female, in-season or out-of-season. Here’s a quick sampling…

“I miss seeing my players, we’re a family,” said Carlsbad girls’ basketball coach Donna Huhn, a mother of four whose oldest daughter, Maddie, was her squad’s leading scorer this year as a freshman. “I miss those sounds—the kids, the gym, the games. It’s tough.”

“The hardest part was the sudden disconnect,” says La Costa Canyon boys’ basketball coach Dave Cassaw, who just completed his 21st season at the helm of the Mavericks. “Some of those things that become so routine, you find out quickly how much you miss them. I don’t always realize, on a consistent basis, how significant it is—seeing those kids, having those relationships.”

“As a coach, you get so into the kids on your team, trying to make them better every day,” professed San Dieguito girls’ lacrosse coach Chuck Kaczmarek, a 40-year veteran in the game. “Their attitudes are so fabulous and it’s great to be around that kind of good, positive energy every day.”

Canyon Crest head cross country/track & field coach Andy Corman who has the special opportunity to be home full-time with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and a four-week old son, still feels the tug of his campus clan. “Working with them, setting goals, building them up and seeing them achieve, that’s why I got into coaching,” he said. “That’s what I’m missing the most right now, that development and daily interacting with those kids.”

“I miss the connectivity,” explained LCC football coach Sean Sovacool, husband and father of three, whose 7-on-7 season was jettisoned along with a variety of other spring activities. “I’m a coach and a teacher because I love it. It’s fun to be around that population and there’s no way you can replace it wholesale. I think we all want to be with each other.”

Along with sharing thoughts like those above about their individual teams, the coaching collective addressed what they see as constructive outcomes of the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic as well as personal undertakings and interests they have found rewarding during the quarantine.

Jackie Turpin, head coach of Cathedral Catholic's 2020 CIF Open Division runner-up girls' basketball team.
(Ken Grosse)

Jackie Turpin (Head Girls’ Basketball Coach, Cathedral Catholic)

“For the kids, it’s a mandatory break, something they don’t always get—a chance to rest their legs, their bodies, hearts and minds. I believe it’s going to be great at the end. I’m lucky, surrounded by a bunch of kids who are super-hungry—basketball is hard for them sometimes but they enjoy it and I’m sure they miss it.

“Just like the kids, it’s a mandatory break for me. Everybody in the coaching fraternity is stopping and you get a kind of sanity. The athlete in me is constantly competing and trying to outwork opponents. Right now, we’re all on the same page. It’s special, being able to spend more time with family—dinners, conversations, just shared time.

“I’ve been taking some time to organize things like I couldn’t before, putting things all together. I’m anticipating that I’ll be the most organized that I’ve ever been come fall.

I’m also exploring other things that I haven’t had time for, like online classes, TED Talks, getting more tech savvy. I’m expanding, learning. My mom and I both signed up for a free online class through Yale University that focuses on happiness and a well-rounded life. It gets into what makes you, as an individual, happy. I never would have done that and one thing I’ve found is that family and friends are what really make me happy. Having those human connections, not stuff but shared moments. I realized that in some cases, I haven’t given family and friends my best. I think the conditions we’re facing right now helped to renew my understanding of that.”

Sean Sovacool (Head Football Coach, La Costa Canyon)

“There are a lot of benefits, starting with the fact that we’re being forced to learn different ways to do things which is always good—it’s testing our creative side. Through technology, we’re learning new educational platforms that were supplemental but are now primary. I think this will help down the road with our mobility as both teachers and coaches—it’s opened up some avenues that existed but we weren’t using.

“The quarantine has been great for our family. I’ve always taken pride in making family a priority but this has brought it to a new level. We’ve never spent so much time together. We have a big, extended family and are taking advantage of the opportunity to connect with them, re-connect with high school classmates, college teammates and get to better know other teachers I work with.

“I think I’ll leave this time with a better sense of appreciation for what we’ve had and hopefully will have again. I’m sure everyone will look at what was routine a little differently. And while I know our coaching staff will all be excited to get things re-started, I expect we’ll see a high level of buy-in and effort from all of our kids too.”

Chris Black, CCA boys' tennis coach
(Ken Grosse)

Chris Black (Head Boys’ Tennis Coach, Canyon Crest Academy)

“Our boys were so excited about the possibilities this year, particularly our seniors. For our team, one of the best things I’ve seen is the amazing perspectives they have and how quickly they’ve pivoted off what they’re missing and focused on opportunities this free time provides.

“I think this whole situation will ultimately reveal how we can be at our best. The whole country was galvanized after 9/11 and I foresee the same type of dynamic at work here.

“We can’t be with one another but people are finding unique, cool ways to get together and interact. There are always those who point out the negatives of technology but in this set of circumstances, it has allowed us to stay connected.

“Being with family (he has third grade triplets, identical twin girls and a boy) more has also been a big plus. I’ve talked with my team about using this break to try something you’ve always wanted to do, check something off your bucket list. Whether it’s playing the piano or writing a screenplay, take a shot at it. They could be learning to cook or do their own laundry, life skills that will be useful when they head off to college. Whatever it is, use this gift of time productively.”

First-year Torrey Pines field hockey coach Courtney Spleen
(Ken Grosse)

Courtney Spleen (Head Field Hockey Coach, Torrey Pines)

“One positive that’s come out of the social distancing initiative is that it’s given a lot of people, including our players, time that they’ve always asked for, just to take a step back from things,” says Spleen, who completed her first year leading the Falcons last fall. “I’ve been doing a lot more research on drills, game strategies and other things to implement when things get back to normal. I’ll have more time to get re-charged and the team will have that same time to renew their love of the game. When we’re back on line, I think the kids will be excited and focused.

“I’m also taking this chance to get started towards my teaching certificate. In May I’ll begin an online program through Alliant University to get a masters in education with a teaching credential.

“Going forward, I think this experience will push me to be more productive and make the most of my free time. I’m not taking that for granted like I might have in the past.”

LCC basketball coach Dave Cassaw, winner of four CIF titles.
(Ken Grosse)

Dave Cassaw (Head Boys’ Basketball Coach, La Costa Canyon)

“I think we’re going to emerge from this with a good re-set—both coaches and players—a better understanding of what we have the opportunity to do. We live real privileged lives and sometimes get caught up in the small details. Those things, like playing and coaching basketball, are not things we have to do. They are things we get to do. I think everyone’s going to come back with renewed energy. There’s a good possibility that in many ways this will eventually be seen as a huge positive.

“On a personal level, it’s been a good time to re-connect at a higher level with my family and kids. Spending that time has given me a better appreciation for what they mean to mean to me as well as for those things we have that are sometimes taken for granted.

“It has also given me a chance to sit back and really think a lot, both personally and professionally. I’ve been online following other coaches, done a lot of reading—studying different philosophies and methods—working on things that will make me a better teacher and coach. It’s also open a door for re-connecting with many of our alumni players.”

Two-time CIF Open Division champion girls' soccer coach Martyn Hansford of Torrey Pines.
(Ken Grosse)

Martyn Hansford (Head Girls’ Soccer Coach, Torrey Pines)

“This sort of re-emphasizes how good we’ve got it. When I wake up in the morning, I realize I’m better off than three-quarters of the people on the planet. I’ve always felt like that but a situation such as we have now makes you take stock of how fortunate we are to do what we do—coaching. That’s a brilliant thing, working with kids, exposing them to the game while increasing their skill level and enjoyment. It doesn’t get much better than that.

“My grandmother talked a lot about being in England and during the World War II bombings. Her message was always that ‘you can’t let something like that beat you down, it’s important to carry on.’ I shared some of those stories with my players because I think that applies to anything in life.

“I’ve been doing a lot of reading and right now it’s a book called ‘The Ball is Round.” It’s about soccer and the size of it makes the Bible look small. It ties together two of my interests, geopolitics and history, and centers on the development of football and how it has been used by different countries politically.

“This is kind of an unprecedented time and I’m trying to use the opportunity to better myself.”

Carlsbad girls' basketball coach Donna Huhn
(Ken Grosse)

Donna Huhn (Head Girls’ Basketball Coach, Carlsbad)

“Personally, the best part is that things have slowed down a little. Family dinners, card games, spending quality time with my fourth grader, those are all part of the daily schedule. I’ve found out that home schooling is not my forte but I’ve also taken time at night the last couple of weeks to watch a lot of film to see what I’m doing right and wrong. We can all grow and get better and I want try to take more accountability as a coach.

“I already knew it but this has underscored what an amazing Athletic Director (Amanda Waters) I have. She’s checked on my well-being and that of my family on a consistent basis and kept us informed so we know what’s happening. She goes above and beyond and is a great example for our staff and students. I recognize how fortunate I am to work for someone like her and be in the position I am. Going forward, I know I want to make sure I value my colleagues and express my appreciation at a higher level.”

Chuck Kaczmarek (Head Boys’ Lacrosse Coach, San Dieguito Academy)

“We started off 5-0 and were ranked 13th overall in the section so it was kind of tough to see that pulled away from the kids but assuming everybody stays healthy, they’ll have learned how to deal with a crisis and, hopefully, with this experience, do it way better in the future than we did this time around.

“I think our players will get a good lesson in vulnerability as well. You think you’re invincible until something like this happens. Just being exposed to the impact this has had around the world should make a person better understand how precious life is and the benefit of working together to come out stronger at the end. Kids are forced to grow up a little bit and find out that life is more fragile than they thought.

“On the lighter side, my house is a heck of a lot cleaner than usual and the yard looks pretty nice. Our family took the RV out to the desert (Borrego Springs) and got some serious solitude. I love being outside, out in nature. It was so beautiful, so quiet.”

CCA's Andy Corman took the Raven boys' track & field team to the 2019 CIF crown.
(Ken Grosse)

Andy Corman (Head Cross Country/Track & Field Coach, Canyon Crest Academy)

“It’s not the most ideal situation, but personally, having the family time is incredible. I get to stay home more which is special, especially with a two-and-a-half -year-old and a four-week-old in the house. I’ve been watching a lot of Disney movies so that I can learn and be up-to-date on all the scripts and lyrics.

“Professionally, as a teacher, you’re always forced to adapt, that’s one of the things that makes it so interesting. Any time you challenge yourself or face a challenge, you improve. I’ve been re-reading ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday. My athletes will probably laugh at that because I’ve pretty much taught them this book over the last four years. It stresses learning to control what you can control and how every obstacle can break you or help make you better—very appropriate today.

“These last few weeks have shown me that the next time I’m with my athletes and students, I’m going to take it a lot less for granted. The interactions are going to be different. Right now, we don’t know what, if anything, will happen. We’re like caterpillars who will turn into butterflies. We’re in a cocoon now. We’ll see what happens and hopefully come out bigger, better and stronger for this experience.”