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The way Foothill (Pleasanton) head softball coach Matt Sweeney reacted to the good news was pretty much par for the course for the old-school style coach and educator, and one of the greatest two-sport coaches in state history.
“Holy cow,” was the response of Sweeney when told he was being named the Cal-Hi Sports State Softball Coach of the Year. “Thank you for that honor but I don’t look at it as accolades for Matt Sweeney. It’s a result of my players. They performed all season.”
Under his tutelage, Sweeney’s players certainly did perform. This past season, Foothill went 28-0, the first time a team has ever gone 28-0 in CIF North Coast Section history, won a sixth NCS championship, the third with Sweeney at the helm, and a second in Division I in the past three seasons.
Along the way, Falcons are expected to finish No. 4 in the final ExtraInningSoftball.com national rankings and were No. 2 in the Cal-Hi Sports final expanded Top 40 rankings.
The team was led by Ms. Softball State Player of the Year finalist and Oklahoma-committed junior pitcher and slugger Nicole May and her fellow junior and battery mate Courtney Beaudin.
With his selection as the top softball coach in the state, Sweeney becomes the sixth coach from the CIF North Coast Section to win the State Coach of the Year award since it first was awarded in 1974, and a winner from the NCS for the second straight season after Teresa Mayes-Borchard from Foothill’s crosstown arch-rival Amador Valley was the 2018 recipient. The first NCS honoree was 1979 winner Barbara Weding of Santa Rosa Montgomery.
“That’s some very select company,” was Sweeney’s response to being told who he had joined from the NCS. “There have been a lot of great coaches and great teams out there.”
Sweeney never won the State Coach of the Year for football, but when he retired at the end of the 2015 season he had amassed 265 wins for No. 3 all-time in NCS history. His teams won back-to-back NCS titles twice, in 1993-1994 and again in 1999-2000. His Falcon teams were never able to beat legendary private school De La Salle of Concord, but in 2015 his boys won an amazing 55-54 NCS Division I semifinal match-up with Antioch and current Alabama running back Najee Harris to get to 12-0, before falling to De La Salle in the championship game.
Cal-Hi Sports doesn’t track combined coaching wins for just two sports, but for all sports, and while several coaches are over 1,000 combined wins, Sweeney is near a very magic number, particularly with football having less than half the games of other sports, and particularly with what he recently went through personally that we’ll chronicle a little further into his saga.
When Foothill won the NCS Division I softball title this season with a 2-0 victory over Heritage of Brentwood, it was career coaching win No. 230 for Sweeney in softball. That means when the Falcons win game No. 5 next season the wily veteran will have 500 combined wins for softball and football.
Sweeney already would be at 500 combined wins, but when his daughter Kelly graduated and went off to Boise State, Sweeney took a hiatus from coaching softball starting with the 2011 season and with no expectations about coming back.
Move forward to the winter of 2012. In the two seasons after he stopped coaching, the team went 10-38 and lost the coach that replaced Sweeney.
That’s when Foothill athletic director Dusty Collins, himself an award-winning girls volleyball coach this season, reached out to Sweeney.
“It was November of 2012 and they didn’t have a coach, and it was getting close to the season,” Sweeney remarked. “That’s when Dusty asked me to come back.”
“Originally my plan was to transition the team to a coach for the long haul, but we went 5-19 in 2013 and we were bad, and didn’t know how to win and compete,” continued Sweeney. “I didn’t want to go out that way.”
Sweeney had five freshmen on that team, including Jenna Crawford, the little sister of San Francisco Giants star Brandon Crawford (who Sweeney coached in football and who helped him be a “Ball Dude” during one Giants’ game), and current Missouri pitcher Nalani Scates. So he stuck around and with the help of those two and the other freshmen things turned around.
“We went 16-6 in 2014, 18-8 in 2015 and in 2016 we were 21-4 and lost 1-0 (in eight innings) to Freedom (Oakley) in the NCS D1 title game,” Sweeney said. “Those girls put Foothill back on the map and then the next year Nicole (May) came in.”
Since May has been the Falcons’ centerpiece, the team has gone 78-8 in the past three seasons. She still has one more year to go.
While being honored as the State Coach of the Year is good news, the news Sweeney got three and a half years ago was anything but good.
Not long after he decided to stop coaching football in 2015, he was diagnosed in February of 2016 with throat cancer just as the softball team began practicing in earnest.
Sweeney could easily have walked away from coaching again and no one would have batted an eye.
“I asked the doctor if I would be able to coach and he chuckled and said I’d be out of work three to six weeks,” Sweeney said. “So, I had surgery the first week of March and missed a week of school. Then I set up my treatments during non-school hours every day for seven weeks and was able to get to softball practice.”
“Some people made the assumption I was going to stop coaching,” Sweeney continued. “But that’s not me. I never thought about walking away. Cancer was not going to stop me from coaching.”
Not only that, but despite difficulty swallowing and eating that caused a weight loss, Sweeney had to see the 2013 team he started get through its senior season.
“Coaching those girls is what kept me going and gave me my motivation,” said Sweeney fighting back tears. “I get choked up thinking about that year. Those girls were what kept me coming to work each day. They kept me motivated. When the doctor told me I would do better if I kept up my day to day activities I took that and ran with it.”
Coaching has been in Sweeney’s blood for a long time.
The 59-year old Sweeney is a Pleasanton native and graduated from Amador Valley in 1978 where he was a defensive back in football and a third and second baseman in baseball. From there, he went to St. Mary’s College where not only did he play defensive back in football and scrum halfback in rugby, but met his wife of 34 years, Trish, a former basketball and softball player.
“Rugby was what Matt Sweeney was all about,” Sweeney said. “Rugby is a total team sport that’s completely unselfish and where you have to be in total shape.”
Rugby may be what Sweeney is all about, but football molded him into the coach he was on the gridiron and is today on the softball field, and the beginnings of it started at an early age.
“I’ve known from the time I was a little kid I wanted to be a coach,” remarked Sweeney. “In every sport I played I always had a plan. Coaching football is about developing a plan, studying the other team and breaking down film, and it seemed to come easy to me.”
So how does this 2019 softball team compare to some of the other teams he’s coached at Foothill where he’s taught for 36 years and currently teaches US History and Global Studies?
The 2015 Falcons football team that featured current Fresno State quarterback Ben Wooldridge is at the top of the list followed by three other football teams from 1994, 2000 and 2006.
The 2007 softball team he coached in his second year at the Foothill helm and the 2019 team are next, but it’s hard for Sweeney to separate the two.
“That 2007 team was stacked, just like this year’s team,” Sweeney said.
The 2007 team featured the great Valerie Arioto, who became a big star at Cal and is now coaching at the University of Southern Florida, and is still a member of the USA Softball National Team and considered one of the best players in the country.
Along with Arioto, the 2007 team had five other players that went on to the next level. Infielder Amy Crawford, another younger sister of Brandon Crawford, played at UCLA, Sweeney’s daughter Kelly, infielder Lauren Gandy played at Biola, outfielder Alissa Murphy went on to San Jose State, and infielder Kelly Wolfe played at Chico State.
Besides May and Beaudin, who recently was offered by UCLA, the 2019 team had Pittsburg-bound shortstop Hope Alley, Boise State-signed infielder Hailey Hayes and Morgan State-committed infielder Ellen Ebbers.
As for the two superstars, in this era of high school softball in California, May might or might not be as dominant as Arioto was as a high schooler, as May did not face the kind of competition this year the 2007 team faced. In 2007, the 26-3 Falcons stubbed their toe early in the season against a solid California team they later beat twice in East Bay Athletic League play, and the other two losses came against Archbishop Mitty and Keilani Ricketts, who many consider to be one of the greatest pitchers and sluggers ever in girls softball.
“If the 2007 and 2019 teams played each other, it could be a 15-inning duel between Val and Nicole,” Sweeney said. “A little spinning ball cued off the bat for an infield hit probably would be the difference.”
Sweeney has been coaching in some way, shape or form in football and softball since 1986, so at some point he obviously has to be contemplating retiring. He’ll be eligible for retirement in January when he turns 60, and like before when he stepped aside but came back, the wheels are turning again.
“I’ve always told myself if I’m not teaching at Foothill I won’t coach,” responded Sweeney when asked about his retirement plans. “I have to go to 60 but I haven’t decided after that. If I’m teaching at Foothill I’ll coach.”
With May and her Falcons’ crew returning for the 2020 season, the expectations will be very high for Foothill based on this season’s accomplishments, but for Sweeney, who will see his second class through graduation since coming off his two-year hiatus, he’s already done more than just about every high school coach could ever dream of accomplishing.
Now, after proving himself to be at the top of the coaching ranks in both football and softball, the cherry on top of the sundae is his being named the Cal-Hi Sports girls softball State Coach of the Year.
All-Time List Cal-Hi Sports
State Softball Coaches Of The Year
2019 – Matt Sweeney, Pleasanton Foothill (28-0)
2018 – Teresa Mayes-Borchard, Pleasanton Amador Valley (23-5-1)
2017 – Mike Noel, Clovis (25-6)
2016 – Judy Shaubach, Madera (26-7)
2015 – Margaret Neill, Lancaster Paraclete (27-4)
2014 – Margaret Mauro, San Diego Cathedral Catholic (29-3)
2013 – Mike Smith, Chino (26-2)
2012 – Rick Robinson, Norco (30-2)
2011 – Scott Smith, Hollister San Benito (29-1)
2010 – Teri Johnson, Union City James Logan
2009 – Tony Dobra, San Pedro (28-4)
2008 – Duane Zauner, Lake of the Pines Bear River (29-3)
2007 – Mary Jo Truesdale, Sacramento Sheldon
2006 – John Perez, Corona Santiago (26-5)
2005 – Art Banks, Roseville Woodcreek (28-6)
2004 – Pete Ackermann, Westlake Village Oaks Christian (34-1)
2003 – Rob Weil, Garden Grove Pacifica (31-2)
2002 – Brad Griffith, San Diego Mira Mesa (35-1)
2001 – Gary Walin, Thousand Oaks (24-5)
2000 – Jo Ann Byrd, Corona (28-4)
1999 – Jim Liggett, Belmont Carlmont (35-4)
1998 – Joe Given, Salinas Notre Dame (30-2-1)
1997 – Alan Dugard, Irvine Woodbridge (34-2)
1996 – Nancy Acerrio, Chula Vista Hilltop (27-2)
1995 – Marie Dean, Fremont Washington (27-0)
1994 – Joe Gonzalez, Tustin Foothill (25-7)
1993 – Jill Matyuch, Covina Charter Oak (29-0-1)
1992 – Jeff Carlovsky, Escondido (26-2)
1991 – Kevin Newman, San Jose Gunderson (33-2)
1990 – Susie Calderon, Huntington Beach Marina (28-5)
1989 – Sharon Coggins, Ventura Buena (28-2)
1988 – Rich Kerr, San Lorenzo Arroyo (29-1)
1987 – Bob Regpala, Stockton Lincoln (30-0)
1986 – Dick Barnes, El Monte Arroyo (22-1)
1985 – Neils Ludlow, Woodland Hills El Camino Real (19-0)
1984 – Aaron Ishikawa, Stockton Lincoln (37-1)
1983 – Carol Hamilton, San Diego Madison (23-1)
1982 – Rich Spiekerman, Lodi (29-3)
1981 – Leslie Steffen, Hanford (20-4)
1980 – Bob Bush, Santa Maria Righetti (29-0)
1979 – Barbara Weding, Santa Rosa Montgomery (26-1)
1978 – Peggy Linville, Fairfield Armijo (23-0)
1977 – Betsy Ward, Huntington Beach Marina (17-0)
1976 – Janet Balsley, Chula Vista Hilltop (17-0)
1975 – Sally Carmen, Downey Warren (19-1)
1974 – Sandi Behrmann, El Segundo (undefeated)
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend