Hopefully there will never be another high school basketball season like the one the Coronavirus ended prematurely, but nonetheless the awards go on, and despite falling just short of qualifying for the CIF Open Division state championship, this year’s State Coach of the Year is unquestionably one of the top coaches in the state and her resume more than qualifies her for this year’s honor. It’s just the right season to get her on the all-time state list.
For our post on each of the divisional girls basketball State Coaches of the Year, CLICK HERE.
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There is little questioning the success of Windward of Los Angeles head coach Vanessa Nygaard since she took the Wildcats’ helm at the start of the 2012-2013 season, and while this past season did not result in a section, regional, or CIF state championship, it was still a great season for a team with some questions to start the campaign but one in which Nygaard guided to a 27-6 record and a runner-up finish in both the CIF Southern Section Open Division and CIF Southern Regional Open Division playoffs.
The result is that after getting edged out for the award in 2018 when her team captured the CIF Open Division state title, Nygaard has been named the 2019-2020 Cal-Hi Sports State Coach of the Year for girls basketball.
“Oh wow. That’s great. Thank you,” was the initial reaction of Nygaard when told she was being honored.
“I’m humbled and honored to receive this award,” continued Nygaard. “It’s a great honor to be recognized alongside a lot of great coaches but it’s a testament to the players I’ve had.”
After finishing at No. 4 in last year’s final rankings, this year’s team started out at No. 9 in the preseason rankings after having lost 2018 Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year and 2019 finalist Charisma Osborne plus other senior talent.
Windward was expected to be good with Gonzaga-bound senior McKayla Williams and talented junior Michelle Duchemin returning but the reason the Wildcats started out a little low was because no one knew how good freshman Juju Watkins would be, and she’s everything all the analysts cracked her up to be.
After all was said and done, Nygaard orchestrated the assembled pieces and her girls got it all together and not only bettered the preseason ranking but last year’s final ranking as well after finishing No. 3 in this season’s final rankings.
We’ll get to all the girls and their contributions to the Wildcats’ success this season but his story is about Nygaard and she has a very impressive resume.
The saga began when as a 6-foot senior center on the 1992-93 Carlsbad Lancers Nygaard was named to the Cal-Hi Sports All State First Team and was one of the highest-rated players in the CIF San Diego Section for the 1990s.
From there, Vanessa went on to Stanford where she had a sparkling five-year career on The Farm for Cardinals’ teams that went 112-14 overall during her time there. Nygaard also was on four Pac-10 championship teams that went 69-2 in conference play. She played on three teams that made it to the Final Four, was named to the All Pac-10 team and All Pac-10 Academic Team in 1998, and in the same year she was named an Honorable Mention All-American.
After graduating from Stanford, she went on to play in the WNBA for six seasons starting with the New York Liberty and then with stints for the Cleveland Rockers, Portland Fire, Miami Sol, and then ending as a member of the 2003 Western Conference champion Los Angeles Sparks. She also played three years in International Leagues in Germany, Spain and Italy.
After retiring as a player, Nygaard started her coaching career as an assistant on the Western Conference champion San Antonio Silver Stars before landing a job as an assistant at Long Beach State where she spent five years.
The 2012-2013 team she inherited at Windward had gone deep into the D4 SoCals the previous season and Nygaard never missed a beat. That first year and the first in two 30-win seasons, she brought the Wildcats to Haas Pavilion at Cal Berkeley after the first of three CIF Southern Regional championships only to have a dream unbeaten season ended at 32-1 in a loss to Bishop O’Dowd in the Open Division title game.
Vanessa’s 2013-2014 team went 26-3 and bowed out in the Southern Regional Open semifinals. Her 2014-2015 team is the only one of her eight with double-digit losses but even so the Wildcats went 22-10 and lost in the SoCal D1 semifinals. The 2015-2016 squad had a 20-7 record with State Freshman of the Year and current UCLA guard Charisma Osborne leading the team to a Southern Regional Open first round loss.
In 2016-2017, Nygaard had her second 30-win season after Windward went 30-4 and she delivered her second CIF Southern Regional title and first state championship. Osborne and crew led Windward to the CIF Division I state championship after a 53-41 victory over Sacramento McClatchy in the first year games were played at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
The 2017-2018 team was 27-3 and went all the way to a third CIF Southern Regional championship and the ultimate prize when Windward defeated Pinewood, 58-47, in the CIF Open Division state title game. Osborne would go on to be named Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year.
Last season, the Wildcats delivered a fifth Southern Section championship in Nygaard’s eight years with a victory over Gold Coast League arch rival Sierra Canyon, only to lose to the eventual state champion in the Southern Regional Open title game.
Besides all the section, regional and state championships, as quiet as its kept, when the Wildcats pinned a 70-50 loss on visiting Cal-Hi Sports No. 9 St. Joseph Notre Dame, it was career win No. 200 for Nygaard, who finished the season 210-40 career coaching record. The state record book doesn’t have a category for quickest to reach 200 wins, but for an eight-year coaching career to include averaging over 26 wins a season and only five losses is truly remarkable, and it would seem like it will continue with Watkins leading the charge.
Watkins, who is a candidate to follow Osborne as the Cal-Hi Sports State Freshman of the Year, led the Wildcats this past season with per game averages of 21 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks per game.
“Juju is an indomitable scorer,” Nygaard remarked. “She wants the ball in big moments and makes plays. With the combination of her toughness, heart, work ethic and humble spirit she’s going to do great things in basketball.
“Also, she is a really great kid,” continued Nygaard. “She worked hard every day this season to improve and was a pleasure to coach. Besides her impressive scoring skills, she led our team in blocked shots and deflections. She is developing as a defensive force as well.”
Nygaard always want to credit her players and she went right down the list after Watkins.
Williams averaged 13 points, eight rebounds and three assists and shot 41-percent on three-pointers.
“McKayla is a winner,” said Nygaard. “Without hesitation she took on new ball handling and leadership roles this season. She was underrated as a defender but she was one of the best on ball defenders in the state. She will do great at Gonzaga next year.”
Duchemin also will form the core of the team next season with Watkins. She had per game averages of 13 points and 11 rebounds.
“A beast on the boards,” Nygaard said. “Michelle has a high motor, great instincts and improved tremendously this year. Her toughness and aggressiveness inside set the tone for our defense.”
Ally Lopez was the other senior on the 10-girl roster. She averaged five points and three rebounds a game and shot 40-percent from outside the arc.
“Ally was a co-captain with McKayla and was the glue of the team,” remarked Nygaard. “She was clutch from three-point range, and had the game-winning put-back in our section open playoff win over Centennial. Ally really personified the core values of our program and had a great senior year. She will be playing next year for Occidental College.”
The fifth starter was sophomore Maddie Doi and according to Nygaard: “Maddie entered our starting lineup at a critical time in January when we were implementing new offensive concepts. Her versatility, strong decision making, unflappable demeanor and strong on ball defense was vital to our success.”
Nygaard didn’t want to miss anyone and mentioned three key reserves that will be returning next season.
According to Nygaard sophomore Maya Stokes (five ppg) “came on strong in the second half of the season and playoffs. Her strong on ball defense, game-changing speed and excellent finishing provided energy and crucial buckets in almost every one of our playoff wins. Maya really turned the corner and we are expecting great things from her next season.”
Sophomore Kelise Jackson also averaged four points and three rebounds last season.
“Similar to Maya, Kelise provided great energy and toughness off the bench,” Nygaard said. “A versatile and aggressive scorer with great work ethic, Kelise is sure to be fighting for a starting spot next season.”
Another reserve Nygaard is looking at for big things next season is freshman Skye Belker.
“Each team I have had the privilege to lead at Windward has been special and unique,” continued Nygaard. “This team stood out because of their camaraderie and togetherness. We consider our program a Sisterhood and this special group of girls really personified that spirit of togetherness. They cared about the team and played hard for each other. Also, they were a very fun and goofy group. It made me so happy to see them having fun and enjoying their experience on the team. Sometimes people forget basketball is supposed to be fun. This team never forgot that.”
Not surprisingly, Nygaard is a true disciple of her mentor, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, one of the all-time winningest coaches in NCAA history for either women or men.
“Tara and Stanford basketball are a huge influence on me personally and as a coach,” Nygaard reflected. “Most importantly, Tara taught me how to show up every day with a great attitude and give a great effort. This is a huge part of my coaching philosophy and to be honest my parenting philosophy.
“She is one of the greatest coaches and basketball minds of all time and I feel blessed to have her as a coaching resource,” Nygaard continued. “She is always willing and ready to assist me as a coach. She even offered to watch film on my team during her season. Not sure my coaching style is similar, though I do prefer to sit during games so I can talk with assistants and I do watch a lot of video. We also use many of the same defensive concepts she taught us way back in the 90’s and some of the inbounds plays. She also told me when I first became a head coach to save my time-outs for end of game situations, and I definitely do that.”
Speaking of parenting, the interview for this feature came during a recess between home-schooling classes for Vanessa’s three children.
“By recess I mean running around crazy in the backyard,” Nygaard said. “I absolutely love being a parent, but there are no time-outs in parenting. I have a 9-year old daughter and 7-year old girl/boy twins, and every day is a lot. I am only able to do my job successfully because I am blessed to have a wonderful supportive spouse. I have to sacrifice a lot of time with my family to be a coach but it has been nice as they get older to have them come to the games and support the team.”
Since 1972, when Cal-Hi sports started naming a State Coach of the Year, Nygaard is the 25th winner from the CIF Southern Section and the second from Windward after Steve Smith, who was the 2011 honoree after his team won the CIF Division IV state championship.
Congratulations Vanessa Nygaard, the 2019-2020 Cal-Hi Sports State Coach of the Year.
STATE COACHES OF THE YEAR
GIRLS BASKETBALL ALL-TIME LIST
(Selected by Cal-Hi Sports)
2020 – Vanessa Nygaard, Los Angeles Windward (26-7)
2019 – Alicia Komaki, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon (33-1)
2018 – McKinsey Hadley, Gardena Serra (25-8)
2017 – Craig Campbell, Fresno Clovis West (34-2)
2016 – Mark Lehman, San Bernardino Cajon (27-6)
2015 – Kelli DiMuro, West Hills Chaminade (27-4)
2014 – Doc Scheppler, Los Altos Hills Pinewood (30-3)
2013 – Malik McCord, Oakland Bishop O’Dowd (30-3)
2012 – Terri Bamford, La Jolla Country Day (32-1)
2011 – Steve Smith, Los Angeles Windward (29-4)
2010 – Melissa Hearlihy,
North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake (34-1)
2009 – Ron Hirschman,
Danville Monte Vista (29-3)
2008 – Lorene Morgan,
Long Beach Millikan (28-5)
2007 – Carl Buggs, Long Beach Poly (36-1)
2006 – Brian Harrigan,
San Francisco Sacred Heart Cathedral (30-2)
2005 – Richard Wiard, Bishop Amat (35-0)
2004 – Tom Gonsalves, Stockton St. Mary’s (32-4)
2003 – Kevin Kiernan, Fullerton Troy (31-2)
2002 – Lisa Cooper, Torrance Bishop Montgomery (28-5)
2001 – Dwayne Tubbs, Hanford (31-2)
2000 – James Anderson, Harbor City Narbonne (34-0)
1999 – Sue Phillips, San Jose Mitty (31-0)
1998 – Jeff Sink, Brea Brea-Olinda (33-1)
1997 – Yvette Angel, Torrance Bishop Montgomery (29-3)
1996 – Mary Hauser, Santa Ana Mater Dei (29-3)
1995 – Scott Brown, Moraga Campolindo (32-3)
1994 – Mike Ciardella, Atherton Sacred Heart Prep (38-0)
1993 – Ellis Barfield, Lynwood (31-0)
1992 – Wendell Yoshida, RH Estates Peninsula (33-0)
1991 – Gene Nakamura, Berkeley (30-2)
1990 – Frank Scott, Inglewood Morningside (32-3)
1989 – Mark Trakh, Brea Brea-Olinda (31-2)
1988 – Richard Hull, Willows (26-4)
1987 – Lee Trepanier, San Diego Pt. Loma (34-0)
1986 – Van Girard, Lynwood (28-4)
1985 – Tom Campbell, Chico Pleasant Valley (28-0)
1984 – Joe Vaughan, Ventura Buena (31-0)
1983 – Larry Newman, Anderson (26-1)
1982 – Tom Pryor, Cerritos Gahr (29-5)
1981 – Art Webb, L.A. Locke (19-2)
1980 – Spike Hensley, Berkeley (29-0)
1979 – Harvey Green, Woodland Hills El Camino Real (19-0)
1978 – Joanne Kellogg, Huntington Beach (25-2)
1977 – Tami Yasuda, Fair Oaks Bella Vista (30-1)
1976 – Chuck Shively, Ventura (23-0)
1975 – Janet Balsley, San Diego Pt. Loma (34-0)
1974 – No selection
1973 – Mary Brown, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial (12-0)
1972 – Judy Hartz, Ventura Buena (8-0)
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