Up Close with No. 1 Coaching Leader

Head girls basketball coach Kevin Kiernan is shown last September in his office at Mater Dei. He says he is focusing on continuing to impact his players’ lives despite the hardships of the pandemic. Photo: Harold Abend.

It’s been two seasons since Santa Ana Mater Dei’s Kevin Kiernan became the winningest coach in California girls basketball history. Up next will be 900 wins and perhaps 1,000 — counting wins he had in boys basketball earlier in his career. Go inside to see what career Kiernan began doing, what prominent prep sportswriter used to go up against him in pick-up games and how many more of his daughters are still coming up to play for him.



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It seems like only yesterday, but in actuality it was 14 summers ago when we got an email from Russ Davis, who was and still is both the women’s head coach at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa and the director of the highly-regarded Cal Swish AAU program in Southern California.

The gist of the email was Davis said that the Cal-Hi Sports Girls of Summer Caravan needed to be at Vanguard during the NCAA viewing period to see what he described as the top prospect in his opinion in California from the Class of 2011.

At the time we were told her name was Kaleena Lewis, but shortly thereafter, and after we saw her in action at Vanguard and made her the top ranked girl from the Class of 2011 we saw that summer in 2007, she was and still is Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

Kiernan coached his daughter, Camryn, on last year’s team. Photo: Erik Boal.

What we also knew at the time was that Kevin Kiernan was moving from Troy of Fullerton to take the head coaching position at Mater Dei of Santa Ana, and Mosqueda-Lewis was concurrently enrolling at the athletic powerhouse.

What’s ironic and a bit of a twist is that Kiernan was already among the elite girls basketball head coaches in California. At that point, he had notched three girls Division II CIF state championships at the Troy helm.

With the move 10 miles south from Fullerton to Santa Ana, Kiernan took a turn on his journey to becoming the all-time winningest head coach in state history with 805 current career victories according to the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book.

With Kiernan at the Mater Dei helm, and beginning the re-shaping of the Monarchs’ program with Mosqueda-Lewis as the linchpin, Kiernan began a new chapter in his storied career. Along the way, he has taken the Mater Dei program to the same level as the boys under California’s all-time winningest coach Gary McKnight.

That first year with Mosqueda-Lewis, and fellow freshman Alexyz Vaioletama, who was the only other incoming freshman to crack the 2007 Girls of Summer player rankings, Mater Dei went from 13-14 and 4-4 in Trinity League the previous season to 25-4 and 6-2 in league. The Monarchs made it all the way to the CIF Southern Section Division 1-AA semifinals before bowing out to Lynwood.

From there, the rest is California girls basketball history. Since arriving at Mater Dei, Kiernan has gone on to win three more CIF state titles, had three Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year honorees — Mosqueda-Lewis in 2011, Nirra Fields in 2012 and 2015 winner Katie Lou Samuelson — plus he’s sent numerous players on to the next level. In 2020, Kiernan was named the Cal-Hi Sports State Coach of the Decade for the 2010s.

In the recently released Cal-Hi Sports All-Time Top 30 girls basketball rankings, Kiernan had four teams in the rankings, three from Mater Dei, 2011, 2010 and 2012, and his 2006 team from Troy.

Despite all the accolades, Kiernan remains his usual humble self.

“No wonder I’ve won so many games. I’ve had some pretty good players,” Kiernan mused.

“All I have to do is look down the hall and I see a coach and a great mentor and friend (McKnight) who is over 300 wins ahead of me and I can never catch,” continued Kiernan when asked about his humble approach over the years and the relationship with one of Mater Dei’s other coaching legends (you’d have to put football’s Bruce Rollinson in that category as well).

“Kevin is a wonderful guy, a great family man and a great coach,” McKnight said.

Mater Dei has the state’s winningest all-time boys and girls basketball head coaches with Gary McKnight & Kevin Kiernan. Photo: Harold Abend.

Kiernan, who is an Orange County native and a graduate of Canyon High in Anaheim, has a lot of other admirers, including Davis, who over many years has had several of Kiernan’s top players in his Cal Swish program.

“One of the hardest things to do in team sports is to be consistently good to great every year and deal with those expectations, and Kevin has done that as good as anyone on the women’s side for a few decades. That is impressive,” said Davis. “He has a culture and they strive for greatness every year.”

“It takes a special coach to be able to do what he and his staff have done while adjusting to so many things and styles of play over the years,” continued Davis, who himself is a four-time NAIA National Coach of the Year. “Lots of players have a sense of entitlement now-a-days and he has stuck to his beliefs and his culture and his teams believe and trust it. He has also done it with class and integrity. He will go down as one of the best coaches in any sport in California history and one of the best in the nation to be honest with you.”

Among other longtime friends and admirers is veteran Orange County Register sports writer and columnist Steve Fryer, and after an approximately 40-year relationship, he had a lot to say about Kiernan.

“Kevin was a high-energy player, and his teams are high-energy teams. From opening tip to final buzzer, that team is going 100 miles an hour, but there is a balance to him, as a coach,” Fryer said. “He knows when to push a player, when to back off, when to praise, and when to criticize. That is because Kevin possesses great empathy. He understands the different personalities of his players. That probably has something to do with him being a husband and father.

“And he understands matchups,” Fryer continued. “Where are his team’s advantages and disadvantages in a given game or situation? He will identify them, and exploit them or fix them. And as good as his teams are, you rarely see his players act arrogantly. Kids are going to be kids, so they will mess up now and then. But 99-percent of the time Mater Dei girls basketball players do it the right way. Much of that comes from Kiernan’s leadership.”

When asked what he considered his top teams and top players Kiernan did not hesitate, although he did say current players were technically not eligible for that list.

“The 2010 (32-1) and 2011 (34-1) national championship teams led by Kaleena were college teams. They were absolutely loaded,” Kiernan said. “The 2012 team had three unbelievable guards, Jordan Adams, Nirra Fields and Alexis Williamson.”

Mater Dei head coach Kevin Kiernan talks to the media after team won a CIF state title in 2012. Photo: Mark Tennis.

“The 2006 Troy team (33-1) was everything a coach could ever want in a team,” Kiernan continued. “Balanced scoring, leadership, heart and work ethic. Last year’s team (led by Stanford-bound senior Brooke Demetre that won the CIF Southern Section Open Division championship) was in that same ballpark. It was one of my most enjoyable years.”

As for the top players he’s had over the years, Kiernan kept the list to four, but gave a shout-out to others including some current players.

“Kaleena and Katie Lou are at the top, both National Players of the Year and dominant scorers,” Kiernan remarked. “Great kids too. They always come back to talk to the kids.”

“Jordan was one of the best and biggest point guards I have ever seen. People forget how good she was,” Kiernan continued. “Veronica Johns-Richardson (2000 graduate) was a great player at Troy. A D1 kid who helped us build the program. Nirra Fields, Karlie Samuelson, Brooke (Demetre) and Alyssa (Frescas who is UNLV-bound) from the current team, all could make the list. Lot of good players.”

Kiernan wasn’t ready to put Demetre on the all-time list yet but she’s close, and credits her coach with her development.

“Learning from Coach Kiernan the last four years has been nothing short of incredible,” Brooke said. “Playing for one of the best has helped me transcend my game in ways I could have never thought. Not only is he a great coach but an amazing person.”

Kiernan’s first jobs

The great coach initially wanted to become a sports writer after college, and actually had a stint in sports writing before deciding on coaching.

After high school, Kiernan did a short JV stint before graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in journalism. After college, Kiernan came back to California and that’s when he began writing sports at the Anaheim Bulletin and Corona Daily Independent, where he got to cover the Los Angeles Rams. He even worked the desk at the Orange County Register.

Back in those days, some of the people in sports media would play pick-up games, and not surprisingly that was where the relationship between Kiernan and Fryer began.

“We played with and against each other in pickup games,” Fryer said. “It was a sports media group, with occasional guest stars like (three-time Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year) Annie Meyers Drysdale for one.”

In addition to becoming the first girls hoops coach in state history to reach 800 wins, Mater Dei’s Kevin Kiernan also has won six CIF state titles. Photo: @MaterDeiGBB / Twitter.com.

“He many times was the best player on the court,” Fryer continued. “Sometimes I was second or third best so Kevin and I would cover each other. He was tough to guard! He had limitless outside shooting range and got that shot off quickly. And he was excellent with the ball fake/drive move, too.”

Kiernan may have been a dominant player on the court with the sports media types but the media business just was not his forte.

“I didn’t like the hours and the sedentary lifestyle, and I thought to myself ‘I want to get into coaching,” Kiernan remarked.

Kiernan’s first opportunity to coach came in Minnesota so he went back to where he went to college and was an assistant JV men’s coach at Inver Hills Community College.

“After a year in Minnesota, I came back to visit that summer and while I was working at the Register, the La Quinta (Westminster) girls basketball head coaching job was open, so I applied for it and I got it, and I’ve been coaching ever since,” Kiernan said.

At one point, Kiernan coached both boys and girls at La Quinta where he was from 1985-1990, and when he went on to Troy after that at one point he was coaching the Troy girls and the women at Cypress College in Cerritos. If that isn’t enough, there was a time when he coached both girls and boys at Troy during the period he was there from 1997 to 2007, and he also coached boys for a stint at Anaheim Savanna.

After all has been said and done, not only does Kiernan have 805 girls high school coaching wins, he has 59 high school boys victories and 110 wins with the Cypress women’s program. Talk about versatility, but in the end it’s been in girls basketball where he has made an indelible mark.

“When I was young, I naturally gravitated to coaching boys and men but quickly wanted to be a head coach and girls gave me that first opportunity,” Kiernan said. “It was very rewarding and I enjoyed it. Girls are very coachable.”

Basketball rules the Kiernan household

Along the way, Kiernan married Christine Collins, the current head coach in her fourth year at Concordia University in Irvine.

Prior to that, she assisted her husband at Troy and Mater Dei before landing an assistant’s job at Cal State Northridge, a position that required a seven-hour commute from the family’s home in Fullerton.

All the while, the couple has raised four children and everyone in the Kiernan clan plays basketball.

The couple’s oldest son, Brenden, age 20 played at Troy and is currently a sophomore at Concordia.

Daughter Camryn, age 18, is now starting for her mother at Concordia after a four-year varsity career at Mater Dei during which time she saw her father pass Joe Vaughan (761 wins at Ventura Buena 1976-2007) for No. 1 on the all-time state wins list and then crack the 800-win mark last season. Community college wins aren’t counted in the state high school record book, but there’s also a list of coaches in all sports with 1,000 combined wins or more (which McKnight has been on for many years) and Kiernan could join that one soon.

Daughter Devyn is an eighth-grader who plays basketball while the baby of the family, sixth-grader Kaidyn, also a daughter, is also a hoopster.

“It’s a household rule,” Kiernan said with a huge grin. “They all have to play and at least give it a shot.”

It’s hard to get Kiernan to talk about his accomplishments, but when asked how it makes him feel to have a legacy, and for all the things he’s accomplished and done for girls basketball, he had to admit “it does make me feel good, but it’s still all about the kids and being a teacher and coach.”

Speaking of which, besides being a freshmen English teacher at Mater Dei, Kiernan has recently been given a larger role in the Monarchs’ Athletic Department.

Coach Kiernan frequently works out with his players, including showing them in practice how to play defense correctly. Photo: Harold Abend.

This season and the team

There will be a full preview of Mater Dei coming soon along with other top girls teams in the state, so we won’t go into an entire preview of this year’s team, but what we can tell you is Mater Dei is more than just the 6-foot-3 Demetre, who can play any position on the floor, and sharp-shooting senior guard Frescas. It’s safe to say the Monarchs would be favored to be the top team in Southern California while another group of Monarchs from Archbishop Mitty of San Jose would be favored to be best for Northern California.

Of course, whether there will even be a season of basketball beginning in late March is a huge question mark that will likely require basketball to be elevated from its current status of only being able to be played when a county is in the yellow tier of re-opening.

A girl who was poised to have a breakout season after showing significant improvement last year is Pepperdine-bound 6-1 senior forward Meaali’i Amosa. Another senior who has been a solid contributor and wants to become an architect is Ayanna Johnson.

Two junior guards considered D1 prospects are Soleil Montrose and Lani White. A sophomore who turned some heads last season as a freshman is Caia Elisaldez.

Two freshmen to look for if we have a season are Orange Lutheran transfer Gabby Robinson and 6-foot-1 Isabelle Clark, who also plays volleyball.

Whether or not there will be a season is looming large, but Kiernan looks at it from a pragmatic standpoint.

“No matter what happens, it’s mostly about making these kids feel good about themselves and keeping them motivated,” he said.

Feeling good about Kevin Kiernan and what he has done for and accomplished in girls basketball sure are feelings shared by a lot of girls hoops fans in the Golden State.

Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at marketingharoldabend@gmail.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend

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