Here's a weird one: The categories are tall, female, Asian, Mormon, former Division 1 college basketball players. Occupying that rarified piece of statistical real estate is Keiko Yoshimine (Yo-she-min-ay, with the accent on the last syllable), one-time Desert View High School, Pima Community College and NAU star, and current coach at Paradise Valley High School in the urban armpit that is Phoenix.
I've known Keiko for quite a while, and she's cool, but I know several cool people about whom I don't write. What sets Keiko apart is that she has taken a stand that could well prove to be her undoing, possibly serving to permanently derail her coaching career before it ever really gets going.
And she wouldn't have it any other way.
Today's high school athletic scene offers up a strange set of contradictions. In almost every sport, the top-level athlete is probably better than ever, but the multi-sport athlete--the very backbone of the successful athletic program just a generation ago--has all but disappeared. From an early age, kids do one thing, year-round, on outrageously expensive club teams, with personal trainers and in camps, until it breaks their spirit, breaks their parents' bank account or (in a few cases) leads to that much-pursued college scholarship, which is eerily similar to the ones that thousands of other kids get just for getting good grades.
So what you've got at the elite level is a handful of kids who have been pampered their entire lives, who have been on parental ego-boosting traveling "all-star" squads since before puberty, and many who have a very jaded view of what sports are (and should be) all about. Buying into the hype thrown around by unscrupulous club "coaches," many kids have come to view high school sports as an afterthought. Playing for one's school, friends, family and community is a fool's errand compared to flying to Vegas for a weekend tournament with thousands of other kids whose parents have also bought the hucksters' spiel.
What has emerged is a two-tier system where the dominant schools' rosters often consist of one-sport, club-team athletes, while many of the schools that lag behind feature kids whose parents can't afford the several hundred dollars a month for club fees and/or kids who want to enjoy the high school experience by (gasp!) playing multiple sports.
What Keiko walked into at PV was a disastrous none-of-the-above situation. "It was strange," she recalls. "I had kids who weren't bad kids, were decent athletes, but they were just so beaten down mentally from years of losing that they simply didn't care. They showed up at the start of basketball season with absolutely no expectations whatsoever."
That first year, her team was pounded relentlessly by the powerhouses in her conference. (Conference foe St. Mary's won the 5A state championship two years ago and finished as runners-up last year with a squad that plays together as a club team during the off-season--and is currently under Arizona Interscholastic Association investigation for recruiting violations and for allegations that at least one of the star players had her tuition paid by a former member of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, which is a big no-no.)
After the season was over, Keiko gathered the returning players together and explained what would need to be done to be competitive in the future. "There's really no shortcut to success. You just have to get in the gym and work hard. But they looked at me like I was crazy. 'Work in the summer? There's no way.' I was the sixth girls basketball coach in seven years at the school. The kids had no continuity, no discipline and no expectations."
The returning juniors and seniors avoided the gym all summer and fall. When they showed up the first day of practice, out of shape and with crappy attitudes, Keiko decided to cancel the season. She told the upperclassmen that she'd see them around and told the freshmen and sophomores that PV would have a freshman team and a junior varsity squad, but no varsity. When she laid it out for her athletic director, Rick McCutcheon, he went along with her.
"I just felt that we had to do something drastic to break the cycle of laziness and defeatism." Having a 5A school with no varsity team would certainly qualify as drastic.
So far, things appear to be heading in the right direction. Her younger teams have won some games, and several kids have committed to her ambitious summer program.
"It's really different, even from when I was in high school (less than a decade ago). Kids today are either being driven really hard ... or they have no inner drive to speak of. I want these kids to know that working toward something that they want can be a very gratifying thing."
Doing things the right way isn't bad, either.