By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
(Career Highlights, see bottom of story)
- Santa Rosa JC women’s basketball coach Lacey Campbell, center, talks to her team during a timeout against Delta College on Jan. 10. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)
Miss two prep basketball seasons to major knee injuries — no problem. Work hard, start three years for Sonoma State.
One year of junior college assistant coaching — no problem. Work hard, take over at Santa Rosa Junior College, reach three Final Fours and capture a state title.
Lacey Campbell is a proven winner who made the most of her athletic skills and coaxes the maximum from her players.
“She puts you in position where you can be successful. She teaches you what you need to know and she tries to make it so each player gets it,” said Jen Tsurumoto, an All-State guard at SRJC and now UC Irvine’s playmaker and top scorer. “It’s part of her personality. She’s completely unselfish and willing to help you get better to play at the next level.”
In her ninth season as SRJC head coach, Campbell is charting perhaps the program’s most challenging journey back to the California Community College Athletic Association playoffs.
Young, small and with a thin bench, Santa Rosa survived early season struggles playing mostly top state teams. Gaining confidence each game, the Bear Cubs are undefeated in the very tough Big 8 Conference and rising up the rankings.
“Even though this season has been rough it has put us in the right spot to be successful,” Campbell said. “Each team has to find their own niche. This team isn’t afraid of anybody. They’ve definitely stepped up and got after teams.”
‘A great mind for the game’
Survive and thrive has served Campbell well. Santa Rosa’s teams each season reflect her faith in sacrificing individual achievement for team success.
“Lacey has done a fabulous job. Her teams are extremely well prepared and they compete,” said Sonoma State coach Mark Rigby, who coached Campbell and makes many SRJC games. “She always had a great mind for the game. She also overcame a lot of adversity from a playing standpoint. That probably fuels the fire of developing players.”
A coach’s daughter, Campbell was one of the Empire’s top players as a freshman at Point Arena High.
Poised for a special sophomore season, Campbell tore her left anterior cruciate ligament in the first game. A year later, in the same Tomales tournament and near the same spot on the court, Campbell tore her right ACL.
Wearing two bulky knee braces her senior season, Campbell continued rehabilitating and regaining leg strength.
For the point guard with dreams of playing college ball, overcoming bad injuries was much like flushing away a bad play or an official’s call.
“You’re competitive side wins over,” Campbell said.
So she walked on at Sonoma State despite Rigby’s urging that Campbell play at SRJC.
“The best recruiting I did was when she didn’t listen to me,” Rigby said.
Not the biggest point guard, Campbell was a smart and scrappy team player who worked to become a three year starter and captain.
Campbell’s growth as a player has been mirrored by her development as a coach.
Tailoring offensive and defensive game plans based on scouting reports, Campbell is savvy at spotting weaknesses and creating favorable player matchups.
“She works the game very well. She’s got a great feel for tempo,” Rigby said.
Serving as an assistant to Molly Goodenbour at SRJC was Campbell’s introduction to coaching at any level. She took over as interim head coach the next season when Goodenbour moved on to the major college coaching ranks.
“Everyone had told me from a young age that I should be a coach. I knew those opportunities don’t come around very often,” Campbell said.
First team reaches Elite Eight
That first team of Campbell’s bought into her team first approach, overcoming a lack of size to reach the state tournament’s Elite Eight for the 2005-06 season.
“I kind of feel that team saved my job,” Campbell said. “Thankfully it worked out. Because I don’t know what else I would have done.”
While the straight-A student surely would succeed in any venture, coaching suited her best.
Obtaining a master’s degree during two years as SRJC’s interim head coach set up Campbell to take the post permanently.
Three seasons later, Campbell led Santa Rosa to the state final four.
“There wasn’t very much of a learning curve. She was good right out of the gate,” said Caren Franci, the SRJC Hall of Fame basketball coach whose 1988 team won the state title.
Also a Point Arena graduate, Franci attends most SRJC home games and appreciates Campbell’s success.
“This year has been a real challenge,” Franci said. “I think she’s squeezing everything out of them.”
Santa Rosa’s seeds of success were planted in the offseason.
Summer skills and conditioning camps, league play and night practices twice a week provide a foundation. Conditioning and practice resumes with school opening in August.
Nonleague play the first half of the season features tournaments so Santa Rosa can get extra games if it reaches championship contests.
“We try to challenge them every day to be better,” Campbell said. “It takes a lot of trial and error and we have done a lot of that this year.”
Team building activities, including a ropes course, scavenger hunts and team dinners help players come together off the court.
“It’s a key thing for girls to be able to trust each other and feel they’re on an equal playing field,” Campbell said.
With most players having competed against each other in high school or earlier, the team’s success depends on each athlete accepting roles, even playing new positions, as well as going to their strengths. Tough team defense is the expectation for all players.
“There are a lot who have played better because they are around players that they didn’t get to play with before,” Campbell said. “It takes a while to build the chemistry to have them play as one. Everyone’s got to give a little for the better of the team.”
Teamwork cannot be taught. But coaches can put players in position to be successful as a team.
“We look for players who are hard workers and coachable,” Campbell said.
Surprise teams in postseason
Players seeking help on developing specific skills outside of practice find a willing guide in Campbell.
“Lacey is always willing to go out of her way to help players succeed,” Tsurumoto said.
Some of Campbell’s best teams were also among her most surprising. The 2011 state title squad, for instance, featured solid second-year players and many freshmen Campbell was not convinced could compete with California’s best. Last season’s final four team went deeper than expected in the playoffs.
“It’s the same challenge every year. You still have to go through growing pains,” Campbell said. “This year it’s been a little harder. But they’re all athletes and pick things up quickly.”
When the season is complete, the 2013-14 team will have winning formulas and defining moments all their own. And the highlights will be featured in photos collected in a single poster-sized frame for Campbell’s snug office walls.
Campbell’s teams ultimately embody the coach’s personality and competitiveness — intense yet cool under pressure — Franci said.
“Just look at what her players do every year. If you get the most out of your kids, what more can you ask of a coach,” Franci said. “She’s pretty special.”
SRJC women’s basketball coach, 9th year
Record: 200-84 overall, 92-19 conference
CCCAA Nor Cal coach of year three times; Big 8 Conference coach of the year 5 times
SRJC state champions 2011; State final four 2010, 2011, 2013
Current team: Ranked 12th in state, 3rd in Northern California
SSU: Three year varsity starter; Two NCAA regional playoff appearances; 2004 graduate.
Point Arena: Team leader basketball, missed two seasons to injury; All-Empire softball;2000 graduate