March 21, 2011

The Mitch Priest coaching file

Kevin McCarthy

Deserts have oases. Not that Santa Clara County is Mohave-like geographically or in temperature spectrum, but most consider it barren basketball territory. However, what often counterbalances this aridity is coaching capability, someone taking talent of various degrees and forming it into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Take Mitch Priest for instance. A longtime basketball mentor throughout the area, the Santa Teresa head coach stresses fundamentals over scrimmaging and such an emphasis paid a generous dividend this season in a 23-8 overall record, plus playoff successes.

photo of Mitchel Priest

The Saints got by Serra, 46-44, in San Mateo. Then it was a 70-60 win against host Washington of San Francisco. Finally with two seniors headed to the D-1 college level next season and underclassmen to follow, Sheldon ended Santa Teresa's dream season 76-57 in Sacramento.

Priest lauds his players, including a trio of new starters, but his approach cannot be discounted.

But first some background.

After playing at Bellarmine College Prep, Priest became the manager of the San Jose State University men's basketball squad. Priest nabbed that position after being cut in tryouts. He was asked to play the next season but a December graduation date prevented that from occurring. Then Spartan Coach Bill Berry was intrigued by the attitude and effort Priest displayed, a playing out of a philosophy built on this bedrock foundation: "work as hard as anybody on the court because you can stay with people by working hard."

But that wasn't the end of his association with basketball, rather just his beginning.

"Right out of college, I coached the frosh-soph team at San Jose High School for three years," Priest explained. Then it was off to Gunderson High as the varsity mentor for 10 seasons. At Santa Teresa, Priest just completed his eleventh year.

His method of operation?

"We don't scrimmage that much, it's drills, drills, drills for the first 40 minutes of practice." Priest said. "People would be shocked by how much gets done. We emphasize not doing what you can't do [in games]." The focus is on mastering the basics. Priest continued, "A lot of my fundamentals come from my time at SJSU with Bill Berry."

About his squad this season, he offered "we're not overly athletic but the guys accepted their roles and they have a great camaraderie."

Another element Priest faced, an obstacle or dividend depending on the outcome, began last season and carried over into this one. That is, coaching his son Trevor.

"The first year, it was the most difficult ," the elder Priest explained. "He probably should have been a starter last year but was our sixth man."

He added, "the rides home [after games] made it a great job, a truly rewarding experience. He [Trevor] has matured so much in the last two years and doesn't take anything personal."

This season, the 6-foot-5 Trevor is the top player on the team, averaging over 13 points and six rebounds a game. He is loaded with jumping and running ability.

Next season, Trevor Priest will be a senior and performing in a different role. "He's a good passer already. We're going to play him at the point," said his father.

Priest also had praise for two of his seniors, Spencer Koopmans and Denzel Copeland. "Spencer is our shooter (62 treys on the season) and he's signed to go to UC Davis as a pitcher. Denzel is a phenomenal floor leader who is looking at Puget Sound and UCSC."

Asked about other prospects in the area that he has matched up against, Priest offers a trio of names: Oak Grove backcourter 5-foot-8 Nate Vieira, 6-foot-8 Justin Dueck of Leland and 6-foot guard Muktar Abdi of Willow Glen High. Vieira is "a little small but he runs and leads the team and is a heck of a ballplayer." Dueck "does a pretty good job and is getting better every year." Abdi "is as good as any guard I've seen in some time around here. He's undersized and has flown under the radar."

Alluding to his coaching tenure as well as his management employment in private industry, Priest said "It's all about trying to create winners." He emphasized that reference isn't just about win and losses on the court, explaining the benefits derived from the process of competition are lessons for life as well.