Q & A with Jody Wynn, who’s helped build Long Beach State into a West Coast force
As practice wrapped on Tuesday, Long Beach State coach Jody Wynn called her young team together to talk about the upcoming road trip, in which the 49ers would face Houston and LSU.
This is a big trip, Wynn said, placing primary emphasis on the fourth word in that phrase. It is a frequent refrain of Wynn’s, and her players let her know it, in a good-natured way. “Coach, you say every road trip’s a big one,” they chorused, chuckling.
“It is!,” Wynn says over the phone, later that day. “You only have 30 guaranteed opportunities, the number of games that you play each regular season. So, this is a big trip.”
It is a testament to the exuberance Wynn brings toward instruction of this game, and it’s a big reason she has built the 49ers program into a West Coast contender. Last season, the Beach won 22 games, its best season in more than a decade. There was a 15-game unbeaten run, during which the 49ers took down Cal and LSU, and narrowly fell to USC.
A number of veteran leaders graduated this past spring, meaning a new leaf has been turned. A young team on tap. But the basic tenets of Beach basketball will still be employed.
And that should lead to some pretty stirring success.
Alley Whoops: Alex Sanchez (who graduated this past spring) said she could write a book about this team’s trip to Italy this past August. What are a few moments that stuck out, for you?
Jody Wynn: Seeing our returners in different roles. Our junior class had been people that had looked up to our upperclassmen the previous two years. All four of those current juniors played as frosh, a few of them started, and then started again as sophomores.
To see those juniors in different roles was to me the most enjoyable part of the trip. And having our four newcomers, three freshmen and a transfer, that never played for us, go out there and compete. Meshing those four with the returners was something I really enjoyed.
We didn’t back down at all, we played really good team basketball. At times it wasn’t pretty, but we learned a lot about ourserlves. About how important work ethic is during the summer, coming back with new skills. It’s so valuable.
Jewelyn Sawyer, all of a sudden in Italy, for three straight games she was the leader of the team. We had to come from behind to win by 17 points against a very good team in the last game of the trip. We also had a one-point overtime loss. You’re put in different situations. We had to execute in crunch time, and not all of our players had that opportunity the year before.
AW: After 13 years as an assistant coach, you took your first head coaching job at Long Beach State. Why was it the right fit?
JW: I grew up coming to games here at Long Beach State, before The Pyramid was ever built. I remember specifically sitting on the floor in the old Gold gym, watching practices, and I must have been in the 7th grade when I figured out that I wanted to be a college basketball player. It was seeing the likes of Penny Toler, Cindy Brown, La Taunya Pollard, so many great players that played here.
Long Beach State has always been a special place in my heart, and watching those women play when I was growing up made me want to become one of them and play college basketball myself. It opened my eyes to what I could potentially do. I had no idea I’d be a coach back then, certainly not coach here.
But Long Beach is 30 minutes from home. I was born and raised in Southern California, I played college basketball at USC, and now, (after serving as an assistant coach at Pepperdine and USC), I’ve coached at three different schools in Southern California. Long Beach State is incredible. I could see myself coming to school here, so that makes it so easy to talk about it with recruits and their families.
It’s a bigger campus (a reported enrollment of 37,430 in 2015), with a lot of diversity. It’s got a little of everything for everybody. Our kids love coming to school here. I hear it all the time, from the girls I’ve been around: they don’t talk bad about the school. They love the campus, and they feel very comfortable within it. It makes you feel like you’d want to be a part of it.
So, coaching here is surreal. Not too long ago, I was growing up, watching Joan Bonvicini and all her great teams here. To be able to call this place home is really special. It’s just a great place. Very family-oriented, and the support in the community, within all the athletic programs and with fans, is incredible. It’s always fun to coach in an environment where people care.
AW: What are the chief tenets you’ve implemented within your Long Beach State program?
JW: Versatility. Being able to keep teams off balance, and mixing it up nearly every possession. The unselfishness comes on the defensive and offensive ends; you don’t care where you are in our sets. Forwards, guards: with us, you’re a basketball player. You play hard.
So, effort: when most teams play against us, they walk away saying that we play hard. I take great pride in that, and this team certainly does as well. We might not be at our best every given night, but we will always play hard.
We mix things up offensively. There’s a freedom within our scheme, and we pride ourselves in teaching our kids how to play, instead of just executing in slow-down sets. We like to recruit versatile players, and expand their games. By the time they leave, we want them to be able to be more versatile.
That’s sometimes a challenge with freshmen. They think they’re playing hard, but they’re nowhere near where they need to be. Film doesn’t lie, so you gotta educate them. And they’ll learn that they have another gear, and they’ll learn to play successfully through their instincts. That’s what basketball is a game of: instincts.
So, the effort, playing hard, and versatility.
AW: In Hallie Meneses, Lauren Spargo, and Alex Sanchez, you lost three high-performing seniors to graduation. What impact did those three make on the program, what legacy did they leave?
JW: Two of them (Meneses and Sanchez) were 1,000 point scorers. Haley started every game, she was our starting point guard for three years. Those three were the heart and soul of our team. They bought in to the system, to the coaching staff, to being team players first; having it not be about me, but about us.
I can’t say enough about them, they’re incredible young women. They’ll be on our walls—we’re decorating our office right now, and they’re going to be known as the ones who turned this program around. Through their hard work, they worked tirelessly, and holding each other accountable, they brought the culture that helped us to be successful.
They are the face of our program. They had incredible careers, and they’ll never be forgotten. They helped us become a contender on the West Coast.
AW: Through two games this season (the Beach is 2–0), you’ve assisted on two-thirds of your field goals, and chalked up 20 steals. Are those markers you look for?
JW: Yes, and that was a direct reason we won the games we won last year. The fact that we turned teams over, No. 1, and we didn’t cough up the ball so easily, which we’d done in years prior.
This season, with a young team, you think we’d have silly turnovers, but we’ve done a pretty good job. Our motto is ‘One more pass.’ We’re not a star system; we have a different star every night. If a player scores 30, she isn’t taking 25 shots. We play equal opportunity. We have unselfish kids who just want to win. They don’t care about being the leading scorer. We pride ourselves on maintaining a positive assist to turnover ratio.
AW: Raven Benton (11.5 points, 6.5 assists) has started strongly. How impressed have you been with her, so far?
JW: It’s a joy to see Raven back on the court. (Benton missed the final eight games of ‘14–15 to injury.) She loves basketball, and she’s the ultimate competitor. Works tirelessly on her game.
These last nine months have been very trying for her. She went through major knee surgery in February, and she didn’t play during our trip to Italy, her body wasn’t ready for it. It’s just been so rewarding for her, to see her able to compete on the court, see that smile on her face.
When she went down, we lost three kids in that one game, and it put a wrench in our season. It changed our philosophy and strategy. We’d been rotating people in and out, and pressing a lot and turning teams over to get that record last season to 18–2, 17–1, whatever it was. When those three went down, we struggled, and it certainly changed what we’d done all year.
So to have Raven back specifically is certainly a benefit. She’s got a scorer’s mentality, and she’s done a really good job handling pressure, working through to getting on the court. She’s not 100%, but she’s working toward it. It takes time to get your full range of mobility back.
AW: What are the keys to this 2015–16 season. Have you set expectations, or with such a young team, are you taking it more game by game?
JW: Yeah, I think going into last year, we could have set expecations. It was such a senior-laden team, and we were so experienced that it was easier to have ‘outcome goals’. Both for where we wanted to be at the end of the year, and keeping track throughout the season.
This year, meshing so many new players in with our returners, and not necessarily having the same experience, we’re taking it more game by game. To be honest, it’s practice by practice, week by week. Did we get better this week? That becomes really apparent for young teams.
Sometimes, the scoreboard’s a liar. Sometimes, we’ll win, but we won’t feel good about our effort and overall team play. Sometimes, we’ll lose a game, but feel good about leaving everything out on the floor. It’s about playing hard each possession, playing hard for each other.
Right now, we’re 2–0, but we’ll hit adversity this season. And we’ll stay together, and get better. We’re focused on being a better team by March. That’s when we want to be playing our best basketball.
AW: Momentum, continuity, togetherness, consistency are traits often found at the best programs. How are they growing at Long Beach?
JW: Consistency is huge, right? Having my husband, Derek, by my side and coaching with me, having the same philosophy and belief on and off the court, helps build that consistency. I have a different persepctive being a mom, with two young girls. With Derek coaching with me for 15 years, we have a healthy balance. We believe so strongly in how we want our players to represent themselves.
Sometimes, former players ask me what I look for first in players. It’s character. I want kids I want to be around. I won’t bring in a cancer, or a me-first kid. We tend to gravitate toward kids that play hard and don’t care who gets the credit. We want them cheering, even when subs are coming out of the game. Ones who’ll look their coaches in the eye, who were well-liked at their high schools, and in their communities. That just makes it fun.
I always tell my players, Don’t lose the fun factor. Yes, it’s hard to be a DI athlete; it’s demanding, taxing on the mind and body. You have to make sacrifices. But it’s still fun. You play because it’s a game you love. That’s what you have to hearken back upon, when times get tough.
So, you’ve lost a game, lost a few games? Don’t lose those three letters. F-U-N. It means so much. If the passion is gone, you won’t work so hard. You’ll be average. I remind my players about that, even when they’re going in the weight room. If you don’t want to get better, don’t go in. We don’t want 80% lifters. Now, we’re not Hulk Hogans, but we want kids who want to get in the gym.
That attitude changes the culture, and it’s more fun to be on a team that loves to work hard together. It’s never going to be all roses, but at the same time, there’s a lot of love and care.