An earthquake hit not only the Bay Area, but potentially the entire California girls basketball landscape on Friday afternoon, but the jolt didn’t come from the nearby San Andreas or Hayward faults, instead the tremor emanated from the Diablo Valley near the base of majestic Mt. Diablo when Carondelet of Concord named Kelly Sopak its new girls basketball head coach.
While the shockwaves may come as a total surprise to most girls basketball fans, those on the inside of the girls basketball scene saw it coming.
At some point, if Carondelet wanted to return to the dominance the program had in the past, or have the kind of success other sports have experienced in recent history, the all-girl sister school across the street from De La Salle was going to have to make a move, and in snagging Sopak they made a gigantic one.
“When I started in this game at Northgate 17-years ago Carondelet was what any high school program aspired to be like,” Sopak remarked. “To be asked to lead this program feels like all this coaching has come full circle.”
By bringing on Sopak, Carondelet gets an experienced coach that’s had success not only at the high school level at Miramonte-Orinda and previously at Northgate-Walnut Creek, but his Cal Stars AAU program has been a force nationally for the past decade.
Since beginning his high school coaching career at Northgate (2005-09) and then at Miramonte (2009-20) Sopak has compiled an outstanding record of 398-45, which translates into a near 90-percent winning percentage. His post season resume is pretty solid as well. His teams have been in nine NCS title games with four titles and five runner-up finishes, ironically with two second place finishes coming at the hands of Carondelet. In the CIF state playoffs his Mats teams were in six Northern Regional title games with the Sabrina Ionescu led 2016 team winning the NorCal Open Division championship.
On a club level since founding the Cal Stars in 2006, his program has grown into one of the nation’s most respected, and on more than one occasion they were the top team on the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), and that translates into the top team in the nation.
“Kelly Sopak brings in a healthy resume with an abundance of experiences that we haven't had before with a good solid reputation and work ethic,” said Carondelet Director of Athletics Scott Kennedy in a press release announcing the hiring. “Coach Sopak is not just the best head coach for us right now, he’s the best head coach for us today, tomorrow, this year, and next. Coach Sopak is the future of Carondelet basketball, bringing a skill set and mindset that we need both on and off the court. Kelly Sopak makes us better on Day 1.”
Among the dozens of players he’s sent on to top D1 programs, his top player at both Miramonte and the Cal Stars was recent Oregon grad and WNBA top draft pick Ionescu, but there are many others, including former Carondelet star post and current St. Mary’s College sophomore Ali Bamberger.
Carondelet also gets a coach that many analysts have felt could have gone on to the next level himself. In fact, had Sopak not had a successful insurance practice and two daughters he coached at Miramonte, Lauren (currently completing her degree at Renne University in France) and Leah (a freshman on a basketball scholarship at St. Martins University in Washington), he very well may have taken one of the college offers he received over the years.
Rumors had been circulating that Carondelet wanted Sopak a couple of years ago, but he wanted to see Leah through her four years at Miramonte. Even now, leaving to lead the Cougars program meant he had to leave behind six current Mats seniors, including Prep2Prep All North Coast Section First Team selection and Cal-bound Mia Mastrov, and P2P All NCS Third Team and Idaho-bound Jordan Allred.
“Leaving Miramonte was extremely tough,” Sopak said. “Those kids have poured their hearts and souls into the program and with six seniors we were set to have a huge season. ”
“To each players credit they were all so understanding and supportive,” Sopak continued. “It really shows how mature, responsible and even keeled they are about life. I’m excited to see them play this season because the Mats are going to be really good. In addition, I even made a call to Sabrina, we discussed the possibility and she was 100-percent supportive.”
Among some of the reasons Sopak made the move was because of the administration at Carondelet.
“Both Athletic Director Scott Kelly and Principal Kevin Cushing had a huge influence on me accepting the position at Carondelet,” Sopak said. “Both shared a similar vision that struck a chord not only with my competitive side but my spiritual side as well. The ability to impact even more young basketball players at a place like Carondelet was a common theme.”
“Kevin and I go way back to his days as the (girls) coach at Bishop O’Dowd and my days at Northgate,” Sopak continued. “Most folks don’t realize he was one of the key people involved in restoring and re-building the O’Dowd program. His vision and big picture understanding of what is important for high school athletics is something we share. It was going to take a very special combination of athletic director and principal to get me away from my current situation, and I feel I have the same level of commitment from them as I did at Miramonte.”
Now, Sopak inherits a Cougars team that finished 16-12 last season before bowing out to San Ramon Valley-Danville in the NCS Division I semifinals. Carondelet lost six seniors including its top player, Prep2Prep All NCS third Team selection Jayme Blackard, so Sopak has his work cut out for himself.
“Right now I’m focused on very short term goals,” Sopak responded to immediate goals. “I want to meet all the players at all the levels and really figure out what they need from me and hear from them what their goals are for themselves and the program. In the end it is their journey and I want to be on it with them.”
One thing Sopak was unaware of was the extent of the Carondelet community, and why not? Since 2003 Carondelet has won its NCS division just in basketball 14 times, including 2004 when the Cougars, anchored by Jayne Appel, who went on to Stanford and the WNBA, won their only CIF state championship. His cell phone, Twitter and email have been blowing up since the announcement was made
“The amount of support I received from current and past players, past Carondelet alumni, and parents, has been overwhelming,” Sopak stated. “I had no idea that people cared do much about the program. Its added even more pressure to come into Carondelet and be the very best I can be.”
“I’ve learned timing is never ideal for these types of changes,” continued Sopak. “I know full well this is going to be a huge challenge but I am extremely excited to get to work and give Cougar nation and exciting brand of basketball.”
“A couple of the goals of our athletics program are to provide a successful experience, not just in terms of wins and losses, but in being able to participate in a journey that allows for growth and development as part of a team, to become a better athlete and player in their specific sport, and to provide opportunity to compete at the collegiate level if that is a goal for our athletes,” Cushing said in the press release. “Kelly Sopak has a proven track record of providing all those goals for his basketball players and we know that our basketball players will be provided a wonderful journey and will be provided an environment where their skills will grow and develop as we compete against the best of the best.”
As for long term goals Sopak has some lofty ones.
“Carondelet is the pinnacle of girls basketball here in the Bay Area, if not the state of California. Our goal is to put it on the national map, as well,” responded Sopak to long term goals. “It’s an incredible opportunity to get this program to where it’s been in the past. I’m excited to get to work.”
The journey for the Carondelet basketball program is now in the hands of Kelly Sopak. Will he turn the Cougars into a nationally recognized program? We shall see what lies in the future under his tutelage, and it may take some time, but don’t be surprised if he fulfills that vision and Carondelet becomes a national power.