Coach Brian Sato talks to the St. Joseph Notre Dame girls during a timeout of their 63-57 victory over Clovis West-Fresno in the CIF Northern Regional Open Division semifinals
Harold Abend/Prep2Prep

Sato reflects on season one final time

September 10, 2020

The story on Prep2Prep Female Team Coach of the Year Preppy winner Brian Sato, and the “Beyond the Game” Podcast featuring Sato, the former girls basketball head coach at St. Joseph Notre Dame-Alameda, and Male Team Preppy winner Jon Schwan, the boys soccer coach at Montgomery-Santa Rosa, had both already gone live when we received a final heartfelt email from Sato.

After all Sato had been through, the roller coaster ride he and his family and the St. Joseph Notre Dame girls and their families were on, along with the haters, doubters and pundits, prognosticators and self proclaimed experts that said Sato was in way over his head and the team was dead in the water, we decided to give the mild mannered and humble coach the opportunity to get the last word – so here it is, and he did not hold back.

Now, he rejoins new Berkeley head coach Shawn Hipol, and once again he goes back to being outside the spotlight as an assistant to his good friend.

“I knew I should've sent this right after the interview. I needed a few days to reflect and finally get my thoughts down. I am not the greatest of speakers but I do like writing once I have some actual time to sit down, breathe and gather my thoughts.

Aside from you, the girls and St. Joseph Notre Dame families, I still really don't think many folks know the amount of drama we went through this year. I am truly grateful to you for shining a light on what we went through and accomplished. Yes, the winning was a bonus. But I am most proud of the way our team handled the season and went out swinging.

I just wanted to say thank you again for everything. It has been quite a journey. I appreciate everything. I also want to give you my final thoughts on this whole ordeal as a final reflection and goodbye to this amazing chapter of my life. Please feel free to disregard this if the Preppy Story is complete and you have no need for me anymore.

I am doing this more for myself as a final closure before I move on to the next phase of my basketball career. Looking back on all the news stories, pictures, fond memories, and our 2019-2020 storybook run into the postseason nobody could've predicted how this season was going to turn out. It wasn't a complete failure but it also wasn't exactly what we wanted either.

When asked how the departure of Coach Hipol really affected me and the team, it can't be overstated enough the amount of emotions our kids had to deal with this past season. Pre-covid, pre-shelter in place, pre-fires and political turmoil, life was somewhat great and we were all gearing up for the most exciting and anticipated year of our SJND lives. Going into this season, we were all confident, this was our year. If we were going to make some noise and really establish our program as one of the elite of the Bay Area, this was our shot to do it. The coaching staff knew it, the families knew it and the basketball community at large started to know as it showed by the new class of freshman we were starting to get with legit basketball skills.

Excitement and preparation was super intense. Yes, we were gearing up for all these heavyweight games this season so there was no time to screw around but the girls all knew, going into this season that we as a coaching staff truly believed they were ready for the challenge.

Then, out of nowhere, the rug was completely pulled out from under them. Nobody knew what was going on and then the news hit us all. We just came off a big win against Salesian that week and we were all well aware, it was a statement for the team and our Bay Area rankings. So when we get the news that Coach Hip had resigned and turned in his gym keys, we were all stunned and in disbelief. We went from extremely high and the most confident we've been in four years, to what just happened? What are we going to do? What about the season? The girls took it hard. Everybody, took it hard. They went through every stressful emotion possible during that transition. From disbelief, guilt, grief, despair, frustration, resentment, betrayal, animosity to hope and then finally rejection.

Coach Hip is a huge part of these girls' lives. He's a hardnosed, passionate, and demanding coach who doesn't mess around but his players are loyal and will run through a wall for him. He is truly loved and well respected by all of his players and families. He is the reason they are there. To lose him, in the midst of possibly the greatest basketball season of their young lives was devastating to all of them. Some girls wanted to quit in protest and walk away, others wanted to stick it out and finish the season. This obviously caused some friction within the team and lifelong friendships were questioned. We had girls not feeling it and going through the motions. We had others with attitudes, because if Hip's not here, I cannot take this so seriously and who is Coach Sato?

So yeah, the transition to me from Coach Hipol was rough, no doubt about it. After a few trial and errors and a lot of tears, and multiple team meetings, we all agreed to finish out the season and go for broke. Of course, I was in over my head. I'd be a fool to say I wasn't. But I didn't ask for the position or that opportunity. I didn't choose it. I didn't have a whole off season to prepare for being a head coach. I had literally three days to prepare for Centennial (Nevada’s No. 1 team from Las Vegas) and the rest of the season. Any assistant in any varsity sport two months into a season where your head coach resigns unexpectedly, with the season schedule we prepared and the expectations we had, would probably be in over his or her head as well. The resiliency that these girls showed through all of this is what being a coach is all about. They literally grew up and matured throughout this whole ordeal and I am just blessed that I was one of many who helped them get through it the best they could.

As far as what Commissioner Cruikshank said about me. I am flattered. His praise in the coaching world means a lot to me. I didn't expect it, didn't plan on running into him on the biggest basketball stage of my career and for him to remember me and say what he said means a lot. I am forever grateful to him for what he taught me as a player and is truly one of my biggest inspirations for what got me into coaching and education. I even remember when he was the JV boys’ basketball coach back at San Leandro.

I am an educator before I am a coach. For me, it's always been about teaching the whole child. X's and O's are important obviously, but that's why we had Coach Hip. I love teaching how to box out or how to shoot left handed layups, but my real bread and butter is how you teach young people to pick themselves up after a failure or a tough loss. How and what you say to a kid who is crying her eyes out because she has worked her butt off for every minute of her life to be the best she can be and it still isn't enough to beat the same team, three times in one season. I was dealing with players who were experiencing what it's like when life doesn't go your way. Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, losing your head coach during the middle of your season is not as important as losing a loved one or a job to a pandemic or violence. But these kids were definitely dealing with some real emotions and adversity that wasn't easy.

I am definitely more of the social-emotional person on staff. He is the ‘Do Your Job and you will get the results,’ coach. I am more of the ‘What do you need or how can I help you to get the job done,’ coach.’ That's where I've been this whole time. I have always played the background and supporting role in the program but I also do love having a voice. I mean, that's probably why I became a PE teacher. I am a firm believer that all the best possible life skills and lessons for youth can be taught and learned through sports. I am constantly communicating with the kids, seeing what's working and seeing what's not. I give my advice and suggestions and we go on from there. I think what has been working for Coach Hip and I for so long is, I know what type of player he likes. I also know what type of player and skill sets work best for our system, our offence and our defensive schemes. Honestly,

I am perfectly happy coaching the JV teams. Getting them prepared for the next level. I prefer it. But I always tell my players, if you want to get to the mountain top (varsity and Hip) you have to focus and try these things and be this type of player. I love the developmental situation of the ‘ah ha’ moment. I also love flexibility in my schedule so most likely I will not be coaching the JV's at Berkeley for now.

I also wanted to add something. Hope it's not too late. Just to get it off my chest. You know, I keep thanking everyone including all the families for supporting me and the team during that crazy season. However, the people I really need to acknowledge that were the biggest supporters through all of it were the Moms in all of that craziness. You mentioned the Mastora and Lepolo sisters in the podcast and what it was like coaching two sets of sisters. When we say Family after every huddle, we mean it. When reality set in, and I was having my doubts if I could do it. It was really Mama Mastora that talked me off the ledge. She kept things in perspective and really was the critical one who assured me that I was doing the right thing. And also that it is always, family first.

Having those two sets of families backing you up, in the stands every night, fighting to salvage the season was truly inspiring. I know you've must've seen it sometime, but the Lepolos and the Mastoras have strength in numbers. They're in the stands, with cousins, uncles, aunties, grandparents, little siblings, and friends. There's a lot of them. And every night, we had all the families in the stands, but if you have those 2 particular families cheering you on, it's a huge bonus for our girls and confidence. You think the sisters are tough, they get it from their mothers. They were not going to let this ship sink. I mean, you have their daughters' (two sets) future in your hands. These are real basketball families that made real educational choices to play at SJND and play for Coach Hip. You're not going to go out there and mess around. You better have your stuff together and know what you are doing. There are a lot of expectations and the stakes are high in these times of scholarships and club teams. I wouldn't have it any other way. It comes with the territory and with trying to establish yourselves as an elite level basketball program. Everyone expects success. There's always a growing amount of pressure and stress, but these families were always supportive and loyal to the end. They definitely were a huge part of our success for the past four years.

Lastly, again what hurt so much was in our eyes, we did not do any wrong at SJND. To my knowledge, we did not break or violate any laws or rules. We did everything by the book and we were always forthright and honest about everything. Yes, we had some lopsided scores during league play, but our girls and the games were never disrespectful. If anyone had issue with the large margin of victories, then they were not in attendance and witnessed those games first hand. We did it the right way. Yes, on paper, it doesn't look good, but there was nothing more we could've done differently. If you can't win with class, then it is not worth it in my eyes. We have always stressed the importance of sportsmanship and competing with dignity through all of the years and with all of our teams. Coach Hip was initially hired at SJND to help bring the women's basketball program up to equal the status of the men's program. That's not an easy task considering the rich history and all the achievements of the men's side, but I think we finally started to see some of the fruits of our labor.

The gyms and bleachers were finally packed for our games. There was a buzz and excitement about our players, and we were finally in the conversation about some of the top girls programs in the Bay Area. Not to mention, one thing about Hip, he never settles. We are always, looking and planning for the future. So when I tell you, our run wasn't over, it wasn't over. We had much more in store for the program, had we continued. Building and establishing an elite women's basketball program isn't easy or quick. It takes a lot of hard work, years of dedication and sacrifice to get to that status. We don't ever take that lightly or for granted. So to leave all that, our players, our loving and supportive families, it is definitely bitter sweet. I had a heck of a time at SJND and will never forget all that we did. Now, to turn the page.

About Berkeley High School. We are super excited and extremely grateful to get an opportunity to coach at Berkeley. It is definitely an honor to coach at a school I consider basketball royalty in the Bay Area. The Athletic Directors, Ross and Robin have been extremely helpful and supportive and have really been ground breaking in trying to get our sports programs in gear and rolling with this new pandemic adjustment we've all been dealing with.

I love the facilities, the fact that we have three full sized gyms to work with. Excited that we can possibly have three levels of girls teams in our program. That's huge for us. In the 10 years, I've been with Hip, we've never had a freshman team before. I have met some of the kids and families already. They are super fun, dedicated and eager to learn and start building our program. From who I've met so far, they are ready to put in the work to be great. Berkeley is big! It is a city with a major high school. There are three solid middle schools, Willard, MLK and Longfellow, that I know of and work with that have legit athletic programs. Their AD's and I have been scheduling middle school games together for years. There's definitely a lot of great kids with talent and heart in Berkeley that I am looking forward to working with. I jokingly said to Coach Hip, Berkeley is like the perfect blend of both Skyline and SJND put together. I believe with all my heart, we are absolutely going to bring Berkeley High back to prominence in the conversation of who's who in the bay area high school girls basketball landscape. I can't wait to actually break ground and get to work.”

To visit GameCenter for this game, please click here


Are you a high school student interested in a career in sports journalism? For more information, please click here.