Erik Nelson is no stranger to South Valley sports fans after playing basketball at Gilroy High School and Gavilan College. But now he faces a new challenge tougher than successfully executing a pick and roll – rebuilding the Gavilan women’s basketball program from scratch.
“It is exciting in the sense that you are building the culture and you understand it is a process,” Nelson said. “But at the same you have the expectation that you are going to have success in the near future too. I always tell the girls there is no one telling you this is how we used to do it because we are the ones establishing that.”
The Rams, who last fielded a team in the 2004-05 season, lost 75-36 in their first game against West Hill College. But that was without their four freshmen volleyball players Tasmin Apple, Andreinna Castaneda, Poulikaeeva Latu, Vanessa Wilkins who will join the team once their playoff run ends.
“I really feel like that game will be a blessing in disguise for us,” Nelson said. “It is great when it happens early because then we can go back to the drawing board and have a measuring stick how we need to do things.”
Early on in the season, Nelson wants the team to get a feel for the speed of the college game and is not necessarily worrying about wins and losses. He knows that road may be rocky at times but he is confident the hard work will pay off.
“The win-loss record usually takes care of itself if you do things the right way and get after it,” Nelson said.
He wants the team to be an up-tempo team, but his first goal is making sure they realize the speed of the game.
“Right now they are getting acclimated to the college level,” Nelson said. “I have confidence they will get to that point and the fans will enjoy seeing the finished product.”
Players have already begun embracing his message that hustle and hard work pay off.
“Our team philosophy is all out, all the time, no regrets,” Nelson said. “That is something we are trying to establish here. I want them to leave it all out there and take pride in what they do.”
But he also wants the athletes to enjoy their time playing.
“You really only have four years to play,” Nelson said. “That should be the most fun time as a player, and I want them to really cherish that.”
Nelson, always an intense player on the floor, still sometimes finds it hard to believe that he is now coaching players from schools he had a rivalry with in Hollister and Morgan Hill.
“I enjoy seeing the transformation from high school rivals to teammates,” Nelson said. “We got a lot of really good local talent.”
Freshman guard Tawne Haynish, a former San Benito Haybaler, is one of those talented players.
“I like it,” Haynish said. “It is a lot more intense than high school. Coach is still new and trying to figure out what he wants to do. He has a lot of goals set for us and high expectations. I like him a lot.”
Haynish said she originally was going to play for Cabrillo College, but decided to play at Gavilan when she heard there was going to be a program.
The team has already grown close. Many of the players are related, and those who aren’t have quickly been adopted.
Wilkins is one of the most experienced players on the roster. She had a similar experience when she played with Academy of Art University in San Francisco, a program that was just starting up. The school played mostly Division II and some Division I teams early on.
“It is starting off with something new and setting the tone and energy,” Wilkins said. “We are still learning each other on the court, but we have established we can count on each other. Even though some of the practices are sometimes rough, we can pick each other up.”
Wilkins has already received her AA degree and is working on her second certificate.
“It was either take a semester or year off or come back and keep going to school,” Wilkins said. “Coach kept calling me all summer and telling me to come play basketball.”
Ceceilia Sunia-Mafileo, one of just three sophomores on the team, played high school ball at Lincoln High School in Sacramento.
“It was never a problem getting along,” Sunia-Mafileo. “We clicked automatically as soon as we met. We call each other family.”
She graduated in 2009 and said she is working hard to get back into game shape.
“I forgot how much running there was,” she said. “It is good to be back on the court after three years.”
Nelson has had no trouble establishing a report with his team.
“He is one of those coaches who is calm but he still has spirit when necessary,” Wilkins said. “He is very understanding and compassionate. I like a lot of his plays and where he is coming from. He is for us.”
After leaving Gavilan, Nelson transferred to Bethany University, where he played ball and received his bachelor’s degree in Communications. He had a chance to play ball on a tour oversees in Denmark and Belgium with USA Athletes International.
“It was a unique opportunity and something that I really learned a lot from,” Nelson said. “You kind of get a taste of what is involved in it. We’ve had a couple girls that have expressed playing even after they’re done playing at the four-year level. We want try to help them out even when they are done here.”
Nelson has already started talking to local high school coaches to generate interest in the program.
“We want to make sure that not only do we recruit from Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister, we also invest in San Jose, Modesto and all those areas,” Nelson said. “We understand that in order to build a program the coaches have to get after it as well.”
Developing players to continue playing basketball is also important, Nelson said.
“We want to put a lot of emphasis on player development,” Nelson said. “We want to have success here. But we want coaches at four-year schools to want players from Gavilan because they know what that represents – someone who has a full well-rounded skill set and will give you maximum effort every night.”
The South Valley area has always been special to the 2002 Gilroy High grad.
“This is the place where I wanted to be because I have so much pride in the town and area I grew up in,” Nelson said. “I feel like the athletic department as a whole really does things the right way. Obviously as a coach you take pride in it. But when it is somewhere where you have played and left your blood, sweat and tears on the floor, there is that extra drive to bring success to the school. It is a great opportunity and I feel really blessed to have.”