After Making The Stockton School A Girls Basketball National Force, Coach Tom Gonsalves Has Stepped Down After Illustrious Two-Decade Run •
Good coaches build a program. Only the elite raise a region.
When Tom Gonsalves took over at St. Mary’s of Stockton in 2002, the Sac-Joaquin Section was far from a girls basketball hotbed. Bay Area coaches looking for wins would make sure some Sacramento teams were on the schedule, and come postseason, no one worried too much about SJS competition.
Harold Abend, who writes for Prep2Prep and has covered Northern California girls basketball since 1981, remembers the way it was.
“At the time, the only other team that had done much in the top echelon was El Camino (Sacramento),” he said.
However, little did anyone know that Gonsalves would galvanize an entire region. He did that, and more, over nearly two decades.
Gonsalves stepped down in late April, finishing his St. Mary’s run with an incredible 579-69 record — the 21st best win total in California history — seven state championships and 13 straight Sac-Joaquin Section titles. His seven state championships is the most by any California girls basketball coach, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
“It was an immediate impact,” said Vic Pitton, who was coaching at St. Francis-Sacramento. “But it was also Jacki Gemelos, who came in at the same time.”
Gemelos, who was one of the best players in the country before a series of ACL tears robbed her of a brilliant future, was the first of many elite talents that Gonsalves worked with at St. Mary’s, but it was more than just Gemelos that put the Stockton school on the map.
Gonsalves specialized in a 2-2-1 full court press that relied on constant aggression, double-teaming and subtle variations that rendered traditional coaching counters useless.
After watching St. Mary’s and then playing the Rams for the first couple times, Pitton knew the old ways wouldn’t work anymore. “I had to adjust my press breakers,” he said, “and we had to get tougher with the ball. And he was ahead of the curve on the three-ball.”
But even though coaches adjusted, they could never quite catch up.
“His system was hard to prepare for,” said Michele Massari of Sacramento High. “You had to play at the top of your game.”
Sean Chambers had just finished his professional basketball career in the Philippines when he returned to the Sacramento area. Now the Antelope coach, Chambers was unfamiliar with girls high school basketball, but his eyes were quickly opened.
“I went to watch St. Mary’s,” he said, “and it was ‘Holy Toledo.’ I was absolutely blown away. The pressure, the physicality, the trapping — I didn’t know girls had the capability to do that.
“We’ve all had to try to mimic his program. We all ran the trap, and we all ran the dribble-drive.”
The “dribble-drive” is an offensive system that first made its appearance in the early 2000s. While fans may have focused on the St. Mary’s press as the hallmark of Gonsalves’ success, his offense was equally innovative.
Over time, of course, familiarity with both the intricacies of the press and the options of the offense made it easier for teams to find a bit of comfort against St. Mary’s — but they still couldn’t find a way to win.
“His program was the standard-bearer,” said Pitton. “We knew we had to raise our level – he challenged us. He forced us to be better coaches.”
“I watch more St. Mary’s film than I do of my own team,” said Chambers. “Anybody who said he’s not a great coach is ridiculous.”
But there are those who are not Tom Gonsalves’ fans. He was not known for taking his foot off the gas, or calling off the press, when the outcome of a game was no longer in doubt. He was hard on his players, and hard on officials. At least some of the time, he was easy to dislike.
“But you can’t deny the accomplishments and accolades,” said Chris Roemer, coach at Lincoln-Stockton. “(Tom) had an unbelievable run.”
“He set the bar really high,” Abend said. “He built St. Mary’s into the top program in SJS history. He put the onus on other coaches to come up to his level”
Which is exactly what has happened. Now, Sac-Joaquin teams are in the championship mix regionally and state-wide. No longer do Bay Area coaches automatically dial 916 when looking to pad their schedule with a cupcake or two.
But just as his arrival marked the beginning of the rise of SJS, so his departure is the end of an era. Not only will all of Northern California lose an annual preseason target — “We always start the year looking at what St. Mary’s has,” said Chambers — the situation in Stockton will change dramatically.
“No one wants to follow a legend,” said Chambers.
“The expectations will be unfair,” said Roemer. “There will be a lot of pressure — it will be like having a ghost in the building.”
And it’s hard to imagine how anyone could live up to that ghost’s incredible legacy.