Perspective Has A Way Of Changing With The Season For St. Mary’s-Berkeley Girls Basketball Coach Chris Toler, A Contra Costa County Fire Captain •
Sometimes basketball takes a back seat — and now is one of those times for Chris Toler.
The disappointment for Toler and his St. Mary’s (Berkeley) girls’ basketball team back in March was hard to swallow — after all, they were poised to play for the Division IV state championship when COVID-19 cancelled the game. But for Toler, a fire captain with the Contra Costa Fire Protection District, that’s obviously no longer something he’s focused on.
“Right now, we’re working way too much,” he says, as headlines every day detail the latest wildfires, evacuations and devastation across the state. “There are days you don’t get any sleep and you’re expected to go out and perform physically.”
And of course, there’s danger as well. The risk of injury or even death is part of the firefighting package.
Toler works out of the Pacheco station, and heads one of the 28 crews that make up the CCFPD team. However, he’s fought fires all over the state, depending on the needs at the time. Sometimes, in fact, his crew is “pre-positioned” outside of Pacheco in anticipation of greater fire danger in other areas, and until the rains come, the likelihood of a good night’s sleep and a few days off is pretty low.
But Toler isn’t complaining. “Every one of us loves our job,” he says. “It’s what we signed up for, and it’s what we do.”
Toler, though, also has a passion for basketball. He grew up in the hoops’ hotbed of Memphis, Tenn., playing in the same AAU circuit as future NBA players Penny Hardaway and Todd Day. He then joined the Air Force, which allowed him to play all over the world, “from Hawaii to England,” in his words.
Toler was stationed at Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, and broke into coaching at Rodriguez High when a friend asked him to help with the freshmen boys. Oddly, his first experience coaching girls and women came at Napa Valley College. There he began to learn “the subtle nuances of coaching female athletes.”
But he was helping on the boys’ side at St. Mary’s when the girls job opened up, and once he settled in, he said “I think I found my niche.”
It hasn’t been a completely smooth ride, though. St. Mary’s has changed some of its policies over the years, and after a first season with 22 wins, the program took a step back. But Toler got the program on track in 2019-20. The Panthers went 27-7 and won North Coast Section and CIF NorCal titles. That success came in part because of the emphasis on mental toughness — a necessary part of success in both basketball and firefighting.
“I know exhaustion,” he says, “and to be mentally tough, you have to be physically tough. So how do you perform when you’re tired?”
The same issues apply to his fire team, especially during this time of year. “The two jobs are similar in the sense that they’re leadership positions,” he says, “which means not putting yourself first. In both situations, I’m in charge of improving and developing the people I’m responsible for.”
And speaking of improving and developing, his St. Mary’s basketball team will need to do both to have a shot at another state title run next spring.
“We lost our leading scorer and rebounder (Kayla Rosemon), and four seniors who had been in the program since they were freshmen,” he said.
St. Mary’s does return four starters, so it’s not all bad.
“I think we’re going to be OK, but it’s going to be different,” Toler admitted.
One thing that’s definitely different is the schedule, as it’s possible that not only would the high school playoffs extend beyond the end of school, the state championship game might overlap with the beginning of the always expanding fire season.
Toler, though, isn’t that worried. “I hope it does become a problem,” he says, “because that means we’re still playing.”