It was the first quarter of the first game of the season two months ago, and the defending state champion Windward School had already dug themselves into a hole.
In the second period they continued to miss shots while their opponent, powerhouse Harvard-Westlake, rode their momentum and scored at will. By halftime, the Wildcats of West Los Angeles trailed by 18 points.
Then midway through the third quarter, Windward started making buckets. As sixth-year coach Vanessa Nygaard paced, glowered and occasionally gestured on the sidelines, her team began crawling back, possession by possession.
Charisma Osborne, ranked 22nd in the 2019 class, made a jumper. Sophomore Mikayla Williams drove to the hoop for a layup. And as the fourth quarter began winding down, the score was suddenly tied at 54. After a fierce back-and-forth battle, the teams were knotted at 58 as the buzzer sounded, sending them to overtime. Five game minutes and several lead exchanges later, the Wildcats clawed out the win, 68-67.
Players jumped together in joy to the screams of the home spectators. Nygaard pumped her fist once, her facial expression like the stare down of a player who has just blocked a shot.
It was just another night at the office for the former Stanford great, who has coached her team through several other such rallies-to-victory over the last two years, especially.
Since that first outing, 13-3 Windward has won four more close games with a grittiness that they are aiming to take to the state championship and win a repeat title.
It isn’t often to see a squad as young as the Wildcats maintain poise in as many tough game situations as they have. But likely no other high school team is fortunate enough to have not one, but two former WNBA players as coaches.
Nygaard has had an atypical coaching career path in that she began as a Division I assistant coach, and then held the same position in the WNBA before coming to Windward as an assistant coach in 2009. Since being named head coach in 2012, she has guided the program into a new era that includes not just team wins, but a winning culture.
Both players and parents say they relish suiting up for Nygaard and her second-year associate head coach, Ebony Hoffman.
“(Nygaard) has so much knowledge and experience, and she brings so much information to us that we wouldn’t get anywhere else,” senior captain Sela Kay said. “She’s played at every level and she really knows what she’s doing, and how to coach us.”
Hoffman said the team’s practices are advanced.
“We run it like a pro practice, with a lot of attention to detail,” Hoffman said.
Nygaard’s athletes also respect her because she’s willing to do what it takes to make a point. At a practice a week before their season opener, Osborne filmed her coach taking a charge after she’d jumped into a drill.
“She will get involved in practice for any reason,” Kay said.
At Stanford from 1994-1998, Nygaard had one of the best coaches in the game in Tara VanDerveer, who is currently in her 32nd season as head coach of the Cardinal after notching 1,000 career wins last year. Nygaard was a shooting specialist, and is still fourth on the school’s all-time three-point shot career list. She and Stanford won four Pac-10 titles and went to three Final fours during her tenure.
Nygaard was drafted into the WNBA, where she played for six years. She also took her game overseas for three seasons. She said her playing career set her up well for her coaching career.
“My playing experience is my coaching experience, too, because I played for a lot of great coaches,” Nygaard said.
She left her WNBA coaching job to take the Windward position because it would create the balance in life that she wanted.
“I became a high school coach because I wanted to start a family, and I wanted to see my kids grow up,” Nygaard said.
As a college coach, she had wondered why so many players arrived without basic skills, such as left-handed layups. Working at the high school level gave her a chance to teach those skills at an earlier age.
“My (initial) goal wasn’t winning,” Nygaard said. “I wanted to help kids learn the game. Winning is a by-product of working hard.”
Nygaard has learned a lot already at Windward.
“When I first started, if someone was late, everyone ran,” she said. “Now I know they’re not driving themselves to practices. Now I say, ‘tell me if you’re going to be late.’”
She said the founded her program on principles – not rules.
“I treat players equally and fairly, and I expect them to be respectful, to work hard and to have a great attitude,” Nygaard said.
As a parent of three children now, Nygaard understands better how to talk to the parents of her athletes. And the results of all of her efforts speak for themselves.
In her tenure as head coach, Nygaard’s Wildcats have won two California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section championships, one division championship and one state title. In her first season the team went 32-1, and last year they were 30-4. She was Southern Sectional Division coach of the year three years in a row. Her current record at the school is 143-28.
Last summer, Nygaard was an assistant coach for USA Basketball’s U16 Women’s National Team – a distinction that she called an honor.
Many of Nygaard’s players have reached even greater heights after they left Windward. Imani McGee-Stafford played at the University of Texas, and now suits up for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. Jordin Canada, Courtney Jaco and Kristen Simon each set program records at their Division I schools. Canada is expected to be chosen in the first round of this year’s WNBA draft.
Nygaard and Windward are having much success in the present, as well, and if they take another state title this year, it will be no surprise to those who know their coach.
“Vanessa always had an intensity level that I think has definitely carried over into her coaching,” said Cal associate head coach Charmin Smith, who played with Nygaard at Stanford and now scouts her players. “She was always energetic and vocal and fired up. I think these are the same characteristics that make her a great coach at Windward.”
“In addition, I think Vanessa would agree that she learned from one of the best in Tara, and it’s no surprise that she’s successful as a coach. It’s really cool to watch her practices and games and see some things that are so familiar to me from my playing and coaching days as well. I’ve also noticed Vanessa’s unique twists and her own identity in how she runs things at Windward. She’s totally put her stamp on the program. You can totally see Vanessa’s personality in the team and that must feel great to her.”
Windward athletic director Tyrone Powell said Nygaard’s guidance has fostered maturity in her athletes.
“The team – her program – feeds off of Vanessa’s demeanor, which is never panic, and the belief that they can win no matter the circumstance,” Powell said. “Last year we beat Sierra Canyon four times, and in each of those games, Sierra Canyon had a lead, and we fought back. I attribute that to Vanessa’s leadership, vision and ability to instill pride and fight in the scholar-athletes that she leads.”
Nygaard’s players agree.
“She just stresses in practice that we need to have energy no matter what the score is, no matter how much time is left in the game,” Kay said. “It’s her reinforcing that which keeps us going, because we were down in so many situations last year, and we’ve been able to fight that. She emphasizes that we’ve been here before, and we can do it again.”
Nygaard added to her arsenal when she hired Hoffman, who was a standout at Narbonne High School, at USC, and in her 11–year WNBA career. Not only is Hoffman an X’s and O’s master, but she brings her great sense of humor, which creates a coaching staff balance.
“Vanessa has to be a hard (butt), and have a line that can’t be crossed,” Hoffman said. “I have to be different, or the players won’t respond to either of us. We are the perfect yin and yang.”
Kay said Hoffman was an ideal addition to the coaching staff.
“Ebony brings a lot of fun,” but is also very knowledgeable,” Kay said. “She’s the humor, but with lots of basketball.”
It is easy for athletes and their parents to buy in to Nygaard’s program, because of her resume. Williams’ mother, Marisa Blackshire said she chose Windward because Nygaard is the coach there.
“Vanessa has done everything they want to do, so how could you not listen to her?” Blackshire said. “It’s the best of both worlds, basketball-wise and academically. In practices, Vanessa breaks then down and builds them back up.”
As the senior associate athletic director, Nygaard also keeps tabs on her athletes in the classroom. Osborne said she knows she can go to her coach for anything.
“If I’m frustrated, she’ll tell me I can’t be frustrated. It’s like strict, but out of love,” Osborne said. “She checks all of our (grades), and if we have a bad grade teachers report to her and she talks to us about it. She talks to colleges for us and talks to me about college. She helped me write down my list of colleges I’d like to attend.”
Jaco said she remembers well how much Nygaard extended herself for her and her teammates.
“At the high school level, she really gets it,” Jaco said. “She does so much for the girls. She cares about them as people.”
Jaco said Nygaard wrote her a heartfelt note prior to her senior night in 2013.
“I’ll never get rid of that note,” Jaco said. “She makes it personal for you. She’s been a great mentor to me.”
Powell said Nygaard is a straight-shooter.
“If you’re playing for Vanessa, she’s going to tell you what she thinks,” he said. “Sometimes it’s tough to hear because it’s real, but what’s good is you know where she’s coming from.”
Osborne said she and her teammates appreciate the fact that Nygaard and Hoffman have been to the levels they want to reach, and that they are supportive.
“They have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, and when we go through things they know how we feel, because they’ve been through it,” Osborne said. “They always understand and are very understanding.”
Jaco said the two coaches are excellent examples for their athletes.
“It’s so important at the high school level to see women who have been through what you’re trying to achieve,” Jaco said. “They have constant mentorship, which they benefit from. They are preparing those girls to play at the collegiate level.”
Hoffman said she and Nygaard emphasize effort and preparation in practice knowing that collegiate coaches wouldn’t settle for anything less. Kay and her teammates recognize that.
“A lot of times she’ll do things a lot of other coaches wouldn’t with a level of intensity that she requires us to bring,” Kay said. “She takes us through a lot of different scenarios in practice so we’ll be ready for anything. We’re all so lucky to have her as a coach.”
If the measure of a great coach is extended influence, Nygaard appears to be on her way there.
Canada, Simon and Jaco, before she left town last fall, return to Windward for games on occasion to watch the program they helped build, and the coach who guided them to build it.
“Going back is about the team and the program and the history we have made,” Canada said. “You always want to go back and support what you were a part of and that played a huge role in who you are and what you have become. It is an awesome opportunity to show your appreciation and to go back and give back when you can to lend a hand in whatever way possible.”
Canada said Nygaard’s uniqueness and humility are part of her greatness.
“What I love most about her is that she is not afraid to be herself. She can be funny, and even sometimes weird,” Canada said. She just has an extraordinary personality, and that is what makes her special.”
“Coaches aren’t perfect. They make mistakes as well, but she is not afraid to admit if she makes a mistake. That’s what makes her stand out.”
Powell said Nygaard changed the culture of Windward’s athletic department when she arrived by incorporating life lessons with basketball.
“She sets an example for our student-athletes every day,” he said. “I’ve seen Vanessa talking to players about core values, and passing her wisdom along. She affords them opportunities to be empowered women.”
Powell said Nygaard has also helped him fully understand why Title IX rights are critical.
“I’m a middle-aged white male who is entitled in some ways,” Powell said. “She has helped me see things differently and helped me to be a better director and a better father to my daughter.”
Jaco, ironically, is serving as Stanford’s graduate assistant this year. She said she sees a lot of VanDerveer in Nygaard.
“Every day Tara has notes and quotes, little sayings, like Vanessa does,” Jaco said. “Vanessa does the same kind of team-building stuff that Tara does. Not a lot of high school teams get that.”
Both coaches also want their athletes to remember why they first began playing.
“Everything is so serious in high school basketball now, with rankings and divisions and standings,” Jaco said. “Vanessa is about keeping it fun and enjoyable. She’s very competitive, but she wants the girls to enjoy their experience, and Tara does too.”
Ultimately, however, Nygaard’s definition of true achievement falls outside the lines of competition.
“Success is doing the best that I can, and helping others to do the best that they can,” she said. “The question is, ‘do we improve each year?’ It’s about growth.”