Coaching synchronicity replaces rivalry between two of the top high school coaches in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – They take turns coaching during games, and in the fourth quarter sometimes, they stand together shouting directions. During timeouts, they often each grab a player and walk her back to the huddle, dispensing advice.

The Westchester High School girl’s basketball team has two new coaches this year who act as associates. The uniqueness of this circumstance on the high school level is eclipsed only by the fact that Marcel Sanders and Ricky Blackmon have spent the better part of the last decade as the fiercest of rivals, as coaches of Carson and Washington Prep High Schools, respectively.

“They work together as a team and have a partnership, and it seems to be a unique partnership,” Westchester Athletic Director Alonia Alexander said. “For two renowned coaches to come together and to be on one page isn’t easy.”

Carson and Prep come from the Los Angeles City Section’s Marine League, and have not only dominated there, but throughout the city. Carson, under Sanders for the last six years, has won two city championships. Blackmon’s 10-year stewardship at Prep yielded two league titles and several trips to the state playoffs. Numerous athletes from both programs have gone on to play at the college level – perhaps most notably Prep’s Reshanda Gray, whose journey from the JV team in her freshman year to the USA Basketball and McDonald’s All-American teams as a senior, has been well-chronicled.

Games between the Colts and the Generals – especially in the fight for the league title or city championship game rights – have been legendary for their intensity of play and for crowd involvement. Players from each squad would say that “there was no better feeling” than to beat the other team.

But as far as the relationship between Sanders and Blackmon went, it was more like Pat and C. Vivian than Pat and Geno, because the two were friends off the court. This explains how they are where they are now.

Both men were teachers at their respective former schools, and both were displaced last spring in the wave of massive teacher layoffs that affected most every Southern California school district. At first, neither knew what to do. Sanders tried to convince Blackmon to take over the Carson program; both eventually decided that they didn’t want to coach anymore. It was Blackmon who first heard of the coach opening at Westchester.

“I didn’t want it,” Blackmon said, “because I didn’t want to coach.”

Sanders applied, and he convinced Blackmon to do the same. Sanders was named head coach, and Blackmon assistant, but Sanders made Blackmon an associate head coach. Both now teach at Westchester.

Once the alliance was made, Sanders and Blackmon set out to make it work. Blackmon said they spent the first month feeling each other out.

“We were very similar in our passion for the sport, but different in our approaches,” Blackmon said. “We never felt like we were stepping on each other’s toes, because we have a mutual respect for each other.”

Though officially the head coach, the outspoken Sanders is usually the one sitting down while Blackmon is pacing the sidelines during games. Sanders said it doesn’t matter to him – as long as the coaching gets done.

“Ricky’s used to being the man, so he does his thing,” Sanders said.

Blackmon recognizes Sanders’ gesture.

“He gives me a lot of leeway,” Blackmon said. “I have a lot of responsibility and autonomy.”

Gray, now a star freshman at Cal in Berkeley, approves of the partnership between her former coach and Sanders.

“After being rivals for so long, it’s great to see that they still have a great friendship,” she said. “I think they will do a great job working together.”

The coaches are taking over at a time when the Westchester program is being restructured, according to Alexander. So far, she likes what she sees.

“From observation, from talking to student athletes and seeing how they are responding to Ricky and Marcel, it seems like a very good mixture,” Alexander said. “I see positives.”

Blackmon said they are working on instilling discipline and work ethic with athletes.

“We’re trying to get them to understand what it takes to win,” he said.

Both coaches said the team has a lot of talent, but not experience.

“So far, we’re right under .500,” Sanders said, “but we’re going to be OK.”

"Coach Blackmon has been known for taking nothing and building it into something," Gray said. "He has done a wonderful job, as he did working with me."

Next week, Westchester will participate in the Gardena Holiday Shootout Tournament at Gardena High School. The first week in January, they will be at the popular Fairfax Tournament.

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