An Evening to Remember: The 6th Annual Game Changer Awards in San Francisco

Bay Area professional athletes gathered at the Coaching Corps Annual Game Changer Awards to honor impactful coaches who helped them reach their full potential.

Ron Wotus, three-time World Series Champion coach of the San Francisco Giants awarded his high school soccer coach, John McKiernan, and thanked him for instilling life lessons about values, character, and sportsmanship, beyond the game.

Golden State Warriors power forward Eric Paschall honored Jay Wright, the head men’s basketball coach of Villanova University and six-time Big East coach of the year. Paschall thanked Coach Wright for showing him how to make it in the NBA, and for teaching him how to do things the right way. Coach Wright joined via satellite and spoke of the honor to work with young athletes and help shape their futures.

Darren Waller, a tight end for the Raiders, honored Raiders tight ends coach Frank Smith for his dedication to push him to be his best self. Smith credits working with Waller and watching him grow as a man as one of the greatest accomplishments of his career.

Arik Armstead of the San Francisco 49ers awarded Joe Cattolico, his high school football coach as the coach he loved to play for, and never wanted to disappoint, because of Cattolico’s belief in him.

Stephen Piscotty, an outfielder for the Oakland Athletics honored his father, Michael Piscotty as his hero for both being the coach of his youth teams, and for coaching their family through the illness of Stephen’s mother, Gretchen.

Coaching Corps was honored to present this year’s Coach of the Year Award to San Diego based Mackenzie O’Connell, a veteran volleyball coach. Mackenzie was selected from the thousands of Coaching Corps volunteers across the country because of her passion, dedication, and ability to make a positive impact in the lives of her players – Mackenzie has never hesitated to support them with challenges they face both on and off the court. For three years and counting, she’s come back to be there for them, season after season. Mackenzie was presented the Coach of the Year award from one of her youth athletes, SoSo, who shared how Mackenzie has helped her face bullying issues in school, while also perfecting her overhand serve in volleyball.

Mackenzie has fostered such a community within her team that SoSo even announced that she would like to be Mackenzie’s bridesmaid!

Coaching Corps is grateful to the presenters, honorees, sponsors, and so many others for supporting this year’s awards and shining a light on the importance of giving all youth, regardless of their circumstances, access to the caring sports mentors they want and deserve.

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Going Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Benita Vargas-Brown, Volleyball Coach at Hampstead Hill Academy

Benita Vargas-Brown grew up in one of the poorest parts of Baltimore. She always wanted to make a difference in the city, which is why she became a social worker. That same passion eventually led her to coach and mentor kids in sports. Learn more about Benita’s journey in her own words.
How did you become a Coaching Corps coach?
I didn’t go looking for coaching, it found me. I was really stressed with my job and my final semester in undergrad, so my husband said, “You’re really not helping yourself. Why don’t you leave your job, take the semester off, and figure out what you want to do next?” So, I went to a volunteering fair, and that’s when I got to know Coaching Corps. It was destiny: They were looking for a volleyball coach, and I am qualified to coach volleyball. They said they needed a coach for Hampstead Hill Academy, which is literally just a walk away from our home. So, it was really perfect.
Can you tell us more about the challenges that the kids you coach face at school and at home?
When people hear Baltimore, crime and violence are among the usual challenges that come to mind, so it was extra important to keep the kids off the streets. I’ve had to drive some of the girls home so they don’t have to take the bus when it’s dark.
There have also been some differences among the girls. The school is located at Patterson Park, where on one side you have the million-dollar houses, and on the other you have boarded-up houses. So you wind up having kids coming from privileged and underprivileged situations. This created some interesting dynamics within the team that led to some difficult conversations, but we got through it eventually. That’s one of the benefits of team sports. We got this whole learning experience that wound up really positive at the end.
You mentioned something about “interesting team dynamics.” Can you share more about that?
This is actually one of the things I’m proudest [of] about my team. The girls take it upon themselves to address differences within the group. At one point, it became very clear during our practice that something wasn’t right. We were on this championship drive but there was obvious tension within the team. The girls came to me and gathered as a group to talk things through. The fact that they came up with that strategy on their own is really amazing. For me, it meant that we’re doing something right. After that talk, we got back together as a team. I’m so glad we did it because I know for a fact we wouldn’t have won the championship without sorting things out. Everybody makes mistakes. At the end of the day, what’s important is to be there and have each other’s backs.
What changes or improvements did you see in the girls as a result of being on the team?
The most obvious one would be the sense of maturity. To be in a position where you have a responsibility over something, to be able to practice and play, there are expectations. If you didn’t come to practice on Wednesday, you’re not going to play on Thursday: that’s the consequence for skipping practice.  Eventually it wasn’t the consequence that really drove them. It was their commitment.
All my [Coaching Corps] girls who tried out for high school sports made their teams. There are two highly-rated schools in Baltimore, Baltimore Polytechnic institute and Baltimore City College. To get into those schools is every parent’s and kid’s dream. They have great education and high graduation rates, and they don’t tolerate gang-related violence, which creates a safer environment for the kids. Fifteen of the girls from the team got in and played for Poly while 13 went to City. That makes me really happy.
Wow! If there’s one way to describe success and promoting equity, that would be it. With all these experiences, what advice would you give aspiring coaches and mentors for kids?
Show up. You have to be there. You have to be consistent. You can’t cancel on these kids. Over the course of my time, if I know something’s going to come up in my schedule, I plan for an assistant coach to take over. Kids know if you care. You can figure out everything else, there are Youtube videos for that. You just have to show up because these kids expect you to be there for them.
Afterschool Partners

Orlando

Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida

City of Orlando Athletics

Afterschool Program Partners

Other

JT Dorsey Foundation

Afterschool Program Partners

San Diego

Gompers Preparatory Academy

High Tech High

La Maestra Foundation – Center for Youth Advancement at Generations

The Monarch School

Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego

Soccer Kids America

YMCA of San Diego County

Afterschool Program Partners

Los Angeles

A Place Called Home

AFFIRMATIVE ATHLETICS

After School All Stars: Los Angeles

Boys & Girls Club of Venice

Boys & Girls Clubs of Carson

Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Los Angeles

Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Monica

Boys and Girls Clubs of the LA Harbor

Brotherhood Crusade

City of Huntington Park Department of Parks

East Los Angeles Rising Youth Club

Equitas Academy

Girls on the Run of Los Angeles

Girls Play Los Angeles

ICES Education

IMPACTO

L.A.C.E.R. Afterschool Programs

Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine

Los Angeles Rec and Parks

Major League Baseball Youth Academy

Norwalk La Mirada Unified

P.F. Bresee Foundation

Sloane Stephens Foundation

Street Soccer USA: Los Angeles

Team Prime Time

Variety Boys & Girls Club

Watts Rams

YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles

Afterschool Program Partners

ATLANTA

Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta: Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club
Afterschool Program Partners

Boston

All Dorchester Sports and Leadership

Boston Centers for Youth & Families

Boston SCORES

Cambridge Community Center

East End House

Oak Square YMCA

Sole Train: Boston Runs Together