Special Olympics Southern California presented five coaches with Coach of the Season awards in their respective sports Saturday during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2019 Fall Games at the Fountain Valley Sports Park and Recreation Center.
Softball: James Saunders, Los Angeles & San Gabriel Valley
James Saunders has coached in almost all sports within the Long Beach Area and encourages others to “cross cover” so we always have enough coaches. He started his coaching career in 2000 after his son, David, started to swim with the program. He not only coaches , but has become a great mentor, friend and even a “father” figure to many athletes.
In 2012, the Long Beach Area was without a softball program. Although James was head coach of the bocce program and helping with swimming, he knew it was important to have a softball program. After getting other coaches involved, he helped to bring back the softball program to Long Beach.
In 2013, he helped to field two teams and the program has grown from there. Currently, the softball program has 40 athletes and three teams. With practice twice a week and tournaments on some weekends, free time is in short supply.
Even though his free time is limited, James helps with training and mentoring new coaches. He also sees the importance of helping the next generation of coaches. James takes training very seriously. At the beginning of each practice, he has the athletes and coaches condition themselves so no one gets injured. He makes sure to praise them at the end of practice and after any game. James believes that all athletes have the ability to play, just some just need a little more help than others. James is always willing to give that extra time.
James is not only business, though—he sees the big picture and any given weekend he is not coaching, he is helping athletes and their families with repairing things around the house or using his truck to help them move. James has even opened his house to those that need assistance.
He epitomizes the athletes’ oath of “let me be brave in the attempt.” James will not let anything get is his way when it comes to helping others. For these reasons, and too many others to mention, we believe James Saunders should be the softball coach of the year.
Golf: Rob Windham, Orange County
Coach Rob Windham has been a dedicated coach for more than 10 years, and always has the athletes’ interest at the forefront in everything he does.
As head coach for the Huntington Beach Crush, he has played an active role in the growth of the golf team. As the team was growing, he identified that he could not manage the growth of the team and effectively led practices as head coach, while also serving as Local Program Coordinator (LPC). He recruited someone to step in and serve as LPC so that he could focus on designing and structuring practices for the wide range of abilities of athletes.
He takes the time to make sure that the athletes participating in Level 2 (alternate shot) are appropriately matched with partners that will work with the athletes to master the skills of the sport. He also challenges the athletes to develop their skills to advance into Level 4, where the athletes are successful in a round of golf. He will serve as a caddie, or Unified Partner if warranted, but will also step aside to let others experience the joy that is working with our athletes.
Volleyball: Bob Kinzel, Inland Empire
Bob Kinzel is the head coach for every sport in our Rim Mountain Communities program. It is not a huge program, but he is committed to our athletes and he shows that by taking on this role and then some.
He is at every competition and is usually personally, picking up athletes so they can attend. It hasn’t even been three years since he began with Special Olympics and he has attended coaches camps in five sports so that he can best serve the athletes. Bob goes above and beyond what is asked of him in every aspect.
Tennis: Liz Frech, Santa Barbara County
Liz Frech has been a strong advocate for Special Olympics in Santa Barbara for many years.
Liz joined the tennis program as an assistant coach many years ago and jumped at the opportunity to take over the program when the head coach had to step away. Liz makes it her goal to get close to her athletes and has become more than just a coach to them.
Liz also hosts a Unified tennis event every year, partnering the athletes from Santa Barbara with tennis players from the local high schools and colleges, which is a highlight for the athletes every year.
Soccer: Elizabeth Villa, Santa Clarita & Tri-Valley
Elizabeth Villa has been coaching soccer in Glendale since the program began in 2016. She has brought her knowledge of playing soccer at the competitive level to the athletes.
Elizabeth was nominated not just for her commitment to the program over the last four years, but also for the work she has done in the past two years to better equip coaches to give the athletes the best experience. Elizabeth assumed the head coach role for one of Glendale’s three teams last year, and in 2019 became a certified clinician and certified six new Glendale coaches in August.
This season, the lead coaches determined it was necessary to provide coaches of all levels with resources to hold productive and meaningful practice sessions, so Elizabeth developed a practice plan for the entire season so that all teams are working on the same concepts at their level of play. The practice plan includes a progression so that at the end of the season, athletes (and coaches) will be able to see growth and mastery of skills.
Most importantly, Elizabeth is passionate about getting to know each of her athletes—their skill level, their best mode of communication and their challenges—so that she can develop a relationship with them that encourages growth, on and off the field. She advocates for respectful treatment of them as true athletes as they compete, stressing that first and foremost they are treated as athletes who are competitive in the same ways that she was during her soccer career.
Fellow Glendale coach Kathy Leon said, “Our players are very well coached and Elizabeth is teaching them soccer skills like any other team [outside of Special Olympics]. It’s amazing to see our teams progress every year under her leadership.”
Glendale is fortunate to have Elizabeth as a leader in the Special Olympics movement.