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Queens of the Court: How these women coaches are growing the game for girls

By Cait Kemp

Dawn Karpell, the head coach of the St. John Vianney High School (NJ) girls basketball team, leads one of the best girls teams in the country. SJV has an extremely consistent program, ranking nationally multiple times in the past several seasons and winning the most New Jersey Tournament of Champions (eight) ever. The Lancers hold 18 state titles throughout program history. Karpell has been present for much of this success, first as a player, earning four state titles, and now as a coach for the past 16 years.

Karpell is a legend not just at SJV but in high school basketball as a whole. Her accolades and achievements are among the most impressive a coach can receive, and she continues to produce some of the best girls players in the country.

Yet, when Karpell travels around the nation with her team, time and time again she is overlooked. People often still assume that one of her male assistants is the head coach.

This is not an uncommon occurrence for women coaches across the game of basketball. Despite her success, Karpell must continue to prove herself as a coach, even with one of the best teams in the nation.

Karpell was one of four women head coaches at the 2023 Spalding Hoophall Classic. Alongside her was Terri Bamford (La Jolla Country Day School, CA), Tamika Dudley (Sidwell Friends School, DC) and Alicia Komaki (Sierra Canyon School, CA).

These four women have each built some of the most successful girls programs in the country, leading both ranked teams and highly-rated players. Over the course of the weekend, they all showed their talents on the sidelines in Blake Arena, and proved the importance of including women’s basketball in the conversation.

Bamford has created a dominant girls program at La Jolla Country Day. After she took over as head coach in 2000, she was often told that the program wouldn’t last after star Candice Wiggins graduated in 2004. However, Bamford’s coaching success continued long after Wiggins’ tenure, as she led La Jolla to eight consecutive league titles and five state championship appearances.

“I have been building the program to a perennial powerhouse at La Jolla Country Day School since 2000,” Bamford said. “I had Candice Wiggins and I think every year they would say when she graduates it’ll be done, but we’ve kept that powerhouse going for 23 years. I’m really proud of the kids who come through and the culture that we’ve built, and having the opportunity to impact young athletes and help them on their journey to the next level.”

Impact is a commonality among these coaches. They recognize that they are in a position to not only grow players, but grow the game of basketball for women. It is crucial to see more women coaching at a high level, giving the next generation of young stars the opportunity to learn from some of the best who also understand the position they are in as females breaking into a male-dominated environment.

“I’m really big on educating the girls on where the game was at and how much it’s grown, how much more exposure they get and things like that,” Karpell said. “There’s still a lot of room to grow and there’s still a lot of things we need to continue.

Bamford added: “We have some good [women] coaches in our area, and it’s just nice to see because a lot of times when I go to meetings and at the end of the year meetings for the league and it’s me and all of the men, so I love it when I see great female coaches elevating the game.”

Komaki has coached the Sierra Canyon girls basketball team for 11 years. She became a household name instantly. In her first three years as head coach, the team won three state championships. Komaki’s influence in girls hoops spoke loud, and her dominance has not stopped since. Now, Komaki is coaching one of the top-ranked teams in the nation, along with the No. 1 recruit, Juju Watkins.

Sierra Canyon matched up with Sidwell Friends on Saturday at the Hoophall Classic. The game featured Watkins, as well as the No. 3 recruit in Sidwell guard Jadyn Donovan. With Dudley on the opposite sideline, it was the only game over the weekend that had featured two women coaches. The community of women’s coaches is growing, but is still small.

“I think there’s always special moments in a game like this with Tamika,” Komaki said. “I was just talking in the locker room. It’s hard even to get respect in this environment…So to kind of have that community where we all go through the same thing, we know each other well, I think we’re all on the same mission – to not only coach our teams well but to bring some light to how good girls basketball is.”

The next step: growing the game as a whole. The WNBA has seen significant growth since its beginnings in 1996, but there is still a ways to go in broadening the exposure that the athletes receive. Women’s college basketball is also on the rise, as well as high school, as seen through the expansion of girls games at Hoophall.

But the girls still deserve more.

“I think that there is still work to do,” Dudley said. “I think that there are not enough African-American women represented [in coaching] at the professional level and even at the collegiate level. I think it’s growing, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Dudley added: “I think it’s really important that [players] see people that look like them on the sideline, especially because one day a lot of them will aspire to be in our position, so you want to make sure that you continue to blaze the trail for them and continue to make the girls game be about the girls.”

Photo: Carley Crain/The Springfield Student

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