Former players return for coaching challenge, Part 1

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Clapping her hands and encouraging El Molino’s girls to work hard on defense, Melissa Jones coaxes maximum effort on the basketball court — much as she played the game.

El Molino girls basketball coach Melissa Jones encourages her team during the game held at Windsor High School, Jan. 13, 2011. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / PD)

While the Lions have struggled, the first-year coach sees improvement. Despite another loss on a recent night, El Molino moved better on offense and played tight defense, staying within a couple of scores much of the contest.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Jones said. “But we need to win one of these close games. I expect so much out of them that it can be frustrating at times. It’s a lot of fun, though. I enjoy teaching the game. I tell the girls I’m learning, too.”

Winning three Sonoma County League titles and earning Sonoma County League most valuable player honors at El Molino is her pedigree.

Jones — then Melissa Young — enjoyed a solid career at Holy Names University, a NAIA school in Oakland, where she is second in games played and fifth in 3-point field goals in the program’s history.

Working to make the Lions hungry for wins, Jones is another promising girls’ basketball coach in the SCL, along with first-year coach Monica Mertle at Windsor and Jackie Sellards at Healdsburg.

“We were lucky enough to have Melissa waiting in the wings,” said El Molino athletic director Mike Roan. “Any time you can have a young woman leading these girls, it’s going to be a positive for the program. She’s energetic. They really respond to her.”

Finding her way back to Forestville after marrying, having a son and returning to school to become a teacher, Jones coached the freshmen and then junior varsity teams before taking over the varsity this season.

But having played at a high level does not make a coach capable of molding prep players into skilled students of the game. Jones is gaining her coaching chops.

“I come with basketball experience. But teaching is a whole different ballgame than playing it,” she said. “I have so much more to learn. I realize that every week.”

Having to teach many fundamental skills to high school varsity players demands patience. From proper footwork and squaring up for shots to getting in low defensive position and stopping rather than fouling opponents are some of the skills the Lions continue to develop.

“We’ve improved by leaps and bounds,” Jones said. “Our win-loss record hasn’t improved, but we’re more aggressive, we go harder, we’re a little more fundamentally sound.”

During games, Jones reminds players to move without the ball, make strong passes and have no fear to shoot. On defense, she urges players to fight through screens and get in rebounding position.

“Defensively, we play really good,” she said. “If you play solid, good defense, you always give yourself a chance to win. We have a lot of good pieces on offense. We just haven’t been able to put the puzzle together yet.”

Stressing effort and attitude, Jones’ team does what she did best in her playing days.

“Melissa’s best asset would be there’s always effort. She could just kind of will things to happen and get her teammates to follow that,” said former El Molino coach Jim Fagundes, now at St. Vincent.

Instilling such passion for the game demands a quiet intensity, said Jones, who avoids yelling, but might roll her eyes or look away following a poor play.

A pair of tall water bottles might last a game as Jones takes frequent sips when not clapping encouragement.

“I want them to dive after every loose ball,” Jones said. “I want them to have no quit in them. We should play hard all the time.”

Even as El Molino has started the league season with three losses and is 6-8 overall, Jones sees growth, particularly in how players approach games.

“Success and winning has a lot more to do with attitude, mental preparation and drive than skill and talent,” she said. “Whatever you put into it is what you get out of it.

“You wonder how you can make them go harder and make it more enjoyable. What’s the point of playing basketball if you’re not having fun?” Jones said.

The girls know their coach has been there and they appear to buy into her approach.

“It’s great being back with the game and having fun with the girls,” Jones said.