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Return to Carlsbad jogs old memories

02/20/2016, 8:00am PST
By Terry Monahan

Former Lancers basketball star now coaching in Los Angeles

Head coach Vanessa Nygaard (far left) has guided L.A. Windward to an 18-5 overall record and 8-0 mark in the Gold Coast League this season.

Walking into the unfamiliar Carlsbad High gym for a showcase game against Bishop’s last month was a strange experience for Vanessa Nygaard.

Now in her fourth year as girls basketball head coach at Los Angeles Windward, Nygaard used to break into Carlsbad’s old gym late at night to sharpen her hoop skills alone back in the ’90s.

The old, spartan gym, which sits next to the newer building, was Nygaard’s second home.

Yet in the current gym one of her Windward players noticed something on the wall — Nygaard’s name on the Lancers’ Wall of Fame.

“It felt really weird,” said the 1993 graduate, who grew up just a few blocks from the campus. “I didn’t even mention to the girls that I went there, but one of them saw the Wall.”

Nygaard, 40, had an illustrious career at Carlsbad before coaching her first game there.

The 6-footer was the Avocado League Player of the Year three times and twice was a first-team All-CIF San Diego Section honoree, including being Player of the Year in 1993.

She led the Lancers to back-to-back section finals, winning it all in ’92, before heading off to Stanford, a six-year career in the WNBA and playing in pro leagues in Germany, Spain and Italy.

Nygaard, a fourth-round draft pick by the New York Liberty in 1998, retired as a player after the 2003 season with the Los Angeles Sparks.

“My body finally failed,” said Nygaard, the mother of daughter Emerson, 5, and 3-year-old twins Bryce, a boy, and Avery, a girl. “My knees were done. I was spending more time getting ready to play than actually playing because of all the aches and pains.

“It wasn’t like I was making a million dollars in the NBA.”

Hoping to stay involved with her passion, Nygaard turned to coaching with stints at Long Beach State (2003) and Pepperdine (2004) before hitting the WNBA with the San Antonio Silver Stars and Washington Mystics as an assistant.

Her desire to be a head coach drove her to Windward. After spending a season as an assistant, she took over the Wildcats in 2012.

Windward went 32-1 in 2013, winning a Southern Section crown before losing the Open Division state title to Oakland Bishop O’Dowd.

Her four teams have compiled a 98-19 record. The Wildcats finished the regular season this winter 18-5 overall and 8-0 in the Gold Coast League.

“I don’t consider myself an intense screamer, although some refs would disagree,” Nygaard said. “I try to sit a lot. I consider myself intense, but I want my players to figure things out for themselves, like how to win games and how to love the game like I do.

“It’s amazing how you go from assistant to head coach and you get this dose of rage toward referees. I’ve tried to chill out, but a coach I played against when I was at Carlsbad reminded me that I would stand and stare at her team for the final two minutes of warmups before games.

“To be on a team is so great. I want to make this sisterhood moment an enjoyable experience for all my players.”

It all started during those break-ins at the old gym.

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