By Shawn O’Neal, contributing writer
Coming home can humble anybody.
Kelly Sopak was a three-sport stand-out at Bethel High School, an NCAA Division I talent in baseball and is now, without question, among the nation’s most successful basketball coaches and a mentor to some of the biggest names in the women’s game over the past decade.
But he was greeted as any other when he brought his Carondelet High team to play the Bison in January.
“Nobody from my time is around anymore,” he said. “Everybody’s gone. I was in our old locker room and there was a Brave logo there (Bethel changed its nickname from Braves to Bison), but that’s about the closest thing.”
That the fine folks at Bethel didn’t know him is the kind of thing most everybody gets to experience and Sopak’s been in California for a long time now. But the people who do know him better explain who he is these days.
It’s a long list, but some of the notables are WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu, Stanford All-American Cameron Brink and coach Tara VanDerveer and UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
He now coaches at Carondelet High in Concord, California after previous stints at Miramonte (Orinda) and Northgate (Walnut Creek) and, all told, has piled up 457 high school coaching wins, countless club victories, two Nike Elite Youth Basketball League national titles and dozens upon dozens of former players who he has helped take their skills to the next level, including a stunning 15 McDonald’s All-Americans.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Sopak is that he played three sports at Bethel and none of them was basketball yet he has built Cal Stars into a national powerhouse known by every college coach in the country.
And it was all kind of by accident.
“If I would have known … had we set out to do what we have done … I probably would never have started it because I never could have envisioned it would be this big and had this many players and had this big of an impact,” he said. “It would have seemed like way too big of an undertaking. I would not have attempted to swim in those waters.”
Sopak was born and raised in Puyallup, the son of a contractor who eventually built a home “way out” in the sticks of unincorporated Pierce County.
That meant Rogers High School’s loss was Bethel’s gain. Sopak’s best sport was baseball and he did well enough to land at Tacoma Community College and eventually Nevada, where he didn’t see much action, redshirting before tearing a rotator cuff and being forced to retire.
A lifelong athlete, he started looking for ways to fill his time and make a few dollars on the side. Officiating basketball in the Reno-Sparks area helped pay the bills and he took his first coaching role with elementary school-age players at the Sparks YMCA and became a voracious student of the game.
“I remember having to read a lot,” he said. “I had never been coached in the sport so I had to teach myself. I remember feeling like I had to work really hard to have an impact and asking a lot of questions, calling my brother (Paul) and my brother’s friend (Chuck Bills). I would call a couple of different coaches and say, ‘this is what I’m thinking, what do you think?'”
It was there he started to pick up on some of the details that make a great coach.
“An in-bound play at the youth level … if you can successfully run one you’re going to win because you can score 10 points just on those,” he said. “There is no way a (player) that age will consistently defend it, so you’ll almost always get a good shot.”
He kept coaching and, eventually, he and wife Beverly welcomed Lauren and Leah into the world and the future was set in motion. Sopak had a couple of future players in his own home, but that wasn’t the focus. He had a successful career as an insurance agent and a passion for coaching gaining momentum.
“The cool thing about it is that he did not have a daughter on the team,” said Morgan Hatton, one of the first Cal Stars players and one of the first to earn a Division I scholarship, playing for four years at Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California. “Part of it was he was always asking us, ‘What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?’ He was always advocating for us.”
That was the whole idea behind Cal Stars. Sopak and Hatton’s father had coached with another club previously but decided to break off with the intention of getting their players seen. By then, Sopak had his first varsity high school job and started to see the possibilities.
“We did not have enough players so we opened it to others and found a lot of interest,” Sopak said. “The dumb luck part of that we also started a second-grade team and so we grew it from the top and bottom.”
That’s when the winning started and really hasn’t stopped.
Sopak isn’t the kind of guy to toss out his record or his accomplishments — but the record is what the record is. Cal Stars started as an Adidas team and eventually moved into the Nike EYBL, the pinnacle of American youth basketball. They won national titles in 2015 and 2021.
“What was amazing to me was how much the program grew in just the three years after we broke off, how many teams he had started in that short time,” Hatton said. “The people he attracts to coach the teams is a testament to attracting the right kind of people to grow the club.”
And those people have trained a generation of stars. Ionescu is clearly the program’s biggest star, but she’s just one of many. Aari McDonald (Washington, Arizona), Chelsea Gray (Duke) and Evina Westbrook (UConn) are all WNBA players and Stanford’s Haley Jones and Cameron Brink are likely headed there soon. Many others will never play pro ball but are on scholarship all across the country and are probably a bigger statement about the program.
“At the purest form, we just try to help make them better,” Sopak said. “I cannot get you a scholarship, but I can get a coach to watch you. You need the players and parents to own the process. They deserve all the credit, we’re just providing a platform.”
Sopak didn’t start Cal Stars for his daughters, but it worked out OK for them all the same. Lauren was part of that first junior team and played all the way through high school and did not continue on to college. Leah was barely old enough to bounce a ball when it all started, but played through high school and is now a junior guard at Saint Martin’s in Lacey.
Being the daughter of a coach whose name has become synonymous with significant success wasn’t always easy, she said, but it was always worth it.
“He will spoil us with the best gear, but he expects elite things,” Leah said. “We are not the team that looks intimidating. We all look the same. You would never think a team that looks like us would beat you … we’re just copy-paste. But when we go out there we are just ruthless.”
Hatton said Sopak’s teaching style makes the difference. At its core is honesty.
“You always know exactly what he’s thinking, which I really appreciate,” she said. “It’s what you need to get better.”
The lessons of Sopak’s Pierce County years fed his approach. He credits people like his baseball coaches at Bethel (Bill Melton) and TCC (Norm Webstad) as giving him the foundation.
“I did not want to be coached and he held my feet to the fire at every turn,” Sopak said of Melton. “If I did something out of line, he would say ‘OK, you are not playing this week.'”
Melton also taught Sopak what it was to care for players.
“He lived way out where we did and he would drive me home from practice and he became an unassuming mentor and I probably did not appreciate it at the time, I probably thought he was somebody who was trying to pick on me, but he was not. He was a team-first coach and that is how I coach now.”
Hatton said that, long after Sopak was done coaching her, he would be at her college games right next to her father. Leah Sopak said Kelly flies up to watch the Saints even when she’s sidelined with an injury.
Leah said she was never the alpha on her father’s star-studded teams, but had a moment in a game in her senior year that stays with her among all the others.
“I was never our best player, but we were playing a big game my senior year and none of our players were stepping up and I ended up having the game of my life,” she said. “He put all of his trust in me that night and as the daughter of a coach, that was the biggest thing for me and it really meant a lot.”
Burnout is a major problem for college athletes and losing love for the game and moving on to other things is common, but that Leah Sopak says she still loves the game after spending most of her life immersed in it says a lot about her father’s success.
“He is so many things that I just cannot put it into words,” she said. “He is such a caring man. He will always put other people’s needs ahead of his own. He just cares to see (his players) have success. He created Cal Stars to help girls get scholarships. Basketball is a big part of his life but family is way bigger.”