Jeff Burich had a head for coaching when he was playing basketball at Bishop Diego.
It was the summer before Burich’s senior year. Coach John Ward placed him on a team of reserves for a split-squad game against the better players.
“I was with the lower guys and I remember Ward saying to me, ‘Are you going to win?‘” Burich recalled. “I said if we do this and we do that, then I think we got a chance. He said, ‘No! You’re a player, you’re supposed to look at me and say: Yes, coach, I think we’re going to win.’
“Already then I was analyzing things.”
A basketball coach in the community since the age of 19, Burich, now 44, experienced the ultimate reward for a high school coach this season: winning a CIF-Southern Section championship. He guided the Bishop Diego girls to the Division 5A title. The team also won its first-ever state tournament game.
Burich, who was named the CIF Division 5A Coach of the Year, knew this team was something special. It had a “Big Three” of seniors: point guard Jordyn Lilly, post player Hannah Rogers and defensive demon Morgan Wallace. Lilly was chosen the division’s Player of the Year and Rogers earned All-CIF honors. Wallace was a second-team all-league selection.
SPORTS FIGURE OF THE MONTH
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athletic performance, a lifetime achievement award,
or perhaps a great example of leadership.
The Big Three and the other players gelled to form a confident, cohesive group that created quite a buzz in the community.
“This year was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Burich said. “I told (the players) you don’t like to say you have favorite teams, but I told them they were different. Their camaraderie was great; it was always fun to compete. You enjoy playing games in December. And then you get into league and, hopefully, by that time you’ve gotten better, so when February rolls around you’re ready to make the playoffs. That’s what I enjoy, watching that progression.”
The progression actually started in the summer at a tournament in Morro Bay. He said after getting beat up in a couple of games on Friday, the team made a complete turnaround and finished strong on Saturday. The following week, the Cardinals beat a Santa Barbara High team minus star Amber Melgoza and played Dos Pueblos tough.
“Something really clicked,” he said. “They came out with so much confidence and it carried over for the rest of the season.”
The squad’s willingness to learn and get better made it a pleasure to coach.
“They bought into everything they were told,” he said. “I haven’t had a team that wanted to learn so much. They wanted to get better.”
Athletic Director Dan Peeters was impressed.
“Jeff has a great knowledge of the game and a tremendous amount of experience,” he said. “His even keel approach works well with his players. Simply put, Jeff gets the most out of his team, and the girls have a positive experience in his program.
“This year, Jeff pulled all the right strings.”
Rogers expressed her appreciation for Burich.
“Playing for coach Burich for the past two years has been memorable,” she said. (He’s) not only my coach on the court but a mentor and friend for life. I have learned a lot from him and he enriched my love for the game.”
Lilly said it was a pleasure and an honor to play for Burich.
“He has been there for me since day one,” she said. “From the struggles coming from my knee injury during my freshman year, to being frustrated with my game throughout the season, he was always available to talk. And he gave me great advice. He is so supportive and encouraging. He has been especially supportive in trying to help those players — one of them being me — who would like to play at the next level. He always encouraged us to pursue what we love, whether it be playing basketball in college or getting the degree we want. He cares so much about every one of us, and he always made sure we were OK.
“He is not only a great coach but he is an even better mentor. He has been a mentor to me ever since I started playing at Bishop, and I thank him for always believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.”
Burich was two years out of Bishop Diego when he started coaching basketball in 1991 at the Page Center. He coached a 6th-grade boys team that included his younger brother, Mike, and future All-CIF athletes Bradlee Van Pelt (San Marcos) and Joe Lammers (Bishop Diego).
“I decided I could prepare him for high school basketball better than the coaches he had at that time,” Burich said of his brother. “I was only two years out of high school, so I thought I knew a bunch of stuff.”
Burich has three brothers and they all attended Bishop. Joe graduated in 1983, Chris in 1992 and Mike in 1998.
When Mike enrolled at Bishop, Burich talked to Ward about the possibility of coaching there. He couldn’t coach his brother’s frosh/soph squad so he took the JV job for one season and switched to the frosh/soph team the following year. His brother was on the JVs and was elevated to the varsity midway through his sophomore year. Burich coached boys basketball for 5½ years at Bishop before going back to the Page Center.
“I went back to coaching at the Page Center and I had a bunch of Santa Barbara Junior High kids. Those parents knew (then Santa Barbara High boys coach) Jeff Lavender and they told him if you have an opening at Santa Barbara High, you should bring this guy,” Burich said.
He coached lower level teams at Santa Barbara for three years before former Bishop varsity boys coach Ray Vazquez asked him to return to his alma mater in 2004. He coached JVs and assisted Vazquez with the varsity boys for two years before taking over the varsity girls job in 2006.
“I love the competition and strategizing,” he said of his fondness for coaching. “When I was coaching my brother, I loved the joy of winning and competing.”
Burich soaks up coaching tips like a sponge. When he was at Santa Barbara, he remembers listening to Dave Bregante, whose son, Joe, played for Burich as a sophomore. He picked up tidbits from hearing conversations between Bregante and John Ward during summer league games.
One of the things Burich valued the most was team chemistry, Lilly noted.
“Without his positive energy and light-hearted personality we would have never had the strong team chemistry that we had this year,” she said. “I loved playing for coach Burich because he taught me not only how to be a better ballplayer, but he taught me leadership qualities as well. I have always looked up to him, and his coaching style is so unique. I have experienced many different coaching styles but coach Burich’s style is definitely my favorite. His style includes encouragement, goal-setting, mentorship, leadership, and family. Our team was a family, and we couldn’t have done it without the amazing support and guidance from coach Burich.”
When he isn’t in the gym, Burich is running his business, Burich Pool Service, or spending time with his family: wife Dawnielle and their sons Connor, 5, and Dawson, 2 months. He missed a game this season to be with Dawnielle for Dawson’s birth.
So it’s been an amazing year for Burich: he celebrated the arrival of his second son and his first CIF title. His first son, Connor, was at Godinez High in Anaheim to watch his dad coach the Cardinals to that championship victory over Bloomington Christian.
It was a magical moment for Burich, the team and the entire Bishop Diego community.
“To be able to share a CIF win with coach Burich is something so special,” said Lilly. “I will always remember the moment I got subbed-out at the CIF Final in the last few seconds … we both knew what the team had accomplished, and we smiled and shared a hug as we realized our team had reached our goal. The most important thing wasn’t about the win, but the fact that we shared it with the amazing people we did.”
Said Burich of winning the title: “The only way I can describe it is I wish it was something every coach could feel. “To be able to walk on the court and see the guy with the big plaque hand it to you and pose for the picture, it’s hard to describe the feeling.”