Mark French back on sidelines in hoops fundraiser

Ariana Gnekow played at UCSB from 2007-10 and currently coaches at Providence Hall. She will be playing along with older sister Meghan Gnekow for the Providence Hall All-Stars.

Former UCSB women’s basketball coach Mark French enjoyed watching both the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments that finished up earlier this week, but that’s not what is getting him back on the sidelines for the first time in three years this weekend.

French is making his coaching return on Friday night at Westmont College, leading the Providence Hall All-Stars team against the Past Prime Time Players team in a fundraising event for Providence Hall athletics.

Doors open at 6 p.m. and tip-off is at 7 p.m.

“As a retired educator/coach, I know how important it is to keep sports and after-school activities going,” said French, whose son and daughter-in-law are also teachers and thus all-too-aware of how school budgets are getting cut.

“We all need to do whatever we can to help these programs. So I was very happy to do that.”

The last time French was on the sidelines coaching a basketball team was in a 2008 NCAA Tournament game against Virginia. French and the Gauchos lost that one, but the 21-year head coach won 438 games at UCSB and led the Gauchos to the NCAA Tournament 12 times.

He watched both Tournament title games this year, and was happy to see the women play a cleaner game of basketball than UConn and Butler.

“The teams actually put the ball in the basket,” he quipped.

French will be coaching a team made up mostly of former women’s college basketball players, including his former recruits Ariana Gnekow and Jessica Wilson. Gnekow currently coaches the girls basketball team at Providence Hall and has done most of the work putting together the Providence Hall All-Stars, including the recruitment of Coach French.

Another former UCSB player, Sha-Rae Gibbons, has coached at Providence Hall.

“It’s very heartwarming to see them do that,” French said. “I know they make a difference with those young girls.”

Other players on Providence Hall’s side include former USC player and current Westmont assistant coach Meghan Gnekow and current Westmont player Jessica Case.

The Past Prime Time Players have a veteran coach of their own to lead the way against the talented Providence Hall contingent.

Santa Barbara Breakers head coach Curt Pickering will guide the Past Prime Time Players, which features former college basketball players Chris Hahs (Westmont), James Kinzler (Point Loma Nazarene), and Dave Newton (Kings College). Gerry Howard, Greg Knowles, and Chris Elwood were also college athletes.

As the team’s name implies, it remains to be seen what Pickering will have to work with and how the minutes will be divided, as the game will consist of 12-minute quarters but no shot-clock.

The cost is $5 for adults and $2 for students.