First-year head coach Manny Murillo is hoping to build a girls basketball powerhouse at his alma mater Dos Pueblos High School. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

First-year Dos Pueblos girls’ basketball coach Manny Murillo is looking to build a culture of winning at his alma mater and has already found success early after making the jump from his championship-winning youth development program — Santa Barbara Pro Skills Academy — to the high school level this year.

For the past several years, Murillo, or “Coach Manny” as his players call him, has laid the foundation for his coaching career, starting S.B. Pro Skills first as a personal trainer before taking over several youth-level club teams, from 5th grade to 8th grade.

In those years, his club teams have gone on to win national and regional titles, and players who have started out in his program have gone on to great success all over the Santa Barbara area. In 2021, at least four girls who are S.B. Pro Skills alumni were named Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Player of the Week: San Marcos’s Michelle Arellanes, Bishop Diego’s Clara McDonald, and Dos Pueblos’s Lily Mires and Leila Chisholm.

During last season, Murillo served as the assistant coach at Dos Pueblos — where he also played basketball and football — under longtime coach Phil Sherman. The Chargers went 20-4, and for the first time in the school’s history, the girls’ basketball team won the outright Channel League Championship.

Over the summer, Sherman announced his retirement from coaching, and Murillo was named the new head coach. His main goal was to build on the team’s success from last year and create a winning culture going forward.

“We’re trying to build a culture, trying to build a place the kids love,” Murillo said.  “Last year, we really had a winning attitude. The school had never accomplished that before — I want it to be a habit.”

Coach Manny’s practices are intense, he says: “If you don’t want to be pushed, don’t come to DP.” | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

Murillo learned the love of basketball in the Eastside Boys & Girls Club, playing youth basketball under local coaches like Mwei Banks and Benji Robles. More recently, he worked as an assistant athletic director at the club. Now, he coaches alongside — and against — the same coaches, passing on the gift of the game to the next generation.

At Dos Pueblos, he takes command of his team practices, which he says are very intense.  “If you don’t want to be pushed, don’t come to DP,” he said.

He’s firm but loving, treating each of his players with respect and honesty. When a player makes a mistake, he makes sure it’s an opportunity to learn and progress. One young player offers an explanation after taking a bad shot in practice. He stops her, and asks, “Is that an excuse or a solution?” 

He’s worked with some of the varsity players since 6th grade, and they trust him to help them reach their potential. This year’s early standout is junior Justine Katz — whom Coach Manny affectionately calls “Justin” — and who was already named Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Player of the Week after dropping 23 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and snagging seven steals in the team’s 62-26 win in the season opener over Newbury Park.

“I really enjoy working with Coach Manny; I’ve known him for a while and I think he’s a really good coach,” said Katz, who has played with S.B. Pro Skills since she was in 6th grade. “I think he has a good balance between being friendly and having fun with us, but also being strict when he needs to be.”

“I expect a lot from her,” Murillo said of Katz, who was voted as the team’s captain alongside fellow junior Sierra Jewell. The two juniors are part of a core group from last year’s championship team, along with juniors Lia Papador and Gianna Nichols, and senior Evette Allen, who Murillo hopes will set the tone for the newcomers. Part of the reason he took the position, he said, was because he wanted to make sure the group lived up to its talent.

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“I know this group can be really good, and I didn’t want it to be in anybody else’s hands,” he said.

With the increasing popularity of women’s basketball, both at the college and pro level, Murillo says there are more opportunities for elite athletes to advance beyond high school

“I have a lot of kids, and I want them to be able to accomplish that goal,” Murillo said. “It’s an option, and a lot of them can play at the next level.”

That potential is already evident in the younger members of the team. Sophomore Lauren Robles and freshman Carly Letendre are some of the most lethal shooters on the squad, and they have already proved that they are ready to compete at the varsity level.

In the team’s first league challenge of the year, against crosstown rival Santa Barbara, the Chargers dominated with a quick pace and balanced scoring. Katz led the team with an explosive 28 points, while Allen finished with 14 points in just 20 minutes on the court. Junior Gianna Nichols added 13 points, and Letendre had a coming-out party with 12 points — including two big three-pointers — and four assists.

“That unselfish play is the kind of culture we want to have here at DP,” Murillo said after the win. “It doesn’t matter who gets the numbers and who scores the most, just as long as we play together, play hard, and get the win.”

So far this season, the team has suffered a few tough losses — including a heartbreaker in overtime against Cabrillo, where Letendre’s game-tying shot just rattled out at the buzzer — but the Chargers have made it to the winter break with a 6-5 overall record, and an unblemished 3-0 record in the Channel League.

“We’re only going to get better from here,” he said.

After beating Santa Barbara a second time this season on December 22, the Chargers are preparing for one more tournament in Santa Clara before starting the 12-game Channel League gauntlet with a big test at Goleta rival San Marcos on January 3. Murillo says the Channel League schedule will be tough with talented teams across the board.

“All the teams can play,” he said. “Anybody can win. I think it comes down to: How well can we defend? How well can we shoot the ball?”

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