By Vince Echavaria
The St. Bernard High School gym has played host to a wide range of basketball talent over the years, but that has now extended to the professional level.
The Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA have begun practicing at the gym after announcing a new partnership with St. Bernard High that allows the professional athletes to use the Playa del Rey campus as their training facility.
Under the agreement, St. Bernard will serve as the Sparks’ home away from the STAPLES Center – where the team plays home games – providing a base to hold practices, scrimmages and workouts in a community near where many players live.
In exchange for use of the school, the Sparks have agreed to contribute several improvements to the athletic facilities including renovating the all-sports weight room with new equipment, upgrading the girls’ locker room and refinishing the gym floor.
“It’s very exciting for us,” St. Bernard Co-Principal Dr. Cynthia Hoepner said. “What is great about this partnership is the fact that the L.A. Sparks is an organization committed to quality, excellence and winning, just like the St. Bernard Vikings.”
The athletic program enhancements are taking place as the school is preparing for several upgrades and renovations on the academic side, including a new science laboratory, renovated library, college center, computer lab and new wireless Internet service.
“We’re doing so much already to improve our academic facilities that it’s just a bonus that they’re coming in to enhance some facilities in our gym, the girls’ locker room and the weight room,” Hoepner said. “Between what we’re doing already and what they’re going to do for us in terms of the sports, the school is going to look and feel like a different place in just a matter of a couple months; it’s great timing for us.”
The partnership comes as St. Bernard recently announced the hiring of Michelle Greco, a former UCLA standout and WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm, as the new head girls basketball coach. Greco, who will replace former Coach Bo Corona, will look to continue the success of the Viking girls, who earned a co-Del Rey League title and reached the Southern California regional final this past season.
Sparks Executive Vice President and General Manager Penny Toler said the organization is excited to have the Playa del Rey school as its new practice home.
“The campus provides the perfect environment for our players, coaches and staff to practice and train throughout the season,” Toler said. “We look forward to bringing our St. Bernard family their first WNBA Championship.”
St. Bernard Athletic Director Chad Nammack noted that the Sparks previously held practices at a facility at Los Angeles Southwest College that was in need of renovation and they looked at several area high schools for a new training headquarters before deciding on St. Bernard. Nammack called the partnership a “real boon for our athletic program,” saying it’s not very often where a professional sports organization will be running its practices in a high school environment.
“I think it’s such a positive thing for us because (the students) will be able to learn from them and see how a professional organization runs their program,” Nammack said.
On the first school day where the Sparks were on campus, many students had the chance to watch the pro athletes at work, an experience that can highlight strong work ethic and achieving goals, Nammack said.
“To talk to kids about work ethic and to see it in a professional organization like that and see how much effort they have to give to play at that level, it’s a really good learning experience for the kids,” he said. “I don’t think there is a better model for our kids in learning about the real world and how they can see what it takes to be a professional at that level.”
Under the initial year-long agreement, the Sparks will have access to the high school facility from 9 a.m. until noon each day. Hoepner and Nammack don’t anticipate a conflict with use of the gym and training area, as the school’s teams primarily play in the afternoon and at night.
“We were really clear with our communication how we were going to manage our time and their time, and on how we can prevent as few conflicts as possible with our regularly scheduled program,” Hoepner explained.
The WNBA team and St. Bernard have also discussed ways in which they can partner for community activities, including give-aways of game tickets and hosting a “Purple and Gold Night.” Having the pro team on campus is a “great way to draw in the community,” the principal said.
“It’s a great community builder for St. Bernard to extend the relationships with the families that live around here and the families that go to school here,” she said. “It’s been a great ride and a great year, and I think it’s only getting better; we’re just at the beginning of where we’re going and we could not be happier.”