SANTA BARBARA - Keani Albanez has always been "one of the boys" when it comes to playing basketball.
The former Buena High and Gonzaga women's basketball star got her first college coaching job last month and she'll be a trail blazer at SBCC. New head coach Devin Engebretsen hired Albanez as the top assistant coach for the Vaquero men's basketball team. There's only been a couple of female coaches who've been assistants for men's basketball in the history of the California Community College Athletic Association.
Engebretsen was the associate head coach for the Vaqueros' men's and women's basketball teams the last few years. He's fully confident that Albanez will help the men's team turn things around.
"I think Keani is going to do an outstanding job for us," said Engebretsen, who will also coach the SBCC women's golf team in the spring of 2021. "She's an awesome communicator and really good at being able to speak to our players. She understands their mindset as a former college player at an elite level. I think she'll be able to motivate our guys to do great things. She's going to be tremendous at skill development.
"To be honest, I'm not really looking at the male vs. female dynamic because Keani is so well educated in basketball and her experience is tremendous. She knows so much basketball in terms of skill development and the mental side of things. She's really big on practicing the right way. I really believe that our young men will thrive under her coaching and tuteledge both on the floor and in the classroom. And she'll also be a leader in the community, helping our guys give back to the youth of Santa Barbara."
Engebretsen says Albanez's best qualities are her "passion and her spirit and it's infectious.
"I really think our young men are going to love what she's about," he added. "Her enthusiasm for the game, her enthusiasm for improvement and getting better. She really cares about people and the development of our young men as students and players. Her knowledge of the game is key, being a former elite NCAA Div. 1 athlete and playing overseas. She's been coached by a lot of different people, so she has a wealth of knowledge to bring to our program."
Due to COVID-19, the 2020-21 men's basketball team won't start practicing until Jan. 18 and its first game will be Feb. 5, 2021 or later.
Albanez grew up in Santa Barbara, attending Cleveland and Adams elementary schools and La Cumbre Junior High. She played four varsity seasons of girls basketball at Oxnard (freshman year) and Buena High. As a senior, she led the Bulldogs to the CIF Division 2AA and CIF Div. 2 So Cal Regional finals. She averaged averaged 21.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.7 assists per game and was named All-Ventura County, first team All-Channel League and first team All-CIF Division III.
Keani's dad, George, started the 805 club basketball program in Santa Barbara and his daughter learned the game while playing on the boys' teams.
"My dad had his own club teams called 805 club basketball and it's been around for 25 years now," she noted. "So I grew up playing for his boys teams. I actually didn't start playing with girls until I got to middle school. There just wasn't that many opportunities for me at the time. Growing up, because my love for the game was so strong, I've always been 'one of the boys' they would say. I still play pick-up to this day with all men, it's just how I was raised."
She's been a personal trainer since college and she started the KA Basketball Academy for boys and girls in 2015 at the Page Youth Center in Goleta.
"This won't be my first time coaching boys as I have been doing my personal training business since college," said Albanez. "I also coached at elite high school boys camps and have been the only woman in the entire camp. The transition from player to coach is always different. I'm sure it will be challenging at times just like any head assistant coach during COVID, but not because they are men. The ball goes into the hoop just the same."
SBCC athletic director Rocco Constantino feels Albanez is well qualified to coach men and will be an excellent role model.
"I recognize that she is a female coach who will be coaching a men's sport and realize the significance of that but I don't think that's what should define Keani in her role," stated Constantino. "She had an excellent career as a player and comes highly recommended as a coach and that's the main thing.
"I am proud that Keani and SBCC are taking part in going against traditional gender roles within the coaching world but it shouldn't matter. Keani is a great coach and will be a fantastic role model for the players she coaches and for our female student-athletes on all of our teams. I think she'll inspire others to follow in her footsteps, whether it is in basketball or other sports. We see male coaches coaching female sports all the time. I coached two female sports on the NCAA level and that's considered the norm. Why shouldn't women be able to coach men too if they have the ability?"
I think we're moving in a direction on the college and professional levels where more and more women are coaching men's sports and soon enough, it will be the norm. I am happy that Devin Engebretsen has given Keani a chance to be a pioneer at SBCC."
Albanez accepted a scholarship to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and played four years for the Zags. They won at least 26 games each year and reached the NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite 8. During her four seasons, Gonzaga was 110-25 overall and won four straight West Coast Conference titles with a 61-7 record.
"I can't find a word to describe how blessed I truly feel to be able to stay home and still be in the game I love," said Albanez. "I moved from home when I was 17 and haven't spent more that two months at home since and I'm turning 27 in a couple weeks. So it's been awhile since home was my home.
"I'm beyond fortunate to be able to help my community. There is so much raw talent in Santa Barbara and year after year we develop more studs coming out of the 805 club. I'm thankful I was able to be one but it means something much greater when I know I can help more than just one kid find some success. Being able to come full circle, that is truly the biggest reward."
Albanez played professionally for six years overseas with stops in China, Greece, Switzerland and Egypt.
"Playing overseas was the experience of a lifetime," she stated. "I took the time to really invest and learn in all the different cultures I was around. You hit culture shock when you live in a entirely new country. The American mentality of thinking is completely different from most countries that I lived in. I learned how to adapt, to have an open mind, to get out of my comfort zone and try new things. I traveled a lot and made a lot of great relationships. But I truly learned the most about myself. Being away from friends and family for five years not including college is hard. But it 100% shaped me into the person I am today."
"I am very excited to have Keani join our Vaquero family," said Constantino. "Our student-athletes are lucky to have someone with Keani's playing and coaching experience coaching and mentoring them. She knows what it takes to be a successful student-athlete on the highest levels and our students will benefit greatly from her leadership.
"It's not often that we have assistant coaches in any sport who can say they were a highly successful Division I athlete at a major college with experience as a professional too. She's excited and ready to go and I'm looking forward to seeing the new direction with our men's basketball program."
Albanez says her goal as a coach is to be coachable herself.
"My goal is to soak up as much knowledge from Coach E and other coaches as possible," she said. "To be able to motivate the players I come in contact with. To give these kids solid skills in basketball and in life.
"At this point due to COVID, I'm just hoping we have a season. I can tell you this new 2020 program is offering something completely different from what it was in the past and we are already off to a great start."
(David Loveton, Santa Barbara City College Athletics)