In loving memory of Berkeley High School (BHS) girls volleyball coach James Manuel. His exuberance, passion, and generosity lives on within his family, his teams, his colleagues, and all those he connected with. Several of Coach James’s players reflect on the impact he had on their lives, and the memories of him they will always hold.
“He was the most infectiously happy and bubbly person … he was always encouraging, always pushing us to be our best,” shared Lila Sayre, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS). Sayre met Manuel the summer before her freshman year, and was instantly struck by his passion for the team. “It was his first year coaching the BHS team, and he totally turned the program around,” she explained. Sayre deeply appreciated Manuel’s pre-season practice sessions and his creative team-bonding events, which included scavenger hunts and tie-dye. “He didn’t just care about the lineup and the skills … he wanted everyone to be successful, to be comfortable, to be the best players they could be.” Sayre directly experienced Manuel’s determination to challenge his players when she was promoted to the varsity team as a sophomore. At first, Sayre told him no, but Manuel sat her down and convinced her she was ready. “He pushed me to change my fear into determination, and he did it all while radiating support and happiness,” she said. “If I could, I would tell him he’s the reason I’m playing volleyball in college. … I have so much to thank him for, both in terms of volleyball and in terms of life.”
“James knew we had great potential, and he was ecstatic to make us even better,” said Margot Fish, a freshman at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz. Fish graduated from BHS in 2020, and was co-captain of the team her senior year. Fish deeply appreciated Manuel’s respectful, supportive, and enthusiastic nature. She explained that Manuel didn’t allow spectators in the gym during practice, because “we weren’t there to be watched, we were there to train.” When people tried to watch, “James sent them running with a single, low-toned ‘HEY.’” Fish recalled Manuel’s emphasis on community and his imaginative bonding activities, explaining that, “He wanted us to be a team inside and outside of volleyball.” Manuel would often bring his daughters to practice, and Fish remembers that his youngest daughter would climb all over him while he was giving a serious talk. “He would pick her up with one hand and swing her around while maintaining a completely straight face. … It was always obvious he was the best dad to all his girls,” she said. She recalls a practice where, after a scary incident happened at school, Manuel choked up while telling the team, “You guys should get to be kids, you shouldn’t have to endure all this hard stuff yet.” He wrapped them in a big group hug and let them out of practice early. Fish shared, “If I could tell him anything right now, I would just want him to know we love him and we will never forget him.”
“He believed in me from the moment he met me. … His passion for the game increased our passion for it as players,” shared Elsa Frantz, a freshman at the University of Oregon and a BHS 2020 graduate. Manuel became Frantz’s coach in her sophomore year, and she experienced the lasting difference he made on the program. “His energy was infectious. … He always had a smile on his face and was always excited to practice and spend time with us in the gym,” said Frantz. She shared that one of the most memorable things about Manuel were his high-fives, which were abundant and enthusiastic, as well as the team dinners he cooked and hosted. Frantz vividly recalls the first game she played on varsity, when Manuel placed her in the starting lineup against one of BHS’ biggest rivals. “He could tell I was nervous and reassured me before the game. … I felt better because I knew that he believed in me and put me there for a reason,” she explained. Frantz hopes that Manuel knew how important he was to the girls he coached, and how impactful he has been on their lives. “He was loved by so many… He truly touched everyone he knew, and everyone in [his] communities will carry on his legacy.”
“I just remember him having this huge smile on his face… He had such open and warm energy that made all my fears go away,” said Niloo Koushafar, a senior in BIHS, on the first time she met Manuel. “I’ve had many coaches before, and none of them connected with [their team] in the same way.” Manuel put Koushafar on the junior varsity team and convinced her to try out for his club team as well, moving her up two age groups. “He always had faith in me, always gave me opportunities … he gave me so much confidence as both a player and as a person,” she shared. Koushafar had a challenging freshman year, and ended up being asked to leave her club team. She knew it would be difficult to make BHS’s team again, but showed up to the summer sessions and was met with support. “James told me, ‘This is your opportunity to prove yourself and show who you are now, prove to me that you’re not that same person anymore.’” Koushafar explained the deep impact Manuel’s faith had: “Even after you mess up, whether it’s in life or on the court, he was always seeing the bigger picture. … He knew who you were at the end of the day, and he gave you opportunities to be better.” Koushafar appreciated Manuel’s ability to balance the needs of everyone on the team, and his efforts to make sure everyone got the attention they needed. “James was someone that you don’t ever forget, he’s always going to be in our hearts … his smile and his big humongous laugh will always be there.”
“Coach James helped create a really safe and positive volleyball community … he was super supportive of everyone,” said Seneca Ankrum, a middle on the BHS varsity team and a senior in Academic Choice (AC). Ankrum explained that she’s played many different sports and been on dozens of teams, but Manuel created the most united and supportive team she’s ever been on. “He never made anyone feel bad for making a mistake,” she said. Ankrum’s favorite memories of Manuel are of when he took difficult situations and made the team feel better. She shared, “We would get absolutely destroyed by another team, and we would huddle up after and he would bring our spirits up.” Ankrum especially appreciated Manuel’s ability to work with each individual player, explaining that he would equally support those who wanted to play in college and those who just wanted to have fun. “If I could let him know anything, it would be that he made my favorite community while I was at BHS, and that he helped me discover my love of volleyball,” Ankrum said.
“I loved him immediately, so much … there’s just so many things to love about him,” said Amelie Haji, a sophomore in AC. Haji is a multi-sport athlete, and was on the varsity team her freshman year. “James was one of the first coaches to support me in that journey, in being a multi-sport athlete,” she said. “I was on multiple teams during that season, which was pretty stressful, but he just encouraged me through that, and it was a great time.” Haji’s favorite practices were the ones when Manuel would bring his children. “His kids would play with us and his wife would help coach … that was such a great environment to practice in,” she explained. Haji shared that Manuel’s energy and dedication really brought the team together, and that “He found the balance between being ‘the coach’ and being ‘family.’” Haji hopes Manuel knew how influential he has been on all of his players, and said, “I’d want him to know that this season, we’re all playing for him.”
Coach James is survived by his three daughters, his wife Kim, and the countless lives he touched. A GoFundMe has been organized to support his family. Please consider donating here.