Shoes squeak on the gymnasium floor while the bustling stands are full of intently watching volleyball fans. Teammates cheer one another on. Varsity girls volleyball coaches Em Huang, Alison West, and Kim Rock lead players and encourage them to be their best, creating a place for them to simultaneously work with each other as a team and thrive individually.
This year’s coaching body is taking on an incredible task. They aim to steer the volleyball program not only to success, but also direct the team in a way that honors the legacy and heals from the passing of the late James Manuel, an immensely impactful Berkeley High School (BHS) volleyball coach who passed away in April 2021 at the age of 37.
“He had a huge footprint, particularly for those who worked with him,” said Huang, who has worked alongside Manuel and been coaching BHS girls volleyball for three years. Rock, Manuel’s wife, who has been coaching for BHS for the past four years, says that “There was a revolving door of coaches prior to Manuel being hired, so his main thing was that he wanted to be a fixture in the community and at the school, and to make sure people knew the girls had a safe space.” West, a first year BHS coach, had known Manuel for many years, despite never overlapping with him on the team. She added, “[Manuel] wanted to be the best coach he could ever be for these kids. … [The BHS volleyball] community was [Manuel’s] family.”
For their part, coaches Em, Al, and Kim stand out as a beautifully genuine group of leaders. Their closeness and friendship are apparent; coaches Kim and Al go back as far as playing high school volleyball together. The trio demonstrates what it means to share companionship both professionally and personally, and how to navigate a volleyball season that is also a time of grieving and reflection. As Coach Em put it, “There is definitely a sense of what it means to navigate collective grief, and it’s helped many players think about [what] this means for them. We heal by holding that.”
Manuel is described and remembered by his players as happy, motivating, balanced, invested, welcoming, and kind, a role model known for his comforting hugs and generous smile. Amelie Haji, a BHS junior as well as a setter for the varsity team, said, “He cared so much about us and so much about the sport. I’ve never seen a coach with that much passion.”
Margot Fish, a 2020 BHS graduate, was coached by and very involved in the BHS volleyball program. She said that “Volleyball tends to get made fun of because it’s a female dominated sport, and [Coach Manuel] just wouldn’t stand for that attitude at all. He was super protective of us. … It was so safe with him and that was so important.” Fish added that “His passing, on top of being impossible to wrap your head around, was so shocking and heartbreaking because he has a family that all the volleyball girls know and love.”
Manuel’s wife, Coach Kim, and three daughters have always been and continue to be very involved with the program. Maia Stevens, a BHS senior as well as a varsity setter and captain, said about Manuel’s family, “I really, truly love all his family and they’re so strong. I’ve seen his children grow up throughout the four years that I’ve known them all. You can see all his girls are such good people and that definitely has to do with him.” Stevens is one of many who feel this way. Haji added, “It’s familiar to have people so close to him around all the time and it reminds me so much of him.”
Stevens said that the volleyball program, as it is now, is a culmination of years of change and loss: “All the seniors on the team, we’ve been playing together since freshman year, which builds a really good sense of community. Having that constant has been really nice even though there’s been major changes in the program.” Stevens relayed her feelings on this year’s team as they approach the end of the season, saying “We have some really good underclassmen on the team, and I know that in the future, this team is going to be so strong.”
Looking forward, Haji said that “[Manuel] created such a great environment, and the three coaches right now are doing such a great job keeping that up.” Coach Em also provided their aspirations for the future of the team and said, “Going forward, the team has players [knowing] it’s not just about them, it’s … about what it means for them to be in a space with each other and to be working towards a common purpose.” Referring to the current state of the team, Coach Em said, “There’s a lot of care on the team, a lot of heart on the team.”
The team’s heart is largely attributed to Coach Manuel, and the continued care put into the volleyball community by many is his legacy. Fish said, “What we’re learning right now is that we all can carry little bits of him, and move on, not forgetting him, but trying our best to do things the way he would have wanted them done. Anyone who knows loss knows that there’s no correct way or good way to keep going. You just pick up the pieces and do your best.”