As usual, Cal Sparks is expected to produce more Power 5 players on the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League this spring and summer. But the Southern California-based program will have one major change.
Elbert Kinnebrew, the man who founded the Sparks back in 1998 (along with wife Karen) won’t be coaching the program’s top-level team. Kinnebrew will remain as Director of the Sparks and will be heavily involved with the program and will coach the third-level team.
But Kinnebrew will cede control of the top team to Caila Hailey. The reason for the move is two-fold Kinnebrew said.
First, Kinnebrew recently moved to Northern California and will travel back to Southern California during spring and summer during the travel season. Second, Kinnebrew wants to help one of his former players reach a career goal.
That’s Caila Hailey, a Sparks alum.
“It’s just time,’’ Kinnebrew said. “Caila wants to be a head coach on the college level one day. This is a step toward her getting there.’’
Hailey played for Kinnebrew and the Sparks on the 2014 team. Kinnebrew says that arguably was the best team he has ever coached. Hailey, who went on to play at Washington State, currently is an assistant at the University of La Verne.
Hailey was an assistant for the Sparks’ second-level team last year and she will rely mostly on Class of 2024 players that were promoted from the team she worked with last year. But Hailey will inherit one key player from Kinnebrew for the Class of 2023.
That’s guard Jadyn Lee, who will be asked to be the leader of this year’s Sparks.
“Jadyn had a really phenomenal year last summer,’’ Kinnebrew said. “She’s a good mid-range shoot and she shoots a really beautiful deep ball. She also is a straight-A student. That should only help her with colleges.’’
Strong academics are something Lee has in common with her new coach. Hailey was a two-time member of the Pac 12 All-Academic team.
“I really see Jadyn as being a perfect fit for the Ivy League schools,’’ Kinnebrew.
After that, the Sparks will rely on four key players from the Class of 2024. First is Kennedy Smith, who Kinnebrew calls the best power forward in the state of California.
All-Star Girls Report has Smith ranked No. 13 on its list of the top individuals in the Class of 2024.
“She’s a can’t-miss, major Division I prospect,’’ Kinnebrew said. “She’s a fierce rebounder. She has good range as a shooter and is very consistent as a three-point shooter.’’
“She’s a tough matchup,’’ ASGR Director of Scouting Bret McCormick said. “She’s the type of player that will give you a double-double every game.’’
Athena Tomlinson, a 5-foot-5 point guard will be in charge of getting the ball to Smith. Tomlinson is ranked No. 31 by ASGR.
“She’s short, but not small,’’ Kinnebrew said. “She has a strong body. She’s fast, quick and dynamic. She also has a ridiculous work ethic.’’
“She’s also a lefty,’’ McCormick said. “She’s a one-person press breaker. Once she breaks through the press, she has the ability to pass or score.’’
Tomlinson and Lee will be joined in the backcourt by Ryann Bennett, who is ranked No. 145 by ASGR. Tomlinson is a combo guard right now, but Kinnebrew said she is best suited to be a No. 2 guard on the next level.
“She’s a really good shooter and she plays the game the right way,’’ Kinnebrew said. “She shoots when she’s open and doesn’t force shots.’’
“She shoots the three very well,’’ McCormick said. “But she’s more than just a shooter. She also can attack the basket and draw contact.’’
Joining Smith up front will be 6-2 forward Janessa Cotton, who is ranked No. 133 by ASGR. Cotton attends Santa Ana’s Mater Dei High, which has produced more than its share of famous athletes through the years. She also is a cousin to Schea Cotton, a legendary high school phenom player of Southern California.
“Janessa is 6-3 and she’s a true No. 5 player,’’ Kinnebrew said. “She’s very coachable and she has improved each year.’’
“She’s very strong and can bang on the block,’’ McCormick said. “But that’s not her whole game. She can also grab the ball and go coast to coast.’’