Bill Baxter walked into the El Camino High School gym Sunday afternoon and froze.
He expected a modest gathering to celebrate the refurbished old gym where he coached the girls basketball team en route to the Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame. Instead, he stood in the eye of an emotional hurricane. Baxter soaked in the scent of fresh varnish and studied the Kelly green so rich and glossy it still looked wet. And a man with the gift of gab couldn’t speak. He ran his hands across his face, like wipers whisking away tears.
“Oh, wow,” he muttered.
Scores of former players, old coaching comrades, friends and family offered a rousing ovation for Baxter, now a Sacramento State women’s basketball assistant coach. Baxter won a section-record 601 games as the Eagles’ coach in 24 seasons and redefined the regional game with pressure defense. After the 2010-11 season, he stepped down after 37 years on the San Juan Unified School District campus for a new challenge of boosting another team of green at Sac State. He’s a Hornet by title but forever an Eagle at heart.
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This year also marks the 20th anniversary season of Baxter’s 1993-94 El Camino team that remains the region’s only unbeaten girls or boys team since the state basketball format was adopted in 1981. Those Eagles went 36-0, and the championship banner hangs prominently on the wall, larger than the state and American flags.
The gym Baxter left behind started to show its age. El Camino, which opened in 1950, has a new football field and track this academic year. The gym sparkles with new bleachers, new scoreboards and a fitting, finishing touch. When Eagles athletic director Cici Downing Robinson pulled away the floor cover to reveal the name – Coach Baxter Court – Baxter was floored again, placing his hands to his cheeks.
“You need three things to be happy in life,” Baxter told the crowd. “Someone to love, and I have that with my family (wife Michelle, daughter Cassie and son Kyle). Something you have a passion for, and I have that in coaching. And friends to share it all with, and I have the best. I thank you all. You made me who I am.”
Baxter wasn’t showing a soft side. This is who he is. The public image of Baxter is of frenetic sideline behavior – arms flailing, glares, barks of instruction.
“All those El Camino team banquets, Bill cried every time because he cares so much,” Michelle Baxter said. “That’s Bill, and it’s wonderful.”
Baxter played sports at San Juan High School and graduated from UC Davis. El Camino was his first real job. He taught physical education and was talked into coaching water polo and swimming in 1974, explaining Sunday: “Yes, I’d been in a pool before, but that was about it.”
With charm and conviction, Baxter rounded up students on campus. He sold the merits of activity, team and success. Before long, El Camino fielded swimming teams 200 strong, a green army to invade pools near and far. The Eagles became a section powerhouse. Baxter recalled fundraising efforts to sell hundreds of boxes of candy for bus trips to Chico for meets. In 13 seasons with the boys and girls, Baxter won a combined 31 league titles in swimming and water polo.
In 1987, then-El Camino athletic director Jim Dimino and then-vice principal Dick Kelly talked Baxter into taking over a girls basketball team coming off a 2-16 season.
“First thing I asked – true story – was, ‘We have a girls team?’ ” Baxter said. “That’s how bad we were.”
Baxter discovered he could make up for a lack of athletes with effort, so he implored fullcourt pressure defense with waves of defenders and shooters. The Eagles went from respectable to good to great. Under Baxter, they made the playoffs every season. From 1993-94 to 1995-96, they stormed to three straight section titles, three NorCal banners and a state championship, going 101-5.
In his final El Camino seasons, Baxter merged varsity practice with the freshman and junior varsity teams to maximize the learning, explaining then, “These girls shouldn’t have to wait until their junior year to meet the crazy Baxter. They can see it now.”
Downing Robinson, a member of the 36-0 team anchored by All-Metro stars Emily Hart and Kristin Niemann, said Baxter was so revered “that when he walked into a room or the gym, everyone stood a little more straight. ... If there was a word, it was ‘fear.’ ”
Baxter’s teams invoked fear, not with height or stacks of recruiting mail but in numbers and effort. Area programs adopted fullcourt pressure to keep up.
“Bill revolutionized the girls game in this area because he had opposing coaches dumbfounded,” said Fred “Hoot” Gibson, a retired El Camino football coach.
Pat Kelly is the last of the old coaching guard on the El Camino campus. He’s preparing for his 40th year as a teacher, having also coached football, baseball and wrestling. Kelly learned from Baxter how to motivate, organize and succeed.
“Amazing career,” Kelly said. “I watch him now at Sac State, sitting there with a clipboard, quiet and mellow, and I’m used to him being so active. I’m having a hard time getting used to that.”