Joe Davidson

Before elevating Sheldon, coach pursued his passion for $12K a year in Navajo Nation

Sheldon coach Joey Rollings calls out a play as his team seals the 61-60 victory against Bishop O'Dowd on March 17, 2018, for the CIF Northern California Open Division championship.
Sheldon coach Joey Rollings calls out a play as his team seals the 61-60 victory against Bishop O'Dowd on March 17, 2018, for the CIF Northern California Open Division championship. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Joey Rollings grew up in the small province of Manitoba, located on the south bank of the Saskatchewan River in Canada.

Long before he became basketball coach at Sheldon High School, this was a boy with the ambition to get better through an endless quest to shoot hoops. But this is cold country, ideal for hockey. There's not much bounce to a ball when it is 30 degrees below zero, the frost so piercing it makes your eyeballs hurt.

"We played 10 games a year in high school, practiced just twice a week," Rollings said. "There were no basketball rims in town. We'd have to build some on tennis courts. Find a way.

"Maybe that's why I always have an open gym now at Sheldon. Give our kids something fun and positive to do. A gym is something I didn't always have."

Rollings, by any definition, is a giver. But he's no softie. His scowl and growl can make paint peel in the locker room during a halftime adjustment skull-session that isn't always for the meek. Rollings loves his players, and the mutual admiration, the trust and give-and-take, have been paramount to why the Huskies are competing for the biggest prize at the highest classification in California on Saturday night at Golden 1 Center.

Sheldon (29-5) plays Sierra Canyon (26-4) of Chatsworth for the CIF Open Division championship. Win or lose, the Huskies have exceeded the expectations of their driven and demanding coach, who beams in saying, "They've made me so proud. I love these guys."

But not always during games. Nothing irks the coach more than a forced pass, or a lazy moment on defense.

"This is not a kinder, gentler version of coaching you see with Joey Rollings," said longtime Sheldon history teacher Josh Crabtree, the Huskies one-time football coach and occasional basketball public-address announcer. "He's pushing, prodding, demanding, but you won't find a kid who has played for Joey who doesn't love him as a person. He's always been able to straddle the line of discipline, squeezing every drop of effort out of a kid – and then love and adore them, like they do him.

"Most of us can't pull that off. And kids can sniff out a phony. Joey is as authentic as they come."

Sheldon is in its second state final since 2013 and it has competed in four Northern California championships in that stretch. Throw in the record-setting Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship four-peat the Huskies pulled off earlier this decade and you have the most dominant boys basketball run in regional history. Not bad for a public school in a state that has for decades been dominated by private schools in state finals.

Sheldon coach Joey Rollings on team's 61-60 victory against O'Dowd in the CIF Northern California boys finals at Leavey Center in Santa Clara, on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

In a stark contrast of the difference between NorCal power and SoCal strength, Sierra Canyon is a private school of immense wealth. It costs more than $35,000 a year for tuition, and the basketball team has six transfer students who excel, including the sons of former NBA stars such as Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin.

Sheldon? Home grown from the Elk Grove Unified School District. The Huskies might not boast of Division I recruits like Sierra Canyon, but this has been a difficult team for opponents because of its relentless defense and ball sharing.

"We're the poster child for a public school," Sheldon principal Paula Duncan said. "We don't have the most wealthy kids and some of our players don't have a father figure in their life, or they have an over-bearing figure in their life. Joey truly cares for the kids. He wants to save the world. He wants to save every kid."

The Huskies confirm this. They celebrated last weekend's NorCal Open title win over storied Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland by mobbing their coach. This, they collectively agreed, was for him.

Said junior guard Justin Nguyen, "Coach does so much for us. He keeps on us in academics, checks on everyone every day."

Said senior center Chris Wriedt, "Coach cares. He's the backbone of this program. He'd break his back for us. We need a snack or a meal, he'll get us one."

And senior guard Dale Currie, "He's just a very good, caring dude and a great coach. He'd even spot you $5 if you needed it."

Currie has taken him up on that offer.

"I'm still waiting for my five bucks back," Rollings said with a laugh.

Rollings works to get his players on the recruiting radar, understanding how an education can pave a good path. He earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Winnipeg and soon knew he wanted to coach.

"I wanted to work somewhere really far away," he said. "I found it."

He found it at St. Michael Indian School in Arizona, a chapter of the Navajo Nation. Basketball united communities there, Rollings said, and road games were generally six hours long – one way. He won four state championships with the girls program and had the boys in the running for others.

But newly married to Patricia, a school psychologist, and making a mere $12,000 annually, Rollings sought a new challenge.

"I had to change," Rollings said. "I wasn't making much, and the principal I really worked well with retired."

Rollings landed a teaching position at Sheldon and jumped at the chance to coach the girls basketball team, directing the Huskies to the section Division I title in 2006 and to the finals in 2009. Rollings replaced founding Sheldon boys coach Scott Gradin, who fully endorsed him for the job after he stepped down following the 2009 season (he won a section title in 2007).

"I admire how Joey's done it, an amazing job," Gradin said. "This hasn't all happened by accident. He works at it. He spends so much time with those kids. They have a special relationship. He's had more talented teams, but here they are. This is by far his best coaching job.

"Had he stuck with the girls, there's no doubt they'd be doing this. He's infectious. Kids like being around him."

The Rollings appeal actually got him and the program into a bit of trouble. Area coaches reported concerns to the section office over the incoming freshmen or sophomores headed to Sheldon.

An investigation in 2013 showed that Sheldon, in effect, had the fathers of players court other players, and that Rollings' summer open gym attracted students from across the Elk Grove Unified School District. Rollings was ultimately responsible as head coach in violation of the section's "due influence" policy.

He was suspended four games and the team was not allowed to compete in the playoffs that season. It was also discovered that a coach from a rival program was texting Sheldon players, urging them to transfer, and that coach was terminated.

Said Duncan, the Sheldon principal, "Joey has no idea who's playing AAU, who is playing at other schools. He's clueless in that regard. He focuses on his kids."

And Crabtree, the Sheldon history teacher, "I've heard the critics, the sniping, and when all of that went down, I defended him tooth and nail. It's easy to take shots at someone on top but at least know his character first. He's not out recruiting kids. He's too concerned with his own players."

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