Young and gunnin’: Sammy Doucette’s revitalization of OCC women’s basketball

OCC women’s basketball head coach Sammy Doucette works from the home bench during the 2021-22 regular season.

At 25 years old, Orange Coast College women’s basketball head coach Sammy Doucette inherited a program so undersized that she had to run drills with her own players. 

Three years later, Doucette witnessed her team eclipse 20 regular-season wins for the first time in over a decade, appear in its first playoff game in five years and have its first player commit to a Division I program since 2009.

The OCC women’s basketball rebuild seems almost sudden at a glance, but an unbelievable amount of effort was spent for the Pirates to get back into the playoffs. Nonetheless, it started with an ambitious high school basketball coach taking a calculated risk. 

The 28-year-old Doucette is unapologetic about her rapid ascension into hoops dominance.

“No matter what anyone is telling you, you have to bet on yourself,” Doucette said. “That's what I did and I’ll never regret it.”

Doucette made her mark on quite a few programs in her early coaching career, but her resume took the biggest leap during her first tenure as head of a program.

The Orange County native guided Costa Mesa High School to a 9-1 Orange Coast League record in her one and only season as head coach of the girl’s basketball team. At the conclusion of her standout year, Doucette was named the 2018-19 Daily Pilot Dream Team Coach of the Year.

While dominating the high school basketball scene, Doucette was simultaneously in contention for the OCC women’s basketball head coaching gig. 

Just a week before her second interview with OCC, Doucette was offered a head coach position at Trinity League program JSerra Catholic High School. She turned it down in hopes of becoming a Pirate.

“It shocked just about everyone in my life that I even went after this job. At that point, my family thought I was crazy to turn it down for a chance at OCC,” Doucette said. “Because you just don't see 25-year-olds getting full-time, head coaching gigs at the college level.”

Her second application was dropped, but a stroke of luck landed her the position at Coast.

“The hiring committee decided if she did not accept the offer, [they] were going to do the whole process over again, and she did not accept the offer,” Doucette said. “They opened up the job again and I applied for a third time, and the third time was the charm. I ended up getting hired.”

It was a massive breakthrough for Doucette, but the job had some strings attached, like the fact that there were only two returning basketball players in 2019. This meant that the first-year college head coach had to resort to drastic measures.

“When you are getting accepted into Orange Coast College you fill out a survey, and pretty much anybody that said that they were interested in women's college basketball, that was a female, I reached out to,” Doucette said. “At one point I had about 15 people. And in that 15, I had a 40-year old who hadn’t played basketball in 20 years, and I had some who played JV as their highest level of basketball.”

To no one’s surprise, the shorthanded OCC women’s basketball program could only manage a 2-14 campaign. The Pirates canceled 11 games during the 2019-20 season due to overall personnel shortages and injuries.

Even when a global pandemic got thrown into the mix, Doucette would not let her program falter.

“I had 26 players on my roster [in fall of 2020], and a lot of them fell off because of COVID,” Doucette said. “I told them, ‘look, I don't care that we're in the middle of a pandemic, I'm not going to let you guys disappear. We're going to go five days a week.’”

Months of uncertainty were occupied by Zoom meetings, track exercises and invisible basketball drills. 

The California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) put a halt to indoor sports during the 2020-21 winter season, but the Pirates were able to stay as sharp as they could given the circumstances.

“We went every single day regardless of if we were allowed to meet in person or if we had to stare at each other through a screen,” Doucette said.

Just one year later, Doucette’s team was taking a bus to College of the Canyons for the CCCAA SoCal Regional Playoffs. Along with them was Alexis Legan, OCC hoops’ first player to transfer to a Division I program since 2009.

The jump from open tryouts to CCCAA Regional Playoffs was almost sudden, and even to this day, the third-year head coach cannot believe it.

“I wanted to win of course, but did I expect it? Hell no,” Doucette said. “When I sat down and had that conversation with my coaching staff, we talked about the reality of possible outcomes. If we won half of our games that was a feat because a year before we won two.”

If one thing is certain, the OCC women’s basketball program did not become a contender by accident. It took a tremendous amount of discipline and commitment to a winning culture to reach this level of success.

“There was a certain shift where I was staring at my coaches, and I’m like ‘we’re pretty damn good. We’re not as bad as we thought we were, just don’t tell them that,’” Doucette said laughing. 

Doucette made it clear that since joining the OCC staff, she has never changed her coaching style. It just took this current group of players to reach greater heights.

“I don’t care if we are the worst team in the conference or the best team in the conference,” Doucette said. “I'm going to coach like we’re the best team because I’m going to expect the best, and if you expect the best, then [the players] are going to try their best.”

Part of why that method worked on the Pirates team was because of Doucette’s efforts in building a genuine relationship with her players off the court.

“I always try to tell them that my door is always open,” Doucette said. “You’re not going to be able to get the best out of your team unless you have a personal relationship with them — that's the only way they’re going to know that I care. I think it's a really good sign when I've got my players coming in and out of my office wanting to sit and hang out, wanting to do their classwork in the office with me.”

Not every coach has that type of relationship with their players, and Doucette recognizes that. What really sets her apart from other coaches is her young age, and how that can make her that much more relatable to her roster.

“Being young definitely has its advantages. One big advantage for sure, no doubt, is that these young women feel much more comfortable with me, coming to me to talk about things because I’m also a young woman,” Doucette said. “I graduated in 2016, so it’s not like it was that long ago that I was literally in their shoes.”

OCC sophomore forward Madison Copeland was playing under Doucette through the heart of the program’s rebuild and noticed the difference in being part of a program run by a young coach.

“She was definitely relatable in the fact that she also played basketball in college,” Copeland said. “I know with coaches who are kind of older in age, they would make you run, but with Sammy, sometimes she participates in the drills with us.”

While Doucette had a majority of positive experiences with her athletes, other aspects of the game gave the budding head coach a hard time.

“My first year, just about every single game the officials would go up to one of my assistants and assume that he was the head coach,” Doucette said. “That was always fun, to walk over and be like ‘oh wait, it’s actually me.’”

Another area in which the OCC coach felt that there were discrepancies between her and her counterparts was when interacting with referees during the game.

“One of the biggest things that I've noticed, being a young coach, is that there's not a lot I can get away with,” Doucette said. “I always feel like [the opposing coach] is able to get a little bit rowdier than I am, and oftentimes officials can ignore me and ice me out. Deep down, I feel like they do that because I'm young and they don't like to hear from me.”

Doucette received three technical fouls last season, including one ejection.

“I've had a coach tell one of my recruits not to come play for me because I was young and dumb and didn't know what I was doing,” Doucette said. “I hope that they’re not saying that anymore, but they definitely were.”

The 28-year-old exceeded all expectations, completely turning around the women’s basketball program at OCC in just two official seasons. Doucette’s college head coaching record through year three is 22-23 with one playoff appearance.

Judging by the way recruiting has gone so far this offseason, the best is yet to come.

Coast has received three player commitments already this offseason, including Twentynine Palms High School point guard Chloe McNellie. In addition to some new talent, the Pirates will welcome back three All-Conference hoopers: guards Karina Cabrera and Annie Trinh, as well as forward Savannah Seiler

“You never know who you’re going to have. I’ve got this idea in my mind of what we’re going to look like, but we just never know,” Doucette said. “I’m really excited.”

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