The longtime coach of Morro Bay High’s girls basketball team who won five Los Padres League championships and three CIF-Southern Section titles with the school has been named the women’s head basketball coach of Allan Hancock College.
Cary Nerelli is leaving Morro Bay after 26 years of coaching the varsity girls team.
He accumulated an overall record of 456-219 and most recently led the squad to 27 consecutive Los Padres League wins and three league championships in a row since 2011.
“To be very honest, it was the most difficult coaching decision that I’ve ever made,” Nerelli said. “I struggled with it for quite awhile. But this was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up. I felt like if I didn’t make a move on it now, it might not happen again anytime soon, and I didn’t want to wonder what if.”
Nerelli said that he’s looking forward to the challenge of taking over a struggling junior college program and striving to build it up. Hancock was 4-22 last year and lost its final 14 games.
Recalling past successes of Hancock women’s basketball, Nerelli said that he’s “completely dedicated to building a competitive program.”
In the meantime, Morro Bay athletic officials will search for a coach to succeed Nerelli, but they haven’t yet begun the hiring process.
Whoever takes the position will have big shoes to fill as Nerelli made a deep imprint on a program that was successful before he took over and thrived under his leadership.
Morro Bay star center Hannah Gilbert will play basketball at Cal Poly next year, adding to a list of 13 former players to play at four-year colleges under Nerelli’s guidance.
Former Morro Bay point guard Karena Bonds graduated in 2001, earning The Tribune’s County Player of the Year honor, and went on to play at UC Santa Barbara. Bonds said Nerelli finds a way to motivate his team to play to the best of its ability while genuinely caring about the welfare of his players.
Nerelli has kept in touch with many of his former players and considers them friends. He even attended Bonds’ wedding while on crutches, she said.
“He not only helped me out as a player, he helped to shape the foundation of who I am as a person,” Bonds said. “He used basketball to help teach me lessons about life and how to be the best I could be at all times. It’s very unique for a coach, with the ability and talents that he has, to care about each player that he coaches.”
Nerelli said he told this season’s Morro Bay team — which finished 22-4 and 12-0 in LPL — on Tuesday of his new position.
“The players were great,” Nerelli said. “They recognized it’s a good opportunity for me. They were supportive. But it was emotional. There were tears shed on both sides.”
Senior guard Nicki Bloom said that the team was “shocked” but still felt grateful to have called Nerelli coach.
“We love our program,” Bloom said. “We are like a family. I think it’s harder for the juniors and players who will be on the team next year, but still, we’re honored to have been coached by him.”
Under Nerelli, his players had a yearlong commitment to basketball and adopted his motto of playing not with each other but “for each other.” The team traveled during the summer to play in tournaments as well as practice in the offseason.
Over the years, Morro Bay had memorable battles with schools such as Mission Prep and Templeton. Yet Nerelli was able to maintain friendships with opposing coaches, including John Krossa, Mission Prep’s coach, who wrote him a letter of recommendation for the Hancock job.
“When I first took the coaching job (in 2005), Cary kind of mentored me,” Krossa said. “He gave me a bunch of advice and really eased my nerves. We were competitors, and he didn’t have to do that. He’s pretty darn special.”
Over the years, Nerelli, who graduated from Mission Prep, and Krossa maintained a friendship while looking forward to competitive matchups on the court.
“I coached against Cary in the game when he got his 400th win,” Krossa said. “He told me about it afterward and said not to tell anybody. Of course, I told everybody.”
Krossa said that at one point he was part of an effort to get former players of Nerelli’s to send in notes telling about their experiences playing under him because every year Nerelli makes up a souvenir book for his players comprised of profiles, news clippings and statistics.
Krossa recalled a player saying that it was fun just to sit next to Nerelli on the bus to games because they’d get to hear his stories.
“Some of those players could be 40 years old now but still call him coach,” Krossa said. “Those notes made me cry seeing how he affected those girls throughout the years. It was humbling. Very humbling.”
Nerelli, a longtime history teacher at Morro Bay, said he first coached boys basketball for about a decade but switched to girls after having two daughters, now in their 30s, thinking he might assist with their teams.
They never took to basketball, but he enjoyed the commitment he saw in the high school girls teams and their love of the sport and stuck with it.
Nerelli said that the Morro Bay program is in great shape with a crop of good young players coming up and a core group of experienced players returning, noting he didn’t want to leave the program during a period of decline.
Morro Bay athletic director John Andree said Nerelli’s work ethic, attention to detail and thorough planning make him the coach he is. He served as a mentor to numerous coaches on campus.
“He’s a great coach,” Andree said. “He thinks everything through. But he’s an even better person.”
Andree said Hancock will benefit from Nerelli’s knowledge about local players, saying he’s the right fit not only for a struggling program but for “any coaching job.”
Andree said that the school will try to continue the program’s success as “seamlessly as possible,” noting that so many people in the area played under him and a possible former player could be a good fit as his coaching replacement.
“I don’t think you can replace a guy like Cary,” Andree said.