UC Merced has no desire for its women’s basketball program to step backward.
On the heels of the 2014-2015 team becoming the first in school history to qualify for the NAIA Tournament, school officials weren’t looking for a new coach to redo what Kevin Pham built during his three-year tenure as head coach. David Noble, the school’s associate director of recreation and athletics, said they were searching for a coach that could take what Pham had accomplished and elevate it to the next level.
The Bobcats believe they’ve found that coach in Sarah Hopkins-Chery.
“We’re obviously very excited about her joining our staff,” Noble said. “Her experience as a successful women’s collegiate player, her understanding of playing at the NAIA level and experience of a championship at that level were very enticing to the hiring committee and will only help us grow.
“Her level of success both as a player and a coach, abroad and in the U.S., was unmatched. We’ve been to the tournament. Now we need someone that can lead us on a run through it. We weren’t looking for someone to maintain; we wanted someone to take us to the next level.”
The school announced Hopkins-Chery’s hiring over the weekend after an almost two-month search following Pham taking over the men’s team in early June. The Essex, England, native joins UC Merced after three years as an assistant coach for her alma mater, Park University in Parkville, Mo. The Bobcats mark her second stint as a collegiate head coach, spending a year running the men’s and women’s programs at Seevic College in England while she recovered from an ACL tear.
“Coaching is my passion,” Hopkins-Chery said. “I’ve always been doing it since I was 16. I’ve always loved basketball, and it’s allowed me to pursue many things both in England and here.
“I’d been an assistant at Park the last three years and had been looking for a head coaching opportunity. I already knew a bit about UC Merced because I’d met some of the students that had volunteered for the Native Vision summer camps I’d been doing. I was very impressed with their character.
“I felt like it was a good fit, because I know what coach Pham had started to build and felt like I could continue that development. Plus, I hold my kids to a high standard, so I know how to teach them to excel in the classroom and be active members of the community. There’s not too much time before everything gets going, so it’s a little hectic right now with trying to move and getting everything here squared away. I do like to keep busy, though, so I’m excited for the challenge.”
Hopkins-Chery inherits a team that went 14-12 last season and won UC Merced’s first-ever California Pacific Conference Championship, which earned it an automatic bid into the NAIA Tournament. Ten players on the team should be back, including reigning Freshman of the Year Christina Castro and all-time leading scorer Shelby Howard. Pham also added some much-needed size in his final recruiting class.
The new head coach said she likes to run an up-tempo, high-pressure game that’s similar to Pham’s approach and should be able to hit the ground running with the roster she’s inherited.