The secret is in the voice.
Talk to a basketball coach near the end of the season, and listen carefully. All you need to know about the way a coach works will be revealed in a few words.
If the voice cracks just slightly, the coach has had a tough practice week. If the words are straining through a hoarse throat, you know that coach has been yelling at the team all season.
In eight seasons as the varsity girls' coach at Modesto Christian High School, Robb Spencer has maintained the voice of a librarian. He speaks loudly enough to get his points across in practice, and raises his voice in games only to be heard over the buzz in the gym.
Saturday, that "gym" will be Sacramento's Arco Arena, where the Crusaders will be playing for the Division IV state title at 9:30 a.m. against Mater Dei Catholic High School of Chula Vista.
"I don't feel I have to raise my voice in games," Spencer said. "I get on them a little more during those two hours in practice, when I want them to be perfect. If I still have to scream and yell at you in games, then I haven't done my job in practice."
That low-key approach has worked for Spencer, 37, who has never been a varsity head coach at any other school. His teams at MC have compiled a 216-52 record, and have reached at least the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinal round every year.
A win on Saturday would earn the school its first state title in girls' basketball. The only Stanislaus District school ever to hoist a girls' state title banner is Ripon Christian, which won Division V crowns in 1988 and 1994. MC claimed Division V boys' titles in 1997 and 2004.
Should the Crusaders win on Saturday, perhaps Spencer will let out a yell. Then again, maybe not.
"I have played for crazy coaches who scream and yell," said senior guard Stefani Agostini. "Robb doesn't really yell, but when he's mad he'll raise his voice for just a second, just long enough to get out what he needs to say."
Coached Riverbank JV team
Spencer was a three-sport athlete at James Logan High School in Union City. He played basketball for two seasons at De Anza College in Cupertino, then transferred to California State University, Stanislaus in 1993.
He was a Warrior for only one season, but the stay in Turlock proved fruitful when a college friend helped to get Spencer a job coaching the Riverbank High junior varsity boys' team.
Spencer coached the Riverbank boys for three seasons, then added the junior varsity girls' job for his last three seasons at the school while pursuing his degrees in child development and recreation from Stanislaus. He joined the basketball coaching staff at Beyer High for the 2000-01 season, and the following year became an assistant at Modesto Junior College under first-year coach Paul Brogan.
Before the Pirates' season began, Spencer sent his résumé to MC, where there was an opening for a varsity girls' coach. The contents of his cover letter blew away athletic director Greg Pearce.
"When he applied for the job, he walked in with six letters of recommendation from Pac-10 coaches," Pearce said. "No one does that."
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Walking in for his first day of practice at MC, he was greeted by the sight of future University of Oklahoma stars Courtney and Ashley Paris, then high school freshmen.
"I was ready to take any varsity job that opened up, whether it was girls or boys," Spencer said. "This job opened just in time for the Paris twins. That was unbelievable for something like that to happen."
Led by "The Twins," Spencer's first MC team went 33-4 and reached the state Division V championship game, losing to a La Jolla Country Day team led by future Stanford four-time All-American Candice Wiggins.
By the time Spencer took the MC position, he already had been coaching for two years with the Modesto Magic, a high-level travel basketball program, during the off-season. He has continued his association with the Magic, making Spencer an easy target for people trying to accuse him of using the Magic to spot and develop players he later can recruit to play for his Crusaders.
"Modesto Christian and the Modesto Magic are completely separate," Spencer said. "I never talk about MC with any of the Magic girls. If their parents approach me wanting to talk about MC, I send them to Greg Pearce. I will never be caught in the middle of that. You will never hear anyone say they were recruited by me to go to MC."
Has had chances to move
Spencer's imprint is on every level of the Modesto Christian educational process. He teaches physical education to MC's grade-schoolers, and is the dean of students at MC's middle school in addition to his coaching duties.
He's had the opportunity to move to other schools that would allow him to concentrate more on coaching. Last fall he had the chance to become the girls' varsity coach at Clovis West High, a school with one of the state's top all-around athletic programs.
Spencer turned it down because he's happy living locally with his wife, Xilonen, and daughters Amaris and Jasmine. There will come a time, he said, when the right job will be able to lure him away.
"I can see myself coaching forever," Spencer said. "I used to be able to see myself here forever, but that's changing with my family. In these last couple of years, I've had to start thinking about myself more. I don't know if I should feel guilty about that. God put me here to work with kids. This is me."
Wherever Spencer goes, it will be where basketball is taught his way -- in balance.
The program's success over the past eight years might indicate a single-minded focus on basketball, but those inside the program say that is not an accurate portrayal.
"Grades come first, then basketball," said Dalinda Cagle, mother of sophomore guard Vanessa Cagle. "We asked a lot of questions before we came here. The girls respect him so much, and that makes them want to do what it takes to win, but they know that grades are just as important to him."
If Spencer were king of the high school athletic world, he said, he'd mandate a minimum 3.0 grade point average for participation. All but one of the 10 on his roster would meet that criterion, he said.
"The percentage of high school athletes who will receive an athletic scholarship is 0.6," Spencer said. "You have a better chance academically than athletically. It's all life lessons. If you're going to be serious about basketball, you certainly can be serious about your classes."
For about two hours on Saturday morning, Spencer and his Crusaders will be very serious about basketball, that is, seriously having fun playing in an NBA arena.
Win or lose, the season will be over. Win or lose, Spencer's voice will be spared.
"This is a big game, but it's still a game," Spencer said. "We're going to have fun and get after it and give it everything we have, but in the end it's just a game."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.