CAMPBELL — Taka Sugimoto has never sought the limelight. In fact, still not. When she returned a call from a reporter this week, she wondered what the point was.
It’s about her incredible run as a high school coach, the woman named “Sugi” was told.
“No one needs to know,” she said sheepishly.
Jimmy Carter occupied the White House when Sugimoto began coaching junior varsity softball at Leigh High School in 1977.
Five months after her 90th birthday, the run ends on Friday when Westmont High, where Sugimoto has spent almost all of her coaching years, will host Andrew Hill in badminton.
Sugimoto is best known for managing Westmont’s varsity badminton and junior varsity field hockey teams.
But she also coached some softball and basketball.
“The years just flew by,” Sugimoto said. “I just kept going because I enjoyed it so much.”
In 1988, Sugimoto and her late daughter, Alison Takaki, were the subject of a Mercury News story when Alison recruited her mother to coach JV basketball at Blackford High after the previous coach unexpectedly resigned. Alison, who died of Alzheimer’s last year, was the school’s varsity coach.
“I’m still learning,” Sugimoto told reporter Dave Payne at the time. “But I know enough now that I feel a lot more comfortable with coaching.
“And,” she adds with a laugh, “the (head) trainer is great to work with.”
Sugimoto has coached all five of her grandchildren. She also trained against her own daughters when they were in high school.
Alison’s daughter Lynley Takaki is the one who felt her grandmother was most worthy of public recognition. Lynley coaches too. She is the girls’ basketball coach at Lynbrook and was Westmont’s varsity field hockey coach until last fall. She has resigned from her field hockey duties because she is pregnant.
Lynley, who won a Central Coast Section basketball championship last June, described her grandmother’s coaching style as “firm but fair.”
“She never screams,” Lynley said. “She really cares about her players and really focuses on the fundamentals, which is why her players are so well prepared for the next level. I feel like that’s hard to find in a JV trainer these days. She really looks at the whole picture and what is going on with each child.”
Lynley noted that her grandmother survived breast cancer and an internment camp during World War II.
She graduated from UC Berkeley, taught in Richmond and later became a physical education teacher in Cupertino.
“I think that led to her taking up sports,” Lynley added.
And she trained season after season, year after year.
Sugimoto said she couldn’t tell you her record. She just loved seeing the joy the sport brought to the hundreds of students she coached, not to mention her own joy in the experience.
For the record, Sugimoto’s varsity badminton teams have won 13 championships and the school’s varsity field hockey team has won three championships, with Sugimoto being a part of the program as a JV coach.
Kaitlin Nguyen has played JV field hockey at Westmont for the past two seasons. She credits her development to Sugimoto, calling her a “great coach” and someone who is “very encouraging” to players. Nguyen took the news of Sugimoto’s retirement emotionally.
“I actually went home and cried,” said the sophomore. “I think it affected a lot of people on our team, especially the players that have been playing for them for a while. She had a really big influence on me and so many other players.”
Kate Johnson, who has also played for Sugimoto for the past two seasons at Westmont, recalled how her coach gathered the team into a group the day after games.
Sugimoto would use her decades of field hockey knowledge to take detailed notes and use them to analyze the team’s play. She would tell the players what they could do collectively and individually to improve for the next game.
“She always had something new to learn and always had the best way of providing feedback while encouraging her players,” Johnson said.
Westmont boss Jason Miller has known Sugimoto for about a quarter of a century. He not only highlighted her commitment to coaching, but also her service as a substitute teacher, which lasted until the pandemic hit.
“She was definitely a part of our community,” Miller said. “The community has been great to her and she has been great to our community as well. She is family here.”
Sporting director Adam Perez said Sugimoto is the definition of consistency. If she says she’ll do something, he added, she gets it done.
“She’s a tough coach,” Perez said. “There’s no doubt about that. The kids really ride it. She ran a good program. Very stubborn about some things. But she also really knows how to deal with the players.
Between our badminton program and our field hockey program, it has just been a pleasure to watch her over the past two years that I have been in my position.”
Westmont officials are aware that Sugimoto is not in the spotlight and said Friday’s game will be a joint celebration: the coach’s last game and Seniors’ Day.
Lynley was asked if there is anything else she would like to tell people about her grandmother.
She called her a fighter.
“Her motto is always to put the team first, and she always takes care of her kids,” Lynley said. “I can’t believe it’s finally over for her.”