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Area coaches break into varsity ranks
Stephan Unterholzner, left, takes over as Sierra High’s varsity girls basketball coach after successful seasons at the freshman level. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Brett Lewis is confident and goes as far to say that he’s developed somewhat of a swagger.

But at age 22 he is the youngest head varsity basketball coach in the area, so there are times when he is overwhelmed. Lucky for him, he has decades worth of coaching knowledge at his side.

Lewis is one of four area coaches to break in at the varsity level this year, and it’s so far so good for him and his 2-2 East Union Lancers.

Across town, Stephan Unterholzner is Sierra High’s new girls coach, while J.J. Ramirez and Ed Fang debut for first-year varsity Lathrop’s boys and girls squads, respectively.

A 2005 graduate of East Union, Lewis returned to his alma mater last year and coached the freshman squad to a 22-2 record and a Valley Oak League championship.

Lewis was a part of East Union’s last varsity championship team in 2004-05, when the Lancers claimed the third of three straight titles under then head coach Eric Simoni. Simoni is now the school’s Dean of Athletics, following his predecessor and mentor, Bill Stricker, as both coach and athletic director.

Stricker, a former University of the Pacific standout and Portland Trailblazer is a part of Lewis’ four-man staff that also includes longtime assistant Gary Kron and Rob de Groot.

“They do a great job of letting me do my thing,” Lewis said. “I honestly didn’t expect that much freedom, but if I’m doing something that they don’t agree with they’ll step in and say something.

“They give me confidence in what I’m doing. They’re always there for me anytime I need help or advice. It’s been a smooth transition.”

Like Lewis, the others debuting as varsity head basketball coaches are already rooted in the area.

Unterholzner hasn’t coached basketball since leading Nevada Union’s sophomore boys team in 1988-90, but he’s had success a coach for Sierra’s track and field team. The Sierra’s boys team won back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section championships in his final two seasons as head coach in 2005-06.

Isaac Gutierrez stepped down after his fourth season to pave the way for Unterholzner, who coached the girls freshman team for two years.

“It’s a fun challenge, and I feel that I have something to teach,” Unterholzner said. “It’s definitely more tense and fast paced (compared to coaching track) — just a different animal.”

Ramirez and Fang have coached Manteca Unified schools for years, but never before in varsity. They both led their programs at the sophomore level last year.

Ramirez coached lower level teams at East Union at Manteca for 12 years before athletic director Bill Slikker gave him the nod at Lathrop.

“I’ve always liked the lower levels because I love teaching the fundamentals, but I’ve always thought about (coaching) varsity,” Ramirez said. “It was always in the back of my mind.”

Fang coached Nile Garden’s middle school basketball teams for 18 years before heading Sierra’s sophomore girls team in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. He left Sierra after retiring from the restaurant business but was quick to jump at the opportunity to start a program from scratch.

“I saw it as a great opportunity that I couldn’t let get by,” Fang said. “It’s a learning process for both my players and I since this is my first year at varsity. Every day is a new adventure.”

To contact Jonamar Jacinto, e-mail, or call (209) 249-3538.