By Ray Hamill — The McKinleyville Panthers got the new boys basketball season off to a winning start at Hoopa on Tuesday night, but one man who played a major role in helping to build this team was left cheering from a distance.
Former head coach Sonny Tripp, who was replaced in August, has left an impressive legacy in his wake, and while he admits he wasn’t ready to let go just yet, he is still grateful for everything the program gave him and confident the Panthers will continue to succeed.
“I loved it,” Tripp said of the eight years he spent running the program. “And I’m grateful to the kids and all their hard work and dedication and doing the best they could. And the parents. I’m grateful to all of them.”
The school appointed Cindy Clancy Semore as new head coach during the offseason and Tripp admits he was disappointed and hurt by the move.
“I’m happy we left them in a way better place, but I’m disappointed we didn’t get to finish what we started,” he said. “This year we felt like the league is ours to win and that we could win two games in section and make a run at state. We left with some unfinished business on the table
“One gratifying thing is we left the program in way better shape than when we took over.”
Tripp and assistant Larrin McConnell certainly enjoyed plenty of success during their tenure in charge, including a league championship season in 2018, which was only the second-ever league title for the smallest of the Big 5 schools.
In his time as head coach, Tripp’s teams only finished out of the top three in the Big 5 once and they had a reputation for playing hard-nosed basketball against the best teams on the North Coast.
“Sonny was one of the most passionate and dedicated coaches to his program,” said former Arcata boys coach Dusty Scofield, who had some thrilling showdowns against Tripp in recent years. “I know a lot of coaches who can only coach when they have talent. Not only did Sonny win, but no matter what type of team he had he gave it his all and his teams always played hard.”
Tripp and his teams prided themselves on that reputation.
“People knew we play hard every game and that it’s going to be a grind when you play the Panthers,” he said.
His success and achievements have not gone unnoticed by Mack High and Panthers fans.
“I want to say how much we appreciate all the hard work and dedication he put into the program,” said former Panthers Athletic Director Dustin Dutra, who worked closely with Tripp for the past eight years. “He did a great job and he truly loved the players and he coached with a lot of humility.
“It’s just amazing the way he was able to communicate with his players and made them feel very important.”
One of the big joys for Tripp was coaching his sons Mateek and Imya during his time with the program.
“I got to coach both my sons, which was definitely a privilege and an honor,” he said.
The coach also paid tribute to several other players that played for him, including Travis Nickols, Will Ingersoll, Isaac Puzz, Mason Sand, AJ Stubbs, Tom Locetelli and T-Ryan Stumpf, as well as expressing his gratitude to Dutra for his support as AD.
“I would also like to thank Lou, John and Ron and all the facilities crew for always taking care of us,” he said. “And also all the grandmas and one grandpa for always working the doors, and of course all the refs that gave me a warning instead of a T.
“And I can’t forget the district and school secretaries for their help and support too.”
And, in particular, Tripp paid tribute to McConnell, who played for him as a freshman in 1996 when he was in charge of the Panthers frosh team during his first stint coaching at the school.
Later he would bring McConnell on as an assistant coach.
“Without coach McConnell we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did do,” Tripp said. “He was definitely my right-hand man. He was awesome.”
Tripp, who began a new job this week with the Northern California Indian Development Council, says he enjoyed matching wits with Scofield and the other coaches in the area as well.
“I had a lot of good relationships with coaches in other programs,” he said. “H-DN basketball is fun and some of the best around.
“I had a blast. It was an absolute blast. I can’t say enough about how much I’ll miss the kids and the McKinleyville community. It was a great time.
“Hopefully I’ll be out there again some day.”