It’s been a traumatic year for East Palo Alto, the hardest hit city in San Mateo County, per capita, by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also taken a toll on sports programs in the city schools and the community.
Eastside College Prep, one of the top Division V schools in the Central Coast Section, was forced to shut down its athletic teams for the year and is hoping to restart in the fall.
The Grindhouse Sports Club, a drop-in program for kids of all ages started by Andre “Coach Country” Pruitt and Sisley Brewer, was forced to shutter its doors. It hopes to reopen in June.
Pruitt and Brewer have been keeping things going by coaching basketball at East Palo Alto Academy, a school across the street from Eastside, and though numbers are down, they are still competing.
“COVID took a lot out of us,” Pruitt said. “We’re missing several players. But that’s also given other kids a chance to learn how to play.”
East Palo Alto Academy continues playing. Pruitt coached both the girls and boys teams last year but has divided responsibilities this year. Brewer is the boys coach because she’s known the kids a lot longer.
The boys team lost a heartbreaker to Latino College Prep, 43-42, on Thursday. The girls lost, 26-19.
“We come to play,” Pruitt said. “Dave Matsu wants us at Mills because he loved the fact we played hard.”
In addition to Mills, a member of the Peninsula Athletic League, EPA Academy has, in the past, played Eastside (of the West Bay Athletic League) and plays in the Private Schools Athletic League, which includes Pacific Bay Christian, who has reached a CCS final in Division V.
Pruitt came to the Bay Area from Memphis looking for a new start. These days, he’s providing student-athletes the opportunity to succeed.
“We want something positive for the kids,” Pruitt said. “We want to be able to build winners. This is bigger than basketball. We’re building a culture and we want kids who are academically inclined and who want to play sports.”
Pruitt got into coaching because he met Donovan Blythe, one of the most successful coaches in the area who is currently in China establishing a basketball academy.
“I’ve known Donovan since 2006, when I was keeping score at Paye’s Place,” Pruitt said. “My sister played for Donovan and he put me on his AAU staff. That’s where I started to understand how to coach the game. I learned a lot from that guy.”
In 2014, Blythe told Pruitt “it’s your time” to become a head coach.
His first high school coaching experience was as an assistant for the Eastside boys 2008-2009 CCS championship team coached by Olatunde Sobomehin.
Since there is no public high school in East Palo Alto, student-athletes from the area attend a wide variety of institutions ranging from Menlo-Atherton to Valley Christian and James Logan.
Pruitt sees an opportunity for kids to stay at home.
“There are a lot of great parents here who have sacrificed their lives to help their kids,” Pruitt said. “I want to be the person they can depend on.”
Pruitt sees an overall growing interest in EPA Academy athletic programs.
“We have a great soccer program,” he said, pointing to San Jose State senior Carlos Gomez-Zavala, who appeared in 61 matches with the Spartans during his college career and earned all-WAC recognition, as an example. San Jose State went 5-1-3 in an abbreviated season this year.
“The volleyball is strong because we have a group who loves to play,” Pruitt said. “We’re also starting a cross country team. Eventually we want to be a great school to come to for sports. Kids have to know academics is priority number one.”
It’s their time.