NORTH STONINGTON — For longtime Wheeler High boys basketball coach Neal Cobleigh, the decision to hire a woman, Keyokah Mars-Garrick, as an assistant coach was an easy one.
"I had no concerns. The team is the same. She comes with a resume, and I like to learn, too. She brings a lot. We have similar philosophies of the game," Cobleigh said. "She can teach and she knows the game. She is enthusiastic, passionate and a natural. She's a coach and we needed a coach."
For others, the decision to have a woman coach a team of males might not have been as easy. It is a rarity. For instance, there have been only four female assistant coaches in Division I men's basketball. Ever.
"It wasn't anything I was looking to do," said the 30-year-old Mars-Garrick, who works as a building substitute teacher in the North Stonington school system. "I've known coach Cobleigh for a long time. And when Mrs. Turner (athletic director Ellen Turner) talked with about it, it just seemed like a good fit."
Mars-Garrick does indeed come with a basketball resume. She is a 2008 graduate of Wheeler, where she earned Class S All-State honors as a senior by averaging 17.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and helping the Lions reach the state tournament semifinals.
She earned a Division I scholarship to the University of Hartford, where she played all four years and appeared in 59 games.
She has served an assistant women's basketball coach at Trinity College and the Coast Guard Academy. She was a graduate assistant at Hartford and has coached with the Connecticut Storm AAU program.
Mars-Garrick has no concerns about coaching boys.
"I am still demanding. I was worried about being a woman of color and how they would hear my voice. And there are points where you have to prove yourself," she said. "I wasn't at all concerned."
Cobleigh said it's not an issue.
"She runs the defense; she works with the posts. We threw her right in. She's pretty well-known around North Stonington. Our kids are good about it. They just want to get better, and she can help them get better," Cobleigh said.
Mars-Garrick said she learned some things during at time at Wheeler that helped her in college.
"When I was at Wheeler, our coach (George Hardison) talked a lot of about nutrition and that stuck with me," she said. "My senior year we had a close team, and I learned you have to care about your teammates more than anybody else. I learned to believe in something other than myself."
Mars-Garrick played under Jennifer Rizzotti at Hartford. Rizzotti was the point guard on the first UConn team to win a national title in 1995. Rizzotti won the Wade Trophy in 1996 as the top women's player in the country. She is now the head coach at George Washington University.
"The level of intelligence that coach Rizzotti had as a head coach was the best I've ever seen," Mars-Garrick said. "Film study and statistics — in a way it was like a science. She knew how to analyze and beat other teams. She was always working to figure out how we could be smarter about this. My time in Hartford taught me that."
Mars-Garrick wants to teach Wheeler players the fundamentals and make them better basketball players.
As for her career, she will be going back to school in the summer to earn her certification to become a special education teacher, but in the meantime, Mars-Garrick will continue to add to her basketball resume.
"I just want to keep coaching the rest of my life," she said. "The college level is not for me; it's a lifestyle. I tip my hat to them, but I've done the college thing. I want to work with high school boys and girls. It's just teaching kids something that can change their life. It allowed me to figure how to talk and connect with other people. You can learn so many life skills. To have the opportunity to be a part of that in an environment you enjoy is so much fun."