Callero coaches team to March Madness

Former Sumner  High hoop coach Joe Callero was riding high last week as coach of the Cal Poly Mustangs, one of just 64 basketball teams locked into the NCAA’s Big Dance.

For Callero and his troops, the experience was brand new. Some esteemed programs are regulars in the postseason tourney that eventually declares a national champion, but Cal Poly was treading on new ground – never before had the small school from the Big West Conference qualified for the elite field of 64.

Playing a First Four contest against fellow No. 16 seed Texas Southern, the Mustangs dialed up an 81-69 victory to guarantee themselves a berth in the show. The reward for a 16 seed is a matchup with a No. 1 seed and Callero’s crew drew one of the best. Cal Poly’s remarkable late-season showing concluded Friday with a 64-37 loss to undefeated Wichita State, considered among the favorites to claim the national title.

Callero, who took over the Cal Poly program in April 2009, has traveled a lot of basketball miles to find himself in the national spotlight as coach of one of the tournament’s true longshots.

He grew up in Enumclaw, the eighth of 16 children, and graduated from Enumclaw High. He finished his playing days as a point guard at Central Washington University, guiding the Wildcats to consecutive NAIA national championship appearances.

Since entering the coaching ranks, Callero has established a reputation for reversing the fortunes of programs on the rocks.

As head coach at Seattle University from 2001 to 2009), Callero directed the Redhawks to 75 victories during his final four seasons and successfully guided the program through its Division I transition. His final season with the Redhawks produced a 21-8 campaign and the program’s highest winning percentage in 45 seasons.

Prior to his success at Seattle, Callero guided Division III University of Puget Sound to a combined 22-25 record during the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons. The Loggers finished 14-10 during his final season to secure the program’s first winning campaign in nine years.

Before pointing Puget Sound in a winning direction, Callero served the 1998-99 season as an assistant coach at USC.

He compiled a 130-49 mark during a pair of three-season stints at Highline Community College (1989-92 and 1995-98) and, before departing for USC, helped guide the Thunderbirds to successive Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges championships. He twice earned conference Coach of the Year praise after Highline posted a combined 63-2 mark during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 campaigns.

Between successful stints at Highline Community College, Callero served as the head coach and as a guidance counselor at Sumner High (1992-95). Under Callero, Sumner also posted its first winning campaign in six years.

The postseason success of this year’s Cal Poly team has bumped Callero’s visibility, largely due to a regular season record that didn’t seem to inspire confidence. His squad lost nine of its final 11 before entering the Big West Conference tournament. But the Mustangs won the tourney title to earn the program’s first NCAA bid. With the victory over Texas Southern, Cal Poly squared off against Wichita State with a season record of 14-19.

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