By Aram Tolegian, Staff Writer
There’s an empty space on the Wilson High School girls basketball team’s bench where longtime head coach Ed Bruyninckx used to sit. His chair has a cover that reads “Coach Ed,” and although nobody sits there anymore, everybody in the Wildcats’ gym can still see him, like he always was, intently watching his girls play. This year’s team believes Bruyninckx, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home in September, is still watching them and is very proud of what’s taking place.
And why wouldn’t he be?
The Wildcats are on a 15-game winning streak. They’ve already clinched the Hacienda League championship with two games to go, but are looking for perfection in league because that’s what Coach Ed would have expected … in addition to, of course, his girls having a good time.
“I think he’s a part of every minute of it,” Wildcats team captain Kaci Calton said. “He’s always with us. We know he’s looking over us and we want to do our best.”
Bruyninckx, 57, had just finished his nightly workout on Sept. 26 when he died. That night, his longtime assistant coach Tracy Calton had the unenviable duty of relaying the tragic news to the players.
“Oh my gosh, that’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” said Tracy Calton, who is now Wilson’s head coach after being Bruyninckx’s assistant for the past 11 years. “It was very difficult. It was hard on all of them, regardless of how long they’d been at Wilson. He was
just a great person, who treated everybody well.”
Calton’s two daughters, Kaci and Kelli, both play on the team. They took it especially hard, having known Bruyninckx their entire lives. The school brought in counselors, but the team refused to speak with them, instead preferring to speak with Calton.
After being given a week off, Wilson’s players resumed practicing in early October, but not before Calton gave each player a letter he wrote. The letter told the team that Coach Bruyninckx was more excited about the upcoming season than any other Calton could remember, which made little sense at the time considering Wilson had graduated one of the area’s best players in Naijah Calhoun and had no similar talent to replace her.
“I had to write them a letter because I’m such an emotional person that I couldn’t get through talking to them about it,” Calton said. “I had talked to Ed for quite a while about this team and he was excited about the new league and the great summer we had with the kids. This was probably the season he was looking forward to more than any in the time I’ve known him and that we’ve coached together.”
Bruyninckx obviously knew something most others didn’t, but it wasn’t apparent right away. Wilson started out 3-6, but hasn’t lost since. What’s more, the Wildcats are doing it without any player averaging double figures in points.
But given all that the Wildcats have been through, they know how to play as a team because they’ve grieved as a team.
Junior guard Jaimie Hou leads Wilson with 9.7 points per game. Four other girls average between four and nine points.
“We just want to do everything for Ed,” Hou said. “We knew how excited he was for this season. It’s very special to us because this is like accomplishing something for Ed. We worked really hard to get to where we are and we just want to make him proud.
“He would be really proud of us right now and would want us to keep working and trying to improve.”
At 18-6 overall and 10-0 in league, the Wildcats have games this week against Pomona and San Dimas standing between themselves and a perfect league season. After that, they’ll turn their attention toward the CIF-Southern Section playoffs.
Commemorating Bruyninckx’s death, some of Wilson’s league opponents have worn wristbands that read, “In Loving Memory of Coach Ed.” The Wildcats and their coaches do the same.
The grieving process is ongoing at Wilson, where Bruyninckx also served as softball coach for the past six seasons. For now, the memory of a coach loved by so many rests in the hands of the basketball team that still misses him greatly.
“It’s kind of like something’s missing when I look over at the bench during games,” Hou said. “I can’t let if affect me, but there’s still quite a bid of sadness. We’re still missing him. We’re missing his encouragement and his entertainment.”
Following Wilson’s league title-clinching victory over Baldwin Park on Friday, Calton wrote his team another letter. This one detailed what the team had been through and what it had accomplished since the previous letter.
It closed by simply stating, “I know Ed is proud, smiling, and happy for each of you. Some day, in some way, he will thank you for realizing his goals for this season.”