CCHS coach wins national award

On paper, Dawn Lee’s coaching resume is about as impressive as it gets.

Since taking over the program 10 seasons ago for her late father, Butch, she has continued a dynasty, leading the Dons to seven San Diego Section championships, with title game appearances in all but one season, and nine Western League titles.

But what separates Lee from most of her elite-level peers is a coaching philosophy emphasizing character ahead of winning, and life lessons ahead of championships.

“You’re going to make mistakes and you’re not going to have the best games sometimes, but when the game’s over your life’s still going to go on,” said Lee, summing up her coaching philosophy.

“Most women won’t be making a living at this, so this really should be fun.”

Cathedral Catholic Athletic Director Dave Smola put it this way: “Winning’s nice, and she’s been very successful. But I’ll be very honest, it’s not all about winning for her. She puts her whole heart and soul into making sure the kids are taken care of and that they’re respected and that they’re taught well.”

A National High School Athletic Coaches Association panel apparently liked what they saw of Lee’s work, naming her their national Coach of Year at an annual conference in Minneapolis last month.

Lee arrived in Minneapolis expecting to win a regional coaching award, unaware she’d even been nominated for national honors.

“It really is a great honor,” Lee said. “It’s a testament to all my players I think who’ve stuck with me for 12 years. If they hadn’t put up those stats I wouldn’t have even been looked at.”

The panel likely also looked at the success she has had developing a steady stream of players who’ve gone on to play at collegiate soccer. She graduated an unheard of seven collegians in 2008, and five Div. I players two years before that.

Lee believes the key to being a successful coach is being in tune with the demands of today’s student athlete, who juggles playing a year-round club schedule with academics.

She said striving to achieve the balance of demanding excellence from her players, while allowing them to still be kids, is her toughest challenge.

“I tell all their parents that their kids are never going to have high school again so they need to enjoy those four years as best as they can, whether it’s playing a sport or not playing a sport,” Lee said. “Those four years go by fast.”

Lee said her late father heavily influenced her approach to coaching, noting she learned from him how to get the most from every player, whether it’s a college-bound standout or a seldom-used reserve who doesn’t play much.

Butch Lee, who died of cancer in 1998, coached Dawn Lee from the age of 5 through high school at University High of San Diego.

The Dons earlier this year failed to make the San Diego Section title game for the first time in 20 years, losing in the semifinals to eventual Div. III champion La Jolla 3-2 in overtime. The Dons had won four consecutive Div. III championship titles and seven of the previous eight.

Lee nevertheless considers the team among the program’s best, noting the Dons overachieved after experiencing heavy graduation losses.

“We were very, very young, and we just played out of our minds the last few games of the season,” Lee said. “We had nothing to lose this year and we proved so much to everyone.”

Former Dons goalie Eileen Purner, who graduated from Cathedral Catholic in June, doesn’t think she’d have become the player she is if not for Lee’s coaching.

“I can honestly say she’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Purner said. “She makes you work hard, but at the same time she recognizes how hard you work.

“She’s never going to put you down … she loves the sport and she loves teaching us how to play. When you have a passion for something it’s not all about the end result.”

Lee admits a 20th consecutive title appearance would have been nice, but life lessons have helped put the game of soccer in perspective.

“I guess losing my dad made me realize that life’s too short and made me want this to be a fun experience for them,” Lee said. “I don’t want them to dread this every day, I don’t want them to be miserable.”