Ceres High School's varsity softball team posted a 139-77 overall record, placed fourth in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-IV playoffs for the third year in a row and captured the Western Athletic Conference championship (12-0) under head coach Donnie Donaldson's direction in 2014.
Donaldson, leader of the Bulldogs for the past eight seasons, was fired on June 16 by Ceres High principal Linda Stubbs.
Donaldson supporters voiced their opinion and sought answers during Thursday evening's Ceres School Board meeting.
"I don't want to ruffle any feathers," said John Bates, father of two-year varsity softball standout Nicole Bates. "I just want my voice to be heard. I don't think Donnie got his due process. I didn't see anything this year that would warrant an investigation. As far as I know, there wasn't one complaint by any parent or player on his team. Donnie's team had a great year. He should have got a handshake and a pat on his back. Instead, he lost his job. It's unfair."
"This is a personnel issue and I really cannot comment on the questions you have asked," Stubbs stated via e-mail while vacationing out of the country.
Ceres Unified School District Superintendent Scott Siegel also refused to talk about the specifics of the investigation, citing the same reason as Stubbs.
"I don't know the full details of who she (Stubbs) did and didn't interview," Siegel stated. "It doesn't change the facts surrounding the circumstances that happened. Coaches can be fired for any valid reason. I haven't seen anything that would give grounds to a legitimate lawsuit."
Donaldson alleges Ceres High athletic director Shawna Nunes used her position of power to prompt an investigation which ultimately led to his firing.
"I have had a positive relationship with our current athletic director, Shawna Nunes, who was a first-year teacher when I attended Ceres High, and former athletic director Phil de la Porte for 30 years," Donaldson said. "A relationship that I can only describe as two people that I have modeled my coaching after. So what changed? I can tell you the exact dates of the change in friendship because this has bothered me the entire season.
"On February 21, I received a phone call from Phil de la Porte arguing the decisions made by our coaches about the players that were going to be on varsity. He was not happy that our staff was not moving the athletic director's daughter to the varsity team. Later that evening, our current AD Shawna Nunes called me at 11 to discuss our decisions for our roster and again did not agree that her daughter was not going to be placed on the varsity team for the season. She ordered me to move her and two other freshmen to the varsity team. Basically promoting her daughter and evaluating the players although she and her husband were in San Diego. Ironically, my evaluation includes a section that I promote my own kids even though this happened."
"At the Hughson game and our final preseason game on March 11, my daughter started and pitched a three-hit shutout against eventual 2014 section champion Hughson," Donaldson added. "But neither Phil nor Shawna saw the game because they packed up and left in front of all parents and players obviously irate over the starting positions chosen by our staff. They decided to move the player (Nunes' daughter) down to the JV team the next day and I felt it started the process of compiling every single piece, no matter how small, of negative information to provide to Stubbs for my investigation."
"I feel like it's my fault," said Kaytlin Donaldson, Ceres High pitcher and Donnie's daughter. "If I didn't get put up for pitcher of the year, he wouldn't have got fired. Honestly, I didn't think they were going to do it because of how great of a season we had. He's a good coach. People look up to him as a father figure as well. I'm hoping he gets reinstated. If not, I'll most likely be transferring to another school. I don't want to be around the people that have done this to him. They make me feel like I don't deserve the award. I've worked hard for everything I have."
"His (Donnie Donaldson's) accusations against Mrs. Nunes are unfounded," Siegel said. "I believe she's being used as a scapegoat. This is not about Shawna or her kid."
Nunes completed a CUSD Annual Coach Evaluation for Donaldson on June 23.
Performance assessment focused on instructional ability, rapport with students, professionalism, communication, equipment inventory and budget.
Donaldson met standards for instructional ability, rapport with students and equipment inventory.
He met standards but also needed improvement for budgeting.
He was given a not satisfactory rating for both professionalism and communication.
Nunes listed Donaldson's season highlights and areas of strength.
"Donnie's team won the league championship this year with a 12-0 record," she stated. "He ran a very successful fundraising tournament."
In the areas of growth section, Nunes stated: "Donnie must follower proper procedures and ensure that all paperwork is submitted to the appropriate personnel prior to ordering merchandise. Donnie was not objective when evaluating personnel and nominating all-league players. He did not follow proper directions when completing the all-league nomination form and used non-league stats in two separate versions. It appeared stats were manipulated to promote one player over others."
When asked if any of what Donaldson and his supporters were saying about her was true, Nunes said: "That's the nature of the job. The other party can release whatever they want to say. The reasons for his removal had nothing to do with us. Linda Stubbs did the investigation and the district was happy with the findings. He was made aware of the reasons why he was released. When she (Stubbs), discussed it with me, I was in complete agreement. It's over and done with. We're moving on."
Stubbs offered the following reasons for termination according to Donaldson.
Donnie held unfair tryouts, showed unsportsmanlike contact by posting lopsided results, failed to turn in a backup purchase order request for the Ceres tournament and promoted his daughter.
"The worse piece of information they have placed in this file is that my own daughter is unworthy of pitcher of the year voted on by the other coaches of the WAC," Donnie stated. "No matter how this is said, there is a young adult involved in this and to make any student/athlete feel unworthy of any awards is flat out disgusting for an athletic director or principal."
Donnie sought input from Bulldog assistant coaches Joel Broumas and Dave Ward, Central Valley head coach Kristen Ghimenti and Pacheco leader Charlie Pikas prior to nominating Kaytlin for WAC Pitcher of the Year.
Kaytlin and fellow Bulldog freshman pitcher Rayohna Sagapolu both compiled identical 6-0 records in WAC play.
Sagapolu, a first-team all-league pick, had a slightly better ERA (0.42/0.68) and strikeout total (40/34) during her inaugural season with the Bulldogs.
Donaldson was a second-year varsity player.
"Donnie has had a family member on his team before this year, who was also a pitcher, and he never got any complaints about favoritism in the past," Ceres High upperclassmen player Megan McCormick said. "Last year, Kaytlin was on the 2012-13 CHS varsity softball team and Donnie never received any complaints of favoritism then as well. Why is it all of a sudden people want to get Donnie fired? He is a very successful coach, who has gotten two WAC titles in softball as long as he's been here, and one of those championships being undefeated. He has been successful to send his team to the playoffs as long as he's been here. Donnie does what he has to do to bring this team success. Not to make his daughter look good, or to make him look good, it's to make this school's softball program successful."
"I'm not saying I need to get hired back," Donnie Donaldson said. "But they need to investigate this. I don't want this to get shoved under the rug. I want the truth to surface. These small-town politics have to stop. They're going to destroy Ceres High's softball program. The worse part about this is we have two kids stuck in the middle, one of them being Shawna's daughter. It's a tough situation for everyone."
A standout on Ceres High School's varsity softball team from 2005-07, Ghimenti spent one year as an assistant coach at her alma mater before being named leader of crosstown-rival Central Valley's program.
Kristen, 2014 WAC Coach of the Year, was a senior during Donaldson's first year as head coach of the Bulldogs. Donnie was an assistant coach when Kristen was a junior and sophomore.
Ghimenti, along with a host of other Donaldson supporters, attended last week's board meeting.
"I don't know the reason why he was terminated," she said. "I'm shocked. He's been a mentor over the years. He's always been supportive. He gave me letters of recommendation for college and employment. He's helped me personally to get to where I am. I'm not the only one he's done favors for. He's never been anything but helpful and friendly."
Nicole Bates played for Donaldson for seven years, including two at Ceres High and five with the Tri County Smash. She was voted 2014 WAC MVP.
"Nicole feels the administration betrayed her and her teammates," John Bates said. "I want the board and district to look into this. I don't have to agree with the decision. I'd like to know if they went through the proper process. I'm wondering how this is going to play out."
"It was a big shock," said Nicole, who was playing travel ball in Los Angeles when she learned of Donaldson's firing. "I feel it wasn't made for the right reasons. I want clarity on the firing of coach Donaldson as I believe it was unjust. Our season was a very memorable one for me, my teammates and the coaching staff. Last month, we were honored by the members of the board for our hard work and success. We had one of the best softball seasons in Ceres High history and coach Donaldson was a huge part of that. Our team got along. Our practices, our games, our van rides were fun. We had fun and we won. Our overall record was 21-6 and our league record was 12-0. Yes, undefeated in league. And my coach got fired. We won a championship and a playoff game, and I believe under Donnie's leadership, we have a shot at winning a section title the next two years."
When asked if Nicole would transfer to another school if Donnie wasn't reinstated, John said: "That will be a family decision. I hope it doesn't come to that. This is where she's grown up. This is where her friends are at."
"If he (Donnie) doesn't get his job back, I'm going to move to Oakdale or not play softball next year," said Nicole, who along with her brother Jimmy, have attended Ceres schools since kindergarten. "A lot of the girls are talking about not playing."
Chelsea Evans, a 2014 Merced High School grad, praised Donaldson for making a difference in her life. Evans, who plays for Donnie's 18-and-under Gold travel softball team, even wrote about their player-coach relationship in a paper submitted during her fourth-period AP Literature class on April 29.
"As a male coach, you have to be a certain type of person to be able to not only coach, but deal with emotional high school girls," Evans penned. "But thankfully, Donnie was that person. Out of all my 10 years of playing softball, multiple coaches, and countless instructors, I have never been so thankful for one coach that has helped me through hard times on the field and in life. Throughout all of the strikeouts and errors, I always knew that no matter how busy coach Donnie was, he would be willing to work with me on whatever I needed. Even if it was just a quick phone call or text for a pep talk, he was there. Not all coaches really care if their players succeed, but that is what makes coach Donaldson a real coach. His love for the game continues to grow along with his dedication to making his players the best they can be, mentally and physically."
East Union softball head coach Brian Goulart also made the trip to Ceres last week.
He called Donaldson one of the top coaches in the area.
Goulart also talked about the difficult decision Donaldson had to make in 2010. Ceres High failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 24 years after star pitcher Vaneza Hoover was dismissed from the team for an unspecified disciplinary reason.
"I don't know how many other coaches would have done that," he said.
Ceres High amassed a 139-77 record, qualified for the postseason six times and won two league titles during Donaldson's eight-year tenure (2007-14).
"It's a big loss," Ghimenti said while talking about Donaldson's dismissal as head coach of Ceres High. "Whatever happens, I don't see him leaving the game of softball. Wherever he ends up, it's going to be a gain for that program."
Donaldson plans to file formal complaints against Stubbs and Nunes through the district office.
The process will take several months according to Siegel.
An investigation will be conducted and a report will be issued.
"I have confidence in Mrs. Stubbs and Mrs. Nunes," said Siegel, who pointed out Donaldson could make an appeal to the board.
"Hopefully, the school board listened tonight," Donnie Donaldson stated. "I'd love to continue to coach this team. But I'm a walk-on coach. I really have no rights."
"I feel betrayed," Nicole Bates added. "I believe in what is right and I believe in playing with honor. I respectfully request the board members look into this matter and carefully consider why the decision was made."
"We can't comment because it's a personnel issue," CUSD trustee Betty Davis said.
Coach Donaldson was punished for committing rules violations during the 2009 season.
He broke a CIF rule by holding a non-mandatory hitting practice on a Sunday.
Ceres High reported the infraction to the Valley Oak League, received a written reprimand and its varsity softball program was put on probation for a year. The Bulldogs also had a Monday practice taken away.
Donnie also used Ceres High's softball field for his Tri County Smash travel club and allowed the JV head coach to miss a game without approval.
Demoted to JV head coach, Donaldson was eventually reinstated after agreeing to the following stipulations:
• To serve a six-game suspension during the 2010 season
• To be put on probation for two years
• To forfeit 20 percent of his coaching stipend ($800)
• To agree to a three-year commitment to CHS softball
Ghimenti, Ceres council member Bret Durossette and de la Porte were among the 75 supporters to express support for Donaldson five years ago.
"I take full responsibility," Donaldson said prior to being reinstated as leader of the Bulldogs following the June 11, 2009 board meeting. "I messed up."