Brett Kay was The Register’s Orange County Baseball Coach of the Year for the 2022 season after winning the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section Division I championship and advancing to the CIF Southern California Regional Division I championship game with JSerra (Calif.). His teams are routinely ranked among the nation's top 10, his players dot rosters across all levels of college baseball, and several are drafted and en route or already occupying big league rosters. Kay has maintained a winning percentage approaching .650 during his run at JSerra and will soon send his 100th former Lion to the college ranks. He was hired in 2006 after a playing career that included All-American honors at Mater Dei High School and a pair of CWS appearances at Cal State Fullerton. He was an eighth-round draft pick of the New York Mets, playing three years in their system.
Inside Pitch: So getting the job at JSerra was a “third time’s a charm” type of thing…?
Brett Kay: Correct. I got told “no” the first two times I interviewed at JSerra. I kept coming back because of Scott Boras—my relationship with him and his relationship with JSerra has always been a unique one. Then at that third interview, I was basically Red in Shawshank Redemption at his last parole hearing. So of course I end up actually landing the job. And that AD that had told me no twice? I ended up marrying his daughter, which is a fun story to tell.
I feel like our administration, our coaching staff, the players and their parents have really built a unique platform for these kids to go out and be competitive and learn how to win in life. They’re walking billboards for their family, for this program, their school, and everything in between. That maturation process in high school from 14 to 18 is so gigantic.
IP: Your father was an elite athlete. What impact did he have on your athletic career?
BK: My dad played in the NFL for the Rams and the Falcons in the ’70s. I was always all about making my family proud and playing to the best of my ability. And I always played my best when my dad would be at our games. My last-ever high school game is etched in my memory. I remember waving to him and just him being so proud of me.
Then he passed away that summer in a car accident. I’ve always had something to live up to whether as a player, as a coach, as a father, as a brother, any of those things. It’s always mattered to me to shine that light of what I think is a really big piece of my life. I know he’s still watching, and I know that I still want to make my family proud.
I think it’s interesting when you watch Breaking Bad and Walter White say, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was really alive.” Of course any of us coaches feel that sentiment sometimes, but at the end of the day this is about honoring my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, my wife and kids.
IP: You have played for a Mount Rushmore of coaches. How have they influenced how you go about your day to day?
BK: I hired my high school coach, Bob Ickes, in 2022. He was at Mater Dei for 27 years as a head coach and nearly 50 as a teacher. I had tried to get him on my staff for 16 years. He was a molder of young men and a great mentor for me. My parents divorced when I was nine, and I was a rough kid that needed direction, and I got it from people like Coach Ickes, Bob Spore and Mike Robertson.
Then I went and played for George Horton, Rick Vanderhook, Dave Serrano and Mike Kirby at Cal State Fullerton. On that staff you had guys that ended up being really great head coaches in their own rights. I played at Fullerton at the opportune time and I really learned baseball—the nuances, the West Coast style, the “Wally Kincaid.” My college roommate was Kirk Saarloos. After that I was drafted by the Mets, where I played for Ken Oberkfell, Howard Johnson, Gary Carter. In the off-seasons I got to know John Savage and TJ Bruce. I just knew that if I didn’t make it as a player, I was going to be a coach.
I don't think I’m good at anything else. I don’t. Baseball has always been what I've loved. I remember right as my playing days were ending I was writing everything down that I knew about what it meant to be a coach. I’ve now held onto it for 20-some years.
IP: What’s your approach when it comes to dealing with travel ball coaches, college and pro scouts, even agents?
BK: For me, it’s about who is going to take care of you. Who is going to be in your best interest of you as a young man and as a student athlete? Who is going to prepare you to get to wherever it is you need to be? Who is really interested in building relationships and who’s just in it for the quick fix?
If you’re coming to our games and talking to our kids when they leave the field, just give me a heads up. Give me a courtesy, “Hey, I’d like to build a relationship with you so I can get to know you better.” I just like to know who's coming to the games and who's trying to build relationships with the kids. It’s important that these families are educated enough to make decisions on travel ball and college commitments, with agents, and that can’t happen if I’m in the dark on who’s coming to our games.
I have some great relationships with scouts, phenomenal. I don’t need to be the end-all be-all, but I have a responsibility to the student-athlete and I have a responsibility to his family. I’m like Varys or Littlefinger in Game of Thrones: I like to be in the know. I like to be the spider that just knows as much information as possible.
IP: With a slightly higher moral standard of ethics, right?
BK: Yeah, very true.
IP: What’s Scott Boras like?
BK: Scott Boras is the smartest person I’ve ever met. I’ve never met an individual like Scott and the people around him. One of my college teammates works for him. I think he’s obviously phenomenal at his craft and he's got really good people around him. Which made coaching his kids hard! It was my first year here, I was 26, and I was coaching Scott’s kids and Royce Lewis, the first overall pick in ’17. But Scott was great, and he’s continued to be a special mentor to me and our program.
IP: Who jumps out to you off the top of your head on the best players that you have coached against?
BK: Oh gosh. Corey Hahn. I would put four outfielders out there when he was up. He was so dynamic, he could hit, field, pitch, do it all. His parents are phenomenal people. He was just a dynamic, phenomenal kid.
The Mater Dei teams in those years had Ty Moore, Ryan McMahon, Jeremy Martinez. They literally had these four or five kids hitting in a row and you would try to game plan and run defense and pitch around them and they’re hanging up five runs every other inning anyways. But Cory was the ringleader. It’s like you knew how to pitch him and you still couldn’t get him out. He was smarter and more talented than everybody else.
IP: How do you deal with parents at an elite-level program like JSerra?
BK: Parents want the best eight players and their son to play, so you have to learn how to communicate in truth. We have 85 players in our organization, so it’s a lot of sitting down with families, talking to them about weaknesses and strengths, our culture, the plan for the next three weeks, months or even years. All those things matter.
I want my players to feel that they have a relationship with me and that they can talk about anything. They may not always like my answers, but they know that we’re trying to do what’s best for each kid, their family, our program and our school. Our plan is to prepare them for that next level.