Jared Mentink was the brains behind the Todd Beamer boys basketball program when the school opened in 2003. And if Mentink is the brains of the Titans program, Collin Sawyer is its heartbeat.
Sawyer, a former player and graduate of Decatur, was Mentink’s No. 1 choice to help mold the new basketball program at the city’s newest high school. And 14 years later, after a couple of other coaching stops, Sawyer came back to Beamer in 2015 when his friend Brent Brilhante accepted the head coaching position for a second time.
Sawyer runs Brilhante’s junior varsity program and has to mold young, inexperienced players into varsity-caliber players. The work doesn’t stop there. As Brilhante’s assistant, Sawyer runs his own practices and monitors players’ social media activity and all player school-related business.
He does all of this with an independent nine-to-five job and a family of his own.
“He is the most reliable, selfless, loyal guy I’ve ever met,” Brilhante said. “When you’re the head coach, it’s hard to be approachable. He makes himself available and approachable to the kids. They feel comfortable enough to talk to him about anything. A great basketball program needs a Collin Sawyer, and we have the original.”
Both Brilhante and Sawyer grew up in Federal Way, and they grew up not far from one another. The two both went on to play high school basketball at Decatur. Sawyer is a few years older than Brilhante, so the two never really crossed paths until they both started coaching.
When Brilhante became the Titans head coach in 2008, he turned to Mentink, who coached Brilhante at Decatur, for advice on hiring assistant coaches. Mentink gave his coaching protege two names, and one was Sawyer’s.
Mentink told Brilhante he’d never find a more loyal coach than Sawyer.
“He just does so much for the kids,” Brilhante said. “He never wants anything in return. I knew he was a basketball genius. You don’t coach for a name like Jared Mentink if you’re not any good.”
When the two took over the program in the 2008-09 season, they put a team on the floor comprised mostly of underclassmen with only middle school varsity experience and not a senior in the bunch. The two coached the team to a 14-13 record.
The two grew closer in the offseason as they formed a blueprint for next season. They were more in sync the following year and led the Titans to its first-ever state tournament berth after a 17-8 regular season.
Sawyer said it was thrilling to see the program he helped build compete on the state tournament stage.
“I go back to that year with Jared Mentink that we opened the program without a senior class,” Sawyer said. “Boy did we take our lumps. To see it get to the state tournament is something I’ll never forget.”
After serving under Mentink for three years, Sawyer moved away from coaching to start a family.
It didn’t last long, however. He was summoned to assist Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Famer Dave Denny at Auburn and then Kevin Olson at his alma mater, Decatur.
“Collin Sawyer is one of the best coaching minds around,” Olson said. “The commitment he shows to players, forget basketball, the love he has for his players is what makes him such a good coach.”
When Brilhante left Beamer in 2010 for another coaching opportunity, Olson and Sawyer eventually teamed up again, this time at Auburn Riverside.
“When Brent left, the natural thing to do was to go back and help coach Olson,” Sawyer said.
When Brilhante came back to the Titans in 2015, Sawyer said he was in a tough spot. Two of his closest friends needed his help.
“Thank God for my wife,” Sawyer said. “She simply looked at me and asked ‘which friend needs the most help?’ ”
Sawyer has been by Brilhante’s side ever since.
Brilhante admitted he needs Sawyer because he has yet to find a coach who sees players as people more than Sawyer.
His junior varsity games are routinely low scoring, but it’s not from a lack of coaching or effort.
“He wants to teach those kids the most basic of basics,” Brilhante said. “So, when they come to me there’s no question they’re fundamentally ready.”
The heart is more than a mechanical organ, though. It’s also a central place for feelings.
Sawyer cares more about his players’ well being than X’s and O’s on a stat sheet. He knows if the first is taken care of, the second comes along much easier.
Sawyer’s players regularly call him “the pizza man.”
He’s notorious for picking up pizza for his teams on his way in from work. Brilhante remembers a moment in the 2012 season when the two were at Decatur and Sawyer surprised the Gators with a pizza during practice.
“I can’t remember why, but they were in a mood that day and didn’t want to practice,” Brilhante recalled. “Collin came in and literally threw the pizza in the middle of the court, and it was like watching a pack of wild dogs jump on it.”
Despite the unusual scene, Brilhante said the team was incredibly cooperative after that.
Brilhante said, when Sawyer comes onto the floor for practice, players regularly search for the box of pizza. When they don’t see it, they turn to Brilhante and ask, “Where’s the pizza? Is he bringing pizza? Is he hiding it?”
This season, when Beamer traveled to Olympia to play the West Central District play-in game against Camas on Feb. 8, the team held a shootaround after school.
Sawyer showed up late but not because of traffic. He stumbled in holding three boxes of pizza for the team’s pregame meal.
“Coach Sawyer has meant the world to this program, and I wouldn’t trade him for any other coach in the world,” Beamer forward Richie Frazier said. “He treats us like we’re his own kids, and he just makes us better.”
With the season over, Sawyer’s work is just getting started. He’s making sure players have AAU basketball or some form of basketball plan for the summer, and he’s pouring over social media, making sure kids are being responsible, sending out banquet reminders and uniform turn-in dates on Twitter.
Titan basketball is steadily improving through the hearts and minds of Brilhante and Sawyer, and the two have shown no signs of slowing down.
“I love it here [at Beamer],” Sawyer said. “Thing about us is we may not have the 6’9’’ kid, but we have the right kids. Sometimes it’s not about having the best kids, it’s about having the right kids.”