When talking about the late Ben Castro, Righetti girls basketball coach Desiree Hitch and two of her former players, Maya Armenta and Alijah Paquet, described a coach who connected with his players on a much deeper level than basketball.
Castro was the veteran coach of the Central Coast Sparks girls club basketball team. He died Sunday. Castro, who was undergoing treatment after being in a diabetic coma, was 44.
Paquet and Armenta both played for Hitch’s squad that roared through the PAC 8 League unbeaten en route to the 2017 league title. Armenta graduated from Righetti later that year. Paquet graduated in 2019. Both of them played for the Sparks.
“I played for coach Ben for five or six years,” said Armenta, who played for Cuesta College and then Westcliff University after graduating from Righetti.
“He was actually very good friends with my dad. I grew up in Guadalupe and hadn’t really been exposed to travel ball.”
Armenta said, “I started playing for him in the third grade, so I was probably eight. He was very proud of all his players and he impacted a lot of lives, including mine. He influenced me to make lifelong friends that I will cherish forever, and he showed me a whole different side of basketball.“ Castro kept in touch with his players. High school games, college games, Sweet 16 parties, graduations – if it was an event that included one of his Sparks, Hitch, Paquet and Armenta said, Castro was there, showing his support.
It's taken awhile, but all Player of the Decade nominees have been announced.
When it came to basketball, “He’s the one who basically taught me to play,” said Paquet. “I was in fifth grade when I joined (the Sparks), so I think I was nine.
“He taught me how to play the game. Along with that, he made sure being on the team felt like you were part of a family, and I want to thank him for allowing me to become best friends with people I probably would not have otherwise met.”
Paquet had a solid freshman season for the Hancock College women. She helped the Bulldogs reach the playoffs.
Hitch said, “I met Ben through basketball when I started coaching at Righetti.” She finished her fifth year as head coach there in 2020.
“My players would often talk about playing for the Sparks and Coach Ben, how much fun he made it,” said Hitch.
“One of the things that stood out to me about Ben and his program was how affordable he made it for the players in this community.”
Hitch said, “Often times, you will find that a club program charges a crazy amount of money just to be a part of the team. That wasn’t the case with Ben. He made it affordable for all players.”
J’Nay Hawthorne runs the Santa Maria Boys & Girls Club basketball league. Ben Castro was her cousin.
“He served as a volunteer coach in the recreation leagues,” said Hawthorne, who was a standout for the Righetti girls basketball team when she was a student there. “Coaching was in his blood.
“This is such a big loss to the kids he served in the community. He was a long-time coach who impacted so many young girls’ lives.”
Hawthorne was another one who noted how Castro stayed connected to his former players.
“You could always find him in the stands at a junior high or high school game, cheering on his former players,” she said.
“His presence will definitely be missed, on the sidelines and in the lives of those who knew and loved him.”
Armenta said she was playing recreation basketball when Castro saw her play in the Frank Almaguer Tournament then asked her father if Maya was interested in playing for the Sparks.
The third grader said she was, and an enriching experience followed.
The Sparks flourished after humble travel ball beginnings.
“They were just starting the travel team, and we practiced outside a warehouse,” said Armenta.
“He was one of the first coaches who believed in my talents. Our three coaches (Castro, and Nate and Gabe Delgadillo) made it so much fun.”
Armenta said, “(Castro) taught all of us that’s it’s the relationships, and the friendships, you make along the way that are most important, not just the game.
“He also ALWAYS talked to us about legacy. Whether it was basketball or life in general, what do you want to leave behind? Coaches Ben, Nate and Gabe created a legacy and family that will last forever.”
Armenta said of Castro, “He will be missed by many. Once a Spark, always a Spark.”
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!