James Manuel, Berkeley High girls volleyball coach, dies at 37

Manuel, who revitalized the school’s volleyball program and turned its players into a family, died April 22.

James Manuel, head coach of the girls volleyball team at Berkeley High, died April 22. Credit: Margot Fish

Berkeley High girls volleyball coach James Manuel, who made the team the envy of the league, died April 22 from complications related to high blood pressure. He was 37.

“His loss is staggering,” said Robin Vegt, the school’s athletic director, calling Manuel “a giant of a man.” 

After Manuel took over the girls volleyball program in 2017, the team maintained a winning record and, more importantly to Manuel, became a tight-knit family. His three daughters — Semaj, 12, Tehya, 8, and Kauri, 2 — were a fixture at practices and became part of the volleyball family, too. 

Manuel, who struck a rare balance between serious and playful, turned the volleyball team into a family. Credit: Margot Fish

“The moment you meet him, you feel like you’ve known him forever, like you were part of his family,” said Tiffany Sutherland, the assistant athletic director and cheerleading coach at Berkeley High, whose daughter, Diamond, played on the volleyball team.

“James had the biggest heart of any coach I’d ever had,” said Oona Bruss, a former player. “He was the father figure I always needed and helped me through some of the hardest times with my dad and with high school. He made me more empathetic, enthusiastic, goofy and hardworking by just being himself.”

Manuel grew up in Louisiana, where he graduated from Port Sulphur High School in 2003 and attended South Eastern Louisiana University. He moved to California in 2007 and settled in Richmond.

He was introduced to volleyball by his wife, Kimberlee Rock, in 2007. That year, Manuel became a student of the sport, working as Rock’s assistant coach at Salesian High School in Richmond. He fell in love with the sport and went on to coach at Absolute Volleyball, a club team in San Rafael, for seven years. 

Manuel was hired as the head volleyball coach at Berkeley High in 2017. Prior to Manuel, the volleyball team had seen a number of coaches come and go, but Manuel was serious about a long-term vision. 

“He didn’t have a one-year plan in mind, he had a five- and 10-year plan,” said Britta Fjelstrom, the former athletic director at Berkeley High who hired Manuel. That plan involved “bringing home banners,” as he put it. With Manuel at its helm, the volleyball team finished second in the league in 2018 and 2019 before COVID-19 shut down the competitive season in 2020.

Manuel struck a rare balance between a competitive attitude and playful demeanor, as famous for his “dad jokes” as he was for his team’s success on the court. He memorably started each season with a potluck dinner and scavenger hunt that set the tone for the year.

“Manuel had everything as a coach,” Fjelstrom said. “He was serious about the sport and he was protective of the girls, as protective as he was with his own kids.” 

“When I think about James, I think about how much energy and life he brought to every space we were in together,” said Em Huang, who coached the girls freshman and junior varsity volleyball teams alongside Manuel and will now take over the varsity team. Manuel took Huang under his wing, providing mentorship to the new coach. 

James Manuel with his wife, Kimberlee Rock, and daughters (left to right) Tahya, Kaura and Semaj. Credit: Margot Fish

“He really was one of the most beloved people I’ve ever known. He had such a beautiful heart and soul, and just radiated goodness and kindness,” said Kim Thompson, whose daughter Ruby played on Manuel’s team. 

A devoted husband and “girl dad,” Manuel loved cooking, especially grilling up Friday night burgers. “James is a big man with the kindness and gentle spirit of a baby bear but his broad shoulders and strong hand shake gave you a sense of his strength and his smile gave you a sense of his joy and happiness,” LaVerne Chambers, Manuel’s mother-in-law, wrote in a statement. “We deeply miss his voice and presence.”

Absolute Volleyball, the club where Manuel had coached, organized a GoFundMe to raise money for his daughters. The fundraiser has raised $47,000 to date.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.