Husband, father, grandfather, coach, teacher and friend, Mike Ornelaz was a lot of things to a lot of people. But that’s to be expected from someone who dedicated 40 years of his life to helping others reach their goals.
And he did so with very little fanfare as a teacher and coach at Highland and Bakersfield High for four decades, most of which was spent in what else, a supportive role, as an assistant for the Drillers football and baseball programs since 1987.
Ornelaz’s coaching run came to an end in March, when the pancreatic cancer he’d been battling started getting the best of him, cutting short a season that allowed him to coach his grandson Bradyn, a freshman who earned a spot on the BHS varsity baseball team.
Coach “O” passed away Sunday evening. He was 69. He is survived by his wife, Doria, children Matt and Nicolette, and six grandchildren.
“He was old school where he had certain expectations that the players needed to live up to,” Matt said. “But at the same time he was the first one to congratulate them and give them a big hug and tell them they did whatever they could to be the best that they could.”
That coaching style had a big effect on players such as Ken Calvin, a mult-sport athlete at Bakersfield High, who leaned heavily on Ornelaz and the other coaches when he entered high school homeless and lost.
“Life changing,” said Calvin, fighting back tears. “It’s very emotional even thinking about it now. He was my receivers coach at Bakersfield High, one of the guys that gave us the confidence to succeed.
“There’s something about the football program and coaches there that they took guys that had no direction and turned them into leaders. We used to say the 3 square miles on campus is where it started. We were able to tune out the neighborhood and learned to always leave it all on the field. I came in homeless and left Homecoming king. And the coaches had everything to with that.”
Ornelaz was born in Bakersfield in 1949 and spent most of his youth living in Oildale. He played baseball and football at North High, graduating in 1967. He played two years of football at Bakersfield College and then another two at UNLV on a football scholarship.
It didn’t take long for Ornelaz to transition into the next stage of his life as an educator and coach. He started at El Dorado High in Las Vegas in 1973, coaching football, baseball and even bowling.
High school bowling coach? May sound strange, but if someone needed someone to fill a spot, Ornelaz was their guy.
“I started a club baseball team about six years ago and I remember he’d finish practice at the high school and then head over to our workouts,” said Matt Ornelaz, the assistant principal at Greenfield Middle School. “We needed a basketball and volleyball coach and I recruited him to help. Neither one of us had ever played either sport, but we started watching YouTube videos to try to learn as much as we could. It was important that we did a good job, the kids deserved that.”
Giving things his best effort was a common theme for Ornelaz.
“I feel honored to have been able to work with him as an assistant to (football) coach (Pat) Preston," longtime BHS tennis and assistant football coach Julio Mercado added. "Mike was the kicking coach at that time, also. He had great talent, but he was also very meticulous. He would time snaps and chart how long it took to get the kick off for a field goal or extra point. He was very knowledgeable, in a lot of sports. And he worked at it.”
After a 14-year stint at Highland, which included six years as head football coach, Ornelaz moved to BHS where he served several years as athletic director and assisted with the varsity baseball and football teams.
During his tenure as an assistant football coach he was part of one of the state’s greatest high school football winning streaks. The Drillers won 39 straight games, including three consecutive Central Section titles, between 1988 and 1990.
Matt Ornelaz was on that team and recalls his dad’s dedication.
“I’ve always felt he was a players coach,” he said. “It’s evident with how many people that have been reaching out to us (since his passing). He was my coach from the time I was 3 years old all the way through high school in baseball and football. I was fortunate enough, and my sister too, that I was able to share him with so many people.”
The family has planned a Rosary at 7 p.m. on July 14 at St. Francis of Assisi Church. A funeral mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. on July 15 at St. Francis, followed by a graveside service at Greenlawn Mortuary Southwest and a reception immediately following.