Seasoned sports photographer for the Coronado Eagle & Journal and a Behavioral Health Aide to the Coronado Unified School District (CUSD), Kelley “Kel” Casey, was in attendance at the now infamous State Championship basketball game between Coronado High School (CHS) and Orange Glen. Casey, who’s been a credentialed photographer at Coronado’s basketball games since 2010, couldn’t have imagined going into the game that it would have such a profound impact on her life and the community. I sat down with Casey who wanted a chance to share her experience and unique perspective as a photographer that night.
The evening of the game Casey arrived a half-hour early, per usual, to get set up. “The very first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of Orange Glen fans sitting in the section where our students usually sit, so exactly opposite our home bench. That’s not normal, per se. You normally sit opposite your own home bench, so I thought that was interesting. There was a lot of energy in the gym, but it wasn’t like the Point Loma rivalry energy, which is usually happy and excited; it was more of just a really intense energy. There were a ton of Orange Glen fans,” she recalled.
I asked her about her experience at that first game between Orange Glen and CHS the week before and she mentioned that it was similarly heated and an intense game. She was under the basket taking shots in the last minutes of the game when Coronado player, Wayne McKinney, got a breakaway and was flying down the court for what she thinks would have been a beautiful slam dunk. “I’m ready to take this picture and all of a sudden I see this [Orange Glen] kid take him out. Not trying to grab the ball, just tackle him, grabbed him and literally almost threw him,” she described. Casey’s seen McKinney go down before and get right back up but this time he was staying down and Coronado’s trainer and athletic director were up immediately to check on him. “That, I think, is where some heated stuff started. I imagined everyone wondering, ‘Why would you let your player do that and how was he not ejected?’”
Casey was further astounded at the ceremonies at the end of the game as CIF announced the winners. “They announce the other team first and all of our players clap for them. And then they announce [Coronado] as the winners and not one of the Orange Glen players clapped for us, which was…” and here Casey makes a gesture of confusion. “And then [the player who fouled McKinney] gets the Sportsmanship Award and I was standing there thinking, ‘I can’t believe this just happened.’” (The sportsmanship award was determined before the start of the game, but Casey was still shocked that it had been awarded to that player after that hard foul.) “…So it did end on a bad note and I had actually really hoped that we wouldn’t be playing them again for the championship because of that. I felt like it would be a really heated game, and you know, there we have it and that’s exactly how it came to pass.”
Back to the State Championship game, Casey said as the game began, “I walked down there as they were playing the national anthem so I could get pictures of the boys lined up. I wasn’t getting the action shots I really wanted as the game was being played, so after a minute or two I walked under the basket to shoot. I was literally in line with the Orange Glen bench and against the wall. There was a lot of, I am going to say drama; there was a very intense energy coming from their bench, largely from the coaches. One of the coaches was just…every call against Orange Glen he was yelling at the referees, yelling at the players, yelling at his own players, and had his arms up in the air a lot. They were ahead, I remember looking up at the scoreboard and there were four minutes left on the clock and I was not comfortable with the intensity of the coaches and fans behind the bench. Three guys [adults] on the Orange Glen bench were really loud, really obnoxious, and the coaches were – it was just more intense than I’m used to.”
Casey waited until the end of the first quarter before moving from her spot on the fan side, opposite the visitor bench, feeling uncomfortable where she was, which was a first for her in her 11 years of shooting photography for Coronado basketball games. “I could’ve gone behind the bench and then I would’ve been in front of those guys but instead I walked through the auxiliary gym, which was dark but I know my way around, and then sat down next to Ari, the [Coronado] trainer as I didn’t have anywhere else to go where I felt comfortable,” she told me. As the game progressed and Casey had most of her shots, she turned her camera off for a time and removed her badges to join the Coronado fans in rooting for the team. “I try to always look and act neutral when I’m shooting, (I see it as unprofessional when wearing CIF credentials to cheer for one team). So I took off both of my identification badges…to cheer with them.”
As Coronado was coming back to equalize the game, Casey says the energy and intensity was beginning to reach a high point. She turned her camera back on and stood up to get her final shots as the game entered the last couple of minutes of overtime. “Alex [Crawford] makes that winning shot…He does the fade away shot, runs down the court, I’m taking pictures down there of all the kids running, all the fans running down there. I have the wide angle on, which was super helpful for this because you could see what everybody’s doing. I thought I better get down there, they’re picking Alex up – he’s down there and getting on their shoulders, and it’s just chaos but it’s happy chaos. There’s no tortillas, there’s nothing going on but celebration.”
Casey continued, “The Orange Glen kids were classy, they did not interact with our kids, but the way Alex ended up was that he was down kind of in the area underneath the [Orange Glen] basket but to the right, so almost where the [Orange Glen] cheerleaders were by the exit doors but not quite that far over.”
As Casey is taking photos of the celebrations, she ends up in front of the Orange Glen bench, near the scoring table. “I’m taking my pictures and I hear kind of a commotion behind me, and this also shows in the pictures as I turn and look and I’m still shooting. Those three guys that had been behind [the bench], and the guy in the Chargers shirt jostled me – he did not intentionally push me as he was trying to get through. But he’s yelling [expletive] this and [expletive] that.” She thought maybe they were upset that the Coronado players were in front of their bench as they were celebrating, but she says that’s just where Crawford had ended up being on the court after his shot.
Casey saw the Coronado team and fans carrying Crawford back towards the Coronado coach and bench before setting him down. “I know they’d put him down at this point because I have a picture of one of the boys hugging him, and then those [three] guys kind of came in and just jammed past me. I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, Kel Casey does not do altercations, especially with a camera in her hand.’ So I quickly went back over behind our bench and I turn around and start shooting again.” At this point she turned behind her to say something to a few former Coronado basketball players on the bench behind her. “One of the [former] players had no idea that anything, any drama had gone on besides those few guys.” Then Casey says the Orange Glen coaches were heading towards the Coronado bench and yelling, and that the Coronado coaches were all in front of the bench. “I was directly behind the bench and kind of by where the cooler is. I started thinking that this wasn’t good, but I didn’t really know it was as bad as it was. Everybody’s in celebration mode. Most of the people in the gym have no idea there’s an altercation going on. Zero.”
As Casey watched the intensity rising between the coaches of both teams, she stopped taking photos and starting focusing more on getting the Coronado players out of the gym. “One of the former players was yelling and one of our coaches said, “Look at me. Get out. Stop. Go around.” And because I work for the district I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to help get these players out of here.’” This is when she first noticed the tortillas. “We were getting the boys pushed off and then I literally see something flying in the air – I did not even know what they were, I saw these round things kind of hitting the floor. This went on for a couple of seconds, I did not see anyone throw them [from where I was] and they were landing pretty close to me, in front of the [Coronado] bench – and I mean, we were all mingled up but mostly I would say in the pictures you can see them on the floor amongst our players.”
In the commotion Casey had no idea what they were. “I thought they were those little, rubber disks you can use to mark space, or Frisbees and I was like, ‘Why are they throwing those things?’ I had no idea what they were. And then we’re just kind of getting the players off and all the players get out, and then they’re announcing that the cops are going to come. I was like, ‘Where did this go wrong?’ I never saw any of our coaches, any of our players ever approach [Orange Glen’s] bench.” Casey says she thinks most fans there, like herself, didn’t know what was going on. “The Orange Glen fans were dejected, sitting there; the Coronado fans were going crazy and most of them had come out of the bleachers and were on the floor, celebrating the team. You can see them swarming out in the videos. It wasn’t the players, the players were sort of standing there.” From her perspective, the altercation happening was really between the coaches. “It was the coaches. They’re literally coming at – and you can see those three guys – and in the videos you can see the guy who pushed me, Chargers shirt guy, has to be pulled back several times by their assistant principal, I think,” she mentioned.
When the police arrived they began ushering people out of the gym. One of the cops, she told me, had to request one of the Orange Glen admins get on the speakers to direct the Orange Glen crowd to exit out of a specific set of doors while Coronado fans were told to exit through the opposite side of the gym. “I end up talking, remarkably enough, to the cheer mom – the mom of the cheer coach who I’ve known forever. She, her daughter, and her husband had been at the game and were saying, ‘What was that about?’ And she asked, ‘What was with the tortillas? Some guy brought them and tried handing them out to the cheerleaders.’ And I thought that was weird, and asked why anybody would do that. Nobody had any idea,” Casey said. “I had asked her who the guy was handing out the tortillas and she’d said, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before at any game.” I thought, ‘huh, okay whatever’ and still didn’t know it was a [bigger] thing.”
The next morning Casey is reading the email Superintendent Mueller had sent out and is getting a myriad of texts asking her about the incident. “I’m waking up to my phone going crazy and I’m sitting there going, ‘No, that didn’t happen, and that didn’t happen, and that didn’t happen.’” Casey sent an email to Mueller and the board that Monday night to share what happened from her perspective on the court and offered to share her photos to corroborate what she saw. “And then social media blows up and you know the rest,” she said.
I asked Casey how she felt about the way things had been handled, at the game and after. “I don’t know that anything we would have done would have made a difference. I think even if we’d had cops there [earlier] – because it wasn’t fans fighting, although I do know there was an altercation earlier up in the bleachers where Wayne McKinney’s mom had a water bottle dumped on her by an Orange Glen fan, witnessed by multiple people. I didn’t see specifically what happened but I saw that there was a kerfuffle up there and saw Principal Shane hauling ass over there to handle that,” Casey said as she mulled over the events. She thought things were settling down after that and reiterates that at the end of the game what she saw was between the coaches. “The fans were not really interacting, although I’m sure there were words that were said, but all of the crap that was going on was going on right in front of our bench. The only thing, maybe, that would not have been tortillas. If there weren’t tortillas, you and I would not be here discussing this whole thing.”
As for the aftermath, Casey has been disappointed with the way the narrative blew up. “The way the media handled it, the way national media handled it, it’s literally turned my life upside down,” she said. “Nobody’s listening. And I get all teary because it’s like my life, my whole worldview has been changed and it’s hard to trust the media now.” She has a lot of concerns for Coronado’s up and coming sports next school year and what consequences players, students, and fans might face. “I just feel like the country has made these weird judgements about us, and I’m super concerned about what our athletes are going to face in the fall. It’s a huge concern of mine that kids might come to Coronado and try to start stuff with us. Or are the fans [going to]? Are they going to start yelling horrible things in the course of the game? At the away games are people going to have their cars vandalized and things like that?”
She knows some high schoolers who won’t wear their Coronado shirts over the bridge right now, and is wary herself of having any Coronado gear on outside of the island. “The impact it’s had on not just the school and district, but the community. It’s divided the community. And the people who were there are the people who know what happened and nobody is listening to any of us.”
I asked Casey if she’d been in contact with anyone related to the basketball team since the incident, mentioning that some players have been receiving death threats. “I have asked three of the moms how their kids are doing and two of the varsity players, and they’re doing fine. I think the kids are in some ways doing better about it than the adults,” she began. “I know for sure they were receiving death threats. [One player] got a message that said, ‘You should just kill yourself.’ A mom sent me a screenshot of a text that that someone sent her that said, ‘We’re coming for you and we know where you live.’ There’s been a lot of threats against us and again, nobody wants to wear their Coronado stuff over the bridge and this is going to have repercussions for a while,” she said.
As for more recent developments, Casey mentioned that now that investigations have begun she’s been contacted by both the Escondido Unified’s investigator and the CUSD investigators. “I was finally able to be heard and tell my story, and share that same information with both investigators with screenshots and videos and all of my pictures of the game,” she said, noting that both are interested in facts only. “People are still talking to them, they’re being really thorough and people keep coming forward saying, ‘Hey I was there, I want to talk.’ That’s really good, I think they’re going to keep hearing exactly the same story from the people that were there.”
When I asked Casey if there’s anything she hopes or expects to see now that investigations are underway, in terms of more information being made known surrounding the events that evening, she mentioned accountability. “I really hope that there is actually an accounting, somehow, being made not just locally but let’s put this out there to the media that threw a small town under the bus. …Maybe Orange Glen will be held accountable for how they acted after the game. I feel like the punishment was incredibly one-sided. My biggest hope out of all of that is that the title would be returned,” Casey said. She hopes the sanctions would also be reconsidered. “All the other sports teams can’t host postseason games and why? None of the fans were even involved, it was the coaches who were involved. So I’d like to see those sanctions lifted and I would like to see some accountability for Orange Glen coaches. At least a sternly worded email would make me feel better,” she said with a small laugh.
“The other thing I think is super relevant to note is that [Coronado] plays teams with multiple ethnicities all the time.,” she continued. “This is San Diego, California. Two games before [the State Championship] we beat an Armenian team where the coaches were frequently coaching in Armenian. Before that, and I was not at the game, we played an all-Jewish team up in the LA area. The kids don’t care. They want to play basketball, and I feel like that’s very important to say. Our kids are the ones that were screwed over here.”