If Neal Gaulden had his druthers he would have been a Los Angeles Dodger or maybe a Seattle Mariner. Baseball was his passion as a youngster growing up in South Central Los Angeles, and he had visions of being a pro.
But it was not to be so on the diamond and Gaulden joined the Navy out of high school at Junipero Serra (also known as Gardena Serra), a private Catholic school in Gardena, California that competes in the highly competitive West Catholic Athletic League and is a main football pipe line for the USC Trojans.
Gaulden spent 22 years in the Navy before retiring in 2009 as a Chief Petty Officer electronic technician on submarines to Silverdale, where now he has his own consulting business (Gaulden Management), is the head track and field coach at Central Kitsap High School and a co-founder of the select track and field club Kitsap Fliers.
Although his sports resume grew to overflowing, it was sparse as a youngster trying to make it where he lived in South Central LA, which to be honest is not the best place to live or to get out of. He did, though, through the efforts of his mother.
“The segregation and inequality was in the education system itself,” says Gaulden. “I grew up in the hood which was a very poor area. Our schools were horrible. So my mother did everything she could to make sure we (an older brother and younger sister) had more opportunities through going to private Catholic school. She worked tirelessly to put us through Catholic school to keep us out of the public education system.”
It wasn’t easy. Transportation was a big issue.
“My brother was a senior when I was a freshman, so when he drove to school I rode with him,” says Gaulden. “So I was able to play baseball and football.”
But the following two years he depended on a bus to get him there and back home and that precluded him from playing any after-school sports.
“I had to catch a public bus all the way to Gardena,” Gaulden says. “It was about an hour one-way.”
It wasn’t until his senior year at Serra his best friend (now his brother-in-law) and a junior at Serra, got him there in his car and he was again able to play baseball.
Gaulden played baseball as a young kid in Compton in the Darryl Strawberry League. Strawberry, of course, was the troubled star of the New York Mets who grew up in Compton.
“It didn’t matter much to me that I had to travel from one rough neighborhood to the other,” says Gaulden. “I was just excited to play ball. It was tough being from another hood where the gang territory was a rivalry of the gang territory where I played, but I didn’t care because I wanted to play ball. You know who is and isn’t from your territory, so yeah, very dangerous. But we were blessed to be left alone while we played ball, and we would just make sure we left immediately after the games.”
Gaulden became a nifty second baseman at Serra that was overlooked by college recruiters, and declined an offer to walk on at UC Santa Barbara.
“Baseball was my sport,” says Gaulden. “I wanted to go to the majors. I wanted to get out of L.A. more than I wanted to go to college. I didn’t have the grades to go to college and I didn’t want to go up north and not be able to play baseball and have to go back to L.A. The only sure way for me to get out of L.A. was to go into the Navy.”
So he took his athletic skills to the Navy, where he played on the All-Navy softball team, All-Navy football team (7-on-7) and played volleyball and basketball for Navy leagues.
Gaulden also officiated basketball locally and coached his three kids in various youth sports.
His oldest, son Harion, played football and ran track at CK. He was on the 4x100 relay team that placed second in state in 2009.
His oldest daughter Keyera took to soccer, as well as sprints in track and field.
“When she was in high school I knew she had special skills, so I wanted to give her the best opportunity,” says Gaulden. Keyera went on to college at University of Montana on a track and field scholarship.
His youngest, daughter Kymeal, is a junior at CK. In the 2018-19 season as a freshman, Kymeal took second in the 100 and 200 at state and was the anchor on the 4x100 that rallied from last place to take second at state, helping the Cougars team place third.
Working with all of them considerably increased Neal Gaulden's experience and involvement in youth athletics.
“I have coached basketball, football, soccer, softball and volleyball,” Gaulden says. “I am currently a USATF Certified National Official, I start track meets at state (last five years), collegiately (UW/WSU meets and UW outdoor and indoor seasons) and USATF Junior Olympics level and am also a USATF Certified Level 1 track and field coach.”
For the last two years Gaulden has been the head track and field coach at Central Kitsap, where he has pushed the Cougars to become a state power. If not for COVID-19 it’s quite possible the CK Cougars might have pulled off a state championship last year. The talent is there, still is, but because of the virus the WIAA, the state athletic governing body, cancelled the state meets.
For years, track and field was treated as kind of an afterthought or as something for kids to do during the spring season as a training method for their main sport.
For Gaulden, though, the sport is mainstream and is used to not only improve individual athletic skills but to bolster mind sets psychologically and point kids to success on all levels.
“We truly believe in sports,” says Gaulden. “We develop student-athletes and give them the tools to be highly qualified males and females with good athletic skills and good sportsmanship. We try to help give them good morals, good character and all that stuff. Not to mention we believe in them studying the sport.”
Gaulden has enlisted good help with 10 assistant coaches, five of them paid and the others volunteers.
“We got four female coaches, four black coaches, including me,” explains Gaulden. “We bring diversity and professionalism and the majority of my coaches are certified and have completed at whatever level – high school or college. They are not just out there to do it, they know what they are talking about.”
None more so than Bill Braun, who is in his 15th year as a Cougar coach.
Like Gaulden, Braun, who is from Washington, Pennsylvania, was also in the Navy and started coaching when his youngest daughter (Bethani) was at Central Kitsap Middle School and was throwing the shot and discus.
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“I said I would help her at the middle school and in 2007 when she went to the high school I became the shot and discus coach,” said Braun, who retired from the military in 2009. “Two years later I coached the javelin as well. My daughter graduated in 2009 and I ended up staying.”
Braun coaches Ho’oponokauillani Fuiava, who goes by Pono, a young woman who placed threw the discus 146-01 to win the 2019 state championship and set the West Sound record. She also placed second in the state in the shot put that same year.
He also coached Hudson Keffer, a javelin thrower who placed second in 4A in 2014 and won 3A state in 2015 with a throw of 198-09.
Both being Navy people, the connection between Braun and Gaulden comes naturally.
“A big plus with him is he knows a lot of kids,” says Braun of Gaulden. “He’s also a track and field official and can communicate any concerns or requirements because he knows everybody. He’s very personable and can relate to everybody no matter what kind of person he is talking to or their background. He is very even keel.”
Kitsap Fliers coach Ron Atkins sums up Gaulden up with a few words.
“He’s one of my best bros,” Atkins says. “He’s a great coach.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct several errors in the initial reporting.
Terry Mosher is a longtime Kitsap County sportswriter who writes a regular column for the Sun about local sports personalities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.