Benefield: Return to Upper Lake roots perfect fit for Annie Pivniska-Petrie

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In early July, Annie Pivniska-Petrie walked into the gym at Upper Lake High School, where volleyball players were working out.

She was introduced as the school’s new principal. Mention was also made that she was an Upper Lake grad herself and also a former student-athlete for the Cougars.

“It was the most beautiful thing. One of the girls raised her hand and said, ‘Did you guys put any pennants on the wall?’ The coach and the assistant coach just kind of chuckled,” she said.

Because Petrie, who was Annie Pivniska in 1991-94 as a Cougar, nearly wallpapered the Upper Lake gym with pennants. And she, along with her fellow four-sport standouts Laura Wilder and Jen Bryant, had their basketball numbers retired in 2008. Their jerseys now hang in the same gym where a young volleyballer innocently asked if Petrie had brought home any titles for the Cougars.

Petrie, along with Wilder and Bryant, was a starter from the moment she stepped onto campus. In those four years, the Cougars went 106-16, won three North Central I League titles while winning 36 straight league games, won three North Coast Section championships and appeared in two NorCal finals.

“I haven’t seen anything close to that,” said Brian Sumpter, longtime sports editor at the Lake County Record-Bee, said of that team’s run of dominance. “Everything is measured by that team.”

Petrie’s return to Upper Lake is a homecoming. Her family is still here. She has spent holidays here for years. And yes, her jersey hangs in the gym.

“I always knew I wanted to come back home,” she said. “But similar to every position I have ever taken … it was the right opportunity and the right time and the stars aligned for me. I was completely honored to be hired.”

The move comes after a tumultuous departure from her last post as principal at Napa High School. Petrie had been at Napa High since 2004, first as dean of student activities, then as an award-winning assistant principal and then three-plus years as principal before being removed mid-year in 2018 in the wake of a hazing scandal with the football team and the school district’s decision to rename the school mascot from Indians to Grizzlies.

Teachers rallied for weeks in protest of Petrie’s mid-year removal and her being reassigned to the district office. In 2012, Petrie had won administrator of the year from the Association of California School District Administrators in her region.

As a principal “you must take the slings and arrows but always hold true and fast to what’s best for the students,” she said. “When you choose to be in a leadership role, whether it’s point guard or setter or coach, it’s never about you, it’s about how to make a difference.”

And less than a year later, she has made her return to Upper Lake High.

“Any time I have had to pivot in my life … it gives you an opportunity to reflect and reset,” she said. “I had to pivot and I’m very happy with where I’m going.”

Sumpter covered Petrie and her teammates throughout their high school careers. Petrie and gang were standouts in other sports — volleyball, track and softball — but it was basketball where they ushered in a period of utter dominance that stretched beyond Lake County and into regional and NorCal tournaments.

The Cougars’ gym was standing room only for years come playoffs.

“They were the buzz of the town,” he said. “In playoffs and sectional playoffs, you could not find a seat in their gym, it was absolutely packed. There were people standing outside.”

Sumpter remembers having to call school officials before games to cordon off two seats in the bleachers for himself and a Record-Bee photographer.

“It was a magical run, it really was,” Sumpter said. “I look back on it and it’s, ‘Wow, did that really happen?’ ”

It did. And Petrie had the keys to the Cougars’ car from the beginning.

“She had great hand-eye coordination, tenacious,” Sumpter said. “Great passer.”

He likened her frenetic defense to that of a mosquito.

“Literally she had it all,” he said.

And at 5 feet, 4 inches, Petrie was the boss.

“She was vocal. She took charge on the floor,” Sumpter said. “I could hear her over the crowd roaring. She was a take charge guard. There was no doubt about it. She was demonstrative in huddles, you could see.”

Longtime girls’ varsity basketball coach Craig Kinser said he had no doubt about handing controls of the team to Petrie.

“Annie was a fireball. She was a point guard from the get-go,” he said.

“She had all the raw tools. Mentally I didn’t have to do anything,” he said. “Annie was one of those players, ‘You tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ That’s it. She walked in the door that way.”

But she didn’t walk in the door with every skill she’d ever need, Kinser said. For one, in her freshman season, Kinser said she couldn’t go left. For another, she’d get muscled by more experienced guards from bigger schools in the league.

“She just got beat up as a point guard, just beat up,” he said of her freshman campaign. That was the season she led the Cougars to the NorCal finals, mind you. “She turned over the ball quite a bit. But she learned by it … work, work, work, work and that did not happen again.”

One of Sumpter’s lasting memories of Petrie, and her teammates, was on probably the worst night of their high school careers. The Cougars, with their trio of dominating seniors at the helm, were expected to make a run at a state title. They were fresh off an NCS win over St. Elizabeth but ended up losing to that same squad in the NorCal semifinals just a week later. It was the end of their high school careers.

“Annie hardly ever showed emotion out there,” Sumpter recalled. But on that night, there was no holding it back.

“She was crying,” he said. But it wasn’t just the tears that stuck with Sumpter. It was that Petrie and her teammates didn’t shy from the questions and didn’t beg off the tough moment. They faced it.

“They all talked to me after the game,” he said. “A greater group you will not find.”

Petrie went on to play at UC Davis, but an undiagnosed heart condition ended her basketball playing career abruptly and heartbreakingly after her freshman year.

She called that time devastating.

But while a piece of basketball was taken away, another piece presented itself. She turned to coaching.

“I couldn’t go into a gym and hear basketball sneakers for about six months, but once I got through that I found a way to get back in the gym,” she said.

She graduated from Davis in 1998 and started teaching and coaching at Dixon High.

“I think there is so much we can give your young people when you support them in learning a game and just learning how to be a teammate,” she said.

She’s coached community basketball teams since 2011. Petrie feels undeniably comfortable in a gym, among student-athletes.

And she feels it in one gym more than the rest.

“It’s surreal. The gym is one of the buildings, one of the few buildings, that has not changed since I left,” she said. “It feels very natural and it feels like home walking in the gym.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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