Half-Baked: Revolving door won't bring wins (column)

My phone rarely rings at 1:30 a.m., so when it did I knew it wasn’t good.

It was a football coach whose teams I’d covered for about 10 years, mostly lean ones.

“Brent, they fired me!” were his first words.

Considering his team had just gone through two winless seasons featuring games where his team had trailed 50-0 after one quarter, I wasn’t surprised.

“Don’t they (the school board) know what I’m working with?” he asked.

“Hey, you’re right,” I said. “You have less talent, fewer kids and are the smallest school in the league. I don’t know what you could possibly have done. But when you lose that many games in a row, that’s going to happen, whether it’s the best thing for the kids and program or not.”

That was 2004. That football team has since improved … averaging 2.7 wins a year since he left. Meanwhile, that coach moved on to lead a neighboring school to its longest stretch of success in boys basketball in something like 40 years. More talented kids, better results.

Another coach I knew is a high school Hall of Famer, had teams play in three state championship games in six years with a run of 10 straight playoff appearances. But when he changed schools, his new team was outscored 174-0 in four games before he pulled the plug on the season (Google: Oscoda football 2006). He received national scorn for his decision, the school got a visit from the NFL Channel, and one could say all hell breaking loose might have been a relief from the attention. I’ve been told that he has never been the same.

(I’ll point out that none of the national talking heads watched his 160 pound center get blown up by a couple of 300 pound linemen. It was frightening.)

So, am I surprised that there was pressure on Glenn Braman as the Tonasket boys basketball team’s CTL losing streak neared 50? Not at all. Comes with the territory.

But not all losing streaks are equal, or even that surprising.

It’s worth noting that the streak was only in league games. In the past two seasons the Tigers also won 16 non-league contests, though they were all against 2B schools. In fact, they made a brief appearance in the Associated Press basketball top 10 poll in 2010-11 before the conference season started.

If coaching is an issue, fine. But there are many more factors at work here that aren’t going away just because Braman is no longer in the hot seat.

Enrollment is a big factor. Tonasket is among the smallest of 70-plus Class 1A schools in the state. In the Caribou Trail League, only Okanogan compares in size. When you are the small fry in the league of larger schools, you are far more susceptible to the ups and downs of the raw athletic talent of classes moving through the school than are larger schools.

Tonasket is a classic “tweener” – closer in size to most 2B schools they play and on a competitive level with them, but playing as a 1A, with no recourse.

One needs to look no further than Brewster football to know what that does to a program. Most seasons as a 1A team the Bears were overmatched in the CTL. They went from a two-year 1-15 stretch, losing games sometimes by as many as 80 points … but as soon as they dropped to 2B, with many of the same kids, won Central Washington League titles in 2010 and 2011.

Better team? The 2010 league title team lost 64-14 to CTL cellar-dweller Okanogan. Now that the Bears will be back in the CTL, it could get ugly very quickly.

Tonasket’s basketball program is by no means unique in its predicament. Every one of the Tigers’ team sports has seen a downturn since 2006-7, when the WIAA’s reclassification put the Tigers in the same class as Omak, Cascade, Chelan and Cashmere. It only got worse two years ago when Lake Roosevelt and Brewster dropped down to 2B. In the years before 2006, Tonasket played its league games against Okanogan, Brewster, Oroville, Liberty Bell and Lake Roosevelt.

Not coincidentally, Jay Hawkins’ Tonasket football team was one of the state’s best in its class at the time. The talent was better, the competition wasn’t as strong (the Tigers still didn’t beat Cashmere, then a 2A team, in a non-league contest), but the coach was the same.

Since 2008-9, especially, league wins have been few and far between.

In league games, the football team is 5-19 (losers of eight straight); volleyball is 8-40 (losing 32 of the last 33), girls soccer is 10-34, girls basketball is 13-33 (losing 31 of the last 32), baseball is 2-38 (30-game losing streak), softball has lost 64 in a row, and boys soccer is 6-28 (current 11-game streak).

In some cases the coaching situation has been stable; in others it’s been a revolving door.

The programs that currently have the best chance to turn things around quickly are the boys and girls soccer teams. As the area’s demographics shift, the interest and talent level in soccer is rising. The primary reason is cultural: these kids have been playing the sport almost since they could walk. It’s a passion more than a pastime. The area’s youth soccer program is booming and more kids of all backgrounds are playing earlier, and the level of play at the high school level has started to catch up with the rest of the league.

Tonasket’s youth basketball programs are growing, but the talent right now isn’t as well-developed when it reaches the high school level. (Meanwhile, have you seen Brewster’s 6-4 eighth grader play?)

There are fewer 300-pound linemen or 6-foot, 200-pound running backs than there apparently were a few years ago.

In several sports, high school coaches are teaching basic skills at the high school level that their league opponents have been mastering for years.

Wrestling is primarily an individual sport, but Tonasket and Oroville have multiple athletes reach the state finals nearly every year. One of the big reasons is that their youth wrestling programs reach all the way down to kindergarten. The kids have had consistent coaching in the same methods for years by the time they reach high school.

The effect is just as great, if not greater, in team sports, when a group of kids reaches high school having played together for 10 years, on local and/or travel teams.

It isn’t even about whether or not the youth programs are in place, or whether or not volunteers are giving their best efforts. But when you’re working at a disadvantage as far as the sheer number of kids available, the grassroots programs need to reflect the values and coaching philosophies of what is needed at the high school level.

Even then, consistency doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Ups and downs in the talent pool usually will have the ultimate say.

But once the coaching “revolving door” starts, it’s hard to stop. And when that happens, no one wins.