When Ray Ootsey and Anye Turner played basketball at Western Washington University, they were taught to give back to the community … and now the two head coaches are doing just that at Squalicum and Sehome high schools.
Ootsey and Turner are the latest members of a very exclusive club — former Western men’s and women’s basketball players who have become head coaches at Whatcom County high schools. In fact, they are the first ones since the late 1990s.
“We learned ‘what you get, you give back,’” said Ootsey, who played for the Vikings in the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons.
“Giving back to the community is something we try to do and should do,” said Turner, who finished his four-career as team MVP in 2015. “When the game has given you so much, you try to give some of it back.”
Making the two even more unique is that they are coaching girls basketball, and Ootsey’s Storm and Turner’s Mariners squared off for the second time this season on Friday night in the newly built Sehome gym — and their friendship didn’t diminish the intensity of the intra-city battle.
Passing On That Passion
Squalicum overcame a slow start Friday — falling behind 11-1 — to take a 14-point lead and then held off the Mariners, 47-37. Sophomore point guard Grace Schroder led the Storm with a dozen points and sealed the win by hitting 5-of-6 free throws down the stretch.
Seniors Jadyn Hawkinson and Mady Blackwell added 9 and 8 points, respectively, for Squalicum (4-11 overall and 2-7 in Northwest Conference play).
Sehome, which was plagued by foul trouble all night, got 13 points from senior Natalie Zender and 8 from sophomore Aspen Garrison. But a 4-point third quarter was too much for the Mariners (6-10 overall, 1-8 in conference) to overcome.
Be sure to check the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page for lots of pictures from Friday’s Squalicum-Sehome game.
But while the game was more for bragging rights than a league championship, that didn’t prevent both coaches from competing on the sidelines with the same intensity they had when they played Central on the court.
“He’s very passionate,” said Sehome senior Dana Ruffatto of Turner. “You know he has our back.”
Zender agreed. “He’s willing to do anything for our team,” said the four-year letter winner. “Whether he’s quiet or loud, he does it to motivate us.”
Turner showed his passion Friday, getting a technical when he took to the floor to protect one of his players who was injured. But showing that competitiveness wasn’t anything new. “I bring a passion for basketball,” he said. “That’s how I am every game.”
The animated Ootsey was not to be outdone, constantly imploring his team both on offense and defense, and letting the referees know when he thought they missed a call.
“Everyone in the gym knows I’m always passionate,” he said. “Some may take it the wrong way, but I never waver.”
That passion has made a difference in his players’ lives. Just ask Blackwell, who said she had a rough time her sophomore and junior years and was ready to quit basketball.
“He gave me back my love of basketball,” she said. “He wants us to love it as much as he does. He’s the most encouraging guy on the face of the planet. He doesn’t go five minutes without telling us something positive.”
Teaching Their Players Life Lessons
Besides teaching basketball skills, Ootsey and Turner want to give back to their players an appreciation for being the best they can be on and off the court, and playing for each other.
That is something needed in an era when league standings are emphasized more than moral standing, and points per game are more important than grade points.
“From Day 1, our mantra is not about winning or losing on the scoreboard,” said Ootsey. “It’s about how much you grow, if you get better (as a person). We want them to learn about life, to appreciate what you’re doing right now.”
One of the ways he does that at Squalicum is with “spotlights” — a time in practice when all the varsity, JV and C team members take a moment to say something positive about a teammate. There’s also the awarding of the “pink basketball” to the player of the week, who is picked by the coaches and who gets to sign the ball.
That positiveness has spread throughout the program said Hawkinson, who along with fellow senior Blackwell also played for Ootsey on the junior varsity.
“He loves the game, but he loves his players even more … on and off the court,” she said. “He incorporates us all. He wants us to connect to the younger players. We’re all family, not just the varsity players.”
“It’s all about building them up for the team concept,” said the always-positive Ootsey, who not surprisingly is a life skills teacher for special education students in the Mount Vernon School District. “They don’t get that all the time.”
Enjoying A History Of Hoops Success
Those priorities on character rather than sports success may come as a surprise, however, considering how both men’s early lives were measured by accomplishments on the basketball court.
Ootsey grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and played for Central High, which was famous as the site of integration riots in 1957. After playing two years at a local community college, he followed high school teammate and eventual Western Hall of Famer James Johnson to Bellingham.
As a junior, Ootsey was the sixth man on a Western squad that reached the NAIA national tournament for the first time in 16 years. His senior year, he led the Vikings to within one game (an overtime loss to bitter rival Central) of a second straight trip.
From there he played professionally for Yakima and Omaha in the old Continental Basketball Association and in Brazil, and later played semi-pro ball and in the Pro Summer League in Seattle.
Turner grew up in the Olympia area, playing for Black Hills High School. He finished his career among the WWU career leaders in blocks and rebounds, helping the Vikings reach the NCAA Division II Final Four as a sophomore and earning all-conference honors as a senior. Then it was off to play in the German professional leagues for a year.
He, too, wants his players to appreciate the moment and appreciate the game. And he isn’t just reciting coaching cliches; he is a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a sometimes-fatal form of cancer.
“Playing (professional basketball) overseas was fun, but I stress (to the players) to enjoy this moment,” said Turner. “It’s great to be paid to play a game, but enjoy high school basketball.”
After giving up professional ball, both men coached youth and AAU teams. For the “veteran” of the two, it was just the start of an impressive coaching resume that includes some well-known coaching mentors.
Ootsey helped coach boys basketball at Mount Vernon High under Vic Wolffis, the former Lynden Christian coach who led the Lyncs to a pair of state titles. Ootsey also helped with the Bellingham Slam semi-pro team under Rob Ridnour, who at Blaine also won a pair of state titles.
When Wolffis quit at Mount Vernon to take over the Squalicum girls program, Ootsey followed and then took the reins this season when Wolffis stepped down.
Before taking over for Scott Larrabee this year, Turner spent a year coaching at the college level as an assistant for his coach at Western, Tony Dominguez.
Keeping The Western Connection Alive
The two former Vikings became friends several years ago while helping out at the Western youth basketball camps, something many former players participate in. The outgoing Ootsey and the laid-back Turner immediately hit it off and became friends even before their coaching journeys intersected in Bellingham.
“When I first met Anye, I could tell he was one of those who had joy in his life,” said Ootsey. “Now we talk all the time. And why not help each other? I’m still learning from the young fellows.”
For Turner, it all comes back to the Western tradition, which he compared to being a family.
They both gave credit to former men’s basketball coach Brad Jackson and former women’s coach and athletic director Lynda Goodrich for building the tradition that carries over to current coaches Dominguez and Carmen Dolfo.
“We always talked a lot about past teams, have alumni events, talk with (former) players,” said Turner. “You felt the history and tradition. I have lots of respect for those guys.”
And now that connection is carrying over not only to the Squalicum and Sehome programs, but also to the Bellingham girls team thanks to coach Michael Russo.
For instance, instead of having separate summer camps, the coaches are talking about having one for all the city schools.
“I don’t care if kids go to Sehome or Bellingham,” said Squalicum’s Ootsey. “I just want them to be more excited about the game.”
That’s something these two former Vikings know all about.
Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.
WESTERN HONOR ROLL
Former Western Washington University basketball players who have been head coaches at Whatcom County high schools.
Stan Bianchi (Blaine)
Mike Elsner (Nooksack Valley)
Mike Franza (Meridian)
Rick Harden (Sehome)
Kay LeMaster (Meridian/Nooksack Valley)
Dan Muscatell (Meridian)
Galen Reimer (Nooksack Valley/Sehome)
John Riseland (Bellingham)
Kent Sherwood (Mount Baker)
Joni Slagle (Blaine/Meridian)
Rob Visser (Lynden)
(A big thank you for these names goes to former Western sports information director Paul Madison and his amazing memory. If there are any we missed, be sure to e-mail us at whatcomhoops @comcast.net.)