One of the B-est things still remaining about the B tournament is taking a look across the court and being unable to tell if the guy with the probing gaze standing tall in front of the bench is the coach or a wheat farmer.
Chances are he’s both, of course.
But the absolute B-est thing is that no matter how cut down or compromised or repurposed or rejiggered the format and makeup of the tournament, it can still make room for an Oakesdale – or, rather, that Oakesdale can still make a place for itself.
Now, Yakama Tribal kept the Nighthawks from making themselves a place in the State 1B boys semifinals, running to an impressive 62-45 victory Thursday night at the Spokane Arena. But they’re still in the trophy hunt, and that’s comfort enough.
“I keep thinking if we can just play another game, we’ve got a better game in us than the one we just played,” Oakesdale coach Carl Crider said.
Whether they find it or not, we’re talking about the heart of the B here and it still beats, despite the odds.
A little small ball demography to explain.
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association divvies up schools by enrollment, using the numbers from grades 9 through 11. Schools with fewer than 25 students are excluded for purposes of balancing the six classifications.
Oakesdale has 27.
“There are the 25-and-unders, there’s the Washington School for the Blind (at 26),” Oakesdale athletic director Ken Lindgren said, “and then there’s us.”
Even if you include seniors, bumping the number to 35, the Nighthawks are still the smallest entry in the 2B/1B field.
“And that’s pretty neat,” Crider allowed. “It’s another good incentive to represent yourself well and where you’re from.”
He’s talking about Whitman County and its deep roots in B lore – of which Crider sank a few himself.
Back in 1993, he led Oakesdale’s former athletic co-op with Tekoa to the State B title – just months after quarterbacking the Nighthawks to the state 8-man football championship. Then it was on to Eastern Washington and, finally, Gonzaga, where he missed the start of the Bulldogs’ amazing run of NCAA Tournaments by a season.
By age 24, he was back at Tekoa-Oakesdale as head coach – and out of it after two seasons.
“I was single, living in Oakesdale and farming and coaching,” he said. “I wanted to get married and start a family and I knew I wanted to farm, so it was just time to step away from coaching.”
But soon enough, he was back handling the junior high team and, five years ago, he’d returned to the varsity bench “because I thought I had something to offer.”
Perspective, for starters.
“Originally, coaching was unnatural for me,” he said. “I’d always envisioned myself as a player and to make that transition to coaching – when I never thought I’d be one – was difficult. I don’t think that I necessarily did a bad job, but my outlook is different now because my playing days are so far behind me. The thing I really grasp onto more than I have ever is that there’s always something to learn about the game and the young men you coach. I’m not sure I got that before.”
This season, he’s learned to improvise. Because of assorted dings and dents, it wasn’t until the 16th game that Crider assembled the starting five he put on the floor for the opening-round win over Neah Bay. The Nighthawks are 9-2 since.
The school kept the Nighthawks mascot – long ago, they were the Panthers – when the co-op with Tekoa dissolved in 2014, the adults unable to sustain what the kids made work for 31 years. Tekoa threw in with Rosalia and the two left behind their old county rivals to play in the WIAA’s District 7 – and Oakesdale went solo – and, well, retro. As populations dwindle in rural America, the survival instinct in school athletics usually means once a hyphen, always a hyphen. Now just seven programs remain in District 9, and only four in Whitman County as more tradition erodes that’s worth hanging on to.
“I actually got back into coaching when we started having kids,” said Crider, who has girls ages 11, 9 and 7 with his wife, Renee. “Now they’re getting old enough that they can be more a part of it. It’s like I’m introducing them to a way of life and it’s exciting they can see it and be a part of it.”
And, yes, part of life on the farm. Crider still works the family fields with his dad, Steve, in that fertile expanse between Oakesdale and Highway 195 – and, as mentioned, what could be more B than that?
“His assistant coach, Kevin Young,” Lindgren said, “drives combine for him in the summer.”
OK, maybe that.
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