In the landscape of high-powered college and professional sports littered by absurdly lucrative salaries, massive television contracts and million dollar endorsements, it’s refreshing to strip sports of its glitz and celebrity and tap into the authenticity of young athleticism and unpolluted passion. High school sports, often overlooked, bring a lot of passion and vigor to the landscape. High school athletes, not yet jaded, display their heart as if it were literally located right on their sleeve; when they win the tough one – they cry; when they lose the tough one – they cry. And these young athletes are impressive in the way they juggle academic work, volunteer commitments and even part-time jobs all while making practice at 6AM before they face a long day at school.
Some of the best sports stories are not found in the flash of big-money but in the cracks and crevices of our own town. One such story is from Cleveland High School. Two seasons ago, the varsity women’s basketball team finished with just two wins on the board; and then last season the Warriors finished 14-1 in league and are the first team in Cleveland High history to win the Portland Interscholastic League.
Two things marked this dramatic and historic turnaround. First, the Warriors brought on a new coach, Suzanne Washington. Washington took over as the varsity women’s basketball coach for the 2011 -12 season. She inherited a rather dismal legacy. Prior to stepping in as coach, the Warriors finished with just two wins in a 15-game season. The second thing that happened was timing. A core group of sophomore players moved up to varsity at the same time and they gelled as a team. The core emerged as leaders under Washington’s coaching, pulled along their younger players, and together they became a winning team who left little on the court. They had passion, leadership, talent and power.
When asked about the dynamics of this remarkable turnaround, Coach Washington said, “We had a strong center who was player of the year but without the dynamic of the whole team it wouldn't have mattered.” She went on to describe the team’s chemistry which was the right mix of intensity and hard work, humor and fun. Chemistry strengthened by respect for their coaches and teammates.
Coach Washington is what you might call a hidden gem in the coaching community. Washington started playing basketball as a junior in high school and went on to play for the University of Oregon, overseas in Australia and Venezuela, and later for the San Francisco Pioneers, a team from the first women’s professional league. Her coaching career began in 1978 as a sophomore in college, starting off with a junior high team. When she is not coaching the Warriors she has a very demanding position as Deputy Director at Impact Northwest.
Washington’s philosophy is to create leaders through sports. As a 35-year veteran of coaching, Washington had some key observations about the positive role of sports in young women’s development. Sports teach problem-solving, goal-setting and how to be a team player while meeting individual goals. In a culture that doesn’t encourage girls to display anger, sports teach young women how to experience conflict and anger and how to resolve those issues in a positive manner.
For the young athletes who went from two wins on the board to 14 wins in the following season this remarkable turnaround will likely be a source of inspiration throughout their lives. It will encourage them through hard semesters in college, give them resiliency when they experience being fired, and make them strong when they suffer a devastating heartbreak. It will have taught them that for every discouraging bout of bad luck there is always time for your luck to turn around – to get a new job, a new loved one or a new coach. Sports gave the Cleveland High Warriors self-confidence – the kind that takes hold inside and is hard to shake when times get tough. That hard-earned self-confidence will always be there supporting them from the inside, breeding resilience and the ability to take risks because now they know it’s worth it!
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