The West Valley girls basketball team wants to win a state championship for its coach, a retired farmer from Whitman County.
Lorin Carlon, a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran who turned 64 years old last month, is in his sixth season as Eagles head coach. He’s taking West Valley to state for a third straight year.
“I love the old man,” said Hannah Love, one of four juniors who starts. “He’s like my grandpa, father, dad – everything.”
“I remember the first conversation I had with him. I was about 10 years old,” said junior Shaniqua Nilles, a three-year starter. “I was in the gym and I asked him if I could show him my post moves. He’s had a big impact on me.”
Nilles and Love are the Eagles’ leading scorers. Each averages 17 points per game. They, like their teammates, have a soft spot in their heart for their coach.
“He knows when to be serious, but he also has a joking side to him,” Love said.
Carlon lives in Pine City – located halfway between St. John and Rosalia – on farm land that’s been in his family since the 1890s. During the season, he makes the 101-mile round trip to West Valley for practices and games.
“I had a 1995 Ford Ranger that I put 523,000 miles on it,” said Carlon, who was an assistant at WV before taking over as head coach. “Most of those miles were from driving to West Valley and back.”
Nilles’ mother, Renae, has assisted Carlon the last five years. Her husband, Jamie, who resigned last year as WV’s boys coach, has volunteered time at practices this season.
“I love the farmer,” Renae said. “The girls respect him as a coach, but they look to him as a grandpa figure.”
Jamie Nilles agreed.
“He’s not just interested in them as basketball players,” Jamie said. “He goes to their other sports events whether it’s soccer, volleyball, track or tennis. The miles he puts on his truck is amazing. He cares so much about them. It’s a lost art by a lot of coaches.”
WV is Carlon’s second head coaching position. He spent 12 years at his alma mater, St. John-Endicott, where he coached the 1995-96 team to a 28-0 record and State B championship.
“We hear about that state championship all the time,” Love said. “He’s always telling us about that team and his old war stories. He uses it to motivate us.”
WV puts a 22-0 record on the line when the State 2A tournament begins today at the SunDome in Yakima. The Eagles face Black Hills at 7:30 p.m..
So why does Carlon continue to coach?
“I’m just a sucker for kids,” he said. “I told them (administrators) I’d stay until I turned 64. But this isn’t going to be my last year. You get so attached to the kids.”
WV took third at state last year. All five of the Eagles’ starters a year ago returned.
“These guys are getting mighty close to being as good as my undefeated team at St. John,” Carlon said.
The Eagles will field one of the shortest teams at state. Although Nilles and Love are listed as 6 foot on the roster, they confess that they’re really about 5-10. They tower over the rest of their teammates, though.
“Everybody we’ve played has been taller than us,” Nilles said. “We’ve gotten used to it. We might be short, but we’re not afraid of taller people.”
Defense has carried the Eagles this season. Opponents average about 35 points.
“We’ve got to play defense at state,” Carlon said. “I remind them about something Bobby Knight said. He said it’s not about you being bigger, faster and stronger. It’s about you outthinking the other guy.”
Carlon didn’t imagine his team would be undefeated heading to state.
“It’s so hard to win on the road in our league (Great Northern League),” Carlon said. “Pullman’s been the class of the league since we rejoined the league four years ago. We’ve been chasing them. I give Pullman credit for what we’re doing here, because they make you better.”
The Eagles wanted to prove this season that their third-place finish at state a year ago wasn’t a fluke.
“We’re definitely a lot better than we were last year,” Love said. “We just need to play like we have all season.”
Beginning today, the Eagles want to prove they’re capable of winning a state title.
“We have a huge target on our back, but we’re willing to accept it and run with it,” Nilles said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get into the championship game. We all want a state title.”
Not just for themselves. But also for the retired farmer.