Down by 15 late in the third quarter to St. George’s on Tuesday, Liberty coach Mike Thacker spent a timeout to admonish his squad – in no uncertain terms to anyone within earshot – about getting beaten to a loose ball and a perceived lack of effort.
Two minutes later, at the end of the third quarter, Thacker let his assistants run the huddle as he calmly, almost fatherly, pulled sophomore point guard Jacob Holling out to the free-throw line.
He put a hand on the young man’s shoulder and patiently went over some specific ideas with a player that was not only important in the tense game and to the veteran coach’s current team, but who will someday be the leader of future teams.
Liberty – rated seventh in State 2B according to the WIAA RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) entering play on Wednesday – eventually fell 60-54. But the Lancers outscored the No. 3 Dragons 14-8 in the fourth quarter, made it a three-point game and had the ball with 20 seconds to go.
“He’s had to grow up and grow up fast,” Thacker said of Holling, praising the sophomore for the responsibility he’s had thrust upon him this season. “I’ve got six seniors on my team. (Next year) he’s going to be running the show.”
It was a fascinating display of diametrically opposed coaching techniques in the span of a few moments during a contentious, physical game between bitter league rivals.
“I know a lot of times when I’m raising my voice at my kids they probably shut off, but I’m teaching even when I’m raising my voice,” Thacker said. “At that particular point, though, I knew I had to get (Holling) all by himself with nobody around so he’s not thinking about anything else, because what I was telling him was pretty important at that time.
“You can’t create something like that in practice, no matter how hard you try. This was a good night for him.”
Thacker, a 2015 inductee into the Washington Interscholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame, has just about done it all in high school basketball.
And on Wednesday, Isaak Ottmar scored 23 points and Thacker’s Lancers beat host Reardan 71-64 to secure win No. 500.
“It is a great source of pride,” Thacker said of the milestone on Tuesday.
“It’s a big thing because it was all in the state of Washington and I’ve been coaching for 33 years,” he added. “In the long stretch of things, it’s not as a big thing to me. I would have much rather had the win (Tuesday), both for the kids and for our season. With the RPI now wins are everything.”
Thacker has compiled a career record of 500-300, in the top 20 for wins in the state according to the WIBCA website, and joined his father Ray and brother Jim as members of the Washington coaches hall of fame.
“I was around when my brother got his 500th (win). I was very proud of him,” Thacker said. “With the Thackers, it’s always been a family thing.”
Thacker explained on Tuesday that eclipsing the 500-win mark would be an honor, but joining his family members in the hall was an unequaled thrill.
“I was much happier when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame because all three of us – my dad, my brother Jim and myself – are inducted. And when you go to the WIAA office (their plaques are) all together. To me that was more important.
“Not so much being inducted, but being there with my dad and my brother.”
Thacker was two-time all-league at Central Valley in 1976 and ’77, then went on to play at Eastern Washington.
He started his teaching and coaching career in 1981 at Tonasket, then moved on to Moses Lake in 1984, took over at Freeman from 1995-2006 and has been at Liberty since 2010.
He’s had 24 seasons with a winning record and has qualified 13 teams for state playoffs, including last season’s 22-7 Lancers squad – which came into the tournament as the No. 12 seed and fell to undefeated Kittitas 72-69 in the State 2B title game.
Thacker’s Lancers also finished second in 2015.
He has coached eight league champions and four district champs and earned coach of the year honors with three of the four schools he has coached, the latest after the 2014-15 state runner-up season with Liberty.
Thacker is part of the resurgence of Liberty athletics, further evidenced by the football team’s run to the state title game in the fall. According to Thacker, he was the first hire made by Blaze Burham after Burham was hired as athletic director.
“This whole thing comes down to administration and really one guy in particular and that’s Blaze Burham,” Thacker said. “He took the athletic director’s job a half-year before I got there. He came in and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start a program and we’ve got to change our culture here.’”
What better place to elicit a change of culture than to hire a coach that took Freeman to eight consecutive state tournaments?
“He always says I was his first hire and I’d like to think that I have something to do with getting the culture going again, too,” Thacker said, noting that in addition to coaching the varsity team he started and has developed a program for younger kids, which he thinks is instrumental to building a base in a smaller community such as Spangle.
“You can’t run an intramural program and expect to win a state championship.”
Maybe he’ll add one of those to the trophy case soon, too.