NEWPORT, Wash. – As high school football season moves into the chilly nights of autumn, the will of student-athletes to compete sometimes wanes, especially for those on perennially losing teams.
The question echoing through the halls is: Why do we lose every year?
Athletic directors, administrators and parents at every school district offer theories. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) is even tinkering with the state’s classification system to try to help make teams competitive.
There might be some fundamental lessons to learn from the Newport School District in Pend Oreille County.
The district has just a few hundred students in its high school and for decades suffered losing seasons in many sports. Over the past two years, though, the football team has gone 22-4 with a trip to the State 1A title game, and the boys basketball team went 35-12.
Newport football is off to a 2-1 start this season with the loss coming in its first league game against Deer Park last week, but the district is still positive about the future.
David Bradbury, a Newport High School teacher and adviser to the student-run radio station KUBS-FM said a transformation started 10 years ago.
Newport’s recipe, as Bradbury likes to call it, isn’t simple, but it doesn’t include playing against smaller schools or spending more money. The Grizzlies have moved into the upper echelon of Northeast A League – with trips to state almost expected – while being at the low end of 1A enrollment at 230 and above the average in low-income statistics for district residents.
Bradbury and the coaches say the motivation to make changes at Newport was teaching the kids life lessons. The core lesson is mental toughness, or as Bradbury says: grit.
His son, Danny, graduated last year after an athletic career filled with top league awards.
“Definitely noticed (Newport sports) around the state,” said Greg Whitmore, WIAA board president and Ritzville School District athletic director. Whitmore said there are other districts around the state that have been competitive in their leagues despite having fewer resources – but many more are not.
“We just want a good experience, not a blowout,” Whitmore said.
The first WIAA rule change was to return to a system of fixed caps for classification based on enrollment for league eligibility.
The second was designed to help poorer school districts compete, allowing a school district to reduce its classification cap number by a percentage of its free and reduced-price student lunches.
The changes go into effect for the 2020-21 school year.
Newport administrators, coaches and players don’t believe dropping down a classification would make a difference.
Newport parents and school staff decided to make changes in many areas related to the sports program. Some changes were subtle. Others, like building a new track, and renovating their sports stadium, gym and weight room, were more pronounced.
Five years ago, it really started to take off as a group of kids brought up on this gritty-expect-to-win strategy reached high school.
“Sports aside, what was going to happen in life when the going gets hard? Were our kids going to just give up?” Bradbury said townspeople asked themselves.
Jamie Pancho has coached for 25 years at various levels in football, basketball and volleyball. He has been honored at most of his stops, including NEA boys basketball coach of the year. He gave up coaching and became high school principal this year.
His son and daughter both graduated from Newport following outstanding athletic careers.
“We have a saying on my teams: Don’t go searching for greener fields, just water your own,” Pancho said when asked if he thought his athletic children should have gone to other schools.
“I see so many jumping to communities at the larger districts,” Pancho said. “I watched my son and others playing together for a long time. It made a difference.”
Pancho said the Newport coaches don’t work independently of each other.
“Our teams don’t necessarily pass the eyeball test when they walk in the gym or onto the football field,” Pancho said. “But once we start playing teams, they respect us.”
Rogers to Newport
Newport football coach Dave Pomante and Pancho share many of the same philosophies.
Pomante saw the haves and have-nots of the Greater Spokane League as head football coach for 12 years at Rogers High School, where he compiled a 24-80 record. He then assisted the football program at Gonzaga Prep and Whitworth University.
Success starts at the top with the support of district management, Pomante said. You also need community support.
According to Pomante, it’s not just about getting a large number of kids to participate. He calls what he wants “committed participation.”
“During the school day, everybody has a right to be here,” Pomante said. “But athletically, it’s a privilege.”
Five years ago, Newport would be lucky to get eight players in the weight room during football season, Pomante said. Now it consistently gets 45-50 at 6 a.m. all year.
“The commitment seen today in the weight room is the change,” he said.
“After 38 years of coaching, my highlight was watching our kids with their dads who had played at Newport after beating rival Colville.” Pomante said. “Watching them that night was priceless as they realized they were part of a new history.
“Teach through tough love. Our society is soft. Being mentally tough is most important – the physical part will come if mentally tough.”