Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Influential Coaches #5: Bob Smith & Mike Craig

Previous entries:
Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal (basketball)
February: Tara Gallagher (basketball/softball)
March: Robert Joseph Ahola (rugby)
April: Rickey Perkins (swimming)

Mike and Bob are emblematic of the thousands of youth and high school coaches across the country who volunteer their time and money in order to provide a fun environment for kids. There certainly never would have been a Valdez High School baseball team without their efforts (and indeed, with the Craig family now living in Anchorage and both Smith children long since graduated, a team does not currently exist). And from a personal standpoint, I can say that without their team and their invitation to include me as a part of that team in one capacity or another for all six of my summers in Valdez, I would likely not have enjoyed those summers nearly as much as I did, nor would I have developed as many friendships, in particular with a few guys whom I consider to be among my very closest friends.

Valdez is the type of small town that will drive a person of even moderate physical and mental energy bananas if they don't find things to do. For those who know nothing about Valdez apart from the oil spill, it is a fairly compact town of about 4000 people wedged onto the little flat space available between the Chugach Mountain Range and Prince William Sound, with one road that leads out over 2600-foot Thompson Pass, which is frequently closed in the winter and spring due to avalanches. That road, by the way, is 120 miles from the next town of any size (Glenallen, at about 2000 souls) and 260 miles from the nearest McDonald's (in Palmer). It's pretty isolated. The temperate rain forest that envelops the west coast of North America from northern California up through southeast Alaska peters out on Blueberry Hill, whose shadow covers several blocks of the town during the short winter days. As one might expect from a place where rain forest meets the sub-Arctic, Valdez gets plenty of rain (67 inches a year, as much as the rainiest big city in the United States, Mobile, but in just half the time) and an absolutely epic amount of snow. The three hundred inches of snow that Valdez averages on an annual basis equates to twenty-five feet and is far more than double the average annual snowfall of Syracuse (126 inches, or ten and a half feet), commonly referred to as the snowiest city in America.

All of those data points are intended to show that cabin fever can get bad in a place like Valdez if, again, you don't find something to do. Mike and Bob both worked regular jobs at Alyeska for the pipeline, Mike as the head of security and Bob as a supervisor for ballast water (for the tankers journeying north to fetch oil). But they were active elsewhere as well. Mike happens to be one of the best high school basketball officials in the state of Alaska, and has been for a long time. Bob is a road warrior cyclist who enters races that go for hundreds of miles, and trains by riding the Richardson Highway up past Thompson Pass, a brutal stretch of elevation that climbs most of those 2700 feet in just eight miles. And Mike and Bob were both baseball coaches from the time when their older sons (Kris and Matt, respectively) were in Little League. They were very good coaches, developing a team that absolutely dominated the small Valdez Little League (typically 4-6 teams in the "Majors" division for ages 9-12), and then a very strong Juniors team that punched well above its weight in Alaska when their core group was in middle school.

When first Matt and then Kris entered high school in 1999 and 2000, however, there was no high school team. This was in large part because high school athletics in Alaska present major logistical challenges, which bear some explaining. There are four classifications for high schools, from 4A (the biggest) down to 1A (the smallest). The twenty 4A schools in the state range in enrollment from 505 (Soldotna) to 2141 (East Anchorage), and with just a couple of exceptions are pretty tightly clustered: Anchorage and Eagle River's eight public high schools make up one conference; the three schools in the Mat-Su Valley just an hour or so north of Anchorage (Wasilla, Palmer, and Colony) play in a league with the two biggest schools on the Kenai Peninsula a few hours south of Anchorage (Kenai and Soldotna) plus Kodiak High School on Kodiak Island; the three big Fairbanks schools compete against each other (Lathrop, West Valley, and North Pole); and the two Juneau schools (Douglas and Thunder Mountain) share a league with Ketchikan's high school on the Alaska panhandle. And the 4A schools, by and large, have the easiest travel schedules (with the exception of the panhandle, where the only means of transportation between locales is by boat or plane). The twenty-one 3A schools range in enrollment from 108 (Cordova) to 437 (Homer), with Valdez currently slotting comfortably in at 200 students.*

*In case you're curious about how small the schools get in Alaska; the twenty-one 2A schools range from 8 (Northway, last outpost before the Canadian border) to 150 (Dillingham, a salmon fishing port on Bristol Bay); and the whopping 130 1A schools have anywhere from 0 to 88 students (Lake & Peninsula, a consortium of students from a dozen different Native villages, none of which have more than 11 enrolled kids).

In basketball, far and away the most popular high school sport in Alaska (thanks to the pipeline deal ensuring a nice - for the '70s - gym in every public high school in the state that in the Bush doubles as the community center), Valdez's travel schedule looks daunting to an outsider but is nowhere near the most taxing of schools in its class. Its five Aurora conference opponents are as follows: Cordova (two-hour ferry ride), Delta Junction (269-mile drive), Eielson AFB (341-mile drive), Hutchison (368-mile drive), and Galena (a 400-mile flight, just longer than San Francisco to Orange County). In baseball, however, because there are fewer teams (what with the snow keeping fields buried until late April-ish), Valdez found itself participating in a conference with the four Mat-Su Valley schools (the three mentioned two paragraphs above plus Houston) along with Kodiak (flight required with a stop in Anchorage) and Homer (either a flight through Anchorage OR a 520-mile drive).

All those road and air miles, plus the occasional headaches of dealing with school bureaucracies and the need to fund most of the program's costs, could have been too much for plenty of volunteers. But the Craig and Smith (and Hankins) families went ahead anyway, with substantial help from several other parents. And they had a great team to work with. A big part of coaching successful teams is having good players, and Mike and Bob had that, in large part due to their own coaching efforts in Little League. By the time their core group of players entered high school (seven players from the class of 2003 and four from the class of 2004), they included the following: two shortstops who doubled as the team's two best pitchers (although faith obligations kept one of them out of the lineup on Saturdays); a switch-hitting third baseman with power and a rifle arm; a power-hitting, strong-armed catcher; and a center fielder and second baseman who could also pitch. It was a particularly good team when one considers that the nine or ten best players were all freshmen or sophomores. Although no Buccaneer to my knowledge ever played college baseball, at least four of those core players could have had they chosen to pursue it, and one or two of them could even have hacked it at a Division I school, which is fairly impressive stuff for a 4500-person town that sits under a few tons of snow for five or six months out of the year.

What Mike and Bob were exceptionally good at was keeping the atmosphere fun and loose for the players. In a way it was necessary to do that because unlike, say, basketball, there was no history for the program or dominant culture, and thus much less competition for spots on the team. It was a pretty relaxed atmosphere, but they still did an excellent job of teaching the game, as they clearly had for several years prior beginning in Little League. In addition to instruction, they also took care of the field, getting the six or so accumulated feet of snow off of it as early as possible in the spring, mowing the outfield, and dragging a grate over the all-dirt infield with a four-wheeler.** They also were kind enough to invite me to show up and have something to do during that first summer I was in Valdez (2001), when I had recently moved to town and knew precisely zero people because I had just spent the previous three years in boarding school. In the first three seasons, when I was more or less the same age as most of the team, my involvement was showing up and practicing with them, keeping the book during games, and occasionally serving as the PA announcer (at least when the voice of "Glacier Blue Note," one Richard Lee Ranger, was not on hand to perform the task). In the last couple seasons I spent more time helping out with instruction because the "second generation" of players was much younger and included several players that I had coached in Little League. Regardless of what my role was, it was among the more welcoming atmospheres that I encountered in Valdez, and something for which I will always be thankful.

**Worth mentioning; the pitching mound had to be something like 16 inches high, and it was just a little off center toward third base. I felt like a right-handed Randy Johnson whenever I stood on that thing.

There was no grueling conditioning to speak of like there might be for basketball or football or wrestling, but there was plenty of skill instruction and game situation drills. The best part is that the two coaches complemented each other quite well. Bob was generally stricter and quieter; he got his points across in few words, and rarely raised his voice above a quiet conversational level. Mike, by contrast, talked much more, and because he more frequently worked with the outfielders would make himself heard across the diamond. Bob made pitching changes and shifted the defense; Mike talked players down when they came back to the dugout frustrated after bad at-bats or mistakes. After so many years of working together, and mostly with the same kids, they were like a well-oiled machine. They were both capable jokers too; Bob might drop a zinger on a freshman pitcher for his noodle arm (said pitcher didn't even have a medium ball, let alone a fastball, but at least he knew it), or Mike might mix in a knuckleball or two while pitching batting practice.

Despite hailing from the smallest high school in its conference by far (Cordova never wound up getting a team together, but they would have been smaller), the Buccaneer baseball team was competitive right out of the gate and remained so for several seasons. In 2003, when the team had seven seniors, they stormed out to an 8-0 start by sweeping the Mat-Su Valley in its entirety (combined enrollment of 3500+ as opposed to Valdez's 250), but then slipped back by losing four straight on the "trip of death" (Kris' words) to Homer and Kodiak. That season (which ended in the conference tournament) would be the best one that the Bucs had. When those seven seniors graduated, they were replaced by an equally large wave of freshmen (including two younger brothers), although three of them dropped off the team after just a single year due to academic concerns, so the talent pool was never really fully replenished. Yet the team was still solid through at least the 2006 season.

Because they started the team from nothing, Bob and Mike (and their wives, Sue and Tracia) ran everything about the program, from ordering uniforms and equipment to maintaining the field to arranging travel to transporting the team around to anything else you can name, with minimal assistance or oversight from the actual high school athletic department. Their extremely hard work and dedication to building a program (again, while working real jobs on the side) can be seen most clearly in that, without them coaching (the Craigs moved to Anchorage several years ago), baseball has once more dropped off the activities list at VHS. The boys who played baseball, and indeed the whole town, were lucky to have them, and hopefully other youth coaches will provide a similar experience to Valdez boys in the future.