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Lutzenhiser lands at South Kitsap after meandering journey
It almost sounds like a scene out of the 1986 hit film “Hoosiers” the way Mark Lutzenhiser describes it.
But the setting is rural Eastern Washington instead of Indiana in this real-life basketball tale. Life on the hardwood isn’t just a weeknight activity in Reardan — it’s a discussion at the barber shops and restaurants in town.
Lutzenhiser, 49, who is in his first season as the girls basketball coach at South Kitsap, first cultivated a passion for the game as an adolescent. In 1966 and ’67, the Indians won Class 2B state championships at the old Spokane Coliseum, which sat a little more than 20 miles outside Lutzenhiser’s hometown. Reardan then followed with state titles again in 1970 and ’71.
“I probably grew up in the most basketball-crazy school in Eastern Washington,” Lutzenhiser said. “That’s kind of where my love of the game comes from.”
That passion has led him to enough places in the state to make a colorful display of tacks on a map. Lutzenhiser earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and general science from Eastern Washington University in 1984, and then gained his teaching certificate at Washington State, while getting his start in coaching.
Lutzenhiser was assigned to Kennewick High School during the winter of 1985 and was able to serve as an assistant coach for the boys basketball team. The assignment was coincidental — had he done his student teaching during the fall, he’d probably be coaching football now.
That’s not because the 5-foot-8 Lutzenhiser enjoyed his time as fullback and linebacker on the gridiron more than playing guard at Reardan; he just thought “it would be an easier avenue to get into coaching.” After all, football has more players and therefore more assistant coaches.
But Lutzenhiser stuck with basketball and directed his own program for the first time as a 29-year-old in 1988 at Bellingham High School. He guided the Red Raiders to a 16-9 record and was named Northwest League coach of the year after the team made its first state-playoff appearance in girls basketball that season.
It would be his only season at the school. Lutzenhiser got married shortly before taking the position at Bellingham and he said his wife, Jeanine, a part-time French teacher at Kingston High School, was struggling to find a job in the area.
The couple returned to California — Lutzenhiser was an assistant boys coach in 1987-88 at Palmdale High School, where he had met his wife — and he accepted a graduate assistant position for the Chico State men’s basketball program for the 1989-90 season.
“It was nice just to work with a college staff to see how they went about things,” Lutzenhiser said. “They didn’t do it a lot different than high school.”
After a year, Lutzenhiser was headed back to the Northwest when he took up teaching science and coaching girls basketball at Wenatchee High School. He didn’t lead the Panthers to the state playoffs, but finished 16-8 his first year. Lutzenhiser then took Wenatchee to its only state appearance in school history in 1991-92.
He wasn’t certain that teaching was his destiny at the time, though. Lutzenhiser had worked programmer for Electronic Data Systems out of Detroit for a year after graduating from Eastern.
This time, he hoped to finish his master’s degree in physics — a degree he started at Chico State — at the University of Washington.
He wanted to take sixth period off at Wenatchee to make the three-day-a-week trek to Seattle, but his request was denied by the school’s principal.
The Eagles have made the state tournament five times this decade. But for Lutzenhiser, the program then known as the Indians never had made the tournament — a common theme in his coaching career — and finished 2-18 the season before.
He spent three years at Issaquah and finished 16-44.
“It’s always been tough to stop coaching because you invest so much time in the kids,” Lutzenhiser said. “That was tough because we had just kind of turned the corner.”
He said the position simply became too much as he worked on his master’s degree and also welcomed daughter Carolyn in 1995. Lutzenhiser kept busy away from the game, though. Two years later, he won a $10,000 grant to study single-bubble sonoluminescence, the generation of light from sound.
It was a subject he completed his master’s thesis on.
Lutzenhiser said he became familiar with the phenomenon when Larry Crum, who coordinated the applied physics lab at UW, made a presentation in his classroom. He worked with Crum and others at the university to obtain the grant and continued to explore the subject with video microscopy, monochromaters and acoustic transducers.
“It’s kind of a novel topic that they don’t hear about too much,” Lutzenhiser said. “The whole idea of the grant was to bring a true experimental science into the classroom.”
HEADING OUT WEST
Even with the work in the classroom, Lutzenhiser missed the game that inspired him in Reardan. Also factoring in was that the family was looking to move away from the Eastside, where “there’s only so many places you can live on one teacher’s salary.”
They ended up in Sequim, where Lutzenhiser was the girls coach from 1998-2000 and then stayed on as an assistant for five more seasons.
Lutzenhiser, his wife and two daughters — Carolyn, now 13, and Annika, 11 — live in Poulsbo, and after a few years out of the game, he decided it was time to get involved again.
He considered riding the ferry to Ballard High School, where Karen Blair resigned after guiding the Beavers to a 24-3 record, but no teaching position was available, which made the decision easy.
He was headed to South.
“I grew up in Eastern Washington where everyone who coaches also teaches,” he said, adding that he’s grateful to have a pair of assistants, Tammy Helwig and Greg Johnson, who also teach at the high school. “I wasn’t interested in teaching at one school and coaching at another.”
The Wolves haven’t posted a winning record since Mike Allen, who resigned after last season to spend more time with his family, guided the 2000-01 team to a 21-7 record.
South advanced to state three times in the 1990s before coach Gary Wilson resigned after leading the team to a third-place finish in ’99.
But Lutzenhiser sees the potential of the program based on numbers.
“It’s expected that a school this size should compete at the highest level in the state,” he said. “They have a desire to get to state and hopefully I can show them how to reach their goals.”
Molly Werder, a 6-foot-2 junior post, said the Wolves, who started 3-0 for the first time since 2004-05, are more confident this season.
She said Lutzenhiser not only has implemented a motion offense and a defense that features a lot of pressing but he takes time to teach them.
“He sits down and talks with you one on one,” Werder said. “He makes sure you understand it. We not only play the game — we understand it.”
Lutzenhiser, who has an 80-97 career record entering this season, only has led his first four programs for an average of two years, but he sees this script running longer.
“I told the kids that this is going to be last high-school gig,” he said. “They were kind enough to give me the opportunity here and I want to do the best job possible for as long as I can. I owe to the people who hired me.”