Sports

It’s been a fun, unforgettable ride | Erick Walker

Well gang, my time has come.

After 16 years in the journalism industry, a journey that began in La Grande Ore. in 1995, my days as a sports reporter have come to a close. On Aug. 29, just two months after graduating from City University of Seattle with a Masters in Teaching Special Education degree, I accepted a position at Kent Mountain View Academy, where I will have the opportunity to make a positive impact on today’s youth on a daily basis.

This is an opportunity I have spent the past two years striving to achieve, but also one that has been in the back of my mind for nearly 20 years.

Now that it has finally arrived, I can’t help but leave the business with both excitement and sadness. The excitement stems from being given the opportunity to make a positive impact on today’s youth. The sadness, of course, comes from the fact that this is an end of an era for me. I’ve spent the last 11 years in Kent, first at the South County Journal, which later became the King County Journal. When the Journal was bought out by the Kent Reporter’s parent company, Sound Publishing, and later closed in 2007, I spent four months freelancing for The Seattle Times, but still reporting primarily on South County sports. Shortly thereafter, I was hired by the Covington-Maple Valley Reporter and shifted to the Kent Reporter in 2009.

During those 11 years, I have been able to forge some tremendous relationships with coaches, athletic directors, parents and, most importantly, the kids. The kids have always been what has kept me hooked on this profession. When I began in 1995, I dreamt of becoming a beat reporter who covered the Seattle Mariners. During the Journal days, I reached that goal, when I spent many summer nights at Safeco Field.

It was then that I realized that covering preps is more entertaining than the pros. Good or bad, kids are always up for an interview, ready to talk at the drop of a hat and, for the most part, haven’t been trained on what to say. I took that to heart, understanding that sometimes kids said things that didn’t belong in print. I was unable to use some of the most entertaining comments told to me because they undoubtedly would have gotten some young student-athlete in hot water with a teammate, coach or rival school.

During the last 16 years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of the finest people in the profession, many right here at the Covington-Maple Valley and Kent Reporters. I can’t say as I have one single memory that stands out above all else, but I will give you a few locally.

At Kentwood, it’s impossible for me to overlook the memories of all the state championship teams and my many late-night conversations with football coach Rex Norris. Norris, athletic director Jo Anne Daughtry and the rest of the coaching staff through the years always has gone the extra mile for me, which has been tremendously appreciated. Kentwood has been the dominant school for athletics since I arrived in Kent 11 years ago. I can’t count how many e-mails and phone calls I’ve received through the years from readers asking the same question, “Kentwood coverage? Again? Did you graduate from Kentwood? Why not more coverage on (insert school here)?”

My answer to them always was simple. I was taught very early on not to miss a championship. Never. It’s one of the first laws of Sports Journalism 101. If a team wins a title, a story needs to be in the paper. Since I arrived in Kent in 2000, Kentwood has won 52 league championships and 12 state titles, which explains the coverage.

The championship, however, that stands out the most came in 2003, when wrestler Brandon Hunter won his second-straight state title. Hunter severely broke an ankle in a December tournament of that year that required several screws and a metal plate. Few believed he was going to be healthy enough to compete in the postseason. Meanwhile, Tahoma’s Michael Johnson burst onto the scene as a sophomore, and quickly became one of the best 145-pounders in the state, ripping through opponent after opponent with ease. In the postseason, Hunter finally was able to compete, but hardly was at full strength. He opted to forfeit against Johnson in the championship match of both the league and the district tournaments, causing a stir on Internet message boards that he was “dodging” his Tahoma counterpart. Hunter outmuscled the younger Johnson — something no one else came close to doing that season — in the championship match, 16-9.

Many of my memories at Kentridge will surround basketball star Gary Bell, who is now playing at Gonzaga University. I haven’t seen a high school kid with a sweeter shot than Bell, but I think he stood out more for being a class act. Yet, my greatest memory of Kentridge came from 2002, when the Chargers won their first-and-only Class 4A state fastpitch title. Kentridge was coming off an 8-8 campaign from the year before, a season in which the Chargers failed to make the SPSL North playoffs. A year later, they went 25-2 and won the title. However, my greatest memory from that team came from ace Courtney Lacock, who earned the 2-1 championship victory. Lacock, who struck out 51 batters in 30 innings pitched at the state tournament, jumped so high off the ground after the final pitch that I am quite certain that she could have dunked a basketball with her feet.

Kentlake will always stand out in my mind for its three state volleyball crowns (2000, 2001 and 2002) led by Courtney Thompson and a group of stars who committed themselves in middle school to be the best. Thompson might be the finest prep female athlete I’ve seen in my life. Though she’s known most for her volleyball prowess, Thompson was just as good on the fastpitch diamond. During her junior season, she was a first-team all-league shortstop. During a late-season game, I witnessed Thompson make a diving grab to her left and throwing out a runner from her knees. It was a throw that most of us could not have made standing up. Kentlake’s fastpitch will always be a strong memory for me. The consistency the program has built from coach Mike Larabee to Greg Kaas is unmatched and the number of players the program has advanced to play at college is mind boggling.

My greatest memory of Kent-Meridian came this past spring, when coach Ernie Ammons and the boys track team finally broke through in capturing the Class 4A state title, a moment the program had been building toward for many years. Kent-Meridian faces many challenges that the other three Kent School District schools do not. The ethnically diverse school is located in the middle of more than a dozen apartment complexes and includes a population that is more transient than any other in the district. Furthermore, the East Hill school has fewer athletes in year-round select programs primarily due to finances. With that in mind, it has been special watching each of the athletic teams grow by leaps and bounds the past five years, most notably the volleyball team, which coach Michael Christiansen has guided into traditional contenders in a strong league.

My memories of Tahoma will revolve around three coaches: Tony Davis (football), Chris Feist (wrestling) and Russ Hayden (baseball). Davis is a big man and a former NFL player. I always liked to ask him after not seeing him for a while, “Man, did you get bigger?” He always supplied a nice chuckle and responded, “No. I think you may have gotten smaller.” One of the most even-tempered, good-natured people I have met in the business, Davis also has a fantastic sense of humor. Feist, a former wrestler himself, has the tough-guy look that comes with a tattoo of a star on his elbow. Something tells me the night that tattoo was placed was just a bit painful. Through the years, I was lucky enough to get to know Feist rather well, and I can honestly say there isn’t a coach around who wants to see his athletes excel in the classroom and life more than he does. Our conversations often began with wrestling, but always turned to the human aspect of those he was imparting his wisdom. Meanwhile, Hayden is a baseball guy through and through, which suited me quite well. A true class act, he has helped turn Tahoma into a virtual baseball factory that churns out college-level talent on an annual basis. Hayden’s teams will do virtually anything for the longtime coach which shows on and off the field.

As for covering the Mariners, I got my shot, and that’s really all I could have ever asked for. I was lucky enough to hang out with Norm Charlton in the team locker room and discuss his comeback after an arm injury for more than two hours. Professionals rarely afford journalists that kind of time, but the well-spoken and well-educated Charlton candidly informed me, “I had nothing better to do.” Then there was the time Bret Boone declined the most basic of questions two consecutive days before finally relenting on the third day with “OK, I’ll answer your questions now.” I will remember Boone most for the space he took up in the locker room. He took up three locker stalls (one for him, another with a nameplate above that read “Boone’s friend” and a third with a nameplate that read “Boone’s friend’s friend” that was scattered with about 100 bats. As for Lou Piniella, I could go on and on about him. Most notably was my first day at Safeco Field, when I was not aware of the protocol as to when journalists were allowed to ask questions regarding feature stories. I made my attempt after a win in 2001 to discuss Charles Gipson, a little-used reserve who was the 25th man on the roster. Piniella, in his office under a cloud of cigarette smoke, responded, “Son, don’t you know? Those questions are meant for before the game.” I apologized and returned the next day with the same questions, but at a better time.

No doubt, it has been a fun ride.

One I will never forget.

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