Basketball: West side programs have a blueprint for feeder program success

July 13, 2012 

— In the last 40 years, Mercer Island’s boys basketball team has won four state titles.

The Islanders have advanced to 23 state tournaments, finishing in the top three 13 of those years, and racking up 952 wins under Ed Pepple, the winningest boys basketball coach in state history.

That run of success has been fueled in part by the state’s first feeder program.

Started in 1968 by Pepple, the program has worked with kids as young as third grade, helping to teach them basic basketball skills and instilling in them a sense of pride about competing for the Islanders.

“To be able to throw on the maroon and white jerseys that say Islanders on them and playing the high school gym, it feels meaningful,” said Mercer Island coach Gavin Cree, who is in his fourth year since replacing Pepple. “It is that sense of community. There is meaning to that and pride in the program. “You dream about playing at the next level because of those beginnings.”

Cree played on the traveling sixth-grader team when he was in fifth grade in Mercer Island. He went on to star for the Islanders in high school, winning a state title in 1999 and graduating in 2000. He played college ball for NCAA Division III Pomona College, near Los Angeles.

He credited the foundation that was laid when he was a youngster as the catalyst for his playing career.

The Mercer Island program also included a trip to a national tournament in Texas each year, a rare opportunity at the time to match up against teams from out of state.

But the biggest key to the Islanders’ Little Dribblers basketball club was the foundation it set for young players.

“The biggest thing is the kids in the program, they were being coached and mentored by the older kids,” Pepple said. “So they wanted to grow up and be like those guys. We had good citizens, good students and good basketball players, so we didn’t have a lot of issues or a lot of parental interference.”

Pepple’s model has been emulated throughout the state, and is most popular on the West side, though Mead and Central Valley in Spokane have strong feeder programs.

Auburn High has had a feeder program running for five years, started in part through the work of its former head coach in conjunction with current boys coach Ryan Hansen.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for our kids to play in an organized program,” Hansen said. “We have teams at every grade level, and it’s growing year to year. It’s fun to see younger kids playing in our system.”

Hansen, who has been at Auburn for 10 years, is starting to reap the benefits at the high school level.

Some of the juniors on this year’s team, “they were one of our first groups,” Hansen said. “It’s fun to watch those kids grow and mature.”

A strong feeder program is one reason Brian Davis was interested in the Tahoma High job in Maple Valley.

Davis coached at Kentwood the last two seasons and was an assistant in the Bellingham area before that. He has been around feeder programs in the past, but hasn’t actively been involved in one as a head coach.

“They have been wanting someone to get involved,” Davis said of the Tahoma Basketball Association. “Any time you get a lot of people having a common interest, and that is having kids get ready to be successful at high school that is a big deal.

“In five years, our feeder program will look a lot different than it does today, and my goal is to be a part of that.”

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