In his previous 27 years as River View’s boys basketball coach, Roger Sonderland had several memorable brushes with greatness.
About 15 years ago, Sonderland sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the late John Wooden at a basketball coaching clinic in Seattle.
Sonderland had basketball in his blood, and Wooden — who led UCLA to 10 national championships in the late 1960s and early ’70s — was basketball royalty.
As the pair sat together listening to Hubie Brown deliver a particularly colorful presentation (“I wish that young man would quit his cursing,” Sonderland recalls Wooden saying), Sonderland engaged the Hall of Fame coach in some shop talk.
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That’s when Wooden paid Sonderland the ultimate compliment.
“He used to say middle school coaches were the best coaches because they take young kids and teach them the fundamentals,” Sonderland said. “I told him I was a high school coach at a small school, and he said: ‘Well, that’s the next-best thing to being a middle school coach. That’s where your true coaching takes place.’ ”
Sonderland has shared iced teas with former Indiana coaching legend Bobby Knight, held court with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and sat behind Mike Krzyzewski near the Duke bench.
Sonderland took something away from every meeting with the coaching greats.
“You take what you can from a lot of people about coaching and see how it fits your philosophy,” Sonderland said. “It’s hard to come up with an original thought. You just steal what you like and use it.”
Here’s the thing about royalty — when you spend enough time walking with kings, you start to walk like one yourself.
Now in his 28th season, Sonderland has 343 coaching victories at the high school level, tying him with Bill Ward of Tumwater for 62nd on the all-time state career coaching wins list.
“When we go to White Swan or Mabton, he’ll walk into the gym at 4:30, and community members recognize him and come up to him,” said Dan Sonderland, Roger’s son and assistant coach. “Before each game, he talks with the other coach through the entire warmups. I really dig that about him.”
Coach Sonderland’s latest victory, Tuesday’s 46-25 road win at Dayton, could be one of many this season after River View missed the SCAC district tournament the last two years. In fact, Sonderland hopes his Panthers might be good enough to return to the state tournament, a place where he has led them eight times before — the last in 2008.
But Sonderland was well acquainted with the state basketball tournament long before he started teaching and coaching at River View.
The Richland native watched his two older brothers play under Bombers coach Frank Teverbaugh and remembers making trips to the state tournament to see them play. When Sonderland finally got his chance to play for Teverbaugh, he left his mark on a proud Richland program.
In 1977, the 6-foot-4 post helped lead the Bombers past Mercer Island in the Class AAA state semifinals. Richland lost to Mountlake Terrace in the championship game, but getting past the Islanders was a major step.
“(Mercer Island) had a 7-foot player and a 6-10 player. I had a 6-5 player (Rob Phillips) and a 6-4 player, so we had to have some kind of intensity to get us that far,” Teverbaugh said. “(Sonderland) was a great player. We couldn’t have gotten second in state if he wasn’t.”
Sonderland started three seasons for the Bombers and left a solid impression on Teverbaugh, who finished his 15-year coaching career with 320 victories and a state title in 1972.
“He was just a good, steady player. He fit into what the team was doing, and he followed directions,” Teverbaugh said. “I’ll never forget the good times, and he was a part of them.”
After high school, Sonderland had a few different directions from which to choose. The University of Washington offered him a rowing scholarship. Willamette University offered him a chance to play basketball and go to law school.
Roger Sonderland, the lawyer?
“I would have been aggressive,” he said. “I’d have been OK. I was a National Merit Scholar, but I like having summers off.”
Instead, Sonderland went to Wenatchee Valley Community College, helping the Knights win an NWAACC men’s title in 1980, before graduating from Carroll College in Helena, Mont.A few years later, he jumped at the chance to join the River View faculty and become head basketball coach.
He has piled up the wins for sure, but he doesn’t necessarily equate success with the amount of wins he collects.
“In a big school, you can run a program. I can’t do that because I don’t know what I’m going to have year to year,” he said. “I look at what I have and figure out the best way to take advantage of that. That’s kind of the fun part.
“But the best part is working with the kids.”
Another thing he enjoys most is seeing former players and students find success on their own.
D.J. Traver, a River View graduate, played for Sonderland and then spent three seasons coaching with him as an assistant. He’s 2-0 in his first season as Southridge boys coach after a decade at Columbia-Burbank, but he credits Sonderland for teaching him the tools of the trade.
“Columbia-Burbank and River View are big rivals, but I never felt like that when we coached,” Traver said. “But it was intense. You knew how he prepared for every game. He made me work harder as a coach because you never knew what to expect. He might throw something else in there. I sometimes found myself overthinking.”
He also coached Brett Jay, a former three-sport star at River View who recently led the Panthers’ football team to its first trip to the state semifinals.Sonderland said Jay was more of a jokester in his playing days but that he has developed into an ideal example of a teacher and a coach.
Those two things don’t always go hand-in-hand.
“You have to be a good teacher to be a good coach, but you don’t have to be a good coach to be a good teacher,” Sonderland said.
Jay now has a first-hand appreciation for the challenges of a small-school coach, and he works with Sonderland to make sure the athletic program flourishes.
“We understand the programs run hand-in-hand. We want our guys to be three-sport guys,” Jay said. “It’s important for the players to play all sports. We want our school to succeed in sports.”
Dan Sonderland said it was tough to be a coach’s son as a high schooler, but he now finds humor in the past.
“It makes me giggle. I’ve gotten yelled at for a lot of things, but I swear I got in trouble more for missing free throws than I ever did about missing curfew,” Dan said.
Roger Sonderland has a memory bank full of stories and experiences from more than 600 regular-season basketball games and practices in the thousands. More important to him, however, are the people who have turned his career into a shining example of the power of education and dedication.
In his classroom are team pictures for every year he has coached, as well as the three trophies from River View’s state trips.
“It’s more about relationships than stories,” he said. “I love seeing kids fulfill their potential, whether they’ve played for me or are just in my class. When you see kids doing well, you know you’ve done a good job.”
He hasn’t thought about retirement but knows someday another coach will take over at River View. It’s difficult for anyone in Finley to imagine anyone other than Sonderland walking courtside, though.
“They forget about you soon enough,” he said. “You can wonder about that stuff, but somebody might teach somewhere for 30 years and retire. The staff might miss them, but class goes on. Life goes on.”
It’s the legacy that will last forever.
w Jack Millikin; 582-1406; firstname.lastname@example.org