In the days and weeks after an embarrassing loss to Gonzaga Prep in a regional crossover game last year, the Chiawana coaching staff did some major soul searching.
What had gone wrong? How could they get back to the glory years they experienced at Pasco High? How could they get out of the rut they were in?
The 10 coaches got together for a meeting last December and hashed out a new plan with some new ideas on how to improve.
“I don’t think anybody felt good about the last couple of seasons,” longtime offensive coordinator Dave Spray said. “Lets just say it the way it was: I didn’t think it was any fun to come play and practice football anymore.”
Rather than let things fester, though, Spray and head coach Steve Graff and the rest of the group talked and agreed to switch some things up.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” Spray said. “It’s been great to come to practice every day. The kids have bought in. We had our best offseason, our best spring we’ve ever had. And it has just carried over. This has been the most fun we’ve had in 10 years.”
For the first time in a decade, the coaching staff that has been together since the late 1990s is back in the Class 4A state title game. The Riverhawks will face Camas at 7:30 p.m. today in the Tacoma Dome.
One of the many reasons why Chiawana is playing for its first state title — and the staff will be coaching in its fifth championship — is because of the decisions made at that meeting.
From changing how practices are run, to picking the minds of the younger coaches like Steve Davis, Scott Bond and Don Hogue, to making a commitment to better communication.
“It has run a lot smoother,” said Bond, adding there was no contention between the coaches. “We are in it for the right reasons. We are in it for these kids and we like being successful.”
This Riverhawks team has definitely followed in the footsteps of those iconic Pasco High teams from the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Chiawana has lost just one game and has won by at least 12 points in its 12 victories this season, routinely destroying the competition along the way.
A big reason for that has been the ability of the coaching staff to work together and get the athletes to buy in.
“There are not a whole lot of egos on the staff,” Graff said. “We just want to get it done and get it done right. And we agree to disagree sometimes, and then we are done with it.”
All of the hard work everyone had put in, though, almost was a moot point in the middle of October when Graff suffered a heart attack.
He was ordered by doctors to stay away from the team throughout the week, though he disobeyed and showed up to watch Thursday’s practice and even coached the game Friday.
Despite being gone for nearly all the buildup to a big nonleague game, Graff knew he could trust a staff that had been together for so long.
“I could leave these guys today and they’d be just fine,” he said. “The kids all know what the expectations are. In my old age, I’ve let more of it go. I’m not going to keep doing it forever.”
The staff kept running like the finely tuned machine that it is.
Spray stepped into an interim role, and the rest of the assistants did their jobs.
“We were all concerned with Steve, but we had a job to do, and that was to take care of the student athletes,” linebackers coach Kevin Pedersen said. “We didn’t have to change the script any. We just followed how we always done.”
The only thing that changed was the Riverhawks’ winning ways, as they suffered their only loss of the season that Friday.
Graff was hired as the head coach at Pasco High in 1997, teaming up with Spray — whom Graff assisted at Dayton in the mid-80s — and Pedersen, Davis and others. Bond came on in 1998 and a few others have come in since the group switched to Chiawana.
From Day 1, Graff has instilled a mantra that the group is a family and that they wouldn’t let disagreements spill over into other aspects of life or the team.
“We like our staff, we do a lot of stuff off the field together,” Davis said. “It goes back to people not worrying about who gets credit for things. It is about coaching Chiawana kids, and when we were at Pasco, it was about coaching Pasco kids. And we were good with that.”
The coaches have changed things up offensively and defensively a bit this season as well. On offense, the players use wrist bands with plays on them, as well as going uptempo at times. Defensively, they used some different looks, lined up differently at times and used some hybrid players more than in the past.
“It is one of those things that we just came together a little better as a staff and started doing things that were better for the team,” Davis said. “That is what it is about in the long run. It is about the team and the kids and we got together and figured that out in December.”
Spray said another big change has been the old guard allowing the younger guys to have more say.
In the early years this staff was together, Spray and Graff were in more of a teaching role to the younger coaches. That’s no longer the case, though.
“My view isn’t the only one that is right,” Spray said. “It has gotten to the point that they have grown up and it is time. They accepted that challenge and I think they were ready. And man, they’ve been totally awesome.”
The changes are not lost on the team either. Spray said multiple kids have told athletic director John Cazier that they have enjoyed this season more.
“The coaches have been completely different in the way our practices are,” senior Blake Bishop said. “I think the coaches have relaxed a little bit. They have given more power to us.”
In the end, the fresh start from last December, combined with the standards set forth many years ago, has paid off with another trip to the Tacoma Dome. And the group is on the cusp of a fourth state title.
“When we won (last) Saturday, we were talking, ‘This is kind of weird. It’s been a long time,’” Bond said. “Those last couple (of state trips), it was like, ‘Eh, we’re going back.’ But we haven’t been there in 10 years.
“Something was missing and we’ve gotten back to doing what we do.”
And the entire group hopes that also means getting back to the top of the state of Washington.