Randy Willis is still adjusting to the fact that he won’t be on the pool deck this fall.
No longer the coach of the Richland and Hanford high school girls swim teams — programs he got off the ground more than 20 years ago — Willis has time to revisit a couple of long-abandoned hobbies.
“I’m buying some tickets to some college football games on Saturdays that I couldn’t ever see because we had meets,” the 61-year-old said. “I gave up deer and elk hunting sometime back because I just didn’t get out there but for a day or two. It was too much work and effort not to be able to get out and hunt and scout, so I gave up and figured there’d be some future day when I could do it.”
That day came a little sooner than he expected.
For the first time since the Richland and Hanford programs began, they have separate coaches, a decision spurred by Hanford joining Richland in the Class 4A ranks. After years of practicing together and competing at the same meets, the squads now will face each other in the postseason for the next four years.
When Hanford’s reclassification was announced last winter, the idea of separating the programs started to gain traction. But Willis wasn’t necessarily sold.
“The thought that went through my mind was if I could be trusted to do it for this many years before and take care of all the kids and feel like kids prospered under it — and it was good for both schools and programs — what would be different tomorrow?” Willis said. “Why would you think that it couldn’t happen tomorrow even if they were in the same classification?”
Athletic directors Eric Davis of Hanford and Mike Edwards of Richland talked with Willis, who gave them a list of pros and cons for splitting the programs.
Ultimately, the pros won out.
“We were kind of trying to figure out what’s the best for kids at both schools going forward,” Davis said. “He was very influential in what the pros and cons were. We reached out to make sure he was included in the conversations.”
But he couldn’t entertain the thought of coaching one school and not the other.
When Willis was asked which school he would coach, he said he wouldn’t pick one.
My heart’s been out for both schools and programs and sets of kids. I’m not gonna choose one, so I guess that means it’s time for me to go.
“If I had 10 years left to coach, I’d suck it up and make a choice,” Willis said. “Even though I wouldn’t like it, I’d do it. But for a couple of seasons, I’m just not gonna do it. I’ve done this too long. My heart’s been out for both schools and programs and sets of kids. I’m not gonna choose one, so I guess that means it’s time for me to go.”
The Hanford girls are now led by Jesse Grow, who has coached the Richland and Hanford boys since 2014. The boys teams, which swim in the winter, will stay together for now.
Meanwhile, Wes Bratton has taken over as the Richland girls coach. Bratton is the father of U.S. national team swimmer Lisa Bratton, who won five individual state titles as a Richland Bomber.
Davis said it was a “real tough deal” to lose Willis.
“He wants the kids to succeed and compete at a high level,” Davis said. “He’s in this to help them achieve.”
Dean of Tri-City swimming
Willis’ influence on the Tri-City swim scene goes back quite a ways.
The Vancouver, Wash., native and former Eastern Washington swimmer came to the area in June 1979 to coach a group of senior swimmers with the Tri-City Swim Team. Four months later, he founded the Tri-City Channel Cats coed club team.
“Tri-City Court Club had just opened their first pool that summer,” Willis said. “I walked in there and convinced the owner to hire me and let me start a team.”
Willis helped convince the Kennewick School Board to add girls swimming in the mid-1980s after the school district faced a Title IX lawsuit. He coached the Kennewick and Kamiakin teams simultaneously their first two seasons (1985-86), then continued with the Braves until 1988.
“In those days, we were so thin on help and people,” Willis said of the early days coaching Kennewick and Kamiakin. “I’d start the event, and then I had swimmers helping me get times. It was crazy.”
When Willis coached both teams, they trained together at Tri-City Court Club, where he was a manager.
The sport is still offered in the Kennewick School District.
Almost a decade after the Kennewick and Kamiakin teams started up, Richland and Hanford got their own swimming programs under Willis after he made a successful presentation to the Richland School Board. Swimmers in Richland had been practicing with Kennewick under a co-op arrangement.
“Of course, the minute people knew I was in Richland, the swimming community was like, ‘When are you going to get swimming started here?’ ” said Willis, who became a co-owner of Columbia Basin Racquet Club in 1991. “That was easy to want to do it. Not necessarily easy to get the answer you want, but the district added it.”
When the Richland and Hanford programs were a year old, Willis paired up with Kathy Piper, who swam at CBRC, for the start of a coaching partnership that lasted two decades. Piper had been a swimmer for the University of Puget Sound.
In 2004, the Richland School Board voted to add boys swimming. Piper and Willis coached those teams as well.
“It was really special to have that bond with Randy and be part of the village to raise a lot of these kids,” said Piper, who retired from coaching in 2014.
That year, Willis cut back his own schedule. He stepped away from the boys teams, as well as from managing the day-to-day operations at CBRC. But he stayed on with the Richland and Hanford girls, and the Bombers tied with Jackson of Everett for the 2014 Class 4A state championship. It was the first state title for a Mid-Columbia swim team.
Last fall, Richland took fifth at state while Hanford was 18th in the 3A standings.
The 2015 state meet ended up being Willis’ last competition as a coach. During his high school coaching career, his teams went 584-175 (.769).
“The only thing I ever had a worry about was I didn’t want to wake up at or shortly after a state meet one year and decide that the kids got shortchanged and they didn’t get the kind of coaching they should have had, or they could have gotten better coaching if I hadn’t been out there,” Willis said.
After 18 top-10 finishes at state, those worries certainly are unfounded.
Never far away
Willis might be done coaching, but he says he’ll still come around to watch the Bombers and Falcons compete.
Washington Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association president James Elwyn believes he will stay involved with the sport in other ways.
“We had a WISCA board meeting last summer, and he was talking about trying to get a new pool in the Tri-Cities,” said Elwyn, who coaches boys and girls swimming at Wenatchee High School. “I don’t think that advocacy for the sport he loves will ever stop. I imagine he will remain active in trying to promote swimming.”
The number of people Willis has coached would surely exceed the capacity of all the pools in the Tri-Cities. He even got to coach some of his former athletes’ children, and 88 of his athletes went on to compete in college.
A couple of his former athletes have followed in Willis’ footsteps and gone into coaching. Former Inland Empire record holder Susie Robisch (now McDowell) coaches girls swimming at Shorewood High School in Shoreline.
Todd Stafek, one of the Channel Cats’ original swimmers, is the club’s head coach.
Nicole Weinman, who helped Richland finish second at the 4A state meet in 2012, stopped swimming for the University of Idaho after needing two elbow surgeries in two years. She said Willis and Piper steered her toward coaching when competing was no longer possible.
Now a senior at Idaho, Weinman is a volunteer coach for her college team. She’s also a coach for the Vandal Aquatic Club, a year-round youth team in Moscow.
“When the second (operation) came and they told me my swim career was over, they (Willis and Piper) told me that swimming’s a huge part of our lives, but at the same time, it’s gonna end at some point, so now find a way that you can still have your hand in it,” Weinman said.
One of Willis’ greatest joys as a coach came at the end of each season, when former Richland and Hanford swimmers would get in touch during the district and state meets.
“When the teams have done particularly well and placed high at the state meet, even with Richland winning it, there were 20-something messages and emails before I could even tell kids. They already knew,” Willis said. “That’s kind of a gratifying thing for that many kids to still be that connected. That means we did something right.”
Tri-City swim titan
A look at Randy Willis’ high school coaching records in the Tri-Cities since 1985:
▪ Girls records: Kennewick 8-14; Kamiakin 37-8; Richland 214-31; Hanford 172-73.
▪ Boys records: Richland 83-18; Hanford 70-31.
▪ Overall record of 584-175 (.769); 22 district team titles; 18 top-10 state team finishes, including one title (Richland girls, 2014); seven individual state champions in 13 events; four state relay titles.
Information from Randy Willis