Going the Rounds: Graves deserved a better ending to coaching career

By Rick Anderson

For the Grays Harbor News Group

In evaluating the recent dismissal of Montesano girls basketball coach Julie Graves, I might be too close to the situation in some respects.

In other respects, I might not be close enough.

It’s been said that journalists have no friends outside the profession — only good and bad sources. But I consider both Graves and Montesano athletic director Tim Trimble to be more than mere sources.

I’ve enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Julie Mattson Graves since covering her as a three-sport standout at Montesano in the mid-1990s. She even spoke at my retirement party in 2015.

My association with Trimble has been even longer, since we were teammates on a long-defunct Daily World rec basketball team in the late 1970s. When I tore a knee tendon in a fall outside the Monte gym last January, Tim was the one who drove me home from the Grays Harbor Community Hospital emergency room.

I’ve also had generally positive dealings with other members of the Montesano school administration.

But despite the presence of good people on both sides of the issue, the end product has been one of the most divisive — and saddest — situations I’ve encountered in my long sports writing career. It culminated last week when Graves’ contract was not renewed after 15 years as the Monte head girls hoop coach.

At best, the timing of this decision was incredibly poor. At worst, it represented a stunning lack of appreciation for someone who not only guided the Bulldog girls to their first-ever district championship (in 2015) and seven consecutive regional appearances but has spent most of her life bleeding Montesano maroon.

Admittedly, the non-renewal did not come out of the blue as much as might be assumed.

Through most of her coaching career, Graves has been dogged by allegations that she was unusually critical and demanding in her dealings with players.

One bystander with no dog in this particular fight suggested that Graves — while possessing many fine personal qualities — struggled to find an appropriate tone in communicating with high school players. Graves acknowledged she had high expectations of her athletes, the byproduct of the treatment she received from her own coaches.

In any event, she had difficulty retaining players, particularly early in her coaching career. Coupled with a succession of unimpressive seasons, the attrition rate left her job in jeopardy as recently as eight years ago.

Then a not-so-strange thing happened. The Bulldogs started winning. A lot.

The arrival of a group of talented players, including school career scoring leader Jordan Spradlin beginning in the 2013-14 season, fueled the turnaround. But Monte’s run of regional appearances actually began the season before Spradlin’s varsity debut and lasted two years beyond her graduation.

The program’s turning point, in my book, took place in February of 2013.

Needing a second-half comeback to survive a district play-in game with Ilwaco, the Bulldogs upset a short-handed Elma team to earn a date with state-ranked Woodland in the district semifinals at Tumwater’s Black Hills High School.

As the teams lined up for the opening tip, Black Hills public address announcer Steve Levold (who had previously occupied the same role at Aberdeen) asked me, “Can Montesano win this game?” My deathless reply was, “I don’t see how.”

About an hour later, my vision was clearer. As Levold viewed my so-called expertise with growing skepticism, Woodland was unable to crack the triangle-and-two defense that Graves devised. The Bulldogs led 13-0 after one quarter and clinched a regional berth with a 45-26 triumph.

That game, to some extent, typified much of Graves’ career. Her teams weren’t always smooth offensively. No Twin Harbors coach since the late Don Koplitz at South Bend, however, consistently produced stronger defensive squads.

Some observers believe Graves’ best coaching came during the past two seasons when she directed unheralded clubs to regionals.

One prominent Monte booster glumly predicted prior to the 2017-18 campaign (the first year following Spradlin’s graduation) that the Bulldogs might experience difficulty even qualifying for district. Instead, they wound up sharing the league title with Elma and upended the favored Eagles in a winner-to-regionals, loser-out district contest. By this time, turnout numbers had improved (although there are reports that significant defections were again likely this coming season).

That’s why the timing of Graves’ dismissal was not only curious but essentially inexcusable.

If administrators wanted to make a change, they had the responsibility to inform her prior to the end of the previous school year so she could pursue other options. By allowing her to coach summer ball, they made an implied commitment to her continuing for at least one more season at the varsity level.

“We will take responsibility for the timing,” Trimble admitted. “The lateness was to try to (allow additional time to) make it work for her.”

To be sure, there’s a lot I don’t know about the current situation.

I obviously don’t know what goes on at Montesano practices or in the locker room. I don’t know if the rumored future defections made a reconciliation impossible. Nor do I know the validity of the numerous other rumors circulated by both supporters and detractors.

What I do know that the respect Graves has earned from her coaching peers is virtually universal.

In many aspects of her job performance (knowledge of the game, preparation, dedication, work ethic and sportsmanship), her reputation is impeccable.

And I’ve seldom, if ever, covered anyone who has demonstrated more loyalty to her alma mater’s athletic program.

Montesano has some excellent female athletes entering the high school pipeline. So it’s highly possible that the new coach will be able to build on the team’s recent success.

Nevertheless, Monte girls basketball was transformed from a time-filling activity sandwiched between more renowned volleyball and softball programs to a perennial league and district power under Graves’ leadership.

She deserves credit for her contributions, just as she deserved a better ending to her prep coaching career.