March 5, 1997

Out, Not Down Despite Naselle’s State B Absence, Coach Lyle Patterson’s Legend Lives

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:profile

Dispel the notion that Lyle Patterson never coached Naselle to a state title.

Nearly 30 years ago, not long after the Comets played in their first State B basketball championship game, Naselle won back-to-back state football titles under Patterson.

The mitigating factor: In those days, football champions were crowned by Associated Press poll voters.

Those were mythical titles, which only seems right, three decades later, for a coach of such mythical proportions.

Patterson’s believers speak of his impressive numbers: 623 career wins, second all-time among Washington coaches; 25 appearances in 32 years at the state tournament; 18 state trophies (top-eight finishes); 11 berths in state semifinals; and five title-game appearances.

Patterson’s detractors throw out two numbers: his age (closing in on 70) and his state titles (zippo).

There will be no state title for the Comets this year, either. Napavine, with its lofty 9-12 record, ended Naselle’s season, 70-39, at the District 4-B Tournament 11 days ago.

Now comes the difficult part. Patterson still wants to coach the Comets, but a vocal part of this small southwestern community wants Patterson out. The school board, deciding but not deciding last June, gave Patterson a one-year contract but said it would open up the job for the 1997-98 season.

Patterson’s supporters hoped he would guide this season’s young team to state, perhaps pick up another trophy, and silence grumblers for another season. By then, “opening up the job” wouldn’t necessarily mean leaving out Patterson’s name.

That was before a 31-point district loss to a team with a .429 winning percentage.

“Our town has been spoiled because of Lyle,” said Tim Wirkkala, a former player and current assistant coach who supported Patterson during contentious school board meetings.

“He’s set the example. How do you live up to that? The first guy who comes in here … they’re going to look at him to produce a state championship right away.”

No stranger to success

Some forget that Patterson himself nearly produced a state championship right away. During his second year as Comets coach, 1967, he guided a team with a losing record to the title game. There Naselle ran into defending champ Reardan.

Funny thing about Reardan - its success at state parallels Naselle’s in every way but one. Heading into this year, both schools had qualified for state 31 times (now make that 32 for Reardan). Naselle owned 19 trophies (one without Patterson), Reardan 17. Reardan had played in 12 semis, Naselle 11.

But there’s the matter of what happens to both schools during Saturday nights in Spokane. Reardan: seven title-game appearances, six wins. Naselle: five games, five losses.

Patterson recently contemplated the Saturday-night blues, and other matters, from the cozy living room of the house he and his wife have shared since moving to the fishing and logging community home to numerous Swedes and Finns.

“I know it’s been hard on some of the fans, and it hasn’t been easy on my wife and me,” said Patterson, stretching out on a recliner without his trademark blue blazer and white socks. “But you don’t go out there and shoot yourself.”

As for the ornery fans, Patterson turns to Reardan for perspective.

“The eminent (Reardan) coach Gene Smith said that every year you coach you make two people mad,” Patterson said. “I’ve coached here 30-odd years, so obviously I have 60 or so mad at me.”

The clincher was the ‘92 title game against Sunnyside Christian. Naselle took a narrow lead into the final minute but couldn’t hit its free throws. A last-second layin was the perfect order to get Sunnyside up.

As townsfolk remember, Naselle even had the perfect people at the free-throw line in the final seconds. One, Steve Mattson, averaged 18.5 points and now plays college football at Eastern Washington.

“Why you miss a foul shot at an important time, I guess you can ask Shaquille O’Neal that,” Patterson said. “All I know is that everything Steve Mattson does these days (academic All-American) makes us proud and makes us look good, so I can’t fault him for missing a couple of free throws.”

A special coach

A visit to former Naselle players finds many just mildly interested in Comets basketball these days. The issue of whether Patterson should continue coaching runs the gamut, but most agree they played for a special man who deserves a chance to leave graciously.

Mike Ennis, Class of 1981, lives on the banks of the Grays River near Rosburg, east of Naselle.

Ennis, who ties his blondish-red hair back in a ponytail, appears most at ease among his pack goats and solitude. He works as a counselor at the Naselle Youth Camp and has eased off on the game he last played competitively at the community college level in Spokane.

As a freshman Ennis watched Naselle’s second state finalist fall to St. John, known in B circles as title town. Ennis started for Patterson from his sophomore year on, helping the Comets to three trophies while scoring 159 points.

He recalls one early season practice when he and Patterson uncharacteristically clashed. Patterson told Ennis to leave the floor, then went looking for him 15 minutes later, gruff exterior calmed, to say it was fine to return.

Ennis faults some of Patterson’s coaching tactics - undying reliance on the man-to-man defense heads the list - but would never question the lessons his coach imparted.

“He’s touched so many lives that he doesn’t need that state championship,” Ennis said.

“He’s had his great times and he’s a great man, but sometimes you have to step down. I love the man, but I think it’s time.”

Naselle’s finest team

Gary Burkhalter lives near Ennis, on a dairy farm with a distant view of Highway 4.

Burkhalter started 16 games at state, averaging 10 points and nearly nine rebounds. Some belive his 1984 team, which lost a 42-38 final to Brewster after averaging 76 points in three state games, was Naselle’s best.

“I think a lot of (the Brewster loss) was the choke factor,” said Burkhalter, enjoying a crisp January day with one of his three young sons.

“That game, (Patterson) was so wrapped up into it that he couldn’t think what to do next.”

When Burkhalter’s teams played at state, Patterson had moved his Spokane base camp from downtown to the Red Lion Spokane Valley. Patterson feared staying downtown would offer his players too many diversions.

One prankster at the Red Lion generated a different diversion, pulling the fire alarm at midnight.

“I remember Lyle coming out of his room in his boxer shorts, saying, ‘What’s going on? Who did that? Get back in your rooms and get some sleep.”’ Burkhalter said.

Traveling in the Naselle van always afforded some cheap thrills. Patterson, a notoriously distracted driver, kept his players in shape off the court.

“Everybody tried to run to get into the other van,” Burkhalter said.

In those days, Patterson was also Naselle’s principal. Burkhalter recalls Principal P. shooing players away from girlfriends, whom he considered distractions from serious subjects.

As a sophomore Burkhalter hurt his leg while herding cows on a motorcycle. Patterson, watching Burkhalter limp toward school the day after, grabbed the nearest student and demanded to know what happened and why. Basketball season was 10 months away.

Through it all, Burkhalter absorbed a lesson he still uses today.

“The basic thing was commitment to a team, being one,” Burkhalter said. “He’d talk to us about avoiding guys - he’d call them slugs - who will try to bring you down to their level.”

The iron fist

No Naselle player scored more points (248) at state than Ryan Bjornsgaard, Class of ‘87. Yet Bjornsgaard, who also works at the Youth Camp and lives in an apartment within shouting distance of the facility, never played on a team that placed higher than fourth.

Bjornsgaard served a team manager while his brother Jeff played in the early ‘80s. The Bjornsgaards are in different positions now; Ryan is Naselle’s C squad coach while Jeff operates a business in nearby Astoria, Ore., across the bridge over the Columbia River.

Jeff is therefore more in a position to criticize Patterson, although Ryan also wishes some matters were different.

“When I used to manage, (the players) couldn’t get away with anything,” Ryan said. “When a player said anything, (Patterson) booted them right on the spot. I know that when I started playing the discipline, I thought, started falling.”

Yet Bjornsgaard, having played basketball at Warner-Pacific College in Portland, defends Patterson when townsfolk become too caustic.

“I think a lot of people around here think this is the only place basketball’s being played,” Bjornsgaard said.

State trips bring back the best memories for Bjornsgaard. In 1983, as team manager, he was matched up with Patterson as a hotel roommate. He couldn’t understand why everyone poked fun at his position until the lights went down and Patterson began his patented, window-rattling snoring.

Bjornsgaard also remembers Patterson’s dinner rituals in Spokane: the first night at the Black Angus, and at least one trip to The Sizzler for Malibu chicken.

Principles come first

Bjornsgaard’s distant cousin is Dale Tienhaara, who also once coached the Comets C squad.

Tienhaara lives on Tienhaara Road, east of Naselle, on land his grandparents homesteaded. He built his own house, replete with spiral staircase and an outside tennis court.

Tienhaara’s junior-season team, in ‘69, averaged 88 points a game and was lustily booed at state when it piled up 81 against Wilson Creek.

“We had the scrubs in the game, too, and we only knew one type of game (run-and-gun),” Tienhaara said. “We were getting booed, so Patterson got mad and put the starters back in. I guess he didn’t understand what they were booing us for.”

Patterson told Tienhaara, as a sophomore, that he was his reason for staying in Naselle. A two-time all-tournament player, Tienhaara scored 162 points at state as the Comets finished fifth, fourth and third.

Tienhaara recalls one of Burkhalter’s teams at Willapa Valley when Naselle snared a rebound and threw a long pass downcourt.

“Who has that guy?” yelled Valley coach Steve Altmeyer, now at Valley Christian.

Patterson jumped and answered “Nobody!” as the layup went through.

A few years later, as assistant coach for a team on its way to Spokane, Tienhaara overheard players whispering about a contraband bottle of booze. Not notifying Patterson, Tienhaara went to players’ hotel room and demanded the bottle.

Unable to sleep, Tienhaara finally broke the news to Patterson, who sent the players home the next day. One was a starter.

A legend takes root

“What I don’t think a lot of people understand is, why do we play (sports),” Patterson said.

“We play these games to instruct kids on certain things that they can’t learn in an algebra room, like how to handle frustration. The guy back east who was fired, got a gun and shot up the post office, that’s not the best way to handle frustration.”

Born in Spokane, Patterson lived anything but the gilded life. His large family lived as sharecroppers near Chelan, until, as Patterson said, they were kicked out for too much share and not enough crop.

Part of the family hitched a ride to Spokane on a semi. Arriving downtown, one sister caught a bus for an aunt’s house and Lyle went to live with an uncle he barely knew.

Patterson attended Rogers High School through his sophomore year, greatly influenced by physical education teacher Jack Mooberry, who treated the “scrawny orphan” with kindness.

Patterson couldn’t participate in sports. His uncle expected work in exchange for room and board.

Patterson’s sister took him to Michigan, where older brother Dale taught and coached. Patterson attended Wisconsin State, then followed Dale into teaching and coaching in Michigan. Patterson coached football and baseball.

The return to Washington came after the death, from cancer, of his nephew in Federal Way. Patterson came to get reacquainted with his sister, interviewed for jobs in Colville and Naselle, and selected Naselle because of a rapport with superintendent Dick Grabenhorst.

“We thought we’d take the job for a couple of years,” Patterson said. “They’d told us in Michigan that we could always come back.”

Patterson never left, although positions became available at a junior college and larger high school. The Patterson boys, Gordon, Dwight and Wade, all of whom played for their dad, wanted to stay in Naselle.

True to Patterson’s luck, Dwight, the best of the bunch, twisted his ankle right before the ‘80 state tournament and couldn’t play.

That was the year after Tor Gudmundsen, whom Patterson considers the best post he has coached, tore up a knee and missed the season.

When Patterson beat North Beach last year for his 600th career win, he tried to hide behind Tim Wirkkala when fans summoned to honor him on center court.

“Some of the other coaches in the area came out that night, so that was very nice,” Patterson said. “But I expect I would have traded it for one in Spokane on Saturday night.”

A home in history

At the town’s rock company, Wirkkala took a break during a mid-January shift to ponder Patterson’s place in state coaching history.

The odd thing, Wirkkala said, is that people who live outside Naselle have a better perspective of Patterson’s value.

“Even when we made (state) two years ago, (Naselle fans) grumbled that we should have placed higher,” Wirkkala said. “I think everyone wanted him to win a state championship and retire.”

One of Wirkkala’s cousins is on the school board, but Wirkkala’s persistent support for Patterson hasn’t appeared to change the “lynch mob’s” opinion.

“A lot of the things that came out (at last summer’s board meetings) were false,” Wirkkala said. “That’s one reason I tried to be there and tell people what really happened at practice.

“Lyle’s always been most concerned about the kids, and how they’re going to do after basketball.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. LOOKING BACK Lyle Patterson at Naselle: Years: 32 Record: 623-230 (.730) State B appearances: 25 State trophies: 18 State semifinals: 11 State finals: 5 State titles: 0

2. FALLING SHORT Naselle’s State B title-game futility: 1967: Reardan 67, Naselle 44 Garry Anyan scored 21 points as the Indians won their 57th consecutive game - and second straight title - by turning back the first B team to make the final with a losing record. Naselle’s Dennis Strange scored 16. 1978: St. John 68, Naselle 56 Sophomore Gary Nelson scored 20 points and the Eagles (24-6) shot to a 20-point halftime lead, thanks to 63-percent shooting from the floor. St. John won its sixth of seven state titles. Naselle came in 23-1, ranked No. 1 all year with an offense that averaged 80 points. Naselle senior Dale Wiitala scored 20. 1983: Onalaska 59, Naselle 50 Ron Van der Schaaf, a 6-foot-7 exchange student from The Netherlands, hit 9 of 10 free throws to score 21 points and lead a win over the cold-shooting Comets. The top-ranked Loggers (28-0) overcame a 24-21 halftime deficit to win their first state title. Naselle (24-4), led by Chris Merringer’s 16 points, shot 28 percent from the field. “Next year, who knows?” said Naselle coach Lyle Patterson, appearing at the tourney for the 17th time. “I’d like to get (the title), but that doesn’t mean I will.” 1984: Brewster 42, Naselle 38 Junior Mike Boesel scored 18 of his 26 points in the first half to help the Bears win their fourth state tournament. Six-footer Scott Sattler added 12 rebounds for Brewster, which also rode Boesel to the title in 1985. Gary Burkhalter scored 13 for Naselle (25-2), which was ranked No. 1 all season and averaged 85 points during the first two tourney games. “We gave up 42 points; that’s not a lot,” said Patterson. “But we just couldn’t put the ball in the hole. I don’t know why that is. It’s just the fickle finger of fate, I guess.” One week laster, Patterson wrote The Spokesman-Review to say, among other things, “I want you to be sure and understand that we will return and one of these days we will win the last one.” 1992: Sunnyside Chr. 63, Naselle 62 Josh Kendrick scored 31 points, including a basket off a baseline drive with 1 second left, to rally the Knights (26-1) over the Comets (22-6). Naselle led 62-59 with 1 minute left, but twice in the final 33 seconds missed the front end of one-and-one bonuses. The Comets reached the final by beating top-ranked Tekoa-Oakesdale in the quarterfinals and Wilbur-Creston in the semis with seven points in the final minute. Naselle made its 23rd appearance at state in Patterson’s 27 years. The Comets, an 11-time semifinalist, took home their 19th trophy. Two state appearances since have yielded no more hardware. -Chris Derrick

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. LOOKING BACK Lyle Patterson at Naselle: Years: 32 Record: 623-230 (.730) State B appearances: 25 State trophies: 18 State semifinals: 11 State finals: 5 State titles: 0

2. FALLING SHORT Naselle’s State B title-game futility: 1967: Reardan 67, Naselle 44 Garry Anyan scored 21 points as the Indians won their 57th consecutive game - and second straight title - by turning back the first B team to make the final with a losing record. Naselle’s Dennis Strange scored 16. 1978: St. John 68, Naselle 56 Sophomore Gary Nelson scored 20 points and the Eagles (24-6) shot to a 20-point halftime lead, thanks to 63-percent shooting from the floor. St. John won its sixth of seven state titles. Naselle came in 23-1, ranked No. 1 all year with an offense that averaged 80 points. Naselle senior Dale Wiitala scored 20. 1983: Onalaska 59, Naselle 50 Ron Van der Schaaf, a 6-foot-7 exchange student from The Netherlands, hit 9 of 10 free throws to score 21 points and lead a win over the cold-shooting Comets. The top-ranked Loggers (28-0) overcame a 24-21 halftime deficit to win their first state title. Naselle (24-4), led by Chris Merringer’s 16 points, shot 28 percent from the field. “Next year, who knows?” said Naselle coach Lyle Patterson, appearing at the tourney for the 17th time. “I’d like to get (the title), but that doesn’t mean I will.” 1984: Brewster 42, Naselle 38 Junior Mike Boesel scored 18 of his 26 points in the first half to help the Bears win their fourth state tournament. Six-footer Scott Sattler added 12 rebounds for Brewster, which also rode Boesel to the title in 1985. Gary Burkhalter scored 13 for Naselle (25-2), which was ranked No. 1 all season and averaged 85 points during the first two tourney games. “We gave up 42 points; that’s not a lot,” said Patterson. “But we just couldn’t put the ball in the hole. I don’t know why that is. It’s just the fickle finger of fate, I guess.” One week laster, Patterson wrote The Spokesman-Review to say, among other things, “I want you to be sure and understand that we will return and one of these days we will win the last one.” 1992: Sunnyside Chr. 63, Naselle 62 Josh Kendrick scored 31 points, including a basket off a baseline drive with 1 second left, to rally the Knights (26-1) over the Comets (22-6). Naselle led 62-59 with 1 minute left, but twice in the final 33 seconds missed the front end of one-and-one bonuses. The Comets reached the final by beating top-ranked Tekoa-Oakesdale in the quarterfinals and Wilbur-Creston in the semis with seven points in the final minute. Naselle made its 23rd appearance at state in Patterson’s 27 years. The Comets, an 11-time semifinalist, took home their 19th trophy. Two state appearances since have yielded no more hardware. -Chris Derrick

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