Darrell Miller grew up in little Lamont, long after the local high school was shuttered. After the eighth-grade, students could choose their commute.
And their culture.
“We always said if you were an athlete, you went to St. John,” he recalled. “And if you weren’t, you went to Sprague.
“Well, I had four great years at Sprague, so that kind of tells you something.”
Something about Miller’s sense of humor, for sure, and possibly something about the world of difference there can be among communities separated by just a few miles of state highway.
Twenty years later, as it happens, Darrell Miller has made it back to St. John. Athletes still go there - the destination now officially St. John-Endicott - though until this week it had been eight long years since enough of them had pooled together to get the Eagles boys back in the State B basketball tournament.
But these Eagles - by surviving a brief scare from St. George’s in Thursday’s quarterfinals - have already assured themselves of a trophy, a factoid destined for the Foregone Conclusion File. Forty-two times teams from St. John and Endicott have reached the state tournament; 34 times they have placed.
And St. John - pre- and post-consolidation - has been in the State B’s final four 20 times in 29 trips.
Speaking of final fours, rarely has there been a more intriguing one. There is Chief Leschi, a proud B newcomer with an impressive blend of size and quickness. There is Valley Christian, another callow first-timer. There is Curlew, marooned on a B milk carton for 26 years.
And there is St. John-Endicott, B royalty if there is such a thing.
“You can never downplay the importance of tradition,” said Dick Behrens, Miller’s assistant and, as principal, also his boss. “It’s the extra sometimes that gets you over the top.”
Traditions in sports and society take some pretty hard hits these days. Dynasties are undone in a matter of days. Respect comes at the price of a grudge, rather than with reverence.
At St. John, the reverence survives.
Well, most of it.
For either the motivation or amusement - or both - of the 1998 Eagles, Behrens screened some video Thursday of St. John’s championship teams of 1978 and 1980, when he was Wayne Hohman’s assistant.
“The first thing they did was laugh at our leisure suits,” Behrens said. “Hohman and I wore these white leisure suits. I thought they were pretty good-looking, but the kids were in hysterics.
“My younger son was asking where the 3-point line was, and why do they keep doing this jump ball stuff?”
“Yeah,” said Jason Siler, a sophomore substitute. “The short-shorts I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”
But never mind the costumes. There was respect in the room for the accomplishment, for the Eagles were watching the last of their aerie to win a state championship - strange as that concept seems to a generation that saw St. John win six of them between 1960 and 1980.
You can only imagine how foreign it’s been for the B to be without the Eagles since 1990.
“The people understand, though, they really do,” said Miller, now in his third year as head coach. “They’re knowledgeable - you can’t not be knowledgeable about basketball in St. John - and they know how talent goes in cycles.
“In truth, I thought we were a year away, but the seniors on this team have really stepped up in a way I’m not sure we knew they could.”
Maybe they’ve stepped up because they’ve been stepped on.
Most can’t recall St. John’s last trip to state and have lived, as Miller pointed out, with “Garfield-Palouse being the measuring stick for Whitman County basketball.” And there was an especially low moment when these seniors were eighth-graders, when a loaded AAU team from Montana spanked them 118-13.
There must have been times when they didn’t want to hear about the good old days.
“Not really,” insisted Siler’s cousin Josh. “It’s a community thing. They expect you to win, but it doesn’t put pressure on you. You have that confidence and tradition and think you can pull it out in close games. You see a lot of them bring their kids, because they want the kids to be part of the tradition.”
Like the Siler kids. Jason’s dad and Josh’s uncle Tim played for Hohman and Behrens and got to rub the gold ball.
“Now they’re in the fraternity,” Miller said.
Miller moved back to Whitman County after coaching for five years at Willapa Valley, taking the Vikings to state in 1993.
“I just got so tired of the rain,” he said. “When it’s not raining, it’s drizzling. I was sitting outside at night with my son one time and he said, ‘Daddy, what’s that?’ And I said, ‘Derek, those are stars.’ It was depressing. It was time to come home.”
Ah, but 20 years before when it was time to choose, Miller took the other road out of Lamont.
“I wanted to coach where there was expectations,” he explained. “Not a place where it’s play all the kids and make sure everybody has a good time. I wanted to go someplace where parents say, ‘Listen to the coach and do the right thing’ and where having a good program is important to people.
“It’s been a while for St. John. One year doesn’t make it back, but we’re on the right road.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review