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Then & Now: Still the big fish

But the ‘pond’ has changed for ex-coach

This may sound like a fisherman’s tale, but former St. Maries High volleyball coach Mitch Santos has pulled more fish from the St. Joe River than he had victories coaching.

And he had plenty of wins.

“Many more fish,” Santos said. “But unlike volleyball, I did release those fish. I believe in CPR – catch, photo, release.”

He will have more time to fish come June. Santos, 56, is taking early retirement after 34 years teaching – including 11 state championships in 22 years and a 527-62 record – to chase other passions and develop new ones.

After stepping down as head coach in 2000, Santos started a part-time business that he’s ready to take full time. He built a shop on his property along the St. Joe River where he builds rustic furniture for log homes and accent pieces for traditional homes. His wife, Shelley, builds lamps and shades.

They’ve been developing the business in the summers by doing street fairs from Spokane to Lewiston. They also have wholesale accounts and sell in bulk.

“I want to spend at least a year full-time building it up,” Santos said. “That’s the business end. I’m also looking forward to playing – fishing and hunting.”

Santos, a central California native, landed in St. Maries out of college in 1976.

“I grew up in the mountains in California and was near Lake Tahoe and did trout fishing in those areas,” Santos said. “I knew what I was looking for out of college. I wanted to live in an area where I would want to vacation all the time. I live in vacation land. I made the right choice.”

A glance at pictures from the days when his teams won 10 straight state titles and pictures today shows Santos has aged gracefully even if he’s added a couple pounds. Perhaps the most visible concession to age is hearing aids he’s had for seven years.

What probably accelerated the need for them was living in gyms for more than two decades.

“That’s part of it,” Santos said. “It can’t be because of my hunting because I haven’t shot a rifle too many times. It’s not a fun thing to deal with.”

St. Maries captured 10 straight state titles under Santos, the last coming in 1993. Several teams have played in state finals since then, but haven’t captured the biggest hardware.

The Lumberjacks finished second in 1994 when their streak was snapped.

Here’s what Santos said following the 1994 season: “I’m proud of this team in a lot of ways. We weren’t as blessed athletically as Preston. That’s the best team Preston has ever had. My team didn’t get along in the spring. We had four or five players who didn’t see eye to eye. We had two that weren’t going to play. We overcame that; they were able to blend their attitudes and personalities. That’s the No. 1 thing this team accomplished. I’ve been in this long enough to know what sports are for – and it’s not just the winning.”

His teams certainly did a lot of winning, though. At one point, St. Maries held a nation-leading winning streak. It ended at 145 in 1994 when the Lumberjacks lost 15-9, 15-12, 11-15, 7-15, 15-13 (pre-rally scoring days) before 1,100 fans at Sandpoint.

Santos has been inducted into the Idaho Sports Hall of Fame. In 1996, he received a Certificate of Achievement from the Inland Northwest Sportswriters and Broadcasters.

Scrapbooks are tucked away in a closet at home and the state medals are in a file cabinet.

“I’m sure that down the road I’ll reminisce and look at those things,” Santos said. “I don’t dwell on them too much.”

He doesn’t need help to recall some memorable events. The first state title team in 1982 will always hold a special spot in his heart.

Another was a classic non-league match against Coeur d’Alene on Oct. 1, 1987, played before a standing-room-only crowd at St. Maries’ old Heyburn Gym. Both teams went on to capture state titles. The Lumberjacks trailed 14-2 in the final game but rallied to win 16-14.

Missy (Sines) Asbury, who coached St. Maries to the 3A state final this season in her first year as head coach, was on that team. She had the winning kill.

Santos had just two assistant coaches in 22 years – Steve Konkright and Todd Gilkey, who replaced Larry Schwenke as athletic director at Coeur d’Alene last year. Santos said the success the Lumberjacks enjoyed couldn’t have been achieved without them.

He’s proud that the four coaches who have followed him are former players.

Santos continued to stay involved at the lower levels. He coached his final seventh grade team last fall.

St. Maries has finished second at state the last three years.

“It’s not as easy to win in these times,” Santos said. “More kids play club. The overall level of ball in the Northwest is better. There’s more parity among the teams. Winning at district and state isn’t as easy as it used to be.”

He sees St. Maries snapping its state-title drought.

“They were real young this year,” he said. “The team coming up in the junior high has a lot of talent. They remind me of the old days. They have the attitude – they love to play, they love to practice and they love to win.”

St. Maries was well ahead of the curve statewide in volleyball under Santos.

He gives a lot of credit to former Sandpoint coaches Pam Parks and Irene Matlock, who went on to coach at Eastern Washington University and Community Colleges of Spokane.

“They set a standard that I had to get my teams up to,” Santos said.

Santos said his love of coaching never exceeded his true calling as a teacher. He has earned countless honors as a teacher.

“My passion has always been more in the classroom,” said Santos, who has taught earth science, chemistry and physics. “I think I put more tools in a kid’s toolbox in the classroom. What’s really fun is teaching earth science because I have all the freshmen in those classes. It’s been fun to watch the development of those kids through sports and school.”