When Nancy Gilbert graduated from Pasco High School back in the summer of 1968, she had a singular goal.
“I really wanted to be a P.E. teacher,” she recalls. “I loved to play sports, but back in those days there were only two sports for girls: tennis and gymnastics. I did both. And just about anything else I could play, to be honest.
“But I got married, instead. Since my husband (Mike) was 10 years older, we figured we’d better get started with our family and that’s what I did.”
Instead of teaching physical education, Gilbert embarked on a remarkable 31-year coaching career. By school day she’s been head cook at Evergreen Middle School. After school she’s coached four sports and as many as five different girls teams at Greenacres Middle School.
She’s coached softball, basketball, volleyball and track at Greenacres.
“The only sport that I didn’t get to coach was the one that I played when I was in high school: tennis,” she said. “I’ve always loved tennis, but I never got the chance to coach it.”
After this school year, she will step down from her duties as softball and track coach. She will continue to coach volleyball, where she is head coach, and basketball, where she is an assistant, for at least one more year.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to quit cold turkey,” she laughed. “I’ve stepped down from the two outdoor sports. That way I can stay warm.
“Mostly, I just want to be able to go and watch my grandkids play. My grandson, Brandon, is quite the hockey player. He’s on the reserve squad for the Spokane Braves this season and he thinks he has a future in hockey. I want to be part of that.”
Just to be on the safe side, she said, she and her husband plan to become snowbirds and spend part of the year in a warmer clime.
Her three-decade career started just as sports offerings for young girls expanded. Because of Title IX, which passed in 1972, junior high schools needed to expand their sports offerings for girls, and offering sports meant finding coaches for girls teams.
Already an employee of the Central Valley School District, Gilbert was ready, willing and able to step in.
“She just wanted to be a coach there, so she came in and talked,” former Greenacres Principal John Frucci recalled. “She’d worked with the kids anyhow, so we gave her the opportunity.”
It started with softball, but before long she was doing double duty in basketball (coaching both seventh- and ninth-grade teams), as well as coaching volleyball and track.
“That was about the time that Title IX thing got going,” Frucci said. “If you got a good coach you worked real hard to keep them.”
For Gilbert, coaching middle school athletes was a perfect fit.
“I love working with kids at that age,” she said. “They’re willing to do just about anything and try anything. You always have parental support – if you ask them to do something they show up and help out.
“I’ve had chances to coach at the high school level, but I’ve always been happy right where I am.”
There were all-Valley titles, sure. But one of Gilbert’s most revered memories was a single basketball game in 2000.
“We played the Evergreen team that had (Central Valley and Arizona State University standout) Emily Westerberg on it,” she recalled. “The first time we played them we got beat pretty good, 58-39.
“After that game we went back to the gym and we worked on everything we could work on to get better.”
The next time the teams faced, it was a classic battle. After three overtime periods, Greenacres pulled the upset, 63-61.
“I was so proud of that team and how hard they worked to get better,” she said. “I remember thinking when the game went into the first overtime ‘Oh, man, don’t let these kids come this far and lose it like this.’ By the time we got to the third overtime, I was just thinking ‘Wow, what a game.’ ”
As if coaching weren’t enough, Gilbert also found time to referee.
“I did college and high school (basketball) games,” she said. “I did college games for a while, games in places like Walla Walla and Tri-Cities, places I could drive to and still get home in time to work the next morning. But after a while, that got to be too much.
“I did four or five state basketball tournaments. One of my favorite memories was doing a State B final in the old Coliseum with my family and my kids in the stands, way up in the nosebleed section. I ran out on the court and I could hear ‘Yay, grandma!’ That was special.”
Gilbert credits her assistant coaches for her longevity. Two of her assistants will assume her duties as head softball and track coaches.
“The one thing I can say about this whole journey is this: I could never have done it without the love and support of my husband,” Gilbert said. “Some women end up being sports widows. In our house it was the other way around. If he wanted to be surrounded by love and attention, he had to find a dog or a cat.
“But through it all he’s been a great support.”