When Judy Kight was coaching her Mead volleyball team at the Crossover Classic in early October, she was overwhelmed by a sense of relief.
She knew it was time. She knew that her 23rd season as head coach would be her last.
“I came to peace with it,” said Kight, who had shared the possibility of stepping down with family and close friends. “I knew I was going to feel great about it at the end of the year.”
While Kight hasn’t officially typed up her resignation notice, it’s all but a formality.
“I started feeling twinges a couple of years ago,” Kight said this week. “I kept asking myself if I wanted to keep doing this. It took me a couple of years to process. I didn’t want to make a move that I would regret. I wanted to be 100 percent sure.”
It took Kight a while to raise Mead to the level it’s at today. And the early years included a four-year break to give birth to her two daughters.
Consider these mind-numbing numbers. Her career record is 583-150, a .795 winning percentage, and 236-61 (.795) in the Greater Spokane League. Her teams won 10 league, 11 district and 11 regional titles. Mead had nine 30-win seasons and 17 state tournament appearances to go along with 15 state trophies.
Her teams captured seven state titles. The Panthers’ most recent trip to state was the 14th in a row.
Kight was the GSL coach of the year five times and the Associated Press coach of the year six times.
In her 23 years, Mead finished first or second 17 times and had two thirds. She had just two losing seasons, the second one coming when she returned from the four-year break.
The Panthers won five straight state titles (2003-07), and the two best records were in 2005 (32-0) and 2007 (35-1).
The first state trophy came in her fourth season, in 1989, when the Panthers took third. Then following her family leave, the next trophy came in 1996 when Mead finished third.
The first state title came in Kight’s 10th season, in 1999. But she will always lament the 1998 season when the Panthers finished 16-2 in league and 28-8 overall.
“We didn’t get to state that year and we should have,” Kight said. “That was a very talented team.”
It was a season that changed her coaching philosophy.
“It was a catalyst for me,” she said. “We were devastated that we didn’t get to state. I decided I’d never again take an athlete that doesn’t have the same hearts, guts and passion.”
Hence the motto that became Mead’s trademark under Kight was born – HGP (hearts, guts, passion).
In 1999, Mead finished third in league. But when the Panthers reached postseason things clicked. They didn’t drop another set on the way to the first state title under Kight.
“The kids went on a rampage,” Kight said.
While all of the state titles hold a special place in Kight’s heart, the first and the last will rank high on her list.
The last came in 2009 on the team led by Alexis Olgard. Another starter on that team was Kight’s youngest daughter, Kaely.
It was a year that featured Mead’s most improbable comeback at state. Curtis won the first two games in the final and was leading 20-12 in the third when Kight called timeout.
“We weren’t playing that badly and Curtis was playing very well,” Kight said.
Kight could see tears beginning to form in her players’ eyes with the dream of a state title on the brink of flittering away.
During the timeout, she looked over at the 6-foot-5 Olgard, who was calm and taking a swig of her water bottle.
“Alexis said, ‘We can do this, we do it every day in practice,’ ” Kight said. “It still gives me chills when I think about it.”
Just like that Mead rallied to victory and completed the dream season.
Kight had another first this year. None of her Mead teams had ever finished second until last month.
Bellarmine Prep outlasted Mead in an outstanding state final.
“We battled like crazy,” Kight said. “They were warriors. They were worthy of being state champions.”
The composition of Kight’s final team was well documented this year with 11 seniors and five underclassmen.
“It’s the deepest, most talented team I ever had,” Kight said.
Kight, a Shadle Park graduate, played for the woman considered the pioneer of girls sports in Spokane, Linda Sheridan. Or Squatty, as those close to Sheridan are allowed to call her.
“Squatty taught me everything that’s important about athletics,” Kight said. “She set my life on a course to become a coach because I wanted to have that same affect on athletes.”
Kight coached the junior varsity at Shadle for two years under Sheridan before moving to Mead, where she’s taught for 29 years.
“I thought I’d coach as long as I taught, and I’d be an old hag,” Kight said.
Kight will miss the team aspect of volleyball.
“I will definitely miss the camaraderie you build with a team,” Kight said. “When they put the team over themselves and get this unity of purpose, they accomplish so much more than they would before. My best teams have gotten it.”
I asked Kight what she would want to be remembered for.
“I’d like to be remembered as a coach who loved her athletes and taught them the real meaning of sports and competition,” Kight said. “If kids know that you care they’ll do anything for you.”