March 3, 2012 in Washington Voices

Youthful exuberance

Coach, team looking for third state title
Steve Christilaw
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Freeman girls basketball coach Ashlee Nimri holds her baby Jaylynn while offering advice to her team during practice Tuesday, at Freeman High School. The Freeman Scotties team will try for a three-peat in the A division state tournament in Yakima this week. Nimri played on the 2005 team that took second place at state.
(Full-size photo)

There’s a fast track for coaches as they move from their playing days to the first time they pick up a whistle as a head coach. Still, a “young” head coach generally is in his or her late 20s or early 30s.

Ashlee Nimri’s rise to become head girls basketball coach at Freeman High School found not just the fast track, it found the express lane and the Freeman grad has stayed there. The 2005 Freeman graduate has taken a successful program and made it a perennial state power with a four-year run of success to make any head coach envious.

And what’s surprising about Nimri’s unprecedented success is the fact that it’s not all that surprising. Not when you consider her lifetime with Freeman basketball.

“I can relate to what these girls go through, growing up playing Freeman basketball because I grew up playing Freeman basketball,” she said. “I’ve lived with the expectations they live with now.”

It’s a unique understanding that both coach and players respect.

Senior point guard Alyssa Maine was a freshman when Nimri took over the program and insists the program never missed a beat.

“We all had respect for her as the coach and I love playing for her,” she said.

That respect grows from the tremendous confidence the coach always shows in her players, Maine explained.

“Even when I didn’t have all that much confidence in myself, she would look at me and say ‘I believe in you,’ ” she said. “That means a lot – it really does.”

The fact is, Freeman basketball is a constant in the whirlwind of life.

Especially for the coach. In September 2010 she married Nezar Nimri, then led the Scotties to their second straight state title. She missed the start of practice for this season giving birth to daughter Jaylynn.

 “I love it here,” Nimri said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have this part of my life.”

It was business as usual this week as Nimri, her infant in her arms, put the Scotties through their preparations for the state Class 1A girls basketball tournament in Yakima.

“Being a new mom has, I think, made me a little nicer as coach,” Nimri laughed. “I find that I don’t yell as much. And that I don’t have a shortage of baby sitters.”

Ashlee Taylor played on the 2005 Freeman basketball team that reached the state Class 1A championship game for the first time in school history. After a year playing basketball at Spokane Falls Community College, she returned to become an assistant coach under Matt Gregg, who left the school after the 2007-08 season to become head women’s coach at Warner Pacific College.

Gregg’s move to the college ranks came late in the preparation process for the 2008-09 season, so the school turned to Nimri, then just 21 years old, to take over the program after two seasons as an assistant.

“I wasn’t surprised at all when Ashlee was hired to become head coach,” life-long friend, teammate and assistant coach Kayla Floyd said. “Even when we were playing together we all called her ‘Mama Bear’ because she was always taking care of everyone else.

“We all learned so much under Matt that it didn’t seem strange to me to see her take over. Matt had been a boys coach for a long time and when he got here, he taught us that basketball was basketball. Boys, girls, it didn’t matter – you play the game the same way. That made a big impact on us and it’s the same approach Ashlee takes.”

At 6-feet-10 and with shoes the size of some ZIP codes, Gregg left big shoes for his former post to fill. In five seasons as Freeman girls coach, Gregg posted 103 wins against just 24 losses and was named Class 1A Coach of the Year. Three of his teams reached the state tournament and brought home the school’s first three trophies in girls basketball: second-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes.

It took Nimri just four seasons to surpass her mentor in every one of those milestones.

She now has guided the Scotties to four consecutive state tournaments. After placing third her first season, Freeman won back-to-back state championships and, with Thursday’s 55-48 win over Granger in the quarterfinals, are guaranteed a fourth-straight trophy finish. Her teams reached the state semifinals all four years and are considered a favorite to win a third straight state title. After Thursday’s win her record stands at 105 wins against just four losses with two games to play at the SunDome. None of her teams has lost more than a single game in a season.

This year’s team dropped a game to Newport in the playoffs and that loss served to galvanize Freeman for the remainder of its playoff run.

The Scotties took a nine-game state tournament winning streak, with an average winning margin of 20-points, into Thursday’s quarterfinal game with Granger.

Nimri’s teams have a reputation for playing a smothering defense. No team scored 40 points or more against No. 1-ranked Freeman during the regular season and only two have managed that feat in the playoffs – Newport in its lone win over the Scotties, and Cashmere, ranked No. 2 in the state’s final Associated Press Poll.

It takes dedication to build that level of success – from all concerned.

And it’s a dedication no one will allow to lag, especially from your best friend and assistant coach.

 “Kayla is engaged and her fiancé told her to just think about all the weekends they could have together if she wasn’t helping coach basketball,” she said with a knowing smile. “She told him it’s not negotiable.” 

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