There’s little specialization at the 1B level of high school sports. If you’re a good athlete, you play every sport so the school can field a team.
But that shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment when exceptional athletes produce exceptional results.
The boys team sports at Almira/Coulee-Hartline this season were bolstered by a strong senior class, exemplified by two unique athletes in the smallest classification in the state.
ACH seniors Grady Murray and Reece Isaak, all-league performers and MVPs in football, basketball and baseball, have been selected as The Spokesman-Review 2022 Small School Boys Athletes of the Year.
The duo helped the ACH football team win the state championship, the basketball team place second and the baseball team tie for third in the state.
“I would say the football season was a little more memorable,” Murray said last week. “Because we ended up with a ring.”
“I wish we could have done a little bit better, but we’re blessed at ACH so that they kind of expect championships,” Isaak said. “We’re lucky. We think of third place as bad, but in all reality it’s very, very good.”
The bond this group has made over the years playing sports together will last a lifetime.
“Our senior group grew as kids together, played every sport together as kids,” Murray said. “The one that added on the latest would have been Cody (Kagele), and that was in the third grade. It’s been a long time of all of us being together, constantly hanging out, being in friend groups throughout grade school.
“It’s definitely a different kind of feeling cause you see all the younger guys saying goodbye to us and there’s just not as many guys left on the field now that we’re moving on just because it’s such a big senior class moving through.”
Now that he’s graduated, Murray plans to attend Northwest Lineman College in Meridian, Idaho, to become a journeyman lineman. Isaak is headed to Washington State to pursue a degree in agriculture technology and management, then move back to Coulee City and farm.
“The day baseball season got out made me realize my life isn’t about sports anymore,” Murray said. “It’s been that way as long as I can remember, since I was a baby.
“When the guys started (summer) football practice and I went there to go watch them put on their gear … when I walked away, it was rough. It was definitely very rough.”
It dawned on Isaak at a team dinner after the end of the baseball season.
“Everyone’s sitting around the table kind of sad. Then someone makes a joke, and more jokes are made, then we actually got in trouble cause we were being too loud,” he said.
“It’s just the team aspect of it and knowing it’s the last time we’re playing sports and understanding that sports and winning isn’t everything, it’s more about spending time with your teammates and having good times.”
Murray and Isaak each brought a unique skill set and mindset to competition.
“(Murray)’s athletic, he’s the fastest kid on the field. Natural ability is a big part of it,” football coach Brandon Walsh said. “But there’s more to it than that. He’s a team-first kid, loves his buddies and plays for them as much as for his own success.
“If we were more of a passing team Grady would have been the best receiver in the state. But we were so deep and talented when you spread the wealth their numbers were pretty pedestrian. And they didn’t care as long as we were winning.”
Isaak, at 6-foot-4, 265, is a mountain of a man at this level. He’s been playing varsity football and basketball since the eighth grade.
“His physical ability is just phenomenal for our type of school,” Walsh said of Isaak. “As far as I’m concerned, because of his size and ability he’s one of the best kids I’ve ever coached. Definitely a ‘next level’ kid if that’s what he would have wanted to do.
“However many practices that would have been over five years of football and three of those years we went to the state title (game) – so he’s had a lot of extra practices – he was always, always one of if not the last kid off the field. When that type of effort comes from your best player, it’s invaluable to your team.”
Isaak and his cousin Dane are the last in a long line of Isaak boys to come through ACH and have success in sports – at least until they start having kids of their own.
“There’s a couple more girls coming through,” he joked, including his cousin Mimi – who was a first-team all-league selection in volleyball, basketball and softball this season.
It takes commitment from everyone in the community – and not just the school community.
“In these small schools where we have 90 kids in the high school, if you don’t have every kid chip in – even if you don’t like a sport, it’s kinda hard to field a team,” Murray said.
“The good news with this group of seniors is we had a couple kids that their favorite sports was football, a couple of us liked basketball, a couple of us liked baseball,” Isaak said. “So you turn out for your buddies because it’s the sport they like and all of us worked hard and tried to be as good as we could for our friends.”
That level of commitment has been ingrained in the community. But being a farming community, there’s also competition from the farm fields to keep kids on the playing field.
“I worked for a farmer for five years,” Murray said. “But he definitely puts sports first, coming from ACH. Even the farmers really push everyone to play sports whenever they possibly can.”
The three-sport athletes maintain a good level of fitness from season-to-season, but there’s not a lot of time to work on sport-specific skills until they get into the next season.
“Summer’s the time to get in the weight room, work on agility,” Murray said. “During each season, you’re not really looking to the next season – you want to finish out that season strong. When football comes around end of summer, it’s full-fledged football, there’s no other stuff going on. When it his basketball season, it’s basketball season.
“You’ve got to hit each season and hit it hard.”
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