LYNNWOOD — It’s not easy being a community college basketball coach. The hours are long, the work is demanding, the salary is modest and the challenges are constant.
And sometimes those challenges are, well, very challenging.
Just ask Kyle Gray, who invested eight years building the men’s basketball team at North Seattle Community College, only to have the school’s administration drop the program last spring. It was a crushing announcement, and one that left Gray unsure about his future in the sport.
But on the heels of that disappointment came some great news. A week later Gray was offered the head-coaching job at Edmonds CC, a position he quickly accepted, and he has begun resurrecting a program that has endured its own recent hardships, including a series of coaching changes and losing seasons.
“I’m real happy to be here,” the 33-year-old Gray said. “I think this has all worked out for the best.”
His task is to turn around a program that finished 3-21 a year ago and has not had a winning season since 2004-05, the last under longtime Tritons coach Keith Kingsbury. The good news is that community college programs turn over their rosters every two years anyway, so success can come quickly — and Gray believes it will.
“As long as the support (from the administration) is there, and the patience is there, I don’t think it’ll be as hard as people might think,” he said. “My coaching staff and I are very confident in what we can do.”
Gray was hired as an assistant coach at North Seattle CC in his early 20s, and a year later became the head coach. He brought the program to respectability, despite ongoing issues related to fundraising.
“All the support we got began and ended with us,” he said. “And it was always a struggle.”
By comparison, he went on, “there’s so much support (at Edmonds CC). It’s been awesome.”
His squad is a combination of holdover players from last season, sophomore transfers from North Seattle, and incoming recruits. Only three players are Western Conference products — sophomore Jacob Spade (Meadowdale, class of 2011), sophomore Jordan Diel (Shorecrest, 2010) and freshman Tony Peloquin (Monroe, 2012) — but there are several from Seattle schools and the Bothell-Woodinville area.
“To me it’s all about local (in recruiting), and that’s what we’ll build our foundation on,” said Gray, who is also an elementary school PE teacher in the Seattle School District and the head softball coach at Ballard High School. He expects “to put a net around those local kids and see what we can come up with. That’s always going to be our foundation, I promise that.”
The Tritons have been practicing for over a month and the workouts are crisp, organized and competitive. Gray wants his teams to play up-tempo, and there is a heavy emphasis on defense.
Equally important, he said, “everything we do will be fundamentally sound. … The details really matter. We’re going to be very detail-oriented and make sure that our players understand that even if we’re talented, we’re still going to be the hardest working team on the floor.”
Guard Joey Reavley, a 2011 Woodinville graduate, played for Gray at North Seattle CC last year. Based on that experience, he expects the Tritons “to come out and play hard every game and be real competitive. I think we’ll be good.”
Last season, Reavley went on, he enjoyed “a really good relationship” with Gray. “We had a lot of conversations about what goes on on the court as well as off the court. … (Gray) knows what he wants, but he’s also willing to take ideas from his players and (then decide) what’s going to work best for the team.”
Freshman forward Destin Kawaka graduated from Seattle’s Nathan Hale in the spring, and during the recruiting process “you could see in (Gray’s) eyes that he was willing to do whatever he needed to be a good coach,” he said. “I could see that he was very friendly, very genuine, and very true about what he wanted to do. And I really felt that I wanted to be a part of that.”
Gray vows that his players will not only have a presence on the court and in the classroom, but in the community as well. “We want to be first class,” he said, “because the image of the program is huge.”
The goal, he said, is to make Edmonds CC “a place where kids know they’re going to get better. If you stick to the game plan, we’re going to make you a better player and a better person when you leave here in two years.”
That happens, Gray said, by stressing the notions of hard work, discipline and personal responsibility. And those lessons apply not only to basketball and school, but also to other areas of life.
“My biggest thing is to make sure (the players) work on building the person while they’re here, and they have a great experience doing that. That’s more important than anything. Because if I’m in this just for the wins, then I’m not really doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”