Neither Mike Simonson nor Katie Benson set out to be a basketball coach.
When Simonson played at Meadowdale High School, he was told by people he’d make a good basketball coach, but he didn’t believe them.
When Benson starred at Snohomish High School and Seattle Pacific University, she was adamant that she didn’t want to be a coach.
But now the duo finds itself at the reins of one of the more traditionally strong college basketball programs in the Pacific Northwest.
The SPU women’s team is in Snohomish County hands this season, with Simonson taking over as head coach and Benson brought on as an assistant, and the two are relishing an opportunity neither ever considered during their playing days.
“It’s very exciting,” Simonson said. “Even though I’m only 31, I believe it’s been a long road to get here. I’ve worked with a lot of different coaches who have prepared me, and it’s just exciting and fresh. I’m pretty fired up about it, to say the least.”
The Falcons, who reached the NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament 18 times since 1995, open the regular season this weekend at the Western Washington West Region Crossover Classic in Bellingham, taking on Fresno Pacific on Friday and Humboldt State on Saturday. When they do, it will be with a pair of Snohomish County natives at the helm.
Simonson was a three-sport athlete while at Meadowdale, playing basketball, football and golf. But he was not a basketball star for the Mavericks, and when it came time for college he headed to Arizona State with no thoughts of coaching.
However, all it took was one moment to send Simonson’s life on a dramatically different course.
“My mentors in high school used to say, ‘Hey, you’d be a great coach,’” Simonson said. “I never thought anything about it. But it was one day during winter break I was watching a game, I think it was USC coach at the time Tim Floyd, and he put his arm around a player. I was like, ‘I could be a good basketball coach.’ It was the first time I felt it. It was the mentorship part of it, just being the best way to connect with kids and grow with them.”
The coaching fire was immediately lit. Simonson went back to Arizona State and tried to join the Sun Devils’ basketball program, but no student manager positions were open. He transferred to Washington State specifically because an acquaintance tipped him off to the possibility of a student manager position being available. He spent nine seasons with the Cougars, first as a student manager, then as a video coordinator and director of operations as he worked under three different head coaches: Tony Bennett, Ken Bone and Ernie Kent. In 2016 Simonson was alerted by former SPU men’s coach and WSU assistant Jeff Hironaka about the opening on the Falcons’ women’s staff, and Simonson became the lead assistant under Julie Heisey.
Simonson figured he was in line for a lengthy grooming period, but in June Heisey unexpectedly stepped down after 13 seasons because of family reasons. Simonson was named the interim head coach, and he quickly decided he wanted the job on a more permanent basis.
“I had known in my heart I wanted to be a head coach, and I felt I was getting close to being ready,” Simonson said. “But it was a shock (Heisey stepped down), so because of that I really had to trust the process, trust my faith that I was ready.”
SPU conducted a national search and Simonson had to go through a full interview process. When it was over eight weeks later the Falcons decided they had the right person already in place.
With his position secured, Simonson set out to fill his staff. The first name on his mind was Benson’s. Despite their mutual Snohomish County roots, Simonson and Benson only knew one another in passing. Yet Simonson knew enough about Benson’s background and personality to make her a target.
Benson had been a star post player at SPU from 2010-14, earning honorable mention All-American honors as a senior when she averaged 19.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. When she was done playing she thought she was done with basketball. However, she was lured back by her high school coach, Ken Roberts, who convinced her to join the Panthers’ staff as an assistant.
“I never thought I’d coach, honestly,” Benson said. “Never did. It’s been a process. I think even when I started coaching high school, at the beginning I was like, ‘OK, this feels different.’ I was used to being a player, and the coach is on the other side. But I fell in love with the relationships you build with the girls, seeing them be successful and seeing them have breakthroughs on and off the court.”
Benson spent three seasons as an assistant at Snohomish. Then Heisey, who coached Benson at SPU, informed her she was stepping down.
“I call it a God thing, I immediately knew I wanted to go coach at SPU and assist whoever was stepping into that position,” Benson said.
So even though Simonson was preparing to reach out to Benson, it was Benson who contacted Simonson first. Shortly after Benson was hired, and with the Falcons’ other assistant Sasha Anderson also having Snohomish County ties as a former player at Edmonds Community College and coach at Snohomish County Christian, it’s like a Snohomish County convention at Royal Brougham Pavilion.
“I think our staff has a great chemistry, so it must be we all come from the same background,” Simonson said with a laugh. “I think we definitely understand what makes each other tick. I think our deep roots and being able to relate and talk about blasts from our past has helped ease us moving forward working together.”
Simonson and Benson have the challenging task of taking over a team that graduated its top six players from last season, when the Falcons went 23-8 and made the NCAA tournament. Yet the mood remains optimistic around the program.
“I couldn’t have picked a better person to fill that spot,” senior guard and tri-captain Jaylee Albert said about Simonson. “It was just weird timing because all that happened so late in the spring. But I think we were all rooting for him the whole time.
“(Benson) is awesome,” Albert added. “She brings so much energy to us, and I think just having a female role model has been really good for us, too. She’s definitely relatable because she’s been through the fire, so she knows what we’re going through.”
And together, Simonson and Benson are bringing a Snohomish County flavor to continuing SPU’s tradition of excellence.