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Scappoose girls' basketball adjusting to new coach

In just his first year, new head coach David Spirlin is looking to elevate the program to his level - in a literal sense.


by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Coach David Spirlin stands head and shoulders over Scappoose seniors Alix Raya (8) and Abby Kessi. Though he has a tough reputation, and the nickname 'The Terminator,' he has earned the team's respect through laughter.In the closing minutes of practice, David Spirlin gathered a worn out group of Indians around him at center court to talk before releasing the girls’ team.

“I've been to the last two state championships,” he said.

Shocked, the girls raised their eyebrows and looked at one another. Between hushed whispers here and there, one piped up above the others.

“Teach us how to get there.”

And that, though it's much more complicated than such a simple request, is the task at hand for Spirlin. He’s in his first year as the program’s head coach, and is the third coach in as many years for the struggling girls’ basketball program at Scappoose High School. Along the way, the girls have had to change from one style to the next, and the differing philosophies has left a challenge for Spirlin to overcome.

It’s been a difficult transition for many of the girls, especially since they have lacked a consistent message for most of their time in high school. In addition, the coaching from Spirlin can be a little more than most of the players are used to. He has a commanding presence, and not just because of his personality – Spirlin stands at 6-foot-5, an imposing figure even for the tallest members of the team.

Spirlin’s vast experience, including his high school career in southern California and college ball in Portland, have a distinctly ‘old school’ touch. So much so, in fact, that the team yells the phrase when breaking from huddles. Spirlin has spent much of the last two weeks getting the team to buy in to his system, which has proven tough at times.

“Let’s do things differently than they’ve been done in the past,” he said of his conversations with the group. “I know that I’m teaching you something different, and you just have to stick with me and trust me and I know it’s frustrating, but it’ll click. You’ll get it, and you won’t realize it. You’ll play in a game, and you’ll just react and you’ll say ‘hey, I just did that without thinking about it.’ You can’t be thinking on the basketball court, because you’re a step behind.”

It’s a process which takes time, something Spirlin understands.

“I can’t coach for one game, I’ve gotta coach down the line,” Spirlin said. “I have to coach this year and next year and so the girls who are returning, I want them to know these things when they hit the court.”

The team has worked on revamping everything from how to execute a full court press to the right way to go around a screen. Throughout the process, Spirlin has emphasized he wants the girls to get a little better each day, focusing on the idea that it will all come together eventually. At first, though, it has been tough for some of the athletes.

“It is a challenge to teach everybody the fundamental things, especially the older ones because they get really frustrated really quick,” said Spirlin. “They’re so used to doing things a certain way and I’m stopping them and saying ‘no, that’s not right.’ So I get that frustrated look, and I say ‘you’ve got to stick with me.’”

The first two days, according to Spirlin, were the most frustrating for the girls. They weren’t used to being corrected as much as they have been this season, but as time has worn on the team’s mindset has changed from cringing at criticism to craving it. Now, they want the correction because they want to learn it right.

Getting back to the basics and focusing on the fundamentals is more than just a personal mantra. While in high school, Spirlin was privileged to watch UCLA practice under the direction of legendary coach John Wooden, an experience which has stuck with him all these years.

“His philosophy was that they’re going to prepare for us, we don’t prepare for them. We’re just going to play our game and let them adjust to us,” he said. “We’re going to do the things that we do well. We’re still going to scout, but it’s not going to be a big deal in practice.”

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Senior Lexi Courtney has a bit of fun during a moment's pause at practice. Courtney is part of a team who has had to work hard at getting used to a new style  and a new coach, the third such chance in three seasons at Scappoose. At 6-foot-5, Coach David Spirlin could assert his will just by lookin' atcha, but he chooses a far more humorous method.

Bridging the gap

Spirlin recalled playing a post-high school summer league game in Portland when his high school coach was in the stands. The opponent included Benson High School alumni A.C. Green, who went on to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, and after the game – which Spirlin’s team won – he approached his former coach and asked his opinion on how he played.

“I still needed that affirmation. I was in my 20s, but I respected him so much, I wanted his feedback,” said Spirlin. “He said “I knew you’d play him tough.” That was the biggest – I’m 55, and I still remember it (from) 30 years ago. That’s the kind of relationship that I want to have with these girls here.”

In order to begin building the kind of coach-athlete relationship Spirlin is looking for, he has had to bridge the gap between himself and the group of girls who might not have taken to him at first. His tool? Humor.

“Every once in a while, you’ll hear me crack a joke and they’ll laugh,” he said. “Tonight (Tuesday), we were talking a little bit about me blending in here in Scappoose and the girls go ‘he said that!’ If you get people to laugh, they’ll relax.”

Blending in, with his 6-foot-5 frame, bright purple shirt and equally bright purple shoes, would prove difficult walking down Highway 30, and it’s an ability to bring smiles out of anyone that allows Spirlin to reach out to the girls.

“Some freshman kids are this big,” he said, holding his hand to his waist. “If you try to relate to them and have a sense of humor, they realize you’re human.”