THE POWER OF POSITIVITY: New St. Helens athletic director Aaron Longo brings fresh energy
Aaron Longo is the new Lions athletic director, and coming in with him are coaches Brittaney Niebergall (girls' basketball), Jordan Massinger (back in action for boys' basketball) and Chelsie Orr (an assistant swimming coach-turned-head coach).
Longo, 32, became Class 1A Mapleton High School's AD in 2011 and, after interviews with St. Helens High, received his job offer on the first day of fall sports.
"Going from Class 1A to Class 5A is a big learning curve," said Longo, born in Seattle and a Gresham resident since age 6 when his father, a chiropractor, began medical school at the University of Western States in northeast Portland in 1991. "The technicalities stay the same [including itineraries, equipment and certification of coaches], but [for instance] I'd never overseen soccer, so I needed to find out what the players and coaches needed."
Longo was a four-year track and field athlete in the shot put, discus, javelin and hammer throw and graduated in then-Class 4A Sam Barlow's Class of 2003, and he still competes in the discus and hammer throw and has run three half-marathons.
He planned to be a chiropractor like his dad but graduated from the University of Oregon -- where he played the trumpet, received a full guitar scholarship and got into the Yellow Garter Band and the Green Garter Band -- in August 2008, and married Lucinda VanNatta, his wife of nine years and a Rainier High School graduate whose family bestowed the very land on which St. Helens High School stands.
The Longos met between Aaron's junior and senior years in the summer of 2006, when Lucinda was a climbing instructor at Camp Baker in Florence, and Aaron -- who won a pair of trap shooting championships by the time he was 14 -- was a shooting sport director.
Aaron became a half-time shop teacher and elementary academic enrichment assistant (helping with homework and reading support, coordinating science and history curriculum and giving extra side lessons) at Mapleton High, and Lucinda suggested he become a part-time track and field throwing coach.
Aaron became Mapleton's athletic director in 2011, assisted in track and two years of middle school basketball, and became the 2013 Oregon Athletic Directors Association Rookie of the Year, won the State Leadership Award (Class 1A-3A) and ascended to the head of cross country in the 2016-17 season.
Rookie of the Year, Longo said, is "given to someone who survived their first year as AD."
Longo is also an Eagle Scout with gold, silver and bronze palms (each awarded for five respective extra merits beyond the Eagle Scout rank), and received the Vigil Honor, the highest achievement in the Order of the Arrow that recognizes "Scouts and Scouters who best exemplify the Scout Oath and Law in their daily lives."
Longo, who finished his athletic administrator certification in 2016 and achieved his Oregon school administrative credential this year, finds himself at St. Helens High, with an OSAA-calculated average daily membership (enrollment) of 861 students where Mapleton's ADM is 36.
Lucinda and the Longo children, Caroline, 5, and Simon, 2, plan to join Aaron in St. Helens when Lucinda finishes the 2017-18 school year as an adjunct mathematics professor at Lane Community College in Eugene.
"Naturally, I think they're amazing," Longo said.
Longo is also animated over Niebergall's, Orr's and Massinger's leadership.
"This upcoming season I am looking forward to getting in the gym with the girls who want to play basketball and with the youth programs, so we can get the numbers back up to where they should be," said Niebergall, 24, a third grade teacher at McBride Elementary School in St. Helens and a 2014 Lewis-Clark State College (Lewiston, Idaho) alumnus in Elementary Education (K-8) with a Literacy Endorsement (K-12). "In terms of our game plan, I think we have to adapt to the personnel we have. However, I am sure we will try to press and run a bit. There is a lot of work to do here in St. Helens to try and build the girls' basketball program back up. So, our plan moving forward is to get down to work and see how things go. The girls we have right now have been great to work with, and I really want to make basketball a great experience for them."
Niebergall became the 2010 Class 2A Player of the Year and a state champion with Portland Christian as a high school junior, and won Class 4A Player of the Year with La Salle Prep as a senior.
She played basketball at Lewis-Clark State, earned her Masters in Educational Leadership from Concordia University in Portland, and her St. Helens assistants are close to her heart.
"I was able to add my brother, Tommy Niebergall, to our coaching staff," Brittaney said. "He is also an educator in the Portland Public School District and a coach who played high school basketball and baseball: He went on to college to play Division 1 baseball at University of Nevada, Reno. I also was able to get my dad, Tom Niebergall, out of retirement and add him to our staff. He has coached, taught, and been an athletic director at the high school, college, and at the professional level for 36 years. He brings a wealth of coaching and administrative experience with him. He also started his coaching and teaching career at St. Helens High School [1974-80]. He led the Lions baseball team to a [Class AA] state championship in 1980."
St. Helens girls' basketball, in search of its first state title, averages a 4-19 overall record in the last 13 years and last reached Class 5A play-ins in 2011 and 2012.
Massinger, 32, is back to finish business after coaching boys' basketball in 2015 and 2016 and announcing his departure to teach fifth grade at Chinook Elementary School in Vancouver, Wash., as his wife, Kaitlin, expected the birth of birth of their first daughter.
"I had originally left because of the distance and getting used to a new curriculum -- which takes two-to-three years -- and it was not something my [Chinook Elementary] administration wanted me to continue due to such a big time commitment," said Massinger, who was also an assistant in 2014. "Even with the move to Vancouver, I never stopped thinking about my team and all the work we put into the last three years. St. Helens has gone through several different coaches in the last six years, and I felt for these boys, especially the seniors. ... My wife supports me in everything I do, so we agreed that one more year of hour-plus-long drives and countless minutes preparing and reviewing film was worthwhile for the boys and to me as well. I love coaching, and was very sad to have to say goodbye, so that brings me to the last two months of preparing for what should easily be our best season yet."
The boys won the 1956 Class A-2 crown and, though their 5-18 record in 2016-17 matched the previous two seasons' combined win total, average a 7-17 record in the last 13 years as they reached the second round of state in 2007 and made the play-in round in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
"I am thrilled to be the new Lions swim coach," said Orr, 35, also the head secretary at McBride Elementary. "I look forward to bringing my experience with a highly technique-based program and combining that with the strength and endurance these high school swimmers possess. I am looking forward to a season of growth and new possibilities with some first year swimmers. We are excited to have brought onboard an assistant coach, Austin Sharp, a graduate of Scappoose High School just this last year. After swimming in high school and competing at state [where he set the boys' school 400-yard freestyle record in 3 minutes, 43.68 seconds with his brother Bryant Sharp, Will Harley and Brannigan Vogt at the Mt. Hood Aquatics Center], he brings some fresh ideas and a winning attitude."
Orr joined the Rollingwood Rockets outside of Sacramento, Calif., at age 9 and, after becoming what she calls a "junior coach" at 15, ascended to assistant-coach a team of nearly 200 swimmers ages 5-18. She continued coaching the team for 12 seasons until she and her husband started a family and she stepped down.
Orr inherits a swimming program working for its second title since winning the now-retired Class 4A boys' 180 medley relay in 1954, and for which Chase Parkhurst and Trinyty Howard qualified in their respective Class 5A boys' 50 freestyle and 100 free and girls' 200 free and 500 free in February.
Strength in numbers
Rising populations in St. Helens and across Columbia County may upset locals, but they're vital for development in Longo's regime.
"If you want better programs, ideas and resources, you need to bring more people to the table," Longo said. "I think it's just more fun. I see no reason why St. Helens shouldn't have top-tier programs and why we can't have it in the next 10 years or sooner. We have a lot of really good people, and I like that."