West Linn's Eric Viuhkola looks back on 11 years, four state basketball titles
No one has done it better.
Not at West Linn High School.
In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere who's done it better than longtime Lions' boys basketball coach Eric Viuhkola.
Viuhkola, 53, resigned as West Linn coach following the conclusion of the team's 2021-22 season, but leaves behind a legacy that includes much more than the team's four straight Class 6A state championships — from 2013-16 — and the impact of former star Payton Pritchard.
Indeed, he built a program that competed at the top level of Oregon high school basketball for almost all of his 11 years at the Lions' helm, from 2008-09 through 2015-16, and then from 2019-20 through 2021-22.
As much as his teams won — they went 97-27 in Three Rivers League play and won five TRL titles, and were 205-64 overall with four 6A crowns — Viuhkola emphasized that winning wasn't his main goal or greatest accomplishment.
"We enjoyed winning, but I really enjoyed just having groups come together," he said. "The thing that I'm most proud of is when guys came back. Either older guys helping out younger kids, or when guys came back to support us at a playoff game or the state tournament, or come back in the summertime to work with our guys. I mean, it's pretty emotional for me.
"The things that we stand for, that I've tried to emphasize as a culture, to hear those guys saying those same things — to younger guys and to their teammates, to the press — that makes me really proud. Yeah, those are the things I'm most proud of."
But now, after returning to the program for the past three seasons — he left from 2016-17 through 2019-20 to watch his children, Vanessa and Zeke, play at West Linn — Viuhkola said he's done with coaching. He had initially intended to stay retired after 2015-16, but when former assistant Tyler Toney stepped down as head coach after three years, Viuhkola returned to coach the Lions and Zeke for three seasons.
"You know, I really missed it the three years I was out," he said. "But when I did come back … I knew that if Zeke was going to go play somewhere (for college) that I was going to eventually resign. That was in my head.
"I felt like I had a little bit of short timers (disease) and I also noticed that it's a young man's game. As a coach, what I used to do and the energy I put into it, I still did them, but I didn't enjoy them."
• 2020-2022 — West Linn head coach
• 2009-2016 — West Linn head coach
• 2008 — Oregon City assistant coach
• 2002-2007 — Scappoose head coach
• 2000-2001 — Warner Pacific College assistant coach
• 1999 — Woodburn assistant coach
• 1998 — North Marion assistant coach
Now, with both his kids in college — Vanessa will be a junior at Santa Clara University in the fall and is scheduled to study abroad in London, while Zeke will continue his education and basketball career at Westmont College in Santa Barbara — Viuhkola is ready to step away from coaching and ensure that he and his wife Jen can see Zeke play as often as possible.
Regarding the program's success, there was a lot of it, and it started right from the beginning of Viuhkola's tenure in West Linn. The year before he arrived, the Lions went just 9-17 overall in their final season under former coach Aaron Downs. But in his first year, Viuhkola guided the Lions to a 9-2 league record, a TRL title and a 15-6 overall mark.
He led the Lions to their first state tournament in over a decade two years later in 2011, with West Linn overcoming a mediocre regular season (the Lions went just 14-16 overall), getting hot down the stretch, beating Redmond in a play-in game, knocking off David Douglas and Lake Oswego in the playoffs, then winning once at the 6A tournament to place sixth.
"That was probably my least talented team and it's the only time in my entire career that I've had an under-.500 team, but we got hot at the right time," Viuhkola said. "I think we're the only team to ever make it to the (big-school) state tournament … that's ever trophied with an under-.500 record."
There was lots more to be proud of, too, including his team's legendarily challenging practices and its incredible playoff success.
Regarding those practices, Viuhkola said "When you ask our players, past and present, they're gonna say our practices were really, really hard. We really got after it. I think we had fun, but it was really fast paced and we always tried to practice like we played. I'm proud of that."
As to the playoffs, the Lions excelled in the second season like almost no other team. Over his final seven years as West Linn coach — including his four championship years and his final three seasons — Viuhkola's teams went 26-1 in the Class 6A state playoffs and state tournament, the lone loss a semifinal setback to Tualatin in 2022.
"One thing I'm proud of, and I'm not a stat guy, but I was looking at it at the end of the year," he said. "So the last seven years … we went 26-1 in playoff games. To be that good for that long against supposedly the best teams in Oregon, I think that says a lot about our guys and what they accomplished."
Eric Viuhkola by the numbers
• Overall record — 298-113
• West Linn record — 214-68
• Scappoose record — 84-45
• State tournaments — 9
• State semifinalists — 7
• State titles — 4
• Other state placers — 3rd in 2022, 5th in 2012, 6th in 2011
Viuhkola called his first team — led by first-team all-state pick Johnel Gray — his most important team, because of its success and the excitement it built for his program. But looking back, he wasn't willing to name one of his teams as his best ever. Instead, he said that his 2014 state championship team was his best offensive team, while his 2016 state champions were his best defensive team.
Here's what he had to say about each.
"Our best offensive team, I think, was the 2014 team," Viuhkola said. "Payton (Pritchard) was a sophomore and Anthony Mathis was a junior. And we had Ryan Shearmire, Hayden Coppedge and C.J. Sitton — offensively, we were really, really good."
"Our best defensive team was when Payton was a senior," he said. "And we had Brooks (DeBisschop) and Jaydon Grant and that was probably our best team, but I'm gonna say best defensive team. I don't want to say the best team because then I'll have players going 'Hey V. What's going on with this?'"
Regarding his best players — and there's been a bunch of really, really good ones — Viuhkola mentioned Pritchard, Mathis and Jackson Shelstad (he'll be a senior in the fall), but emphasized a handful of other players as his favorites. They were the "glue" guys, the garbagemen who played hard, sacrificed individual stats and just did what was required to help their team win.
In that group, Viuhkola mentioned Jarrod Howard, Kevin Edwards, Jaydon and Elijah Grant, Parker Durbin and Jake Hedberg.
"Payton, Jackson and Anthony are the best players I've ever coached, but if you're around our guys, they get tired of hearing about these guys — Jarrod Howard, Kevin Edwards, both Jaydon and Elijah Grant, Parker Durbin, Hedberg — those are the guys that I'm always talking about before the season and during the season.
"They're the guys that want to do all the dirty work. They don't care about stats — all they care about is winning. … They all got significant playing time because they were the toughest. They knew what we were doing. They were the hardest workers and they were just about team."
Now, as he prepares for the next phase in his life — Viuhkola expects to teach two more years before he's eligible to retire — he took a look back at the last stage of his coaching career. That was the three-year stretch that saw the 2020 season end without a state tournament due to COVID-19 restrictions — the Lions won twice in the playoffs to qualify for the 6A tournament — the 2021 season shortened to just six weeks and then the return to relative normalcy in 2021-22.
During that stint, he focused on his relationship with Zeke but also suffered one of his few regrets — that two of his final three teams didn't get the full high school experience or chances to compete for a state title.
"Zeke and I have a really good relationship, but I'm really hard on players and I'm even harder on Zeke," he said. "My relationship with him is so much more important than coaching games or winning games, so I was concerned going in that, man, I'm going to be so hard on him and so focused on him and what he's doing right or wrong, but I wanted him to enjoy it."
As to his regrets regarding the 2019-20 and 2021 seasons, Viuhkola just wished that the players on those two teams — the 2019-20 Lions qualified for the 6A tourney while the 2021 team went unbeaten in just nine games — had the same chances as his other teams.
"When I came back, the biggest disappointment was that state tournament being canceled," he said. "Then, I was so excited about getting to work with our youth kids doing our camps or clinics .. (but) we couldn't do that. … Yeah. I felt like we got shortchanged there."
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